03.11.11

Japan Tsunami: A First-Person Account

Takashi Yokota, who was in a Tokyo office building when the quake hit, describes the ensuing chaos, and the one silver lining of a devastating disaster—the calm and respectful reaction of his fellow citizens. 

Takashi Yokota, who was in a Tokyo office building when Japan's devastating quake hit, describes the ensuing chaos, and the one silver lining of the disaster—the calm and respectful reaction of his fellow citizens. Plus, full coverage here.

The word tsunami is Japanese for a reason. For much of history, Japan has been prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, as this island nation is situated near four tectonic plates. Yet even quake-prone Japan—arguably one of the most prepared nations in the world—hasn’t experienced a calamity of such proportions when an 8.9 earthquake struck the island nation on Friday—followed by a massive tsunami that engulfed many coastal cities in northeastern Japan. As of Saturday morning, the quake and tsunami killed more than 300 (in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, more than 6,400 died).

Shocking Photos: Japan’s Tsunami and Earthquake

Casualties are surely expected to rise, but such figures do not reflect the enormity of this catastrophe. Of all calamities in modern history, perhaps none had struck such a wide area with such force. As someone who experienced the 1989 San Francisco earthquake as a kid, even the tremors felt in downtown Tokyo were far longer and fiercer.

Just before the quake struck at 2:46 PM, I was in the offices of Newsweek Japan holding a story meeting with my colleagues. At first, the tremors felt similar to a mild earthquake that happened a few days earlier. But as the national broadcaster NHK flashed breaking news about the earthquake and our offices shook, my staff and I soon realized this was no ordinary quake. We were told to evacuate the building—and not allowed back in for work. With most mobile lines jammed, the only available communication with our families, friends and colleagues was email. One of the world’s most sophisticated train and subway systems has stopped, forcing people to form long queues at bus stops and cab rotaries—clogging much of Tokyo’s traffic. After confirming the safety of my staff, I walked back home for two and a half hours—what otherwise should have been a 20-minute commute. It felt as if the entire population of megalopolis Tokyo was on the streets at once.

With almost no mode of communication available, it was after making it to home when I realized the full enormity of this unprecedented earthquake. The government issued tsunami warnings from the northern to southern tip of Japan and casualty figures rose by the hour. Sendai City—one of Japan’s major cities—in Miyagi prefecture was inundated with the city’s airport turned into sea; many citizens in Fukushima prefecture—roughly 280 kilometers (174 miles) north of Tokyo—were ordered to evacuate with the possibility of a radiation leak from a nuclear plant; a major oil storage plant was blazing just across the Tokyo Bay in Chiba prefecture; and the port city of Kesennuma in Miyagi prefecture literally has turned into a sea of flames. By midnight, hospitals in northern Japan were so overloaded that they had to stop admitting emergency patients—the Defense Ministry said the Minamisoma city in Fukushima prefecture—population of 1,800 households—was “annihilated.”

The silver lining is that in spite of this devastating catastrophe, the people here have been acting calm, respectful, and mindful of one another. Evacuees near the epicenter—despite being crammed into small evacuation centers— are patiently waiting for help in a situation where tempers could easily flare. The commute in Tokyo is pandemonium every day—yet as I walked through the glitzy Shibuya and Shinjuku districts toward home, there was absolutely no sign of chaos. Instead, there was order—just as in the deadly Kobe earthquake—and even a sense of normalcy, sans the massive pedestrians.  Aftershocks are reported to continue as long as a month—even as I am writing this piece at 3 a.m., another strong aftershock has struck the nation. There is still no telling what the exact toll will be, and the calamity surely shook and ravaged Japan’s cities and towns—but the country’s orderliness has not been broken.

Yokota is Newsweek's correspondent in Tokyo and the editor-in-chief of Newsweek Nihonban, Newsweek's Japanese-language partner.