March 11



The Ginza Line was pulling out of Ueno Station when the quake hit, jolting the train to a hard stop, then vibrating it like a car revving to free its tyres from thick mud. For the first few moments I thought somebody must have thrown themselves under the train. It wouldn’t have been a first. Then the vibrating turned to violent shaking, and as the lights briefly flickered, someone down the far end of the carriage screamed.

I don’t remember how long it was before the announcement came from the driver. There had been a big earthquake, he said, and as the train still shook people started reaching for cell phones. My hands were trembling and damp as I tried texting my wife. I hadn’t realized I was scared until then.

Shortly after the shaking had stopped, we were being led through the puddles of water collecting on the Ginza Line platform and calmly ushered to street level. That’s when the news began coming in. The epicenter was up in Tohoku. And it was big. I overheard someone walking next to me say “Shindo 7” (the highest earthquake rating in Japan) into his cell phone, intonation bordering on disbelief. I feel a sense of guilt thinking of it now, but I felt relieved when I knew it wasn’t our “big one”; that it was happening to Tohoku, not us.

Out on the streets of Ueno I walked around aimlessly until I received a text back from my wife to say she and our son were safe, and with that all worry was purged. I stopped in front of a shop window where a small crowd was watching NHK on TV. There was no sound, just images of a dark liquid mass flowing steadily inland in Sendai, claiming everything it met. In one corner of the screen a map showed flashing tsunami warnings almost encircling the country. At one point a woman watching next to me wiped a tear from her cheek. I’d never seen a Japanese cry in the street until Ueno on 3/11. That’s when I began to realize what had happened up north.

rows of school satchels
smeared in Sanriku silt…