Yes, there was an Earthquake
Ok, for anyone who stumbles across this from the interwebs. I live in Tokyo and I was there when the earthquake hit Japan on the 11 March 2011. This is my version of events and a rant at the reporting. I will try and stay as coherent as possible but there are so many things floating around in my mind that getting them down on paper (as it were) is a little tricky.
For this in the tl;dr mould (Another internet reference, skip if you dont understand this): The reporting was vague, over-sensationalised and caused a lot of unnecessary worry to people who have relatives and friends in Japan.
What it was really like in Tokyo from my POV
I work on the southern side of Tokyo, in a place called Shimbashi. There are many skyscrapers in the area as well as a few train lines. For anyone back in London, think of Canary Wharf and you won’t go far wrong. I work on the 9th floor of an 18-storey building.
Now, as you all know an earthquake struck Japan at about 14:46, it struck off the coast, near sendai. The JMA (Japanese Met Agency) has a great page which usually updates within minutes of a quake. It is always my first stop after a shake. Here is the detailed page.
I want you to hit CTRL-F on that page and type “Tokyo”. Go ahead. I’ll wait…Now, did you see the numbers? That is the first thing that really annoys me about the way the media started reporting this, I saw headlines “MAGNITUDE 8 EARTHQUAKE HITS NEAR TOKYO”. Lets look at that, shall we?
1. No, a Magnitude 8+ quake hit near the major city of Sendai which is a long bloody way from Tokyo. But because no one knows where Sendai is, it is much more dramatic to frame everything in reference to Tokyo which is misleading.
2. Tokyo experienced around a 5. Now this isn’t exactly chicken feed but the Japanese build things well and a 5 is not hugely exceptional.
At about 14:46 the building started shaking, it wasn’t huge shaking and we have experienced that level before. To be honest, I just kept on doing what I was doing before. After about 45 seconds of this mother nature turned the dial up to 11. The building suddenly started shaking a hell of a lot more. I need to clarify I have been in pretty big earthquakes before but I was never in a skyscraper at the time, it makes a heck of a difference, trust me.
So when the shaking went up a notch I ended up having to grab the desk to keep my office wheely chair from free-wheeling about the place.
At this point I would like to say something about the initial reporting which also annoyed me no end. Some of the first videos that were up on news sites and channels were mobile phone videos taken by people in offices. One of the primary videos was one taken in the NHK offices IN SENDAI. This video was taken in the big city closest to the epicentre yet half the time this was not made clear. Especially when the news-readers are talking about Tokyo and then cutting to this video without clarifying that it was not taken in Tokyo but Sendai near the epicentre.
In my office, no one dived under tables. Books were knocked over on desks yes, one person’s desktop tower PC fell over (Which was pretty surprising I must admit, they aren’t exactly easily topplable…yes I just made up that word). But there was no screaming, no crying and no mass evacuations to the exit.
There wouldn’t have been much point anyway because we are surrounded by tall buildings. If one does fall over then you are pretty much screwed since you are standing near some very big dominoes. The biggest injury I heard about in our office was a novelty giant Chuppa Chupps lolly which was crushed under the aforementioned tower PC.
I will freely admit that at this point I was scared, the shaking was bad enough but the noises the building was making are not the kind of things I am used to hearing. Being halfway up a tall office building also really focuses the mind on some things. How well was the building designed? Did the guys who make it do a good job? Was there any cut in quality to save cash? How many tons of steel and concrete are above my head?
All I can say is, I have huge respect for the people who put these buildings up. Japan has some of the strictest building safety codes in the world and it showed. Had any of the buildings in my area gone over they would have taken a few others down with them.
The other thing was the aftershocks, there were a log of them, in fact if you look at the JMA page you can see that there have been almost constant quakes since yesterday. One of the main things this lead to was a distinct feeling of sea-sickness as the building constantly swayed about. However life in the office continued as usual mostly. Sometimes people had to stop and hold on to something and everyone had one eye on news websites but work continued.
We honestly did not know it was such a big one. We thought it was closer and not so big. We were also surprised when casualties were reported. It was only later when the really devastating news (mainly caused by the tsunami) from up north started filtering down that people started to falter.
My building is located next to a mainline railway, a Shinkansen line and an elevated rail line. For those who saw the picture on the BBC website of people walking along an elevated track that was taken from my building. We saw immediately that the trains had all stopped. After about 30 minutes people started leaving the elevated rail line train that was stuck nearby (It is not a mainline railway, it is more like a…tramline. Anyway, there are no rails. It has rubber tyres).
I had earlier seen a staff member walk up to the train so I assumed it was safe because of the well protected electrified central rail. The mainline train however wasn’t evacuated until two or so hours after the main quake. I assume this is for safety reasons due to the highly charged nature of the environment.
So yes, Tokyo did feel the effects of the quake. Yes, there were some fires and a few buildings fell down. But for the vast majority of people living there the danger level to life and limb was not as big as the media made out.
The Internet and the Media
I have several complaints about the media so I will try to list them in a reasonable way.
Soon after the quakes the various media companies looked to be scrambling to find some English speaking non-Japanese to interview. This presents a few problems. The first is that, well, foreigners who live in Japan long-term are much rarer than most western countries; this means that a lot of foreigners here are short-term and do not have a lot of experience with quakes. (How many did we have in Britain over, say, the last 10 years?) This naturally meant that their views were…shall we say, stronger than the situation really merited.
I was hoping the BBC would have found some real Japanese people to interview who would be able to give an opinion having lived their entire lives with these quakes.
2. Sensationalism and general media attitude.
Which brings me to the next point. Had someone given an interview like that I doubt the media would have played it. The cynical side of me (Which used to watch “Drop the dead Donkey”… Look it up) can almost see the newsrooms: “There has been a huge quake in Japan? Fantastic!”.
You can almost see the well oiled “Disaster mode” being implemented on the BBC. Voices are altered to be more sombre, news readers start…speaking…like this…“as the death toll rises” (Channeling Shatner?). The search for the most worrying and sensational nuggets of news, rumour, “what if” scenarios is begun and video snippets of the worst bits possible are dredged up to be played over and over and over again.
It isn’t often you see a news report say “X area was badly affected but while Y was also shaken, there wasn’t major damage”. Everything must be reported to be as bad as they can get away with and they focus on the bad instead of putting it in context of the good.
I didn’t see it myself but read many reports of CNN anchors being unable to hide their delight at this juicy event, hooray for ratings! I saw many people in America saying they were abandoning CNN for Al Jazeera feeds.
It really seemed to be less about factual news (bad AND Good) and more about the media frenzy and how much horror we can report in as short a time as possible.
This means that everyone with friends and loved ones in the same country as the disaster zone are being bombarded with news that their loved ones have most likely been eaten by a Grue (Game reference there. for all you non-gamers. think worst-case scenario).
I know that this isn’t unique to this quake and the above happens with almost all major news events when something bad happens. But this time it really struck home because I could see the disconnect between reality and the impression the media was giving.
I mentioned this earlier but the early reporting of the quake without giving accurate levels of magnitude in various area lead many of my friends and families to fear the worst. By the way; for future reference guys, if the magnitude is around 5 in Tokyo, then your loved ones who live there are almost certainly fine.
I am a computer geek and I love the internet, I think it is one of the greatest things we have invented and has had huge social implications but sometimes it really really drives me nuts. Soon after the quake some of the social news sites I use (and, to a lesser extent the social bits of the BBC site) were full of people desperate to get their internet equivalent of their 15 minutes of fame by posting how they feel and generally being attention whores.
So, this has been the impression of one person living in Tokyo so take it with an open mind and fit it into the big picture. We got off lightly. The north, especially those areas hit by the Tsunamis suffered much, much worse than we did (Frankly, the tsunamis terrified me much more than the earthquakes).
Those in the media, please try and keep it balanced, give us the good news as well as the bad, let people know about areas (Like Tokyo in this case) which AREN’T badly hit to put people’s minds at ease.
For the internet denizens, please don’t post rumours (Especially relating to things like the power plant) and try and keep things as down to earth was possible. No one is served by “OMG THIS WAS TEEERRRIBLLE, PAY ATTENTION TO ME AS I TELL YOU ABOUT IT!!” posts. We yes all love karma but in times of emergencies, it is better for everyone if we can keep things as calm as possible.