BUSAN, South Korea — It struck around 2:45 in the afternoon on what had been a beautiful spring day with a stiff breeze whipping around the air. I was nearing the end of my English teaching contract at a middle school, about an hour outside Tokyo. I’d been in good spirits due to the winding down of the workday and the promise of the weekend ahead.
The ease I felt as my day was drawing to an end was not to last.
I was in the teacher's office with three other teachers, deeply engrossed in writing something on my blog. The wind outside had been fairly strong all day, shaking the windows of the paper-thin walls, and blowing documents all about the office. With the winds playing a rhythmic clatter against the building, we didn’t really notice the first tremor.
A teacher murmured “Jishin,” which means earthquake in Japanese. The word awoke me from my transfixed state and I raised my head from the screen. I felt my desk and the floor beneath me jolting. Is this finally it?, I thought. The big one? What are they so worried about? It can’t be that bad.
I regret to say now that a smirk began to form on my face. I remember saying to a few friends before I took the job in Japan that, “I don?t want to have lived in Japan a whole year without experiencing a single earthquake.”
I take that back now.
The tremors gathered in intensity over the next 10 seconds. Soon the whole school was beginning to sway and the Earth was showing no signs of relenting.
The seriousness of the situation began to take hold. I stood up from my desk, trying to conceal the extreme unease that was enveloping me. The teachers, highly attuned to the seriousness of the situation, sprang into action. They put on helmets, switched on the TV and made an announcement over the loudspeaker for the students to remain calm.
All the while I stood still, useless, full of fear, not knowing what to do. It was now plainly apparent that this wasn’t going to simply stop, no matter how much I wished for it.
The intensity of the waves came and went, shaking everything wildly and weakening the earth's foundation. The momentary respites of tectonic plates colliding and sliding beneath one another would only last for a few seconds before returning at full strength.
Above me, I wondered if the roof would cave in, bringing two floors of desks, chairs and screaming children down on top of me.
The rattle of the office walls grew, seeming to heave and moan with the ground on which they were placed. I looked towards the open door. There’s an escape route. Get out, Get out!, my brain screamed at me. I tried to fight these thoughts and looked at the faces of my co-teachers. They weren’t panicking, so neither should I.
I stared at the TV (not understanding a word) and tried to compose myself.
Meanwhile the sea floor of the Pacific Rim continued to force itself under Japan, causing mayhem and destruction on the surface and brewing up massive waves at sea.
The feeling of the quake varied between a boat swaying on the water and a plane shuddering in turbulence. I had never felt a fear like this. As the floor bobbed up and down like ice cubes floating in a glass, I felt very insignificant, lacking any sort of control of own destiny.
No wonder people used to blame Earthquakes on the Gods –there is an utter feeling of helplessness at their whim. Unsure of what to do I copied the actions of my co-teachers who were now tucking themselves under their desks, preparing for the worst.
I couldn’t be sure how long it actually lasted; I would come to find out later it was actually six minutes. Six minutes. Can you imagine?
As the Earth came to rest again, I pulled myself up from under the desk and sat in my chair. I was shaking uncontrollably. The teachers came running back into the staff room for an emergency meeting, to decide if the students should go home.
The school caretaker came in and cleaned the area around us. She looked at me and said, “??????!”
By the time I registered what she had spoken (“Scary wasn’t it?”), she’d already gone to clean something else. I was still all a jitter and wouldn’t have been able to speak had I even tried to reply. I held my hand out in front of me and watched it shake.
If she can continue to work through this, then I can get over this, too, I thought. I sat there and tried to decipher what the teachers were talking about.
A minute later, the students quietly filtered out of the school and onto the playground. I was surprised at how calm and quiet they were. All of them. Standing there, in the middle of the playground, wearing yellow cushions on their heads. Months before, I asked one of my co-teachers why all the students have those yellow cushions on their seats. She told me they were in case of Earthquakes.
At the time I didn’t make the connection. “What good is a cushion in an Earthquake?” I ignorantly asked. The hair on my skin rose as I realized the grim reality. Yellow is bright and easier to see in rubble.
On the playground, the students were counted and sorted into groups. In around 10 minutes, the older students led the younger ones back home. I felt safe on the playground, as there wasn’t much to fall on our heads, or bury us alive.
Not being able to read the Kanji on screen, I blurted out “Where the fuck is that?” to a co-teacher. “Miyagi-Ken,” he said. “It’s miles away. Northern Japan.”
When I got home I called my panicky parents and reassured them that all was ok as word of the quake spread forth throughout the world
I went to the supermarket expecting it to be mayhem, with people buying up everything in stock, preparing for the end of Japan. But, life carried on as normal.
I tried to gauge the faces of the people. Were they scared? You wouldn't know it to look at them. Everything had an eerie feeling of normal.
As I walked home, I saw some guys had continued building the house they had been working on, undisturbed by the day’s events. I tried to get back to my usual Friday night routine. Sleeping was hard, frequent aftershocks, a feeling of seasickness and a fear, mongered by the media, kept me awake for much of the night, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.
After going through such a truamatic event with them, I have complete respect for the Japanese people. In a country divided by three plates of the Earth’s crust, they are prepared for and have experienced many Earthquakes. Everything is built with earthquakes in mind. And the calmness with which they reacted showed how prepared a people can be.
This is a time I will never forget. When the Gods shook the earth, and the earth shook me.