Anyone who lives in Japan will be used to the regular frisson of fear that earth tremors produce. It was clear within moments, however, that what happened on Friday at 2.46pm was of a different order. The Monocle office rocked and swayed; a framed picture fell from the wall and the glass smashed dramatically into hundreds of shards. Outside, the usual crowds walking up and down Omotesando stopped and stood still, as though gathered in a moment of collective silence.
If any country is prepared to deal with earthquakes, it is Japan. In no time the children at the school behind the office were being gathered in the playground wearing their earthquake regulation quilted hoods. Offices and shops were evacuated, too, while nearby Aoyama University was turned into an overnight shelter for stranded commuters.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan soon appeared on TV in a utility jacket, saying that this was the worst crisis that Japan had faced since the Second World War. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, similarly attired, was charged with announcing increasingly unpalatable news from the nuclear plant in Fukushima. As rumours flew, and a mistrustful population looked for reassurance that they were being told all the facts, expats huddled in parks in Hiroo and Midtown sharing worst case scenarios and discussing their exit strategies. Emails with tips on how to best treat radiation poisoning circulated and potassium iodide tablets sold out.
Anyone who did venture out to buy food was presented with empty shelves as people stocked up on milk, bread, water and instant noodles. As news of impending power cuts spread, candles, torches and batteries became rare commodities. All day and night aftershocks were (and are) still being felt. Public announcements boomed over the streets asking people to save electricity. The lights of Tokyo Tower were dimmed and station escalators stopped in solidarity.
Today Tokyo is strangely subdued. The streets of Harajuku are unusually quiet. Many shops are closed and the Lawson convenience store next to the Monocle office has been cleared of almost everything apart from chewing gum and make-up. Chinese tourists peer through the windows of darkened stores. As bad news emerges from Fukushima – and the two explosions at reactor 3 – even more non-Japanese friends have emailed to say they have either gone far west to Osaka or are heading to Narita to catch flights out of the country. The Yamanote commuter rail line is running, but is far quieter than usual as many workers have followed instructions to stay home. Poignantly, the station walls are plastered with posters for the upcoming cherry blossom season, Japan’s florid celebration of seasonal renewal.
Already, the Japanese have shown impressive dignity and stoicism in responding to this terrible event. Those who know the country well expects that, however bad it now seems, they will overcome this horrendous time.