2011: FIRST PERSON REPORT FROM JAPAN EARTHQUAKE - Former Calhouner Chuck Smith, "It Will Haunt Us For The Rest Of Our Lives"


Former Calhouner Chuck Smith, his wife
Naomi, with daughters Ashley and Lauren

By Charles Albert Smith 3/2011


When the first and biggest tremor struck, I was at the school where I work in central Tokyo. My colleagues and I were packing boxes in preparation for moving our office to another building across the street.

When the floor starting shaking horizontally we looked at each other and noted the movement was lasting a long time. Then, when there was a violent vertical bounce, we instinctively decided it would be best to get outside.

This is not necessarily the safest action to take during an earthquake in an urban environment, as glass can start flying about and utility poles and power lines can start coming down on people, not to mention the possibility of buildings collapsing. Of course, in the case of buildings collapsing, it matters not whether one is outside or in if one is buried.

Although I do not precisely know the magnitude of the quake in Tokyo -- which the US Geological Survey measured at 8.9 on the Richter scale at the quake's epicenter off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture -- I do know that once I was outside I saw six-story buildings horizontally swaying, at a guess, upwards of two feet. Scary as this may sound, it is that architectural feature that prevents buildings from collapsing in a strong quake.

Another disconcerting aspect of such a strong quake is that the ground undulates, and the undulation in central Tokyo was enough for some people to grab onto each other in order to balance themselves. Although it did not occur where I was, there are times when the earth rends open consequent to this kind of tectonic movement.

The building where our new office will be located has been under renovation. As of March 11th, the day the quake occurred, there was still scaffolding up around that building. The sound of that scaffolding shaking was particularly fearful, but fortunately it did not collapse.

Subsequent to the first shock, people started going back into ours school's main building -- the one most of us had just evacuated. It was only a matter of minutes when another violent tremor had us all scurrying back out into the street.

These aftershocks kept occurring on into the next day. In fact, it seemed to me that the ground was constantly vibrating the whole time, with the discernible tremors just being punctuation marks in the progression of Mother Earth writing her own new script.

After the second big tremor some people started seeking refuge in a nearby park. I, along with many colleagues, went back inside and started watching live footage of the utter destruction and mayhem that was occurring near the epicenter 250 miles or so to the north.

We saw the first tsunami overtake a large swath of land in or near the city of Sendai, the economic and cultural center of Japan's Tohoku (northeast) region. We all were stunned to see people fleeing on foot and in vehicles being overtaken by the huge wall of water that swept away everything in its path for several miles inland.

We witnessed houses that were burning as they floated on the waves. Cars and trucks looked like fishing bobbers floating whichever way the current might take them. We saw ships that had been ripped up from their moorings that were crashing into any structure that got in their way.

Within hours people around the world had seen these same images -- images that will likely haunt us in Japan for the rest of our lives.


I have lived in Japan and worked at the same vocational college since August of 1982. In 1988 I married my wife, Naomi. The following year we had our older daughter, Ashley, and in 1994 our second daughter, Lauren, came into our lives.

Right after getting married Naomi and I moved to Zushi, a small seaside city of approximately 50,000 people that lies around 40-some-odd miles southwest of central Tokyo.

We have been living in our current house in Hayama Town since the summer of 1997. Hayma Town, which has a population of 33,000, is located next to Zushi. Part of the suburban neighborhood where we live falls within the city of Zushi, so we have not moved very far in the past 22 and a half years, and our location relative to Tokyo has been pretty much the same.

We were fortunate in our local area to have not incurred much damage from the quake. My daughter, Ashley, was at home when the quake struck, and I was very worried for a couple hours because I could not contact her, her mother or her sister.

The phone system, particularly the cell phone system went down, and it was not until the next morning that it got back to normal. Luckily I was able to contact Ashley on a her cell phone through a public telephone a couple hours after the first big tremor, and she confirmed that she was alright and that there had been no damage at all to our house or belongings.

She had also been in touch with Naomi -- who was at work near Tokyo Bay, a scary place to be given the onslaught of tsunamis that were hitting the whole eastern seaboard of the country -- and confirmed that she was okay. She was also able to confirm that Lauren was alright, and this news came as a great relief to me.

As the train system went down until the next day, Lauren and I were confined to sleeping over at our schools. The restaurants in central Tokyo stayed opened, some beyond their normal hours, to serve the people who had no choice but to stay in the area. We were all fortunate in that regard.

Getting sleep on an armchair in our faculty lounge left a good deal to be desired in the area of comfort, and this discomfort was exacerbated by the periodic occurrence of aftershocks throughout the night. Still, there was no real reason to complain given the terrible things I knew was happening to the unfortunate people in the northern part of the country.

The trains were put back in service from around 7 o'clock on the morning of March 12th. A friend who also lives in Hayama and I decided it would be better to wait a few hours and get some breakfast before braving the crowds we knew would be present at the stations and on the trains.

We started our trip home at 10 o'clock. When we got to Kanda Station, we had to wait for 30 minutes for a train to come. (Normally they come at two to five minute intervals, although on Saturdays they probably come a bit less often.) When one did arrive, it was totally packed. (Think of sardines in a can and then double that.)

We were able to just barely shove our way onto a car, but I thought the doors wouldn't be able to close. They did, but someone's bag was still sticking out somewhere on the 10-car train, so all of the doors were re-opened, and that left me being shoved back out onto the platform.

My friend and I then decided to take an alternative train the one stop to Tokyo Station where we intended to transfer to another train bound for Zushi Station. Once arriving at Tokyo Station we confronted even greater crowds waiting for trains.

In many places in such a circumstance that would mean a lot of jostling about and perhaps fights breaking out among tired, frustrated people. In Japan it means people lining up in orderly fashion and waiting patiently for trains to come. This is not to say that no altercations occur in such situations here, but they are indeed rare.

It took about an hour and twenty minutes for a train to arrive that we could board. We only had a short wait on the train before it departed heading west to Kanagawa Prefecture where Hayama is located. We thought we were doing very well until we started approaching Yokohama Station, the midway point of our trip, when the conductor started announcing there would be delays from that point onward due to trouble with signals at rail crossings.

Naomi had been in contact through text messages to my cell phone and suggested that we get on another line we would normally not take. We had opted not to do this earlier, but decided it would be the better choice from Yokohama.

After having some lunch we changed to the alternative line and got to Zushi in fairly short order. What is normally a 90 minute commute had turned into a 4-hour affair. All in all, though, it could have been much worse, and I am sure there were thousands, if not millions, of people who had much worse ordeals getting home after the quake. And of course, up north there were many who had no homes left standing to which to return.


Japan and its people have been through many tragedies, both natural and man-made, throughout its history. Besides being a country susceptible to damage from earthquakes, it also suffers every year from the effects of typhoons: damage from hurricane-force winds, as well as from landslides and floods caused by torrential rains.

Being at the edges of the Eurasian and Pacific plates, it also has a lot of volcanoes which also periodically erupt and cause damage to their surrounding environs.

One outcome of having this long history of disasters is that the people of Japan take an attitude of stoic perseverance whenever tragedy strikes. In their language they have the concept of gaman, which holds forth the sentiments of both patience and endurance as important values.

One visible behavioral manifestation of this belief is the aforementioned patient waiting in long, snake-like but orderly lines that sometimes seem to form out of the workings of some sort of collective psyche within people here. Another manifestation of this idea is the tendency of people here to band together to literally dig themselves out of rubble and put their lives back in order.

In my 28 and a half years here, I have seen them do this after major quakes in Kobe and Niigata, the latter of which is the land of my ancestors here. The Japanese people's tendency to gaman through great adversity was evinced also in the reconstruction of their country after the devastation it suffered from World War II.

For the most part, people in this area are trying to do their best to go about their lives in as normal a fashion as possible. We are living with some inconveniences such as shortages of rice, bread, milk, eggs and gasoline, as well as with our train system not running at full capacity.

We are also living with rolling blackouts, although it appears that the calls from the power industry and government for people to be frugal in their use of electricity has brought better-than-expected results; thus, we have had fewer power outages than have been scheduled. (I believe this is an object lesson in the value of conservation; one which people in all technologically advanced countries should pay heed, Japan included.)

As the previously mentioned food and gasoline shortages indicate, there have been rushes on the shops that have deleted supplies of various items. Size C and D batteries flew off the shelves very quickly because people wanted to have them for powering flashlights and lanterns.

Along with the previously mentioned fooodstuffs, other things such as flour and yeast have been run on and disappeared from store shelves. At first I was relieved that there was flour on the shelves because I make bread regularly, and therefore figured -- wrongly as it turned out -- that we wouldn't have to worry about our bread supply.

Well, before a week had passed it appeared that a lot of closeted automatic breadmakers had been brought back out and put to use. That, or a lot of people are quickly taking up making bread the old fashioned way without the help of any machines.

Although there obviously has been an unnecessary tendency for people to hoard foods to a certain degree, there has been no serious breakdown in the marketplace.

Fresh meats, fish, fruits and vegetables are all available in ample quantities. With good timing and a bit of scouring around, one can find most basic items with, again, a bit of gaman. Looting is virtually unheard of. In fact, now that I think about it, I have not heard or read any reports of any such activity since the day of the earthquake.

Again, what I am relaying now is only true for the south Kanto Plain area where I live and work. The utter devastation visible in the media is all to the north, and in that region people in many places are suffering without basic needs such as water, food, blankets and heating, and that area was still having cold weather with freezing temps and snow over the past week.

Matters have been complicated by fears of nuclear radiation, which has slowed down some of the relief efforts. Still, those efforts are picking up pace. My wife, Naomi, works for Kanagawa Prefecture, and yesterday she was telling me a high school in our prefecture that trains students in maritime skills has donated one of their ships to transport relief supplies and medical personnel between the Tohoku and Kanto regions.

The boat will carry those supplies and personnel to the devastated areas, and bring back people who need serious medical attention that cannot be offered there.

Speaking of nuclear radiation, it is the greatest source of worry for people outside the areas hardest hit by the earthquake and the tsunamis it spawned.

Just today the government released information that spinach and milk tested in Ibaraki Prefecture, just east of Tokyo, contained radiation in excess of government safety standards. This means that consumers will now have to pay close attention to the origins of the food they buy for some time to come.


There are some rays of hope, though. Today the people from Tokyo Power, the Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department and the Japan Self Defense forces who are working their hardest to get the reactors back under control have been making headway getting the cooling systems in some of the reactors working again.

The situation at the reactors in Fukushima Prefecture could still go totally awry, but there are brave people risking their lives every day to bring the reactors under control, and to bring safety to everyone's life again.

I believe the people of the Tohoku region, with the help of people from around Japan and the rest of the world, will pull themselves out of the devastation that surrounds them now.

It will takes years for them to do so, but like Kobe and Niigata and so many other places before them, they will get their lives, homes and towns back to being civilized. It will take both the stoic perseverance of gaman and a lot of hard work, but do it they will.

As for the future of Japan in general, the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima raises serious questions about Japan's reliance on nuclear power to provide approximately a quarter of its electricity, which is second only to France.

Actually, I would say that this emergency is causing countries around the world to reconsider their plans to have nuclear power comprise larger portions of their electrical power production.

In Japan's case, it certainly should reconsider its placement of a number of nuclear generators next to the sea in areas where large tremors are known to occur.

Crises unsettle people, and yet they often are catalysts to people coming together in the interest of basic survival.

In surviving crises such as the one brought on by the recent earthquakes here, societies are often strengthened by the need to confront diversity and lay it to rest.

I believe that, once again, Japan and its people will do just that.