GSDF soldier carries a man in Natori city, in Miyagi prefecture, March 12, 2011

GSDF soldier carries a man in Natori city, in Miyagi prefecture, March 12, 2011 (Source: Reuters/Yomiuri)

Yesterday I experienced the most surreal moments my still short life has had to offer: terra firma swaying like the deck of a storm-stricken ship, and a two-hour walk home through absolute darkness in the outskirts of the world’s largest city.

My wife returned home after an eight-hour walk, a fellow refugee from Tokyo in tow. In brand new heels, she had walked nearly 20 km following national highways and the general guidance of the police. By the time she had arrived in our local area, all the power was back up. Life seemed to be returning to normal…

That night, however, was terrifying – not because of any particular event, but as a result of our fear. Aftershocks hit time after time, little shakes and big bumps, each time forcing us to question whether it was time to flee the building.

We started the night with just a single emergency rucksack on standby at the entrance, but through the early morning we had assembled two further bags with clothes and blankets – basic essentials that might make a disaster more comfortable. By 06:30, unable to withstand the constant stress of the earthquake alert system, I drifted off.

When I awoke, I saw that little had changed: the ongoing concern over the rising coolant levels in Fukushima’s Daiichi Reactor was still there (and contrary to initial reports, the US apparently did not fly in emergency coolant), interspersing the new footage of the terrible tsunami that wreaked havoc across Japan’s Pacific coastline and the ever-rising confirmed body count.

For what it was worth, life seemed to have resumed in and around the capital. The trains were now running again (with queues worse than ever in a city famous for its horrendous rush hour experience) and our local shops were all selling their wares, but there were subtle differences.

The first was that every creak, every muscle spasm, every electronic beep from the television set us into flight mode. While there were few major aftershocks in the daytime, and despite a walk to clear our mind, as night descended that thick tension had truly set in – confirmed by a large aftershock at around 21:00.

Added to that was the horrifying speculation following the explosion at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. As the pressure rose in Reactor No. 1, the outer shell of the structure blew off in an explosion unlike anything I had ever seen outside of the cinema. Was this another Chernobyl?

Press conferences by the Prime Minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary were guarded and insubstantial, it seems the government is very sensitive to ensuring a flow of accurate information amid the crisis mode of the media. It’s frustrating to experience, but entirely understandable. After an hour or so of rampant speculation, we were finally told that the explosion was caused by a hydrogen build-up and that the containment structure was still intact. It now seems that the initial government response has prevented any critical collapse of containment and prevented a severe leak from the reactor. The government is now preparing to distribute iodine to those from the now-evacuated danger zone.

With Japan’s energy supplies at risk – its nuclear power interrupted and gas plants on fire – the government is pressing the need for electricity conservation. There has been talk of planned-blackouts to maintain the power needs of the capital, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has urged metropolitan residents to turn off unessential lighting and appliances – although what is essential is difficult to judge when you live in worry that every creak of the wall could signal an end to your supply of energy and water.

The TV has become essential. Despite rarely watching Japanese TV (it’s generally dull with every programme focused on food!), it has become our most indispensable form of news. The frequent earthquake warnings give us a (mostly anti-climatic) chance to prepare for the worst.

So too have smartphones come into their own. For those outside the disaster zone, with power and charged batteries, Twitter has truly become central to our lives. Sharing our experiences, rumours, and (for us non-Japanese) translations brings us together as a nation and heightens our awareness of our immediate surroundings.

But both these devices, the TV and smartphones, also help maintain the sense of crisis. They remind us of the country’s loss, the major tragedy that has befallen a country that has seemed to be in decline. We are both aware and in despair – and they are mutually reinforcing. Switching off the TV and phone, trying to enjoy a movie as we did this evening is impossible when each and every jolt sends you back for information. There is no escaping this reality – and that keeps the lost, dead and ruined in our minds, for better or for worse.

With such concerns weighing heavily in my mind – and after a complete overhaul of our “go-bags” (now condensed into two rucksacks and a suitcase with enough supplies for 48 hours) – it is no surprise that my body is rife with aches and pains. The mental stress of constant fear has very real physical effects.

With the possibility of strong, or even stronger, aftershocks for the next month, it is likely that normality, even for those of us on the outer edges of the affected regions, will be fragile at best. And as the tragic stories from the affected and the spectacular rescues of those stranded by debris filters in this evening, please take a moment to consider how you can help – for example, making a donation to the American Red Cross or a similar charity.

Those who have friends or family in the affected region (primarily Miyagi, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate and Chiba prefectures) and have not yet found a way to make contact should check Google’s Crisis Response page. Although the worst hit regions are generally without power and connectivity (especially given the severing of an undersea KDDI cable) – they may not have been able to make contact yet.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for their concerns over Twitter, Facebook, and on a personal basis. I also want to thank Kyle for his continuing moral support. Hopefully we, and the rest of the country, can resume regular programming in the near future.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch