Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jeepney Press 2011 May-June Page 16

The Day When Japan Stood Still
by Isabelita Manalastas-Watanabe

Friday, March 11, 2011. It was the day the huge earthquake with intensity 9 struck Japan. The day when almost simultaneously a tsunami followed, with devastating effects, and then followed by another disaster – fear of a meltdown from the nuclear power plants in Fukushima prefecture. The day when we came to realize that no matter how powerful or how wealthy , or how technology advanced a country is, it is no match to the wrath of the forces of nature. I was in my office in Tokyo when the earthquake struck. At first, I was not very concerned, as we are used to having numerous earthquakes in Japan. Schools and offices in Japan have yearly drills on what to do when earthquakes strike, or when there is fire. But then, the shaking did not stop - so many after shocks! and strong ones, as well.

I ran out of the office and went out to the street, together with one staff. He got us a bottle of bottled water each, and we separated - he, walking back home to check out on his wife and small daughter (took him 3 hours, I later found out), me going to the safety of open space. I could not walk home - we live in the suburbs of Tokyo, around 50 kms away (almost one hour's train ride away, using the express train - almost 1 1/2 hours away, if using the ordinary train stopping at every train station). I called my husband, but I could not reach his cell phone. My sister, who also lives in Tokyo with her family, was in the Philippines on official business. I called her house landline to speak with my nephews and niece, but I could not also connect. I later found out that my brother-in-law walked more than 3 hours to get home and then to hop into a car and pick up the children who were in school when the earthquake struck.

My office was not far from Hibiya Park, our designated evacuation location. I decided to go there. While walking towards the park, I looked up at two tall buildings nearby, swaying - yes, literally swaying! - away from each other and then, towards each other, at one point, touching each other! I got very frightened.

There were many people who have already converged at the park. You will see how companies in Japan are very much prepared for such emergencies - I saw groups of employees wearing protective hats; others were listening to whoever was in-charge, giving instructions on what to do, and also distributing emergency supplies like water, biscuits and small flashlights. It was very cold, with strong winds blowing, and there was a slight drizzle. The lines in the women's toilets were very long, much longer than the men's. One man approached the long queue and told the women, it is better to also use the men's toilets. The small stalls in the park selling drinks and snacks were also with very long queues, with people probably anticipating they may have to stay the night there or somewhere safe.

When I thought the after-shocks have already subsided, and when I found out that the internet was running, I thought I should return to my office. My 2 cell phones were useless - no outgoing/incoming calls. Understandable... everybody was trying to call their loved ones, and probably the phone lines were just overwhelmed with the phone traffic.

And so I went back to the office, and I was even able to send out mails. And finally, I and my husband were able to "talk" thru Skype - I could see and hear him; he could not see and hear me. So he talked, and I replied by typing my responses. It was during our conversation that he told me that there was a warning out for another strong aftershock, maybe stronger than the original one that struck a couple of hours ago. The government advised people to stay indoors - inside the buildings or schools where they are. I told Fumio I want to go out in open space, back to Hibiya Park. His advice was for me to stay indoors. I finally said I am taking responsibility - I do not like to be inside the office alone, and would like to be with other people. I said my hasty goodbye, picked up the thicker of my 2 winter coats in the office, and then rushed out.

It was much colder now, and growing dark. The winds blew much stronger, and I thought I may not be struck by flying debris as my husband feared, if I go out, but I may die of the cold! So it was at the lobby of nearby Imperial Hotel where I thought I should seek shelter. To my surprise, there were hundreds of people camped out there. The hotel provided chairs, and turned on a tv screen where people followed up the news. Those who could not have chairs sat down just about everywhere. There was also very long queue in the hotel coffee shop. It was getting late and people were hungry. I was also hungry and I did not like to wait 1 hour to have something from the hotel, and went out to a nearby convenience store, only to find almost all the shelves empty!!! I was able to get yoghurt, cheese, and salami.

I went back to the Imperial, and found out hotel staff were distributing bottled water and canned bread. These were the emergency supplies of the hotel. The queue was very long, and as I had some food already, I did not join the long line. But then, one of the hotel staff whom I passed by, and who was holding a box of canned bread, very generously offered me one can, which of course I took.

It was growing cold in the hotel lobby, with the front entrance doors constantly opening and closing. I decided to go to the basement floor. Many people were also there, but it was not as crowded. I sat down, together with others, and had my "dinner". The canned bread was indeed an emergency supply kept by the hotel. Expiry date is still 5 years away. Some hotel staff brought blankets, giving priority to the elderly.

For those who have not been to Tokyo and have not stayed at the Imperial (Teikoku) Hotel - it is a plus, 5-star hotel, located in the Hibiya area, about 5 minutes away on foot from the Ginza. Room rates there, for single room, can start from JPY 30,000 (US$375) per night. And yet, here they were, the hotel staff, helping and serving all those people who have camped there, treating them no less kindly than their own guests who have sat down together with the rest of us. The hotel elevators stopped running, and until the emergency elevator started functioning, some hotel guests could not return to the upper floors.

One of my friends sent me a message, suggesting I consider checking-in at the hotel. I replied, saying I decided to leave the relative comfort of my office because I was afraid to be alone if another big quake strikes. So there I was, spending the night at the basement floor of the Imperial, sitting down uncomfortably, with a bad knee. Couldn't actually complain - it was warm, the carpet is thick and nice, and I had food.

Early the next day (March 12), at around 5:30 am, one hotel employee started going the rounds, holding a memo, informing us which trains have resumed running (Ginza line was the very first to start running, the previous night). When I found out that Odakyu line is already running, I joined the long queue to the hotel's ladies' room, washed my face and then prepared to go home.

I took the slow train back home (2 changes of lines). After around 1 1/2 hours, I reached my station, and there, waiting for me with a big smile, was my husband. We went home, where hot breakfast was waiting. I took a long, hot bath afterwards, and slept, and slept.

I am very thankful to the many emails, telephone calls, and text messages that my family in Japan received from friends all over the world – from the USA, Italy, Sweden, India, Korea, the Philippines. At home, we were glued to the tv screen, for any warnings/instructions that the government may issue. We are dressed up in street clothes, and our earthquake emergency supplies are out, ready to be picked up in a rush, if we are directed to leave our homes.
As of this moment (March 12), we are unable to contact the care house where my 89-year old father-in-law is staying. The care house is in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, my husband's hometown. It is around 150 kms away from Sendai, the earthquake's epicenter.

Let us continue praying for all those who have been injured, for those whose lives have been lost, for those who may be exposed to possible radiation if ever the nuclear plant in Fukushima cannot be fixed and explodes.

(Updates: On March 16, we decided to go to Nagoya, to avoid any possible radiation leak. On March 19, we finally decided it will be good to stay out of Japan for a while, and my family flew to the Philippines. I would have stayed a little bit longer there had I not received a notice from the Japanese financial regulator that I will have a final interview with them in connection with my company’s remittance license registration permit. I flew back to Tokyo on April 4, had the interview with the financial regulator on April 5, and on April 7, received the notice that Speed Money Transfer Japan’s remittance license application has been approved. My younger daughter opted to remain in the Philippines, to study English. My father-in-law in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture is fine – we were able to finally visit him last Saturday, April 16.)

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