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NTU student recounts experience during Japan earthquake

Posted on 18 March 2011

One of the two Nanyang Techonological University (NTU) students currently on exchange in Tokyo was in his dorm in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan. Tang Chee Seng writes about his experience.

The 'fallout' shelter that Tang took refuge in at the height of the earthquake on March 11 afternoon. Photo: TANG CHEE SENG

AT FIRST, I felt slightly dizzy, a feeling that I knew was part of an earthquake.

It seemed minor at first, until my shelves and dishes began to rattle violently.

Remembering some half-truth I’ve heard about certain bathrooms in newer Japanese buildings as being earthquake-proof, I quickly moved to the toilet and sat down, waiting for the shaking to stop.

I realised the magnitude of this quake much later. As my friends and I began to walk to the gym for our routine exercise, we saw numerous Japanese people crowding around the designated evacuation sites in parks around Takadanobaba.

My friends and I stocked up on canned goods, water and emergency supplies, based on the hypothetical situation that we would be trapped under rubble. I set out my supplies into a backpack, along with my thickest waterproof jacket and clothes laid out on the limited rack and floor space in my toilet.

Jokingly, I told my friends that it was my ‘fallout shelter’. That done, I left my laptop tuned to the NHK World Service and went to bed, knowing that I needed to stay alert and be at least rested in case I needed to run for safety.

It was the most surreal sleep I have ever had. The program kept repeating a tsunami warning for all the various areas in Japan. Each message would be delivered in at least five different warnings. As I fell asleep, the voices blurred out into a strange hypnotic litany of impending disaster.

Midway through the night, I awoke to images of an entire town burning due to what I assumed was earthquake damage. The whole event was filmed and broadcasted live via a Japanese Self-Defence Forces helicopter. Lying in a warm bed and staring blearily at what was unfolding live on screen, somehow a part of me just disconnected from what I was seeing and experiencing.

While waiting with me, a Filipino lady asked me if the impending ‘radioactive cloud’ coming towards Tokyo, as reported by the BBC early on Tuesday, would melt buildings.

Like images of the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, how could we associate the horror of what we saw on TV with the comfortable, safe physical conditions we were living in?

Being so relatively close to the disaster-hit areas, I felt that I ought to feel scared and terrified for my life. I ought to be crying in helplessness in my sorrow for the dead, dying and the barely surviving.

But somehow I couldn’t.

Though I was only around 200 kilometres away from what was happening onscreen, it felt as though it was happening to another country. Does that make me a horrible person?

Six days later, I still didn’t know. All I knew at the time (even up to now) was to ensure that I was rested, alert, and prepared for any contingency.

Despite the tragic scenes of destruction and chaos north of Tokyo, the central part of Tokyo City itself was relatively unscathed. Walking along the streets of Takadanobaba, the college district I live in, I found the streets quieter and there are long queues in front of supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores.

While there are some unspoken tension and differences in the air, life continues on here. Office workers go to work, and shop assistants still greet you whenever you enter a shop.

Compare all this measured calm with the scene of near-chaos I encountered on Tuesday at the Tokyo Immigration Office—hundreds, if not thousands of foreigners living in Japan sought to obtain a re-entry permit, causing long queues which snaked around a large compound and even within the building.

This permit was highly sought after because it would allow them to leave and return to Japan without negating their visas.

All was reasonably orderly and calm until officials began to return the processed passports in the main atrium. Masses of foreigners urgently pressed up against a small island of officials desperately trying to maintain order and carry out their duties, all the while maintaining their standards of service politeness.

It was not until a Caucasian man began shouting at the crowd in Japanese to quieten down and move back away from the officials, did any semblance of order could be restored.

While waiting with me, a Filipino lady asked me if the impending ‘radioactive cloud’ coming towards Tokyo, as reported by the BBC early on Tuesday, would melt buildings. Smiling, I reassured her that it would not, and that the best thing to do would be to trust the authorities right now, even if their track record was not exactly spotless.

Hearing groundless rumours being spread with impunity among the foreign community in Japan, and seeing the heedless panic of the crowd, I wondered who the insane ones in this crisis were. The people staying or the people leaving?

This story was first published on The Enquirer, NTU’s indepedent online newspaper. Read about the other NTU student’s account here.

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