My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Japan this week. For me, the horrible scenes of devastation coming from the Sendai area have brought back a queasy feeling that was one part of my Japan experience I’ve tried for years to forget.
During my first week in Tokyo, I was shaken from a sound sleep by a light vibration and the sound of rattling dishes that lasted for about ten seconds. “Was that an earthquake or a big truck?” my roommate asked. “That was an earthquake,” I replied. Then I yawned and immediately fell back asleep.
I wasn’t able to process the event until the next morning. The entire city had experienced an expression of the same force that, over time, bounces entire continents around–and I’d just been annoyed that it had woken me up! I’d never lived near a fault zone before, so I wasn’t used to thinking that the ground could be anything other than absolutely solid. The idea made me anxious. When you live in a place where you can’t rely on the ground beneath your feet, what else is left to hold onto?
The imminent threat of another earthquake stayed in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t ready for the earthquake that actually happened a few weeks later while I was in the shower. By then I’d memorized all the exits from my apartment building and the route to the community assembly area, but I hadn’t factored in the best earthquake survival advice that Douglas Adams ever wrote: “Always know where your towel is.” Thankfully, Earthquake Number Two was another ten-second trembler that didn’t quite knock me off my feet, so there was no need for me to run for cover with only a rectangle of terrycloth wrapped around my waist.
Earthquake Number Three was just barely perceptible to human senses, and I actually laughed it off. I figured it was nothing to worry about. I even felt pretty good about the thick skin I’d developed and my newfound ability to accept tiny tremblers as just another aspect of Tokyo life–until I learned that this third tiny earthquake was only tiny in Tokyo. At its epicenter near Kobe, it was one of the worst earthquakes in the history of Japan. The Great Hanshin Earthquake, as they called it, toppled buildings, destroyed wharves, and claimed over 6,000 lives.
From the distance I had been, the Great Hanshin Earthquake had felt no different from the annoying shaker that woke me up or the one that ruined my shower. To put that another way, I now realized that any little vibration might have been an underground hiccup, a fatal jolt of unimaginable horror, or anything in between.
People who live in earthquake-prone areas do so with the knowledge that a major quake could occur without warning at any time. Of course, the alternative might be to live in an earthquake-free place that’s prone to floods instead. Or hurricanes. Or tornadoes. Or wildfires, mudslides, Nor’easters, monsoons, tsunamis, heatwaves, droughts, volcanoes, plagues, or animal attacks. Or even if you did find a place on Earth where none of those things could happen, you might still get conked on the head by a falling meteor.
Basically, as individuals, we are small and humble in the face of natural forces–but as a collective, we have the power of heart and caring on our side. Every time there’s a major natural disaster, we see an outpouring of international support and aid to the survivors. We pull together like one big planetary team. There may be some con artists who try to take advantage of the situation, but the overwhelming majority of us care about other people, even people we don’t know, who live in parts of the world we’ve never visited, facing dangers that may be very different from those in our own home towns.
Update: After posting these thoughts I jumped online and hooked up with Holly Thompson, Regional Advisor for Tokyo SCBWI. After she gave me an idea of where assistance was most needed, I established Kidlit 4 Japan, an auction of items donated by over a hundred children’s authors, illustrators, editors, and agents. After three weeks of bidding, we raised over $10,000 for UNICEF’s fund to assist children in the disaster zone. Thanks to everyone who banded together and allowed us to provide some much-needed help.