Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Professor's Experience of Japan Quake

UW Professor Robert Pekkanen has been living in Tsukuba, Japan with his wife Saadia Pekkanen (Job and Gertrud Tamaki Professor of International Studies at the UW), and their young daughter since summer 2010. In March 2011, the family experienced Japan's massive 9.0 earthquake firsthand. (The city of Tsukuba is located in Ibaraki Prefecture, which suffered the fourth most earthquake damage of Japan's 47 prefectures.)

Here Pekkanen, associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies, answers questions about the earthquake and its aftermath.

Robert Pekkanen
Robert Pekkanen

Have you spent much time in Japan through the years? What is your work there now?

I have been in Japan every year since 1987, and in Tsukuba many times before, because I collaborate with a scholar here with whom I've coauthored a book and a few articles. Currently my wife and I are teaching at the University of Tsukuba, a top research university.

Have you been through other earthquakes in Japan? Did you know right away that this one was different?

I have been through many, many earthquakes in Japan. It was immediately clear this one was different. I was home, washing the dishes. I immediately stopped, turned off the gas, and went to a safe location (the entryway). The earthquake shook my apartment with such force that I had to sit down for fear I would be knocked over—and I am a big guy. We have hundreds of books. Every single book fell off a bookshelf. Things fell down. Dishes fell out of cases and broke. All the furniture was "earthquake-proofed" and secured to the walls, but everything else was tossed around like a storm went through the room.

"I recall distinctly thinking that there was a reasonable chance
that I would die in the next few minutes."

 

 

 

The earthquake went on a long time. I recall distinctly thinking that there was a reasonable chance that I would die in the next few minutes. I have never been scared in an earthquake before; in fact, the mild shaking of past earthquakes was a bit fun despite the knowledge of the danger—like when the plane suddenly loses altitude. This one was not fun. It was horrible. I texted my wife during the quake, thinking it might be the last message I ever sent her. Immediately afterward, I emailed my family in the U.S. to say I was safe. I knew the morning news would panic them unless I contacted them, and I didn't know how much longer I could use email, anticipating that the system would be flooded. 

What happened around you in the immediate aftermath of the event? Was there a response system in place or was it chaotic?

Earthquake damage.
All over the region, objects not bolted to the wall
toppled onto the floor. Photo by Hawken King.

I went out of the house to a large, open parking lot next door. On the stairs, I met my neighbor. She had an infant and a toddler. She could not get down the stairs because she was shaking so badly. I carried her child down the stairs outside. I then quickly went to my daughter's public Japanese elementary school. I felt sure that everything would be fine there. After all, they conduct many earthquake and disaster drills in elementary school every year. The Japanese live with a constant fear of earthquakes, but it is more than that: there is a near certainty of serious earthquakes at some point, so preparations are vital. In fact, I worried a bit that I would be turned away from the elementary school and chided for interfering with the orderly process there.

I was shocked when I arrived at the school, because it was chaos. Children were huddled in the evacuation zone (every Japanese school has a large playground that doubles as the safe evacuation zone for the neighborhood and school), crying hysterically. The teachers were running around terrified. I stared at the scene for a while. Because I live close to the school, only one other parent was there ahead of me. When my daughter saw me, she and her teacher came running over. My daughter was scared because when the earthquake hit, her classmates began to scream hysterically and cry in fear. One of them grabbed her arms, shook her, looked her in the eye and said, "It is shaking so much, the earth is going to split open and swallow us up." My daughter became very scared because she figured the child, who was Japanese, must know what she was talking about. The teachers were scared as well, thinking of their own families. 

I took my daughter to the parking lot near my house. I knew a big aftershock would be coming soon. When it did hit, it was—not counting the 9.0 quake—the strongest quake I had ever felt in my life. The four strongest quakes I have ever felt have all been aftershocks from the big quake. Cars jumped up and down in the parking lot as if they were being dropped from a height.

"I knew a big aftershock would be coming soon. When it did hit,
it was—not counting the 9.0 quake—the strongest quake I
had ever felt in my life. ...Cars jumped up and down
in the parking lot as if they were being dropped from a height."

 

 

 

 

 

A group of people huddled in the parking lot, many of them from the surrounding labs and international conference centers. Many of the researchers there immediately knew their labs had been devastated. Years of experimental work was smashed in a few seconds. The University of Tsukuba estimates $80 million in repair costs and other damages.

I talked to some people I knew. I said that this was the biggest quake I had ever felt. A young Japanese man said it was the biggest quake he had ever felt, then a middle aged Japanese man said it was the strongest quake he had ever felt, then an elderly man said it was the biggest quake he had ever felt. That elicited a huge gasp from everyone listening. 

Earthquake damage.
Earthquake damage. Photo by Hiroshi Ishii.

There were also several toddlers in the parking lot, from evacuated buildings nearby. Some were crying in fear. My daughter played games with them to distract them, and this helped both the children and her get over their fear as we waited for the aftershocks to hit.

After the second big aftershock, I went inside and filled up the tub and all the pots and pans I could. I then rushed to the local grocery store and bought all the food I could. 

Our apartment building lost power immediately, and water too, but there was enough water in the tank for a day or so. After that, people had to queue up in the local parks to get water distributed by the city. Stores were stripped bare of anything edible or useful. The grocery store had lost power, so the clerks were processing things by abacus, hand, or paper calculations. 

It was chaos. But it was the most orderly chaos I had ever seen. There was no violence, no shoving, no looting.

How long did it take for news of the tsunami to spread? Were you familiar with the areas affected?

In the parking lot, people had laptops with wireless connections and within minutes of the quake, we knew the magnitude. This was a weird collision of losing almost all technology, worrying we would not have enough food or water, but being able to follow the events in real time from a hundred miles away. Bizarre. 

I know the areas where the tsunami hit. I saw pictures of streets I had walked with my family, covered in water and with cars floating yards above where our heads had been. 

I had friends in the area and contacted them. It took days to find out that almost everyone I knew was safe. One of my elementary school friends married a Japanese man whose hometown was evacuated. Her inlaws couldn't be accounted for for several days.

What was the mood regarding the nuclear power plant situation?

Everyone was very concerned—or terrified. No one knew if they would be irradiated, or drink irradiated water. It was hard to get good information. TEPCO did not seem to be telling the whole story. I'm not a nuclear expert and didn't really understand what was going on unless it was dumbed down enough for me on TV (when we got back power). But, the first day, I didn't know about the plant—I was just worried about aftershocks. We are inland enough to have been spared the tsunami. 

"I was surprised how people stood in lines patiently in the
immediate aftermath of the quake. No pushing, no shoving,
no grabbing, no looting. I would much rather face a natural
disaster here in Japan than in the U.S."

 

 

 

 

 

Can you describe life for you and those around you in the days and weeks that followed?

There was no food or water in the stores. No water at home. No power at first, but restored fairly quickly. Some of our friends were stranded in other cities, away from loved ones. The earthquake cut rail and roads to our city. Even in Tokyo, some people who lived out in the suburbs had to sleep in their offices for a week before commuter train service was restored.

People were terrified by the quakes and the prospect of a nuclear meltdown. The frequent aftershocks tested our jittery nerves. There were hundreds of them, and many were large enough to send me into a panic. During one large aftershock, a single fatality was reported—a middle aged man had a heart attack, apparently out of fright. A single huge quake was terrible, but in a way the many smaller quakes were even worse. It was impossible to feel safe. I couldn't sleep well at night because of all the aftershocks. 

At the same time, people have been stoic. Things have been orderly. The response is a huge contrast from Katrina. I was surprised how people stood in lines patiently in the immediate aftermath of the quake. No pushing, no shoving, no grabbing, no looting. I would much rather face a natural disaster here in Japan than in the U.S.

How are things now, nearly three months later?

Things are almost back to normal. There are energy saving measures being implemented across the country—Japan might actually meet its Kyoto Protocol targets! So, stores have dimmed lights, etc. But, otherwise, in most of the country, you wouldn't know anything had happened.

One thing that is noticeable is the absence of foreign tourists. I visited Nikko, a famous tourist site and tomb of the first Tokugawa Shogun early in May. I had been there before and it was always swarmed with tourists from a score of countries—like visiting the Statue of LIberty or the White House.  This time, I saw only two other obviously non-Japanese people during a long day of sightseeing. Just shocking. 

Has this natural disaster changed your plans for the next year?

We still plan to be in Japan through this year. For a while, it was touch and go. But we trust the Japanese government's food safety regime, which has always been good and much, much better than their notoriously poor nuclear safety regime. 

Since our lives were turned upside down in an instant this spring, we realize now more clearly than ever that plans are only ever just that.

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Return to Table of Contents, June 2011 issue