The earthquake struck as our elementary classes were about to wrap up for the day. In the library, the students were responsible and quietly took cover underneath tables as we watched the books falling off the shelves around us. Compared to other libraries, we fared quite well in that we didn’t have that many books falling, and all of our shelves remained firmly bolted into the concrete floor. I’ve complained previously about not being able to have our shelves on wheels – I can promise that no one in Japan will hear that particular gripe from me ever again.
As the aftershocks wore on, the library became the central gathering place for elementary students until they could be picked up by a parent. We watched movies on the computer projector, we passed laptops around for people to Skype loved ones, and we watched the internet livestream of the tsunami in horror. I tried in vain to reach my fiancée who was working in Tokyo by phone. I was finally able to get a message to her by way of her mother on Skype, and learned that she was in Shinjuku and going to try to walk home. It would ultimately take her seven hours to walk as far as Tsunashima (about 20-25km) before the trains started running again and she managed to get home. Of course, being Japanese (more on this in a bit), she was up and out the door for work at 7am the next morning. Some of us stayed at school with students until they could all either go home with a parent or go to a volunteer homestay family nearby, and we were able to find somewhere safe for everyone by about 9:30pm.
The week since the earthquake has been torturous in its constant stream of alarmist and flat our wrong information, and the foreign press and foreign embassies seem to just be making matters worse. There have been erroneous reports about everything from the spread of radioactivity to the level of religious faith that Japanese people hold. Many foreigners have fled, and many of us are now suddenly on extended holidays (my school is closed, and the next two weeks are our regularly scheduled spring break).
For all of us here in the Yokohama/Tokyo area though, this cannot begin to compare to what people north of us are dealing with. We’ve all seen the images, and they are unfathomably devastating. Anyone who has survived is now stranded in a shelter short on food, heat, and water, with no immediate way out, and often no way to even communicate to their families that they are okay. The workers who are battling to contain the nuclear situation will all have families that live nearby (assuming that they have survived). Some of these same families posted a heart-wrenching note on national TV last night asking simply, please give some food to the men at the power plant.
Amidst this chaos, the Japanese people have shown me just how incredibly disciplined, calm, and selfless they are. There is no panic in the air, just a saddened calmness and resolve as people try to go about their lives. There have been shortages of food, but there’s been no pushing or shouting in the shops as people try to buy what little they can. After the earthquake, people walked for hours on end to get home, but would never have considered stealing a bicycle (many of which can always be found sitting unlocked) to shorten their journey. There have been lineups at gas stations (those that have managed to stay open) with several hundred cars in them, all waiting to get even a few litres of fuel, but no one is honking their horn, no one is demanding that they somehow be treated differently from everyone else.
I’m almost ashamed then that I will be leaving here tomorrow. My fiancée and I had always planned to head to Thailand for spring break on Saturday, but managed to move our flight up a day when our school closed down. There’s really nothing useful that I can do here, as volunteers (particularly those like me who cannot speak Japanese) are not wanted in Tohoku yet, and we’ll be less mouths to feed and two fewer people using electricity while we’re gone. Still, I can’t help but feel like I am abandoning a place that has shown me just how incredible humanity can be. I hope that I can pay this life lesson back by spending some time volunteering in Tohoku this summer, or fundraising, or really doing anything to help these beautiful people who are Japan.