Finding Nemo

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Tale of Justin

So tonight I met up with a friend of my brother (Saber), and he knows a few folks here in Tokyo.  But most interestingly, he knows a gaijin (foreigner), Justin, who just escaped from Fukushima.  When I say escaped, that is literally what it means.  Currently in Fukushima prefecture (prefecture is like a state or province), there is no train service, no bus service, and electricity is scarce.  Which means that where the radiation is strongest, the local people have the least knowledge of the current situation.  Its pretty messed up.

Justin is an English teacher.  He had a feeling something was wrong because the last few days, there were many many earthquakes, each stronger than the last.  The teachers would joke about it amongst themselves, saying what a strange week it had been.  On Friday, March 11, it was another day of minor quakes, but nothing to worry about really.  It is Japan after all.  In the early afternoon, the school kids had just left the building and were outside about to go home.  At 2:46 pm, Justin was looking out the window at the kids.  It started like all the others, about 10-20 seconds of strong shaking.  Suddenly, it intensified dramatically.  All hell broke loose as the desks, computers, and books began to fly around the room.  He was in a state of shock, not sure what to do.  Instead of running outside, Justin, along with the other teachers, simply held onto the bookshelves to prevent them from falling over.  I asked him, "why didn't you run outside?"  He said he didn't think about anything at that point... the ground was moving so violently he couldn't stand up without holding onto the wall.  He said he couldn't walk outside if he wanted to.  At first it was just another quake, but when the computers started flying across the room he started fear for his life.  The school was 5 stories tall, he was on the 2nd floor.  I asked him, "Did you think you might die?"  He responded immediately, "I was sure I was dead." He put down his beer and was quiet as he stared at the table.  I was ready to stop the "interview," but after a pause he continued.

Helicopter Tsunami footage
Finally it slowed.  The shaking continued, but it was just a slow rolling motion.  The worst was over.  He went outside with the other teachers, and found that the ground was ripped apart with cracks.  The parking lot was barely navigable, large chunks of asphalt were ripped apart everywhere.  "People started saying 'Tsunami!'  Japanese people are very aware of the dangers of a tsunami.  But there wasn't any panic.  No one had any idea of what was about to happen.  The teachers decided to go back to the school to get their belongings before moving to higher ground.  But as they entered, another large aftershock hit.  They had to rush back outside.  After it subsided, again they tried to enter.  Again a large aftershock hit.  After 4 attempts, finally they made their way into the building, when again another quake hit.  They waited it out inside the ruined school building.  Time was ticking away, little did they know that a wall of ocean was moving towards them at 700 mph..

Justin got on his bike and went to a local shop owned by a friend.  It was deserted.  He got a text message... "Tsunami coming!'  This was disturbing, but Justin wasn't overly concerned yet.  Against better judgement, he biked back downhill to his school, worried that his gaijin teacher friend might still be inside.  His friend wasn't there, but instead he found all the Japanese school-children still outside, huddled in fear and waiting for direction.  Then, fire trucks came down the street blaring 'Tsunami!'  At that point, there was no doubt.  It was clear that a real tsunami was coming.  Everyone just took off running.  There was a "safe zone" at the high school up the road, but instead, Justin decided he had to make sure his house was OK.  Specifically, he was worried about his new turntables he had just bought.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing, here was this guy who knew a tsunami was about to hit and he went back to his house to check out some new toys.  But then I thought how people don't think straight in those kinds of situations.

Anyway, when he entered the house, he said "It was complete insanity.  It looked like some kind of crazy giant decided to chuck everything around.  The fridge was tossed about 10 feet from the wall, shit was broken all over the place, the walls were cracked."  His turntables had fallen to the floor.  He put them back in their place, and decided it was time to go.  About 15 minutes had passed since the earthquake.

He was about a half mile inland, at least 10 meters above sea level.  As he opened the door to walk out, he couldn't believe what he saw.  There was the ocean rushing right up at him, right to his front door.  He had to run out the back door, up the hill, finally reaching the high school meeting place.  I looked at this person in front of me, thinking how very lucky he was to be talking to me.  If his house had been a few feet lower, if he hadn't tried to leave at that moment, .... he might not be here.  It was just dumb luck that he was alive.

He found his gaijin teacher friend, and together they watched the tsunami continue to rise.  He said, "It was just endless water, flowing on and on.  Above the water, waves would come in every few minutes.  After each wave, the water would be higher and higher.  We stayed up there for about 30 minutes.  Finally, it started to go down."  But... the downtown was still flooded for the entire day.  Not until the following day did the water fully drain away.

Like all other people in his town (Yotsukura), he immediately realized he had to do something.  Over the next couple days, he pitched in with everyone else and tried to clean up the city.  There was news of a reactor problem but nothing to really worry about.  On Monday, he reported back to work and another very large aftershock hit (6.0).  Everyone evacuated, but another tsunami did not materialize.  As school was out and Justin finally had a day with some time to kill, he decided to wander all the way down to the Yotsukura port.  Only then did reality finally set in.  He saw large ships on top of rows of houses, cars in trees, houses ripped from their foundations and stacked against the hills, he said the destruction was unimaginable.  He paused again before continuing.

Its one thing to see something on TV.  But when he described his first-hand experience, it gave me chills.

Yotsukura house
He wanted to stay and help, but everyone around him was leaving town, the news from the reactor was getting bad.  On Tuesday, he went to work at the school and found he was the only one there.  His friend said he was leaving that day, and if Justin didn't come along, his friend wouldn't wait.  With mixed feelings, he decided to get in the car.  No trains were running, no buses, and even worse, there was no gas anywhere.  Luckily, his friend had a half-tank from before the disaster.  They made it to Tokyo on fumes.  I asked him, "why didn't you get gas when you got out of Fukushima?"  He replied, "There is no gas.  Not even here in Tokyo.  You have to wait an hour to buy $4 of gas, that's all you can get."

Cars in Yotsukura
Its very weird being near an apocalypse like this.  People far away in the US and Canada are probably over-reacting to radiation fears.  The news is titillating, its like watching a train wreck on the local channel 7.  In the modern world of interconnectedness, they feel perhaps that something so monumental can't possibly not affect them.  People want to make it somehow apply, so they decide to make a show of staying indoors to protect themselves from 0.000002 Sv.

Ironically, in Tokyo it is the complete opposite.  Noone here wants to believe that they might actually have to really leave their own home, that they might have to abandon everything....their way of life, their friends, their city.  So of course, human bias comes into play.  News that downplays the disaster is readily absorbed.  News that says things in Tokyo are dire are quickly dismissed.  People want to believe that it is safe.  And so they put on a little paper mask and tell themselves they are protected.  And they go about their business.

And perhaps, that is what I am doing right now.

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