It’s a little after 2 in the morning here in Tokyo, so it’s been just short of 12 hours since the earthquake hit. The day started like any other on this trip: busy and productive, with loads of meetings and a full schedule. We began the morning with a very enjoyable discussion with the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, and moved on to a briefing with a former Japanese foreign minister and a luncheon with American corporate executives working in Tokyo.
We pulled up in front of the New Otani Hotel, a local landmark not far from the Imperial Palace and the Diet Building (where the Japanese parliament meets), at 2:45 in the afternoon. The door to the bus had just opened when a bit of swaying motion became apparent. We looked outside and noticed people running out of the hotel: just a few at first, and then a whole stream. The swaying gave way to shaking and became more and more intense. Looking upward, we could see the front facade of the hotel, and especially an awning over the entrance, vibrating. The skyscrapers all around us were swaying noticeably. A window-washing crew on a low-rise was clearly being buffeted by the quake: Their rig was swinging back and forth and knocking against the building. After what seemed like a very long time, the shaking finally died down.
I’ve lived in Japan and traveled here often, so earthquakes are nothing new to me. But this quake and the first aftershock, which was very substantial in its own right, were far beyond anything I’d ever felt before. What was amazing was how calm the Japanese were about everything: All the people who had come running out of the hotel composed themselves and headed back in; the meeting we had scheduled with representatives of a business federation went ahead as planned (though it was briefly disrupted when we had to evacuate the building for that big aftershock). Little did we know how terrible the damage caused by the tsunami was in northeastern Japan and how the quake had begun to disrupt life in Tokyo.
Train service was knocked out immediately, and all the expressways around Tokyo (which generally are elevated) were closed down to check their structural integrity. Cell phone service became very spotty. Elevators in many buildings were out of service. There was no visible damage to the city (I didn’t see a single broken window or brick that had fallen to the street), but news reports say that the very top of Tokyo Tower is bent from whipping in the quake. I was also struck by the sight of hundreds of bicycles and motorcycles, which are parked along many streets here and especially in front of train stations, knocked to the ground by the shaking.
Traffic in the center of the city started to snarl soon after the quake. The streets really began to fill up after 5 p.m., when office workers left their desks and found themselves stranded: Commutes of 90 minutes or more are not uncommon here, so literally hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people were left without any good options for getting home. Lines at restaurants were long, and everywhere you could see people watching reports of the quake on their cell phones and on TVs in restaurants and hotel lobbies. The government has set up shelters in schools and universities, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, where people can wait it out (perhaps all night) until the trains start running again. Even now, the streets are in absolute gridlock and the sirens are almost constant.
Two things stand out about this experience to me. The first is the excellence of Japanese engineering and architecture. You read a lot about the quality of construction practices and the design of high-rises in this country that so often falls victim to earthquakes. But until you see 50-story buildings violently swaying and shaking, but not breaking, cracking, or collapsing, you can’t really appreciate just how exceptional Japanese techniques are. The contrast to Haiti could not be more striking, of course. I also have to wonder how San Francisco or Los Angeles would have stood up to an earthquake of this magnitude. I hope we never have to find out.
The other observation that sticks in my mind is just how calm, disciplined, and organized the Japanese people are. Life went on in the usual orderly way, even after the horrifying images of the tsunami on the northeastern coast began to spread. The dense crowds on the street were as polite and composed as they always are, even though most of the people faced a very long walk home or a night in a shelter. Amazingly enough, although the roads in central Tokyo have been absolutely clogged for the past 11 hours, I have heard car horns at most three or four times. One can’t help but be impressed by the resilience and strength of Japanese society and the incredible patience of the Japanese people.
Because of the quake, the delegation never made it to meet with the Prime Minister (we were scheduled to see him at the end of the day), and we did not have the kind of festive send-off we had been planning on. We were quite shaken by the day’s events, but were glad that we all came out of things unhurt. We were thankful to have cell phones so we could keep abreast of the news and stay in touch with our friends and families. And our thoughts were with the people of northeastern Japan, who suffered the brunt of this disaster.
The Tohoku region (as the northern part of Japan’s main island is called) has long been remote and agricultural, a place far removed from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Osaka. Sendai, which was hit very hard by the tsunami, is the area’s largest metropolitan center and, significantly for us at SMU, is a sister city of Dallas. There is going to be a lot of healing and rebuilding to do in Sendai, and I hope that those of us on the Hilltop, who have only been able to watch this catastrophe from afar, can take on an active role in the coming process of recovery.