Disclaimer: This is only one person's first-hand account of the earthquake and its aftermath in Tokyo. Other areas of the nation were hit much harder than the capital, and have suffered far greater misfortune. For information on that story, please turn on the news. I am not a journalist.
So it's yesterday at 2:45 or so. I am underground, on the Marunouchi line between Honjo-sanchome and Korakuen stations, flinging angry birds at evil green pigs, who are pimped out for St. Patrick's Day this month. Then the train stops abruptly.
I first assume that we hit something, or a suicidal someone, which happens more often than we like to talk about in this country. At the same time I grasp the unlikelihood that a suicidal someone could wander this far underground, it becomes very apparent that our train did not flatten anything else. Rather, this train is the one getting its ass kicked by a force much larger.
"Train operation has stopped because of an earthquake," the voice of the conductor says. Umm, we know, I think to myself as the other passengers and I hold onto our seats.
"Train operation has stopped because of a strong earthquake," the loudspeaker again proclaims the obvious.
"Train operation has stopped because of a very strong earthquake," he says again after the shaking still hasn't stopped.
Luckily, before the conductor can declare the existence of a quite very, very strong earthquake, the ground seems to settle down.
Nobody is saying a word. Two ojii-sans sitting across from me are the only ones who dare to open their mouths, and even then they only let out muffled, gutteral non-words like "ah" and "ooh," in their deep old man voices. Other than that it is dead silent. "This is the strongest tremor I've ever felt in my life," the old man, the first of anyone around me to speak in a complete sentence, quietly tells his friend, who nods in agreement. I take a closer look at his face. He appears to be about seventy.
Then more shaking. Passengers hold on to their seats, as if we are in a tin can that is being shaken up by some naughty kid. Just don't try to open it and you will be fine. Or so says Our Fearless Conductor.
"Inside the train is the safest place to be." His voice echoes throughout the cars. "Whatever you do, don`t open the emergency doors. Do not exit the train. Inside the train is the safest place to be." His voice quavers, making him seem less sure of himself. Still a few moments later, his voice resounds quite loudly again . "I repeat, DO NOT EXIT THE TRAIN!"
Exit the train? I think. Really? Exit the train and do what exactly? Hop out and wander alone through an underground train passage? It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous and it is horrifying. Horrifying, because there is absolutely nothing we can do but be still and wait, and hope, for the cars to move forward again. To do anything but nothing would not only be futile, it would be insane. So I just sit there with my head in my hands, trying to banish any thoughts of fire or derailment or oxygen supplies from my head. It is hard to do, but I manage because something even more pressing is on my mind: where is my husband right now? Where is my very close friend, who is seven months pregnant?
I see that everybody, and by everybody I mean absolutely everybody, is suddenly clutching onto his or her cell phone for dear life. Everyone is trying to call out, but no one is getting through. Of course no one is getting through. We are underground. I wonder why the others don`t know that. Still after a few moments I start to wonder if they know something I don`t, and soon I have joined everyone in praying to the cell phone god for a miracle. Yet there is no love, no immaculate reception to write about today. But you knew that already.
Finally, finally the train starts to move.
The Marunouchi line usually runs underground, but makes a cameo appearances above street level at a few stations. The station we are heading to, Korakuen, happens to be above ground. As the train inches up towards daylight, I am in the front car, where a few people are now rushing up to accompany me there, to look out the window. As the train creeps above ground we all hold our breath.
"Daijoubu da sou." The old man across from me tells his friend, as the city, still standing, comes into view. It looks alright.
"Sou mitain da na." His friend responds. It seems like it does.
"Demo, kaeranai to wakannai na," The first man is sure to qualify. But you don`t really know until you get home.
"Kaeranai to wakaranai." I hear this phrase repeated over and over as I get off the train and take refuge in a nearby park. We won`t know how bad it is until we get home. And for most of us, without working trains, home is suddenly very, very far away.
As I pace around this park in circles, unable to keep still for more than a moment, the god of cell phones continues not to love me. Again, everyone is clutching a phone, yet almost no one is speaking into one. There is no reception. Not when the entire city- no, the entire country- is trying to call each other at once. In this park, nobody knows what is going on. There are sirens and helicopters, which all seem to be headed towards the same location, but that is all we know. We hope that our loved ones are not also in the direction. But we cannot know for sure.
After a while this, I get frustrated with my phone and start using it for another purpose entirely: to take pictures of people whose expressions best illustrate how I am also feeling. These are taken within the first hour after the earthquakes, in and around Korakuen station, as people are gradually realizing the severity of this event.
Work is in Myogadani, one station over from Korakuen. I decide to walk the rest of the way, to the house of the small children I am scheduled to tutor in English that afternoon. But tutor is a strong word. Actually, I just play with them. I have known this family for years. All I want is to see a face that I know. I am tired of walking in circles by myself.
When I get there, the children's mother is quite surprised to see me, but welcomes me in all the same. It isn`t until I see the TV screen in their house that I realize how horrible this disaster truly is. I play the kids while their mother locates her husband and other members of her family on a cell phone app of sorts. Every time I look up from the books I am reading to them, to sneak a glance at the destruction on the TV, the kids look up too. So I try not to look up from the books or the games. When I am done teaching her kids, the mother invites me to stay the night, because the trains still aren't running, but I decide to walk home. I need to walk home.