Inside Looking Out: A Perspective on the Japanese Earthquake

NOTE: The following post is by Pamela Runestad, a graduate student in medical anthropology who spoke in the Triangle Japan Forum on October 1, 2010. It is posted here with her permission.

At 2:40pm on Friday, I got on the highway bus to make a trip I’ve made several times this year in the course of my research in Japan: Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Nagano City. It takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes and, much like Japanese trains, the bus runs on time to the minute more often than not. Friday was different.

We’d been on the bus long enough for me to take off my coat and shoes and settle into my seat with a book. I made it to page 4 when the bus, stopped at a traffic light, started to bounce. Yes, bounce – like a bounce house kids play in. I looked out the window and saw the traffic lights and electric poles moving wildly, violently. Earthquake, I thought; BIG EARTHQUAKE. People began running out of buildings covering their heads, then clinging to each other on the sidewalk. I hastily pulled my shoes back on, tying the laces with fingers made clumsy with adrenaline. (Yes, I was getting ready to be urban survival woman.) I noticed that the bus was completely silent. Really? No screaming?

The bouncing stopped.

In a flat voice, the driver made use of the microphone to say, “It appears we experienced an earthquake.” Well, YEAH! He kept driving.

Stunned, I turned my eyes from my silent, terse fellow passengers and fixed my eyes on the scenes we passed outside. As I looked at the people on the other side of the glass, I realized: Shinjuku had stopped.

To understand the significance of this, consider that Shinjuku Station is used by over 3 million people a day, making it one of the world’s busiest stations. In Tokyo in general, people tend to move quickly and purposefully in and around stations, down sidewalks, and across streets. If you don’t know where you are going, it is easy to be swept away in the crowd. I’d never seen so many people, whose movements would usually appear so fluid, be so still.

Groups formed on the sidewalks, people holding on to one another. People gazed up at buildings in shock and disbelief. Dazed office workers stared into their phones, clicking away at the buttons, looking online to see what was happening to them.

We drove on – and there were more quakes. A man kneeled on the ground, feeling the earth with his hands as though this were the only way he could believe what he was seeing. Elementary school kids ran by with silver, cone-shaped safety hoods on their heads. We passed buildings with buckled panels, a man propping the door to his apartment complex open (to prevent people from being trapped inside), toppled bikes, and emergency windows that had been pushed out. I texted my husband and parents that I was OK (in hindsight, this could’ve been premature), and my cell phone died – all our phones quit working.

We stopped. The driver announced that we would have to wait and see if we would be allowed on the expressway. Outside, the storytelling began. I couldn’t hear what people were saying, but they gestured things falling, being pushed, crouching down, running, frantically looking side to side, protecting faces and heads, and AHHHHH! I realized that their experiences were much different from mine. As I looked out, I noticed that all the office furniture in the shop next to us was completely topsy turvy – shelves leaning precariously against windows, desks on their sides, lamps on the floor… The staff standing outside had made it through all that to the relative safety of the parking lot. We had made it down the street.

I’ve been in a lot of earthquakes, but this one was different for two reasons. First, I was on a bus. I felt trapped. There was nowhere to go. On one hand we didn’t have to contend with falling items (we were lucky those signs and building materials had stayed put). On the other, we were IN a falling item. Second, the quakes just didn’t stop. They kept coming, over and over. In the first 24 hours alone, there were 160 or so “aftershocks,” with roughly 140 of these registering over 5.0. Any other day, each of those 5.0s would have been newsworthy.

It was announced that we would go back to Shinjuku Station, that the expressway had been closed. We did a massive U turn and I started to realize what was going to happen next: that the better part of the 13 million people who inhabit Tokyo, with all the trains, subways and businesses shut down, would take to the streets. And I’d be with them.

Human flood waters began to rise as people were evacuated from buildings, trains and subways. The eddies of dazed Tokyoites became torrents of determined hikers (regardless of the type of footwear), heading in every direction. The throngs of people were orderly, like the trains had been minutes before. When we arrived at the station, we lined up to collect our refund – a process that took about 30 minutes for about as many passengers. We all went our separate ways, joining the marching masses.

It took me a few minutes to really get my wits about me. Lots of people were on the move, but many others stood in winding lines, waiting for local buses or to use a public phone. Some simply sat on the station steps and read – possibly thinking that the lines would re-open soon. (Unfortunately for them, they were closed until morning, and services remain irregular due to power concerns.) I found a large map outside one of Shinjuku Station’s 200 exits, located myself on it, and figured out a route to my friends’ house. By train, it was 2 stops away, or 7 minutes. I was told by an aging security guard, who sized me up and appeared to take note of my suitcase as well, it would take over an hour on foot. He was right. I was one of the lucky ones – many people walked for upwards of 4 hours to get somewhere where they could stay for the night.

Arriving at my friends’ house, I felt intense relief. They showed me the cracks in their walls, I told them about the bounce house bus. They gave me ibuprofen for my headache, and we talked about dinner. I was fairly amazed that they had electricity and water (but no gas, so no hot water and no cooking). We put together some food, ate, watched TV. We felt like everything was fairly normal – aside from the constant tremblors and seemingly never-ending wave of people passing by outside. But then we turned on the local news and we became uneasy about our jokes and comfort.

We watched in horror as the tsunami ripped through Sendai and Miyagi, north of us. We saw the first reports from Fukushima about the reactor. My urban trek, the lack of hot water, and the apparently endless quaking seemed to be mere inconvenience.

This unease persists as the majority of those living in Japan look over at the places hardest hit by the quake, and struggle to balance preparing themselves for shortages and assisting with relief efforts. The gap between everyday life right now in coastal Sendai versus Nagano, for example, is jarring and emotionally taxing, and I’m not sure this can really be articulated in photos or videos. I’m having a difficult enough time just with words. Perhaps a good explanation is that people not affected by the tsunami are experiencing a form of survivor’s guilt.

When I was able to return to my home in Nagano the next day, I found our area to be relatively unscathed. Surrounded by mountains and filled with farms, it’s so different from ultra-urban centers like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kobe. The large quake here, a 6.3 that followed the 9.0 centered off the coast, caused no loss of life and little serious damage. The most noticeable effects are that bottled water, bread and gas are hard to come by. But otherwise, it is business as usual – on the surface.

As I drove around with a friend on Sunday, we remarked on how it was such a beautiful day. It was sunny, warm and clear and we could easily make out the snow-capped Northern Alps. We were out in sweatshirts and jeans, re-stocking our emergency supplies. We stopped for lunch and watched the news in the restaurant, which reminded us that up north, people are lost, dying, grieving. It is supposed to get cold and snow in Sendai this week. My friend remarked that it was like living in a whole other country – that looking out the window in Nagano, we would never be able to tell that such a terrible thing had happened, and is still happening. But people are very aware of the trauma that is happening up north and the long-term consequences of the quake in general.

What’s difficult to articulate are the massive repercussions and how they themselves create a trauma web. Loss of life – not just individuals, but whole families and communities, scars in a way that is difficult to contemplate. Loss of property ranging from homes, personal possessions and memorabilia, buildings, infrastructure, and public places means that the very essentials of everyday life have been destroyed, which in turn is causing social, psychological, and economic trauma. These things, however, did not vanish. Cars, ships, buildings and all their contents were swept into the ocean and will most likely be toxic to fish, birds, and marine mammals; the oil and gas leaking from vessels alone constitute a poisonous film on the surface. In other words, the ecology of this area is forever changed – to say nothing of what will happen if the Fukushima reactor melts down. And finally, everyone will feel the economic consequences at the store where foodstuffs are rare or expensive; at the gas station where there are shortages and high prices; and at work and home when they are not able go about their daily lives as they once did due to scheduled blackouts. Thus a web of trauma is created, a web in which we are all caught and different people from various places feel these specific components (or combinations of them) more acutely at different points in time.

What we see happening in Sendai and other hard-hit areas is only part of the Japanese Earthquake 2011 story. The images we see only represent a portion of Japan and the experiences of the Japanese

population. But the rest of the population, those who have the luxury of distance and time to think, is contemplating these issues and thus experiencing a different type of trauma than the victims of the tsunamis and the radioactive leaks: it’s part survivor’s guilt, part apprehension for the future, and part frustration at the difference between their experience of the quake (or even complete lack thereof) and what they see on television. How do you balance doing what you need to do for yourself and helping the tsunami victims? It’s much harder to decide this when the bulk of a nation is experiencing trauma in some form.

But there is a guiding light.

The amount of individual and organizational support – both domestically and internationally – offers comfort and relief to everyone here. A French expat told me today, “I burst into tears when I saw the French team arrive on TV. People care!” I myself nearly cried when I saw the streams of emergency vehicles heading up on the expressway as I traveled home – and again when I saw signs on the internet from students across the globe, “Japan, we are with you!” While tangible support – both foreign and domestic – provides the economic means for recovery, the messages sent from around the country and around the world provide motivation for people to be strong and make recovery a reality.

-Pamela Runestad, March 15, 2011

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5 Responses to Inside Looking Out: A Perspective on the Japanese Earthquake

  1. Pingback: Inside Looking Out: A Perspective on the Japanese Earthquake « American Anthropological Association

  2. Bobbi Jo Dede says:


    What a wonderful article.. So glad you are okay as I have said several times before.. You are one world traveler and would be the one to tell the story.. I think they shall make a movie about this and you could play the role -like Michelle Pfiefer did with Robert Redford.. I cant think of the movie off hand but they were news reporters.. “Tell the story”… Love yah n be safe: your cousin forever -Bobber

  3. Pingback: Inside Looking Out, Part Two « American Anthropological Association

  4. Pingback: Inside Looking Out, Part Three « American Anthropological Association

  5. Pingback: Upon Returning Home « American Anthropological Association

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