Trying to Get to an Earthquake: Travels in Japan

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Here are some initial thoughts on Japan’s disaster zone from TIME’s Hannah Beech and Krista Mahr:

This is a country that lives by timetables, that prides itself on predicting how to get people to places within the minute even under the most unusual circumstances. But no one could have predicted the unleashing of the worst-ever earthquake to hit Japan in recorded history, a tremor that registered 8.9 on the Richter scale and triggered a massive tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan.

A day after the natural disaster struck on March 11, killing at least 1,000 people, a large swathe of Japan was in utter chaos, trains stalled, highways cleaved, phone lines down. Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Saturday ordered that 50,000 Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military force is called, be mobilized for the relief effort. But getting to the quake/tsunami zone in the northeastern part of Honshu island—regardless of this being tidy, efficient Japan—was still a nearly impossible undertaking. Even 24 hours after the quake, roads out of Tokyo were, by all accounts, still a snarl. One Tokyo-based journalist said on the phone that he “had been trying to get out of Tokyo all day.” Eventually, he gave up. Throughout Saturday, more roadblocks were installed, particularly in the region of Fukushima prefecture where a nuclear-power plant suffered an explosion in the afternoon. Self-defense forces, a local reporter said, had sealed off the roads leading into the area, and residents were being evacuated by helicopter within a 20 kilometer radius.

Our own Japan journey began in the southwestern city of Osaka. Hearing the horror stories of traffic jams leading out of Tokyo, we decided to travel to the city of Niigata instead, which is due west of one of the worst affected areas. We secured the last two seats on the last plane of the day. When we arrived, we were thrown a curveball: because the trains—the main mode of transport for people living here—were stopped for more than 24 hours after the quake hit, all of the rental cars at the airport were booked. In fact, the consensus appears to be that all of the rental cars in the city are booked. There may be one bus that leaves to Yamagata, a town in the middle of Honshu island between Niigata and Sendai, tomorrow morning. The clerk wrote down the times for us neatly on a piece of notebook paper and passed it over the counter. “Be careful,” he said.Even the Japanese press has had a hard time getting to the region. On Saturday afternoon, on-the-ground scenes from the affected areas were scarce. Japanese television crews rented helicopters, but most of the images being played throughout the day on local stations were sweeping aerial shots of inundated villages and towns, surreally devoid of people.

Usually, it is Japan that deploys its earthquake-prepared relief teams across the world. In Taiwan during the 1999 earthquake, we watched Japanese squads descend with martial precision, repeating their efforts a decade later in Padang, Indonesia where a seismic eruption killed more than 1,000 people. In Padang, villagers whose homes had been buried under a massive landslide began crying with relief when news trickled in that a Japanese relief crew was on its way. (Sadly, no further survivors were found.)

But on March 12, it was Japan’s turn to thank the world for its outpouring of condolences—and its offers of aid. A pack of rescue dogs from South Korea, for instance, arrived in Japan to start sniffing out survivors. In a public statement on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Kan profusely thanked foreign leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, for having sent their support to the quake-prone island nation. Kan then reiterated his own government’s commitment to the relief effort. “It is our mission,” he said, “to protect people’s lives and fortunes.”

By Saturday evening, Japanese TV crews began showing pictures of corgis being plucked from collapsed buildings, as other rescue teams dug through debris where faint voices were being heard. Japanese reporters interviewed survivors who, with barely cracking voices, related their losses: a 103-year-old grandmother, a younger daughter and three sons, a pair of twins. Compared to the keening outpourings of grief expressed in other nations, Japan shows its sorrow in the most understated of ways.

And as we sat in our Niigata hotel room watching images of devastation on T.V., a newsflash came across the screen. A moderate aftershock had struck Niigata, it said. We felt a slight swaying, heard a few creaks and then silence. When will the next one come?