I Survived a Japanese Earthquake (Tribute to Tohoku)

“You’re so lucky!”

That’s the line I’ve heard repeatedly over the last two days. Along with: “wow, you must be a cat.”

Of course, for the people left behind, in Sendai city, in the Tohoku region, life has been nothing like that. No luck for those who have survived. For them, there is no charm in being stuck in the wake of Friday’s massive 8.9 earthquake, and the multiple aftershocks of Mag-6 or more that have followed. For them, at the moment, there is debris in the roads, days and nights spent in refugee centers, no running water, or open gas lines, or electricity. Life after the quake and tsunami in Tohoku is not easy at all.

Cut off from them, as I am now, with no working phone service and much of the Internet down, I can only pray for the people I left behind on that day.


For me, it was just another travel day. Like I describe in my book, I have a travel ritual–a routine I have to go through to get out of Japan–every time, rather invariant. I get from my apartment to Sendai Station by cab, generally beginning about 7:30 in the morning; pushing through rush hour traffic, I arrive at the station, three kilometers away, in about twenty minutes. There, I stand in line to buy tickets–first to Tokyo Station and then for the Narita Express to Narita Airport. If there’s still seven minutes or more, I hustle down a couple of escalators to Starbucks for a Cafe Misto braced by a couple of espresso shots, along with a heated scone. Then I bound up three escalators to the trains.

Three hours later, in the airport, I pick up my bags, which I sent ahead two days before, from a delivery service. Next, I check into ticketing, where I banter playfully with the ticketing agent, and, hopefully, score an aisle seat with (even more hopefully) an empty alongside. Once I’ve checked my bags through, I pick up some travel insurance, go through carry-on and body screening, and proceed to immigration, where I fill out a reentry form and get my passport punched. Before settling down to await boarding, I buy some parting arrival gifts in Duty Free, and then hang out in the SkyLounge, where I help myself to complimentary vittles and libations.

Well, that is the norm.


On the 11th, the routine wasn’t broken until I had actually boarded. After getting my stuff stowed overhead, I settled in with my manuscript, when the plane started to shake. It began inconclusively, the way it does when you are in a car in the high school parking lot and a couple of your punk friends start pushing against the doors, left and right. In such situations, as you know, it takes a while for inertia to be overcome and gravity to take full sway. But then. like when your pals are really leaning into their task, enjoying their labors, the vessel began to writhe, as if dancing with a will of its own. And finally, after all control appeared to be lost, the cabin felt like someone was pressing against the hood–for now the interior was rocking left, right, up and down, all at once.

But for the willy-nilly gyrations, the loud banging noises from below could have fooled one into believing that this was merely some aggressive luggage loaders with some last minute insertions.

After about 15 seconds, though, it became clear that this was not anything like harried employees or friends rocking your car for kicks.

Behind me, a four year old girl said to her parents: “nani kore?” (what’s this)

wakanai” (I don’t know) said her father.

jishin?” (earthquake) wondered her mother.

Yes, this was an earthquake, Mom. A full-blown, once in a millennium earth shake.

The movement gained in intensity and outside the plane it appeared that the tarmac was actually rippling. Can concrete roil like a churning sea?

Apparently so, I now know.

Workers outside the plane, garbed in reflector-stripped gray jumpsuits and white hardhats, stopped in place and began holding on to trucks. The terminal beyond seemed alive as it jiggled diagonally. I know how time tends toward suspension during stressful events, but honestly, the shaking didn’t stop for a full ninety seconds. It seemed like three hundred or more.

The impromptu violence came to an end long before the shaking subsided. Afterward, there was a measure of silence before stunned passengers began chirping about what we’d just experienced. Within two minutes an announcement came over the P.A. in Korean, Japanese, English and Chinese with two pieces of information–one which we knew (that we’d just endured an earthquake) and another that we didn’t (that we’d have to wait while the tarmac was checked for damage before taking off).

So, what could we do, but settle in with our books, laptops and the individual entertainment systems on the seat backs, awaiting clearance for take-off.


About forty-five minutes later, the plane began to shake again. This time faster than before, though no less violently. It lasted a bit shorter, but the terminal swayed and the tarmac roiled, just as before. And, as before, announcements were made over the P.A. in Korean, Japanese, English and Chinese after it was over–this time informing us of what we probably could have guessed: that we’d have to continue our wait in the loading dock, until cleared for taxiing and takeoff.

Juice and water made the rounds, passengers began milling about the aisles, congregating in pockets of 3 and 5, making new friends. A community forged by accidental mishap, forming before our eyes.

Soon thereafter, it could be noted out the windows that a gusher of civilians–a United Nations in dress and skin tone–exited from the terminal and gathered out on the tarmac. Would-be passengers, one could easily venture. Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Confirming this fact, many among their number began shooting cell phone video and flashing peace signs for their partners. I guess they didn’t see this opportunity much either. As all planes were grounded, they began walking freely about, inspecting the undercarriage of the jets and sitting on the luggage loaders–doing more stuff that they generally can’t during a normal day at the airport. In time, some buses came, collected them, and spirited them away. To where I cannot say, although not likely to a plane.


After another hour of wait, the food carts made their way down the aisles–our in-flight evening meal now being served, slightly behind schedule, but long before it would have been delivered in physical space.

Of course, with a meal being served, there was no way we would be flying for another hour, easy. Food had to be sucked up by voracious mouths, coffee and tea had to be served, trays had to be collected. If I was going to be strapped in with food, I might as well watch a movie. Scanning the personalized film library, I found a few movies I hadn’t yet seen–the latest Harry Potter, and True Grit and Love and Other Drugs–but settled first for The Hereafter. This life beyond death film, as you may know, features a plot line that involves a tsunami. Ironic, this fact, given what had just happened (unbeknownst to me) hundreds of kilometers to the north.

Sometime near the end of the picture, an encouraging announcement came over the P.A.–this time in English, then Korean, Japanese and Chinese: “ladies and gentleman,” the Australian captain intoned, “the controllers have now returned to the tower and we are ready to get under way. We appreciate your patience and cooperation and will soon be taxiing for takeoff.”

Telling us that all that time, we had been abandoned by the airport authority; we were out there, locked in our vessel, on our own. Subject to nature’s whim.

By the time we rolled onto the runway, adorned by green and red lights, we were four hours late for the beginning of our nine hour flight. Better late than never, it’s true, but best had ever never occurred.

Lucky or not, ours was surely the final plane exiting Japan this calamitous day.


Thirteen hours on a plane feels like an ordeal, but of course, it is nothing compared to being without water and gas and electricity in the tail end of winter for days, being unable to stay in one’s own home and, instead, having to sit in a gymnasium or school auditorium or the bowels of a train station.

The carnage I luckily avoided–that I was unwittingly leaving behind–I would not know about until I had cleared customs on the other side, in Los Angeles, the next morning. There, at baggage claim, a handler was speaking lustily to passengers just off my plane in broken English that my jet-lagged brain could only make partial sense of. “Eight point nine,” he said. Surely that couldn’t be the magnitude of the quake. Why, Japan had never had anything above seven and scratch. Even the devastating Kobe quake in 1995 was only seven-two. But the handler went on: “hundreds missing . . . a tsunami . . . cars swept to sea . . . a train lost . . .”

I thought that I had stepped into a parallel reality. “That can’t be . . . none of that–it was just a plane shake . . . what do you mean, a tsunami?”

But that is what it turned out to be. Once I arrived at my final destination, I switched on CNN, accessed my mail and Facebook page. There were images and descriptions from the town that I had just vacated. And what I encountered was like something from an over-the-top disaster movie from the ’70s. The plot line no less surreal than that Harry Potter film I’d just watched on the plane. “Come on, this can’t be real!” I told myself. “Wake me up from this nightmare. Shake me out of it. Let me rouse myself back into a better world,” I implored. “The one that I lived just two short days ago.”

Sure, that life had grown a tad staid; full of the normal disappointments and frustrations of daily life–colleagues that irked me, budgetary woes, lifestyle concerns. Whatever. Just everyday stuff. But now, suddenly life’s issues have become of an order quite different; not: “I gotta remember to get some milk so I have something to cut my coffee with in the morning,” sort of concerns; but whether I’d return home in a couple of weeks to find that my home was no longer standing, kind of troubles. Or worse–how about whether a close acquaintance or colleague or student was no longer with us.

For me, what transpires in the coming days will be played out on web pages–beyond my immediate experience and efficacy. I will be in the same position as most of the rest of the world: helpless witness; until it’s time to return. What I will return to, I have no way of knowing. It is almost certain, though, that by then, the people of the region I call home will have lived a lot more life than I have in such a short span. Unwillingly, no doubt, but unavoidably, as well.

For those in Sendai and Kesennuma and Shiogama and Iwate–millions of people throughout Tohoku–an abundance of courage and resilience is going to be required in the next few weeks, months–possibly even years. And maybe some luck and possibly even a few cat’s lives, as well.

Hopefully those people I return to will weather their very difficult ordeal–shaken but unbroken.

I know from having lived with them for many years that they possess the mettle. I suspect they will persevere and overcome this ordeal.

I can only pledge to lend them my support once I return.

Gambare, Tohoku. Gambare!