(First of a series of articles written exclusively for TNJ.com by Black professionals residing in Japan)
Working at an international ad agency Friday afternoon is usually the time you can wind down a bit before you set off for a weekend of activities in Tokyo. On this particular Friday, March 11, the office was full and we were already casually chatting about what each other’s weekend plans were. It was around this time that we started to feel something.
Our office is on the 30th floor and at the time of the quake we initially thought this was just a bit stronger than the usual quake. Those of us who have been in Tokyo for a long time are pretty used to the common earthquake. You feel a little shaking and then it stops. This one didn’t stop. About two minutes into shaking we could feel that the building was literally swaying back and forth.
Many of us started to duck under our desk. I could see some of my female co-workers starting to cry in panic under their desk. The initial earthquake seemed like it lasted at least 15 minutes, but that seemed like forever. After the entire building stopped swaying and people came from under their desk, we realized that this was a massive quake.
I wish it could be the end of the story. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Some people were a bit frazzled and I started to talk about getting ourselves out of there and quick. There’s quite a lot of female staff in my section and I told them to get their stuff ready and let’s go. Many of them talked among themselves, quite frightened, repeating phrases in Japanese like “Is it over?” or “Is it OK?”
Well it wasn’t over because we immediately got hit again by what seemed like a quake the same size as the first one. Back under the desks! And if the ladies in the office were frantic before, being on the 30th floor of a building swinging back and forth for a second time didn’t make things better.
I went to hallway after the second quake and could see members of the agency next to us, JWT Japan, all in the hallway. Some of our staff were also there. I kept wanting to leave, but I didn’t want to leave without leading some of the female staff out. One other male co-worker had the same idea and didn’t want to bail out without going down the 30 flights of stairs with other co-workers.
Then it hit again. We’re swaying once again and people are under their desks.
After it stopped I went around our office telling all of our people to get ready; we had to go. As people were getting ready, it hit once more. I told the ladies to get their stuff or they would be left there. I led some of them down and my co-worker led another group behind us. My biggest fear was the quake hitting again and someone freezing up.
We did experience the earthquake once again in the staircase, but all of us got out of the building okay. Only one co-worker broke his ankle while going down the staircase by himself. Crowds of people amassed outside the building. Most of the people wanted to try to get information about what had happened. At this time, cell phones almost completely stopped working. No one could make phone calls, or even send e-mails. The only thing that worked was browsing the Internet by your phone. So many people turned to social media to reach out to friends and see if loved ones were all right.
After some time, they allowed some people to get their belongings from the building if they needed them. Believe me, the 30 flights up and down was probably a small thing to worry about. That’s because the trains in Tokyo all stopped working. Everyone in Tokyo walked home that Friday. With the streets so crowded, my 45-minute walk home became a two-hour walk.
That night and the following night, cell phones still didn’t work. Also, at night earthquakes came about three times every hour. I wish it were an exaggeration but it isn’t. Most people couldn’t sleep because of the large aftershocks in Tokyo. That weekend, all people could do was watch the news or try to contact friends via Facebook, Mixi, or Twitter. It was quite unnerving, as I saw status updates from non-Japanese friends, many of whom were heading out of Tokyo. The weekend after the quake, Osaka played host to most of the foreigners from the Tokyo area.
Our office closed for one week, with staff working from home. During that week everyone in Tokyo started to conserve energy because of the energy crisis. Food and basic necessities were also gone from supermarkets. The mood in Tokyo was, and still is, a bit dark.
rrently things seem to be getting back to normal—almost. The trains are finally running regularly, but we still have to conserve energy so many businesses are closing around 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. Everyone seems to being doing his or her share, too, not complaining about things like all the escalators being turned off in the city, or about places like Shibuya, which looks like Times Square [in New York], not being as bright or as lively as usual.
This is Japan, though—Land of the Rising Sun. That Sun will rise again.
Craig Nine is an African-American digital advertising and paid search specialist at Outrider Japan (GroupM). He has been living in Tokyo for 13 years.