Prologue: Solid Vapor
The eleventh of March 2011 was a cold, sunny Friday, and it was the day I saw the face of my son for the first time. I was in a clinic in central Tokyo, peering at the images on a small screen. Beside me, F—— lay, exposed, on the examination bed. Her oval belly was smeared with transparent gel; against it, the doctor pressed a glowing wand of plastic. As the wand moved, the images on the screen shifted and jumped.
We knew what to look for, but it was still astonishing to see so much of the small creature: the familiar top-heavy outline; the heart, with its flickering chambers; brain, spine, individual fingers, and so much movement—paddling arms, bucking legs, and nodding head. The angle of vision altered and revealed at once a well-formed, unearthly face, which gave a charming and very human yawn. Our second child—our boy, although we did not know this yet—was still in there, still patiently alive.
Outside the clinic it was chilly, gusty, and bright, and the wide avenue was filling with midday shoppers and workers coming out of the offices for lunch. We pushed our toddler daughter to a café and showed her the murky photograph of her sibling to-be, printed out from the scanner’s screen.
Two hours later, I was sitting at my desk in a tenth-floor office. What exactly was I doing at the moment it began? Writing an e-mail? Reading the newspaper? Looking out the window? All that I remember of the hours before are those moments in front of the screen, which had already made the day unforgettable, and the sensation of looking into the face of my son at the halfway point between his conception and his birth.
I had lived in Japan for sixteen years, and I knew, or believed that I knew, a good deal about earthquakes. I had certainly experienced enough of them—since 1995, when I settled in Tokyo, 17,257 tremors had been felt in the capital alone. A spate of them had occurred two days earlier. I had sat out the shaking, monitored the measurements of magnitude and intensity, and reported them online with a jauntiness that now makes me ashamed:
Wed Mar 09 2011 11:51:51
Wed Mar 09 2011 11:53:14
Epicenter, Miyagi Prefecture. Tsunami warning in place on northern Pacific coast. In Tokyo, we are shaken, but not stirred.
Wed Mar 09 2011 12:01:04
More tremors . . .
Wed Mar 09 2011 12:16:56
@LiverpolitanNYC All fine here, thanks. Its wobble was worse than its bite.
Wed Mar 09 2011 16:09:39
Latest on today’s Japan earthquake horror: 10cm tsunami reported in Iwate Prefecture. That’s almost as deep as my washing-up water.
The following day, there had been another strong tremor in the same zone of the Pacific Ocean off northeast Japan. This one, too, could be felt as far away as Tokyo, but even close to the epicenter it caused no injury or significant damage. “The Thursday morning quake brought the number of quakes felt in Japan since Wednesday to more than thirty,” Kyodo news agency reported; and plenty of them were strong tremors, not the subterranean shivers detectable only by scientific instruments. The seismologists warned of the potential for a “powerful aftershock” in the next week or so, although “crustal activities” were expected to subside.
Clusters of proximate earthquakes are known as “swarms,” and they can be the precursor to larger tremors and even volcanic eruptions. But although many seismic disasters are preceded by such omens, the converse is not true; most swarms buzz past without any destructive crescendo. I had reported on this phenomenon a few years earlier, when a swarm of earthquakes hinted at a potential eruption of Mount Fuji. Nothing of the kind had happened then; clusters of lesser earthquakes continued to come and go; and there was no reason for particular attention or alarm this week.
Not that there was much else happening in Japan that day, certainly not of international interest. The prime minister was resisting halfhearted demands that he resign over a political funding scandal. The governor of Tokyo was expected to announce whether he would stand for another term. Ibaraki Airport Marks First Anniversary, noted one of the news agency’s headlines. Snack Maker Debuts on Tokyo Stock Exchange, mumbled another. Then, at 2:48 p.m., came an urgent single-line bulletin: BREAKING NEWS: Powerful Quake Rocks Japan.
I had felt it about a minute earlier. It began mildly and familiarly enough with gentle but unmistakable vibrations transmitted upwards through the floor of the office, followed by a side-to-side swaying. With the motion came a distinctive sound—the glassy tinkling of the window blinds as their vinyl ends buffeted against one another. The same thing had happened two days earlier and passed within moments. So even when the glass in the windows began to rattle, I stayed in my chair.
Fri Mar 11 2011 14:47:52
Another earthquake in Tokyo . . .
Fri Mar 11 2011 14:47:59
Strong one . . .
Fri Mar 11 2011 14:48:51
strongest I’ve ever known in 16 yers . . .
By the time the sliding drawers of the filing cabinets gaped open, my sangfroid, as well as my typing, was beginning to fail me. From the tenth-floor window, I could see a striped red-and white telecommunications mast on the roof of a building a hundred yards away. I told myself: “When that mast starts to wobble, I’ll move.” As the thought took form in my mind, I noticed that a much closer structure, an arm of the same building in which I was sitting, was flexing visibly. Very quickly indeed I bent myself into the narrow space beneath my desk.
Later, I read that the vibrations had lasted for six minutes. But while they continued, time passed in an unfamiliar way. The chinking of the blinds, the buzzing of the glass, and the deep rocking motion generated an atmosphere of dreamlike unreality by the time I emerged from my funk hole, I had little sense of how long I had been there. It was not the shaking itself that was frightening, but the way it continued to become stronger, with no way of knowing when it would end. Now books were slumping on the shelves. Now a marker board fell off a partition. The building, a nondescript twelve-story structure that had never seemed particularly old or new, sturdy or frail, was generating low groans from deep within its innards. It was a sound such as one never usually hears, a heart-sickening noise suggesting deep and mortal distress, like the death sound of a dying monster. It went on long enough for me to form distinct images about what would happen in the next stage of the earthquake’s intensification: the toppling of shelves and cabinets, the exploding of glass, the collapse of the ceiling onto the floor, the floor itself giving way, and the sensation both of falling and of being crushed.
At a point difficult to define, the tremors began to ease. The building’s moans faded to muttering. My heartbeat slowed. My balance, I found, had been mildly upset, and like a passenger stepping off a boat, it was hard to tell whether motion had ceased completely. Five minutes later, the cords hanging from the blinds were still wagging feebly.
Over the internal loudspeakers, an announcement from the Disaster Counter-Measures Room—every big building in Tokyo has one—assured us that the structure was safe and that we should stay inside.
Fri Mar 11 14:59:44
I’m fine. A frighteningly strong quake. Aftershocks.
Fires round Tokyo bay.
In Japan, there is no excuse for not being prepared for earthquakes, and in my small office we had taken the recommended precautions. There were no heavy picture frames; the shelves and cabinets were bolted to the walls. Apart from a few fallen books and a general shifting of its contents, the room was in good order. Even the television, the most top-heavy object in the room, remained undisplaced. My Japanese colleague turned it on. Already all channels were showing the same image: the map of Japan, its Pacific coastline banded with colors, red indicating an imminent danger of tsunami. The epicenter, marked by a cross, was upper right, northeast of the main island of Honshu. It was the same area that had been swarming these past days, the region of Japan known as Tohoku.*
I was dialing and redialing F——’s number, without success. The problem was not that the infrastructure was damaged, but that everyone in eastern Japan was simultaneously using his or her mobile phone. I got through by landline to the lady who looked after our nineteen-month-old daughter; the two of them were wobbly but unhurt, and still sheltering beneath the dining room table. F——, when I finally connected to her, was in her own office, brushing up the glass from a fallen picture frame. Our conversation was punctuated by pauses, as each of us in our distinct districts of the city experienced separately the aftershocks that had begun minutes after the mother quake.
The elevators were suspended, so I walked down nine flights of stairs to inspect the district of shops and offices immediately around the building. There was almost no visible damage. The stripy pole in front of an old-fashioned barber’s shop lolled at an angle. I saw one crack in a window of plate glass, and a perforated gash in a wall of plaster. The streets were crowded with evacuated office workers, many of them wearing the white plastic helmets that Japanese companies provide for just such an occasion. Above the density of city buildings, a distant line of black smoke was visible in the east, where an oil refinery had caught fire. Later, some accounts gave the impression that the earthquake had been a moment of hysteria in Tokyo, in which large numbers of people experienced the sensation of a close brush with death. They were exaggerations. Modern engineering and strict building laws, evolved out of centuries of seismic destruction, had passed the test set by the earthquake. A spasm of alarm passed quickly, followed by hours of disruption, inconvenience, and boredom. But the prevailing emotion was bemused resignation rather than panic.
A man in an old-fashioned ceramics shop, where a vase sold for £5,000, had not lost a single plate. We talked to a group of elderly ladies in kimonos who had been watching a play in the nearby kabuki theater when the earthquake struck. “They’d just started the last act, and people cried out,” one of them said. “But the actors kept going—they didn’t hesitate at all. I thought it would subside, but it went on and on, and everyone stood up and started flooding out of the door.” The star performers, the famous kabuki actors Kikugoro Onoe and Kichiemon Nakamura, bowed deeply to the audience as they fled, apologizing for the interruption.
Fri Mar 11 16:26:4
Central Tokyo calm and undamaged. In 30 mins stroll in Ginza I saw one cracked window and a few walls.
*Pronounced “Tour-Hock-oo,” with the last syllable short and abrupt.
Fri Mar 11 16:28:56
Seems to be just one fire in an oil facility in Chiba
Fri Mar 11 16:40:31
Eleven nuke power plants shut down in Japan. No problems reported after quakes.
Fri Mar 11 17:47:25
I’ve lost count of aftershocks. 15 or more. Latest one was from a different epicenter to 1st big quake, accdng to Jpn TV.
Fri Mar 11 18:20:10
To anyone struggling to get through to Tokyo—use Skype. Internet in Tokyo seems fine.
Back in the office, we turned to the television again. Already Japan’s richly resourced broadcasters were mobilizing airplanes, helicopters, and manpower. The foreign channels, too, had given over their programming to rolling coverage of the situation, with that thinly disguised lust that appalling news excites in cable news producers. I began to file reports for my newspaper’s website, attempting to make sense of the packets of information that were arriving in the form of images, sounds, and text, through cable, satellite, Internet, fax, and telephone. But the facts were still frustratingly vague. An earthquake had come and gone, and the human response to it was obvious enough: a disaster unit established at the prime minister’s office; airports, railways, and highways shut down. Yet what actual damage had been done so far? There were patchy reports of fires, like the one at the oil refinery. But for the first few hours the seismologists could not even agree on the magnitude of the earthquake; and from the Tohoku coast itself came only silence.
Casualty figures were especially elusive. At 6:30 p.m., the television news was reporting twenty three killed. By nine o’clock, the figure had risen to sixty-one, and after midnight, the news agencies were still speaking of sixty-four deaths. Clearly, these numbers were going to increase as communications were restored. But it also seemed obvious that in a situation such as this there was a bias towards pessimism and a tendency to entertain the very worst imaginable possibility; and that probably, in the end, it wouldn’t be so bad as all that.
Fri Mar 11 17:58:43
No reports of deaths in Tokyo so far. My hunch is that
there will be scores, perhaps low hundreds in NE
Japan, but no more. Not megadeath.
There are several aerial films of the incoming tsunami, but the one that plays and replays in my imagination was shot above the town of Natori, south of the city of Sendai. It begins over land rather than sea, with a view of dun winter paddy fields. Something is moving across the landscape as if it is alive, a brownsnouted animal hungrily bounding over the earth. Its head is a scum of splintered debris; entire cars bob along on its back. It seems to steam and smoke as it moves; its body looks less like water or mud than a kind of solid vapor. And then a large boat can be seen riding it inland, hundreds of yards from the sea, and—unbelievably—blue-tiled houses, still structurally intact, spinning across the inundated fields with orange flames dancing on their roofs. The creature turns a road into a river, then swallows it whole, and then it is raging over more fields and roads towards a village and a highway thick with cars. One driver is accelerating ahead of it, racing to escape—before the car and its occupants are gobbled up by the wave.
It was the biggest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan, and the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the Earth ten inches off its axis; it moved Japan four feet closer to America. In the tsunami that followed, 18,500 people were drowned, burned, or crushed to death. At its peak, the water was 120 feet high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210 billion of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.
It was Japan’s greatest crisis since the Second World War. It ended the career of one prime minister and contributed to the demise of another. The damage caused by the tsunami disrupted manufacturing by some of the world’s biggest corporations. The nuclear disaster caused weeks of power cuts, affecting 2.5 million people. As a result, Japan’s remaining nuclear reactors—all fifty of them—were shut down. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in anti-nuclear demonstrations; as a consequence of what happened in Fukushima, the governments of Germany, Italy, and Switzerland abandoned nuclear power altogether.
The earth around the nuclear plant will be contaminated for decades. The villages and towns destroyed by the tsunami may never be rebuilt. Pain and anxiety proliferated in ways that are still difficult to measure, among people remote from the destructive events. Farmers, suddenly unable to sell their crops, committed suicide. Blameless workers in electricity companies found themselves the object of abuse and discrimination. A generalized dread took hold, the fear of an invisible poison spread through air, through water—even, it was said, through a mother’s milk. Among expatriates, it manifested itself as outright panic. Families, companies, embassies abandoned even Tokyo, 140 miles away.
Few of these facts were clear on that evening, as I sat in my office on the tenth floor. But they were becoming obvious the following morning. By then, I was driving from Tokyo towards the ruined coast. I would spend weeks in Tohoku, traveling up and down the strip of land, three miles deep in some places, which had been consumed by the water. I visited a hospital where the wards at night were lit by candles; a hundred yards away, to add to the atmosphere of apocalypse, burning industrial oil tanks sent columns of flame high into the air. I saw towns that had been first flooded, then incinerated; cars that had been lifted up and dropped onto the roofs of high buildings; and iron oceangoing ships deposited in city streets.
Cautiously I entered the ghostly exclusion zone around the nuclear plant, where cows were dying of thirst in the fields, and the abandoned villages were inhabited by packs of pet dogs, gradually turning wild; masked, gloved, and hooded in a protective suit, I entered the broken plant myself. I interviewed survivors, evacuees, politicians, and nuclear experts, and reported day by day on the feckless squirming of the Japanese authorities. I wrote scores of newspaper articles, as well as hundreds of fizzy tweets, and was interviewed on radio and television. And yet the experience felt like a disordered dream.
Those who work in zones of war and disaster acquire after a time the knack of detachment. This is professional necessity: no doctor, aid worker, or reporter can do his job if he is crushed by the spectacle of death and suffering. The trick is to preserve compassion, without bearing each individual tragedy as your own; and I had mastered this technique. I knew the facts of what had happened, and I knew they were appalling. But at my core, I was not appalled.
“All at once . . . something we could only have imagined was upon us—and we could still only imagine it,” wrote Philip Gourevitch. “That is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.” The events that constituted the disaster were so diverse, and so vast in their implications, that I never felt that I was doing the story justice. It was like a huge and awkwardly shaped package without corners or handles: however many different ways I tried, it was impossible to hoist it off the ground. In the weeks afterward, I felt wonder, pity, and sadness. But for much of the time I experienced a numb detachment and the troubling sense of having completely missed the point.
It was quite late on, the summer after the tsunami, when I heard about a small community on the coast that had suffered an exceptional tragedy. Its name was Okawa; it lay in a forgotten fold of Japan, below hills and among rice fields, close to the mouth of a great river. I traveled to this obscure place, and spent days and weeks there. In the years that followed, I encountered many survivors and stories of the tsunami, but it was to Okawa that I returned time and again. And it was there, at the school, that I eventually became able to imagine.