Today is March 11, 2014. A friend of mine and I were eating lunch at a BBQ restaurant in the Bay Quarter near the east exit of Yokohama Station. The topics of our conversations ranged from the weather, Prime Minister Abe, the impending inflation sparked in part by the hike in consumption tax, and my grandchildren. During the lull in the conversation, my friend asked, “Do you know what day it is today?”
“Sure, Tuesday, March 11.”
At first I didn’t know what he was leading up to. Then it hit me. Three years ago on this very day at 2:46 p.m. a magnitude 9 earthquake shook Japan’s northeastern region. The tremor’s violent force created a monstrous tsunami that swept over the lower levels of the coastal areas destroying everything and anyone caught in its murderous onslaught.
Everyone has a story, I’m sure, about that moment in time. What follows is a revised account of my experience and thoughts I wrote three years ago.
Three Years Ago
On March 11, 2011: 2:46 p.m.: I was team teaching with Robert Hamilton in the afternoon session of the Meiji University Intensive English Language Program at the Meiji University Seminar House in Kiyosato. Kiyosato is located in the northwestern part of Yamanshi Prefecture. The location is a two-hour express train ride from Tokyo. In other words, two-hours farther away from the epicenter.
Robert Hamilton represents the finest among the teachers of the younger generation. Down-to-earth, Robert actually was conducting the class. Fortunately for me, for I could disguise my senior moments with a Cheshire cat smile and imperceptible nod of my head. The class was called We-Tube, a patent reference to YouTube. Robert guided students through the process of making a short video – no editing, mind you, something that struck a chord in the recesses of my bruised ego. He instructed and directed them – coached and coaxed – until he was able to get incredibly good short videos from each of the five groups.
At 2:46 p.m. I was taking photos of the drama group. Two girls shouted, “Jisshin! Earthquake!” At first I did not feel the shake. Then I felt the swaying of the building beneath my feet. I was expecting the short, choppy up and down motions of the earthquake. Instead, the floor beneath my feet moved in a slow side-to-side motion, similar to a ship’s motion in calm seas with rolling waves. And the movement increased in intensity. I returned to the classroom where Robert was telling everyone to stay away from the windows and to avoid standing under the doorways.
In my years of living in Japan, I’ve never experienced an earthquake that lasted longer than a few seconds. The swaying movement of this earthquake continued for nearly two minutes. Within one-minute, the electricity at the seminar house snapped off. The emergency lights kicked in and we were able to continue classes under dimmer circumstances.
Michael Maksimuk, the head teacher of the seminar, spoke over the intercom speakers and told teachers and students to remain calm and to continue their afternoon activities until 4:30 p.m. Robert carried on with the class. I sat in a chair and was impressed by his leadership and calm guidance. Students responded by working in the darkened classroom lit by the emergency lights. They became focused on their projects. With Robert’s calming effect on everyone in the classroom, I managed to gain control of my beating heart. “Whoa! Whoa!” I screamed internally, as though I was trying to rein in a wild stallion in a John Wayne film.
The rest of the teaching team included Lyn Noaumi, James House, Merwyn Torikian, Donevan Hooper and Steve Gardner. We had three teacher assistants and four Canadians from York University in Toronto – a professor and three female graduate students who came to get some student teaching under their belts.
That night the cooks worked under the light of flashlights to cook the meals for the 61 students , the teachers, and other members of seminar teaching staff. We showed our appreciation for the hard work of the cooks by calling them out into the cafeteria and giving them a standing ovation.
The earthquake had caused the electrical blackouts that shut down communication links to Tokyo and other cities and towns in the Kanto Plains. Fortunately, Robert Hamilton owned an iPhone and was able to communicate with his wife and with his family in Canada. Thankfully, he offered me his phone to contact my daughter Kim on Facebook by sending a text message. Because the cataract in my right eye obscured my vision, he had to type out the message I dictated.
Michael after conferring with other teachers decided to alter the nightly schedule of activities for two reasons: First, the electrical blackout made it difficult to continue normal routines and second, the earthquake had caused concern among students about the safety of their family members. We decided to gather the students in the seminar house lobby and to provide them with entertainment. Fortunately, among the teachers, we have three talented people – Steve Gardner, an American Roots and Blues singer, Robert Hamilton who played the Uilleann Pipes (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/uilleann_pipes), also known as the Irish Pipes, and Merwyn Torikian who performed magical card tricks.
Steve started off the program with a song that asked the question, Who’s gonna help me? Watch, but keep in mind we shot the emergency lighting in a room filled with echoes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg83A9WClZg). He followed up with other songs and the room echoed with the ebullient sounds of students clapping and singing along with him.
Robert Hamilton followed Steve’s act. Arranging the Uilleann Pipes under his arm and on his lap, he observed the curious expressions on many of students’ faces. Like the good teacher he is, he explained the different parts of the pipes and the sounds they made. Then he played a mournful Irish melody. The pipes aptly conveyed the mood of the suffering of those who lost loved ones in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqA1u_NiApk)
Merwyn Torikian took center stage and performed card tricks to the delight of the students. Unfortunately, the dim lighting prevented me from taking videos of his magical tricks. But the laughter and gleeful response of students remain in my memory as vividly as if photographed under bright lights. Happily, I was able to download a photograph of him posing as the card magician.
The entertainment ended at 8 p.m. Michael instructed the students they should return to their rooms but they could stay in other parts of the seminar house until 9 p.m. At that time they were to remain in their rooms.
Steve and I, having lived through Hurricane Katrina advised students to fill their trash cans with water. The water had stopped running in the evening. The Japanese baths had been filled ahead of time and so we could scoop water from the tubs. We instructed students how to use the water to flush toilets. Because there was no heat, the seminar house staff provided everyone with blankets to keep warm with during the night. At 9 p.m., the emergency lights were turned off to save electricity for the following day.
The teachers met in the teachers’ dining room to discuss the plans for the remainder of the program. We all agreed we should continue the program until the scheduled final day of March 16. Actually, the decision was readily reached because there were no trains running, nor were the major roads back to Tokyo open. “Let’s go on with the program!”
The following morning at 5.25 a.m. the electricity came back on and the water turned on again. Life at the seminar house returned to normalcy. We continued with the classes, though we were all on edge at the slightest tremor we felt, or imagined we felt.
Steve Gardner summed up our feelings on that night:
When the earthquake hit I was on tour about three hours from Tokyo in an area called Yamanashi, I got back home to Tokyo late last night, four days after the quake hit. We were in the small town of Kiyosato where our only hardship was to be stuck without lights, gas, water, transportation or communication. We were all safe. Shook up but safe. Our biggest worry was our families and friends. We wanted to know about them and to let them know that we were OK. We count ourselves as very, very lucky. It was snowing and cold and if we would have had to spend the night outside in the snow, then we would have been in a very bad way. As it was, everyone pulled together to be their “best selves on one of their worst days”.
We had a show scheduled for that night so we decided to go on with it. …. I play National Reso-phonic guitars which are pretty loud and I am not too shy to put out the big voice so having no amplification wasn’t a problem for me. We played, sang, and told stories by the soft glow of emergency lights and i-phones- it was a regular 21 century, high tech blues show.
As I played and sang I let my eye wander over the crowd. They were pulling together which seemed to calm all of us down some. The temperature inside dropped to about 0 degrees and the moon was holding water so it was still dark but clear. We all made it through the long, dark night without too much trouble and only a few light tremors.
After lunch, my friend and I entered a furniture store to look for bookcases for my apartment. As I was measuring the dimensions of a bookcase, I noticed two young mothers with babies strapped to their chests. They were standing in the dining room table section. The babies were fast asleep, no doubt to the relief of the mothers. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One mother informed her friend that her husband might be transferred to his company’s office in Shanghai. “It’s so far away from home,” the young mother said.
Her friend sounded an upbeat note: “Ah, but think of the experience of living in a foreign country. You’re fortunate. My husband’s company will never send him overseas.”
Their conversation drifted to the evaluation of the dining table the young mother’s friend was rubbing the top of with her hand. “Do you think it matches the other furniture in my dining room?”
I walked away and for a brief moment I wondered what topics of conversation the residents of the earthquake stricken towns and villages were having.
What does the future hold for them?