Note: I started writing this before the quake and tsunami hit Japan. My emotions have changed a lot in a few days.
Our first morning in Japan I woke up, turned on the laptop and checked Twitter. The first message I saw was from Vodafone reminding people that in an emergency text messages were better than calling. Odd, I thought but still good to know. Then I scrolled down. It was the day of the September Christchurch earthquake.
Despite being able to "talk" to everyone back home, sitting on the other side of the pacific in a small room I felt so far away and disconnected. I had a similar feeling at work in Wellington when the February quake struck.
Japan's preparation for earthquakes is well known, (survival kits are stashed everywhere), so I checked the hotel's emergency guide that sat next to me. It told me, via broken English and cartoons, that the first thing I should do is quit smoking. Good advice.
I have been to Christchurch once in my life despite my father’s family coming from there, and know very few people who live there. So when I say I felt the same feeling for Japan and Tokyo (a city I have visited three times and one of the places on earth I would move to in an instant) that I did for Christchurch, please understand.
We were eating at Daikoku Ramen in Auckland when I heard about the Japanese quake on Twitter. I brought up the BBC page that someone had shared and showed the guys working there. They talked amongst themselves in Japanese for a long time and then thanked me for the information. It was quite surreal eating and then heading out for drinks after that. I realised that I had friends who I needed to check on including some of the people who are mentioned in my recent stories (from what I’ve heard, they’re all fine).
Japan is always on edge about disasters. The buildings are renowned for their ability to withstand earthquakes; swaying in the big rolling quakes. They have drills all the time for every occurance including (famously) escaped zoo animals. The infrastructure is so good that the trains were up and working shortly after the worst quake in Japanese history, not as regular as they were, but working. The coastal reactors are a little scary though, despite being fairly safe. Hopefully officials will have the time and resources to cool that shit down.
Japan often is the first to offer help to other countries in the wake of a natural disaster (including being one of the six countries that actually donated more than 90% of what it promised towards the Indonesian tsunami). And we have seen firsthand how good their search and rescue teams are. In fact, I was reminded this morning, that while we were in Japan there was a movie out whose hero (we think) was part of a search and rescue team during a tsunami.
During our trip we experienced the tail end of a typhoon. It was roughly the same size and intensity as the rains we had a few weeks back, yet got the coverage you expect from a full-blown national emergency. As such I found the coverage I was getting about the Japanese quake to be infuriating. Twitter wasn’t much help either. It took a very long time before I could ascertain where the quake was centred (originally it seemed like the epicentre was just outside Tokyo Harbour) then the numbers of dead skyrocketed, then plummeted, then shot up again as the pictures of the tsunami came in.
I have the feeling that this was mainly because we have no idea about Japan. We don’t know the geography, the population or even the culture very well. How many of you heard that the tsunami was heading towards the Miyagi coast and thought of The Karate Kid?
With the Christchurch quake everything seemed a little more familiar, as did the London bombings and the Queensland floods. Similar phenomena in different locations don’t resonate with us.
Now we have a connection. Japan are our neighbours in the pacific, we should really get to know them better.