Living through Japan’s 9.0 earthquake

It was like 9/11 all over again.

I was en route to the school I teach English at when the train pulled into the station slightly ahead of schedule.

The train rattled slightly and I figured it was the wind. Then I heard the tremendous noise of hundreds of bicycles rattling in the station parking lot. Power lines were swinging, the ground was trembling, and the cement pole a foot in diameter next to my train window started to sway.

Not even certain of what had just happened, I rushed to my cell phone to text Mike (see his account here).

There was no cell phone reception, and wouldn’t be for at least two hours.

The same panic and questions from September 11th rushed through my mind: “what’s going on, and what should I do?”

In New York on September 11th news traveled by word or mouth at first. Imagine my frustration at not understanding anything people were saying.

The train was completely silent save the radio the man sitting across from me had. Passengers in my car listened with bended ear to the broadcast.

Knowing only a handful of Japanese words, I had no idea what the broadcast was about or what the messages from the train conductor meant. It never crossed my mind that I experienced an 8.9 earthquake – the largest in Japan’s history.

At first I was worried about being late for work. I assumed we were waiting for the conductors to get an all clear signal or take some fallen branches off the tracks.

As if I wasn’t stressed enough, two tough looking 20-somethings sat down across from me in my little booth on the train and tried talking to me I thought they were trying to start trouble. In the end, the guy only wanted to ask me about Eminem and Lady Gaga, and was disappointed I didn’t like them.

After being stranded at the station for two hours and still no word from my boyfriend or my boss, I started to panic. It was 4:45 and would be dark soon.

Aside from the radio, all I could hear was the gentle clap of cell phones closing. No one was getting service. Even the pay phone in the station was down.

I was starting to think I’d have to walk home. I know barely any Japanese and live in a suburban area where they don’t expect to see foreigners, much less try to guide someone home using English.

Just as the sun set and the lights didn’t come on, I received a barrage of “are you ok?” texts from Mike and an e-mail from my boss’ wife at 5:01. She would come to pick me up.

Cell reception cut out again right after, and at 6 o’clock they kicked us off the train; they had no power and couldn’t get us anywhere.

My only option was to sit, huddled in the cold and dark with the other stranded passengers willing my cell phone to work. A call finally connected at 7:30. My ride was coming.

There was no electricity (and, consequently, heat), internet, or cell phone reception in Oyama. An hour and a half north of Tokyo and 3 hours south of the center of the quake, I found my TV halfway across my apartment, the toaster oven hanging precariously, and the closet doors thrown open with belongings strewn about across the floor.

All in all I counted 32 aftershocks since the quake. They’ve been continuous since the quake – every hour or so but not of much magnitude.

There’s no significant structural damage in our area, just a few stone walls dismantled. The strangest thing so far has been to see the 24-hour McDonald’s sign turned off.

At this point I’ve lost count of the aftershocks. My boss showed up at 10 a.m. to tell me I had to be downstairs for work at noon after a fitful night of “sleep.” So, from 12-9 today I had work. Most of my students today weren’t as freaked out as you may expect, and I’ve had some varying reactions. Hiromu, a 14-year-old junior high student, was visibly shooken up more than 24 hours later. He’d been at home alone when every dish in his house broke simultaneously. Conversely, Nao, another junior high student, was watching TV and wasn’t scared at all. She found it funny, in fact, because her dog had been sleeping and woke up with a start and cried for hours after.

That’s all the detail I can think to include for now. We may get out and make a video tomorrow of our area so you can see how unaffected we were. For now, I’m getting some much-needed sleep.

UPDATE (3/13/11): See the article my hometown paper and former employer, The Staten Island Advance, published about my experience: Staten Islander in Japan relates harrowing quake experience on

UPDATE 2 (3/14/11): See what our area looks like two days after the quake:

UPDATE 3 (3/15/11): New post about what life’s been like the past few days: We’re doing okay in Oyama.


About Michelle

I lived in Japan for a year & a half teaching English. Now I'm blogging about learning to cook in NYC.
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6 Responses to Living through Japan’s 9.0 earthquake

  1. Pingback: Living through Japan's 8.9 earthquake | garrulous gaijin | TEFL Japan

  2. Kristen Haggerty says:

    Hi Michelle! I read your story in the SI advance website, and I was wondering if the Wagnerian could get permission to publish a few quotes from it in our paper. We are doing a story about how the earthquake has affected Wagner students, and your experience is incredible. I’m happy you made it out safely!

  3. Pingback: Media Milks JQUAKE « IN NEW YORK

  4. Pingback: 3.11.11 – “Now is the winter of your discontent!” | garrulous gaijin

  5. Pingback: Where I was for the Great Tohoku Earthquake | garrulous gaijin

  6. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but
    I find this topic to be really something that I think I would
    never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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