Tohoku earthquake: A personal experience

As you have noticed, I have not written much about my personal experience of the earthquake. I was pondering this question for quite a while, whether it really makes sense to describe my personal experience during this horrific disaster. I think what happened to me shows just some lucky coincidences, compared to the human tragedy that is going on in Northern Japan. Furthermore, I truly think that my experience is nothing special, so why bother writing about it.
Honestly over time I felt the need to actually write about it. Simply because of the disappointment with the foreign media (how much unnecessary further panic was created instead of focusing on the known facts), very little understanding abroad on what an earthquake actually means (yes, it can be nerve wracking, but Japan is constantly preparing for it) and encourage everyone to be prepared for a potential disaster (talk with your family about the basics, have a stock of needed goods ready…). Let me point out, that my goal is not to brag or dramatize what has happened, but simply by giving you an idea of how it is to experience an earthquake and all the consequences of it.
A couple of years ago after a hike to Tanigawadake, I experienced for the first time a bigger earthquake. After returning tired from the hike, I was outside the small wooden pension, calling back to Tokyo that I have returned safely from the hiking trip. While being on the phone I will never forget the fear and shock when the shock waves hit. I felt as if I was knocked over by an invisible train. All the memories of the ground moving, different sounds of wooden buildings shaking combined with all the fear of not knowing what happens next… I had hoped this nightmare of being exposed to earthquakes and all its aftershocks would be my first and last experience.
Friday March 11th was the day that I planned to leave for Atlanta America for one of the big global exhibitions related to lab instruments. The morning was reserved to answering last minute emails and then heading out to the airport after lunch. As usual time was running quicker as expected and I rushed to be on time for the limousine bus heading out of Tokyo to the airport. Normally I grab a book or fall asleep on the way to the airport, but this time I wished I had ears of a dog. The bus was rather empty and two rows ahead of me, two managers of a scientific/technical company were discussing their visit to the Japanese site and all the management challenges they were facing in Japan. One of the gentlemen had been many times already to Japan, when the other one did not know that much yet about Japan. As the topic was highly interesting for me, I wish I could eavesdrop much better. So all the way to the airport I tried to understand as much as I could about the business/intercultural challenge both gentlemen were facing.
After the unusual interesting trip to the airport, I wanted to check in as fast as possible so that I can call back to the office to resolve some urgent questions that came up in the meantime. While getting in line with the crowd for checking in, I noticed that an earthquake started. While I was wondering why no one else seemed to notice, the intensity rose quickly and got stronger and stronger. First thoughts, “no problem, this is not as bad as Niigata” changed quickly into, “wow, this feels like Niigata”…”oh, no, am I really safe???”… “OK, exit is on the right… not necessary yet to run… wow, the check in booths really shake badly…uuugh… the full internal structure is wobbling badly… oh, no this ceiling could fall down…I have to get out NOW!!!!!… Stay calm, don’t panic, step by step, go outside… these tremors are getting even worse…and WOOOORSE” “OUT, OUT, OUT”…..
I am out of the building, but the ground still shakes… am I here save… stupid baggage, but better to take with me… move away from the building… but I am on third floor and the street is built like a bridge, therefore has to be considered not safe… not too close to the edge and not too close to the building….there are different directions of the tremors… where the hell is the safest spot now????…..(sorry my language)
Finally the intensity decreases…I am looking around still wondering what had just happened. Then I notice some really busy people. Why are these people filming or taking pictures. This is not a movie, this is reality and it is BAD! Why is there a reason to eternalize fearful moments???? Human beings seem to love fearful moments… I don’t get it, why?
Getting the information from the mobile phones, people are exchanging news bits on where the earthquake occurred and its intensity. Everyone looks a bit confused and shaken, but no panic exists nor can I see anyone crying. Honestly I am amazed how many people make sure that the strangers around them are OK and information is exchanged in many languages. As aftershocks have to be expected, we start considering where to go best, as being on the third floor on an overpass road is for sure not safe. Going through the building is out of question, there are no immediate stairs, the only choice is to follow the road heading down to the parking lot. It seems so far…
“WOW, not again”… the ground is shaking and I can feel that the building has a different rhythm than the road leading to the third floor. Please let it be stable and not break! This earthquake is horrendously long! There is no chance that I can flee now to the first floor…
…finally the ground is quiet again and now is the time to move to the parking space on the first floor. With lots of other people I am moving slowly down on the road heading to ground level. A lot of people have their baggage and considering the many people moving together it seems like a quiet “matsuri”. Still rather many people are taking pictures or shooting movies. I feel disgusted with this sensationalism. From what I understand we are in Narita far off the epicenter, so I cannot imagine how awful the ground must have shook further away!!! There must be extensive damage and human suffering ongoing elsewhere. I guess times have changed and this is really now the Facebook and twitter era, because many want to show off their experience.
At the parking lot a huge crowd can be found standing around in groups. It seems all the staff at the airport is out in the cold as well. I am truly grateful for having dressed today very warm, so standing out in the sun is not that cold. Although there are aftershocks, but not the same intensity as before, everyone seems rather relaxed and there is nothing else to be done than just waiting. From time to time some happy cries can be heard when people find each other again.
Although my plane was supposed to be leaving later afternoon, I start to wonder when the airport is considered safe again. Is there a chance to take off today? Time passes by and the sun starts to set. From time to time there are announcements that the check of the safety of the airport has started. Nothing has changed, we are all waiting outside until the airport buildings are considered to be safe to enter. After sunset the temperature clearly starts to drop and we start to freeze outside, when finally the first floor of the airport building is opened.
Soon after entering the building my goal is to find a restroom as soon as possible, because lines will get for sure over time longer and longer. Already lines are formed at the women’s toilet, but the men’s restroom seems empty. One foreigner points out to his colleague, that this is for sure a cultural difference: Unthinkable that in the US that women would wait for their turn, when they could go otherwise go to the men’s toilet. I realized that I had not noticed the opportunity and simply had waited in line like all the other women (potentially I am too adapted to the Japanese culture). As I am still with all my baggage some people in the line let me move forward into a large toilet build for disabled people. Again I am impressed about the kindness and caring for others.
Back in the crowded halls few people had found space to sit; the rest is just standing around waiting for news or any changes. As I really feel cold now I am browsing in the hall for the warmest spot in the hall. As long as I am moving I am warm, but honestly I am getting really tired and my legs are very heavy after standing around for hours. I finally find a free spot to sit on the floor close to some chairs, where some Indians have found some chairs to rest.
We start to talk and I find out their experience of the earthquake was much different. They had been on the way home to the US, when they had been shopping for some presents inside the terminal. Being at the casher and ready to pay, the earthquake hit and all of the sudden it seemed the casher was running off. The Indian couple just followed the others trying to find the shortest way out of the building. It seems where they were waiting for the airport building to open again, no one bothered to explain to them what was going on and why they were not allowed into the building again. Throughout the aftershocks they felt truly left alone and without any info on what is going on. Another foreigner told me that she had just arrived in Narita and is unable to reach her friends in Tokyo, who is waiting for her. Even though she got a phone card and she tried to call from a land line, the calls simply did not go through.
After every earthquake the situation is roughly the same: Calls within the country are almost impossible, especially on mobile phones, simply because the network is overloaded. Mobile email systems can be interrupted too, but it is more likely that the information goes through. Calls to abroad and from abroad are easier. While I had been waiting outside in the sun for news on whether there is a chance to get on my flight, I had been busy exchanging emails with coworkers, friends and family. Drop wise some bits of information came through. My coworker kept me posted about the situation in Tokyo, as she tried to find a way to get back home. Trains had completely stopped and taxis impossible to catch… Slowly I start to grasp that this is really bad and I might be stuck for a while. Potentially there might be no flights leaving now for the next few hours…
All of the sudden I get a phone call on my business phone…wow, this must be an emergency, because who uses the phone lines now!!! No phone number displayed, the line is broken… I can barely hear… the line is gone again. What could this emergency be??? I am getting really nervous. Finally the phone rings again and I have a lady complaining in English that she could not reach me in the office. I apologize that no one is the office now, because we just had a big earthquake. The woman is interrupting me that she had not heard about an earthquake, but she needs to confirm whether I had received her email about an ongoing problem at the end user in Asia. I apologize that I am really not able to access the internet now, but will try my best to reply by tomorrow. I repeat again that we just had a big earthquake in Japan and that I will do my best to follow up with her request. It seems that finally she is hearing what I am saying and replies to me: “Yes, I have heard that there was a big earthquake, but this was in China not Japan, so I look forward to your prompt response…” the line goes dead again.
…calm down, calm down, don’t get stressed out… everyone I know in Japan is mature and they know what to do in an earthquake. It is just a question of time until I can hear that they are OK. Every email that comes in puts a smile on my face, but I am concerned that I have not heard yet from my husband. There is nothing that I can do than wait and believe in the best…. Don’t believe in the news earlier heard about ongoing fires in Tokyo… stay calm, relax and start thinking what I shall do now….
Local flights are cancelled and there are no updates on flights abroad heading out. Trains and limousine bus are stopped and when I ask the airport police whether traffic comes in or out, they inform me all traffic into the airport is stopped too… slowly checked in bags are returned and staff at the airport is allowed to go to their working place to pick up their things. Honestly I am not looking forward to spend a night at the airport, because it is cold and heaven knows when transportation will resume.
All of the sudden I remember that a Japanese friend of mine who goes to work by car works somewhat close to the airport. I am sending him an email whether he is at work. 1 ½ hours later I get an email that he will come to pick me up, but they need first to clean up their office as it is a huge mess now after the earthquake. Wow, I might be able to go home today!!! I just hope they will open up the airport soon so that I can be picked up.
I am hungry and thirsty, plus my behind got frozen from sitting on the floor. All of the sudden people show up with water and cookies. Wow, the airport is really prepared because there seems enough water and food for everyone. I am speechless about the no-nonsense approach when everyone seems to make sure the people around them are OK too. Munching on cookies I realize that I that am really hungry. I had not realized it at all. I drink some water, but panic starts too that I should not drink everything now. I am simply afraid that the water might not last long enough and I fear the long lines for the restrooms (Don’t do the same, make sure you are hydrated! My panic thoughts were wrong!).
…I wish I had news from my husband… were the news about fires in Tokyo really true?… all what I can do is trusting my heart and pray for the safety of my husband… oh, another email is coming through… another friend is safe… still no news from my husband… the battery is running down…
I get an email from my friend that he is heading to the airport, but the streets are extremely crowded. He is not sure when he will arrive. Wow, I am lucky that I can leave somewhen this cold crowded airport….
In the meantime people show up with sleeping bags. As I am cold, I try to find out where I could get one, but without success. Some Japanese people around me offer me theirs, but first I decline until I understand that they got an additional sleeping bag. As some employees at the airport walk home or found a way to get out of the airport, I got a spot to sit on a chair. Simply heaven, especially as I am now snuggled up in a sleeping bag.
…another email coming in… another friend safe… 21:15… still no news from my husband…
Wow, it seems my friend is able to enter the airport with his car and I am rushing out to meet him… I am really lucky to have such a great friend who is willing to help me.
Let me tell you the streets are FULL with cars. I have never seen so many cars on the local roads. All the freeways are closed now and all the cars are moving in a snail tempo towards Tokyo.
Listening to the radio we are exchanging information on how we both experienced this earthquake. Looking at his pictures taken after the earthquake hit, I am shocked about turned over shelves and all the files, brochures and binders on the floor. The earthquake had felt bad at the airport, but my friend reassures me that schools, airports and police building are especially sturdy constructed. So I was lucky to be at a safe spot… I am really wondering how the damage in Tokyo actually is… I got some emails that Shinagawa station was closed due to safety risk of a potentially falling ceiling…
I am really happy moving towards Tokyo…no matter how slow, we are moving. Inside me there is such a desire to be just home…
My friend is pointing out that he has no idea when we might arrive back in Tokyo, but he is happy that he has enough gasoline. We take unpopular small roads, but still cars, cars, cars… in both ways the traffic is bad!
Yes, I got an email from my husband! He is now back home and safe. He walked home and is exhausted…. Thank goodness he is safe….
Coming closer to Tokyo from Chiba I am amazed how many people I see walking. It is now after one o’clock in the morning and many people seem to walk home. Learning from the radio some subways are running and have extended their running hours. Amazing how everyone tries to find a way to help others to go home.
For quite a while I had checked outside for any potential damages of the earthquake, but I cannot see anything. Honestly I see many houses that I would have expected to be knocked over by an earthquake, but they still stand… I am speechless about the little damage I see.
Now we are crossing a bridge heading into Tokyo. I see so many people on the bridge heading into Chiba. It seems that people have either started walking early from Tokyo or have taken then the subway to Motowata and now just started to walk. May people look exhausted, but keep on walking, simply they want to be back home…
… really no damage to be seen anywhere… just a huge crowd of people and cars, cars….
The traffic into Tokyo is getting worse… why we are wondering, when we later figure out that some people must be picking up others in the city.
It is about 3:00 and my friend is close to his home. He drops me off and helps me to get a taxi for the rest of my trip to go home…. Easier said than done… After 15 minutes I got a taxi and now I am on my way home… it is just another 15 minutes or so I thought….
…40 minutes later I stand in front of our home… Kamisama thank you!
I am finally home…
Looking at the news on TV I am flabbergasted. This is really a horrendous earthquake… headache sets in, but I don’t feel really tired (due to not enough drinking and constant panic mood)… I remember drinking water and I eat, but my head seems to explode soon due to headache…I take some pills, but no change. Headache is getting so bad that I could vomit…I start to feel my exhaustion and I try to sleep….
During the night there are aftershocks but not comparable to the earthquakes before… Being in my bed everything seems safe.
In the morning waking up, the first thought is to switch on the news to get an idea what is going on… a big earthquake has really hit Japan…
For the next few days I am glued to the TV. I try to move away from TV, but at the same time I know it is the only source of the most updated news. While watching TV I am getting anxious about what is going on… worry more and more… simply an emotional overflow.
After a while I start to feel earthquakes, when nothing is actually ongoing. With every unusual sound I hear I get nervous whether it could be another earthquake. But much worse are the alarm messages on my mobile phone, informing me that in a few seconds an earthquake will hit. I am grateful for the tool and its precision, but now it is just nerve racking. As I get phone calls from abroad to unusual hours I have to keep my mobile phone beside my bed, but at the same time my heart freaks out every time when an earthquake alarm comes to my mobile phone while I am deep asleep.
As if all the ongoing news are not enough, it took a while for me to figure out which news actually to count on and which are just panic talk or viewers attention grabbing TV promotions. What do you do when you clearly notice differences in the content of the local news and the foreign news? Which should I trust?
After three days I get by email confirmed that all my family, friends and relatives are safe. No one hurt, no damages. With my Japanese friends we do not call, but make sure to keep in contact by email.
Calls from abroad are a different story. As the lines are not always stable, lot of interruptions, calls at strange hours, plus then the most stressful aspect: Listening to the concerns from the friends abroad, who are sure that I am brainwashed with wrong news, I am risking my own life, when they are opening up their homes that I could come over and start my life new again. It is rather difficult to express that we are save and have no intention to leave. Japan is my chosen home and I cannot just get up and leave. My heart is in Tokyo. I truly, truly appreciate everyone’s kindness and will never forget it, but I cannot just leave the place that gave me a home…

Please pray and support with me the people of Northern Japan. Even with strong teamwork and support from all over the world the rebuilding will take time. Don’t forget Japan in the weeks to come!

My honest wish to you: Talk to your loved ones about what you would do in a time of disaster. Where is your meeting point? If you lose your mobile phone, do you remember the important phone numbers? Have a stock of food and beverages always available. Where is your flashlight, battery radio and first aid kit. I hate to say it, you might need it one day…

All the best from the Japan I appreciate and love even more now,

Sibylle Ito

P.S. By the way I had found on youtube some videos that can give you a good idea what has happened at Narita airport or then around Tokyo. The videos are real and show the power of nature. Further let me point out that I have no intention of sensationalism, nor do I support the comments about this tragedy below the videos. Enough pain exists already, further insults are not necessary.

Movements of the ground near Chiba area
Challenges on reclaimed land in Urayasu with soil liquefaction Explanation on soil liquefaction,

5 thoughts on “Tohoku earthquake: A personal experience

  1. Thanks for your post.
    Its good to hear someone’s else story.
    I live in Sendai and the earthquake was very strong here, but I had no idea of how strong the earthquake was around Tokyo.
    The power of nature is incredible.

    • Dear Maxime,

      what a pleasure to hear from you.
      Honestly, I had been very hesitant to write about my personal experience, simply because other people like you must have had a much worse experience. What I have sensed at Narita must have been nothing to what you had to go through! I had planned this year to go to Sendai for sightseeing, but I am not sure whether it is really the right timing. Bringing money into the region is definitely helpful, but being a nosy tourist seems so wrong.
      Please do not hesitate to let me know if there is something that I or we could do for you, your relatives or friends, who might be in need. My motto is that I want to work hard so that I can create more business and profit within Japan that allows the future payments of all the needed reconstruction.

      My heart goes to you,

      Sibylle Ito

  2. Wow! Wow! Wow!

    That’s all I can say after read this post! Your post is an amazing description fo how people feel in middle of a earthquake!

    Thanks for sharing it.

    I’m praying to all things be solved as soon as possible and I really wish the best for all people who lives in Japan.

    • Dear Rogerio,

      thanks for your kind words.

      Note a friend of mine – Martin Stricker – has added his experience and challenges with the foreign media since the disaster started. While the gap between the foreign media and local news is gone mostly by now, early after the earthquake these stories caused unnecessary stress abroad and in Japan.

      All the best from sunny Tokyo,


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