October 23, 2004 – Massive earthquake

What started off as a regular Saturday late shift turned a little more exciting. During one of my voice classes in the evening, the building started shaking. At first I was playing it off like a joke, standing and wobbling back and forth. My students asked me to sit down, which I did.

Then the shaking got stronger.

Most of the earthquakes I have experienced in my 13 months in Japan were over quickly. This one kept building in intensity and the shaking didn’t stop. One of my students, seeing that I was no longer enjoying myself, tried to reassure me.

“Don’t worry Andrew” he said. “This earthquake is… how do you say…” and then he moved his hands left and right.

“Side to side?” I responded.

“Yes, this earthquake is shaking side to side. Don’t worry.” he replied. “If it’s shaking…. how do you say…” and then he moved his hands up and down.

“Up and down?” I answered.

“Yes, if the earthquake is shaking up and down then we will all die” he explained in a very matter of fact manner. The other students sitting around nodded their agreement. It didn’t do much to make me feel better at all.

The building where Kawasaki NOVA is located is a tall, modern building near Kawasaki station. Like most modern buildings, it is built to flex during an earthquake. This helps keep the building from falling apart, but it provides a very unsettling feeling. The worst part for me was the sound of the window frames and door frames creaking as the building gently flexed back and forth.

During the rest of my shift, I felt no fewer than 5 aftershocks. Some of the aftershocks were the size of the normal earthquakes that I had previously experienced. I kept mentally reassuring myself that the aftershocks were side to side, so everything was fine.

After work I had several beers at Kiosk to calm my nerves. I took the train back to Noborito, and began a slow, slightly stumbly walk back to Hello House. About half way home my phone rang – it was my mom calling from Canada.

“Are you okay? I heard there was a big earthquake in Japan!” my mother exclaimed. Trying my best to sound sober and calm, I explained that the earthquake was in Niigata, which is about 300km north of where I was. I told her that I felt the earthquake, but was fine and there was nothing to worry about. After several reassurances, I managed to convince her that everything was okay and I didn’t need to move back to Canada immediately.

I learned later that the earthquake was actually much bigger and scarier than I had originally thought. 40 people died, and over 3000 were injured. One of the shinkansen trains derailed due to the shaking, fortunately with no injuries. When you are traveling over 200km/h, a derailment is not a pleasant thought.

Earthquakes are a part of life in Japan, but I don’t think I will ever get used to the ground moving. By the way – I am moving to one of the most earthquake prone areas of Japan. At least they will be the most prepared, right?

(2014 Update) The exchange with the student about side to side vs. up and down is still one of my favourite teaching stories in Japan. The conversation was so absurd compared to the terrifying earthquake that was happening. My original post had a lot less detail, mainly because I didn’t want anyone back home to worry.

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