Email from Tokyo

13 Mar

News just in from my friend Professor Baden Offord, Chair in Australian Studies, Centre for Pacific and American Studies, Institute of Advanced Global Studies, Graduate School of Arts, Tokyo University.

Baden is presently living in Tokyo with his partner  Christopher  for a 10 month
appointment as Chair (Visiting Professor) in Australian Studies at the
University of  Tokyo.
Baden and Christopher live in the University of Tokyo International Lodge.

Dearest Jennifer,
Here’s the latest… we are a bit overwhelmed at the moment, monitoring the situation.

We live in Meguro, which is south west Tokyo, not far from Shibuya.
We just received news from Japanese friends that the meterological service of Japan is predicting a further earthquake of 7.0 in the next 3 days. This, and the escalating news about the nuclear power plants 250 kms north of Tokyo, is not good. We are now seeing whether we should fly out of Japan and will seek advice from the Embassy.

It is honestly a strange time here as the city in many ways seems so normal. But, you can sense concern beneath the surface and the supermakets are gradually being emptied of food. Lots of empty aisles now.

As a precursor to the quake on the 11th, you might be interested to know that there have been small quakes or tremors for the last couple of weeks. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, during my Japanese lesson there was a strong tremor, the wall moved, the table shook and so on.

Japan has a total of 100,000 tremors each year, of course most are neglible. Every elementary school in Tokyo has a seisometer to register any ground movement. But, apparently, there is no good  science yet to predict when a quake will occur.

On Friday 11th, I was with my friend and colleague Professor Toshiko Ellis when the quake hit, about to have lunch with her in a neighbourhood cafe near the University where we work. We left the restaurant when is started to shake violently and everything was falling. Most of the people went under tables.  It was an old building (just outside the Komaba campus where I work).

The street scene was absolutely surreal. It was like being on a ship that was rolling all over the place. We held on to each other as the poles and buildings swung back and forth, not sure of where we should go for safety. It lasted for several minutes, which is the thing that I will remember for the rest of my life. It seemed ages before the ground stopped moving.

Mobile phones did not work for hours. Finally Toshiko got through to her 12 year old son at a phone booth. He was alone at home – he  was crying and thought she had been injured (Toshiko’s aunty died in the Kobe quake). Only the landlines worked, thankfully.

After the 3 mins or so of the main quake we walked back to Shibuya station (no trains) and then Toshiko went to find her daughter (she got home several hours later) and I walked back to the University lodge (normally 45 mins by public transport from uni) to find Christopher. He didn’t turn up for hours as he was in a different part of the city when the quake hit. He was on the 7th floor of a building in Ginza and clung to a metal stair case while it happened. The  restaurant he was in was damaged quite a bit. They escaped out the stairs.

The streets on the evening of the quake were surreal as  everyone was quiet. Thousands and thousands of people in Shibuya (a huge station) for example, all very sober and quiet, orderly and stoic. Huge lines for public phones. … as I write this email there is an aftershock.

Today it is eerie. There’s a run on food in the shops, we got some of the last milk and bread available in local store. The  infrastructure in Tokyo is very well prepared in most ways for such an event. Most shops have been closed today, but some trains have started to run again.

People are incredibly well mannered, polite and helpful, even in the pressure of something like this. Though, for most people,  including my  friend Toshiko, who is 53, this was the ‘big one’ as she  described it to me. You really felt the awesome power of the shifting earth. I think people are in shock.

There have been aftershocks every hour, and we are prepped to leave our apartment (on 4th floor) if it becomes bad again. Sometimes the aftershocks are quite strong. We have no gas, but at least electricity at present – though there is talk of blackouts
because of two nuclear stations being in emergency shut down. The temps are about 5 degrees.

Otherwise, blue skies outside. These moments show you how  fragile life is.

Funnily enough, I was at the Australian Embassy last week at a dinner to welcome the 5 Australian Leaders part of the Young Political Leaders Exchange Program  to Japan (you may have read they were trapped on board a bullet train  yesterday for several hours). Anyway, I was speaking with Murray McLean, the Australian Ambassador at dinner, and the story he told me was about the fact that he was in Beijing when the Tangshan Earthquake struck.

Estimates are that more than 250,000 people died in that quake.

He said it was the worst experience of his life for him, his wife and small child. Ironic that we had this quake now in Japan as he finishes his term as Ambassador in a couple of months.

Much love, Baden.

5 Responses to “Email from Tokyo”

  1. Michael Barnett March 13, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this letter.


  2. PAUL WALTER March 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    The sort of incident that like Christchurch or 11/9 , that proves beneath the surface timelessness and tranquillity, how contingent and precipitous our hold on life as we know it, actually is.
    Right across our overpopulated, frenetic world, locations come to mind as sources for the”big one” that will set back civilisation. Could be a mega volcano site in Enzed, or Yellowstone or Japan or to the west of Naples.
    Or it could be a big quake like the Sendai quake orthe Aceh one a few years ago, that this time actually hits, full force, Tokyo or Los Angeles.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      Another quake this morning – electricity rationed now, so may not hear much from them for a while.


    • G.Hoffmann March 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

      Both ends of the Big Crack, have had a big jolt.
      (NZ and Now Japan)
      And the volcano dragons of Hawaii and Japan are stirring.
      (Plus all the other current rumblings_China Burma border,etc.)

      I ‘predict’ after the Japanese seismic stuff settles a bit, North America will feel the next impact.
      Possibly in about the same time frame as the gap between the NZ and Japanese events.

      Only speculation,hunch,gut feeling,innuendo,conjecture.


  3. PAUL WALTER March 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    In the week or so since this thread starter, attention has turned from the quake and tsunami, to the problems with the Fukushima reactors. But after an initial flury of reporting, there seems to have been one of these curious lulls or silences that seems to occur when this sort of foul up happens.
    To me there are so many parallels to the Deep Water Horizon oil drilling schmozzle in the Gulf of Mexico last year, as thefolk who cut corners now wrestle with the consequences.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: