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Dispatches from the Kumamoto quake zone

Personal accounts relate tales of kindness and resilience after initial confusion and panic of deadly temblors

by , , and

Special To The Japan Times

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Sean Michael Wilson gets some rest on a pushed-down fence after evacuating in Kumamoto.
Sean Michael Wilson gets some rest on a pushed-down fence after evacuating in Kumamoto. | SEAN MICHAEL WILSON

‘Lucky’ is a relative concept

Living in Japan, we accept that a serious earthquake can come at any time, any place. We know that, but we don’t really believe it. It’s a vague hypothetical possibility, something as unlikely as winning the lottery — something you read about having happened in the 1880s or the 1920s, and which might happen again at some impossible-to-define point in the future.

And then, with no warning, the sudden physical force happens to you, in your street, to your house — now! History and fate and geology are combining to toss and throw you and all your most treasured possessions — paintings, photos, books, music, your favorite cup — to the ground in a pathetic, shocked, wet, chaotic mess. And that’s if you are lucky. And around 300,000 people in Kumamoto were that “lucky,” but at least 47 were not. Forty-seven people that were alive at 9:25 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, are now dead.

I’m mentally exhausted. At 9:20 p.m. on Thursday I was chatting online with a friend from Britain, planning to go out for a relaxing time on Saturday night — an idea that now seems a ludicrous fantasy, as no trains or buses are running, there is nowhere to go for a meal and no bars are open. (You are lucky if you even have water.) Ten minutes later I was out in the street, quivering with shock at the physical power of nature, the quake of the earth.

From the second floor of the apartment block I live in, a Chinese man ran out and past me, naked apart from his underpants, screeching something in Mandarin. He was over from China visiting his son, a student at Kumamoto University. Bad timing, Dad. And he doesn’t speak Japanese; I saw him again today in the university’s hinansho shelter, looking mystified as a young Japanese student volunteer guide told his son that they will soon be giving out curry rice. When you don’t understand the words, something as simple as curry rice might as well be quantum mechanics.

The son lives right above me and is a bit of a noisy late-night stay-up. I’ve often had to tell him to keep it down. But all that is silly nothings now: We are all out in the street, cold, shocked — Japanese, Chinese and me, a lone Scot, united by a force than makes us all just people.

After the Tohoku disaster of 2011, I had packed a bag of stuff in case it ever happened here, and left it by the door. It stood there to the side of the doorway for five years and one month. But in the physical shock of the dreaded it actually happening, I just ran out of the apartment and forgot to pick up the bag. Yes, Sean — clever.

Another strong quake hit us about 30 minutes later, but our building held. So Chinese Dad nipped back in to get some clothes on and I went to grab the emergency bag. We all then went off to that shelter area, which is just a few minutes away, as I live right behind Kumamoto University. Soon there were about 300 people there in the open-air sports area, mostly young Japanese and international students.

And here the famed Japanese calm and orderliness in a crisis kicked in. And it’s catching, as all the several nationalities present behaved like that too. Blue tarp covers, chairs and blankets appeared from the university’s prepared store nearby. The stand-alone fences were pushed down and some of us lay on them, me included. They are surprisingly comfortable! Sleep comes … and in the morning, just to be ironic, we get a bright blue day — a sunny, lovely spring feeling — while we walk among debris and past collapsed buildings. Like the weather is a comedian.

But on Friday we get 150 aftershocks, in just one day! Astonishing. And psychologically interesting: Just like we get used to the hum of the air conditioner and don’t even notice it anymore, after the 52nd level-3 shock that day hits, you realize you are not particularly scared anymore; it has become “normal.” You might not even pause in the middle of typing “Hi, how are you now?” to your friend on your mobile.

But in the early hours of Saturday morning, just as we here in Kumamoto were beginning to relax, thinking the worst was over, it hit us again — and much worse.

Sean Michael Wilson is a British professional comic book writer living in Kumamoto. Web: www.seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com. Twitter: @SeanMichaelWord

Damage to the outer walls of Kumamoto Castle caused by the quakes.
Damage to the outer walls of Kumamoto Castle caused by the quakes. | NOEL VINCENT

Documenting the damage done

It’s incredible how the human mind responds to a crisis. All extraneous thoughts take a back seat as instinct takes over and focuses us on one solitary aim: survival. Or so we are told. Yet somehow, in the midst of the shaking and upheaval of the first quake on Thursday night, I felt compelled instead to document my experiences for others to see.

An app I had downloaded recently called Periscope allowed me to broadcast video to people around the world in real time via live stream. I fired up the application, entered in a description of the event and started recording. To my disbelief, over 300 viewers joined the stream within minutes and were asking me all types of questions about my safety and the risk of a tsunami or volcanic eruption. One cheeky viewer even asked if Godzilla had been causing the quakes.

After the shaking had died down a bit, my colleagues and I, who had been roaming Kumamoto in search of Chinese food after a day teaching English, rushed to a nearby park where we could avoid power lines and the threat of collapsing buildings. I continued to broadcast until my phone battery died.

I spent Friday cleaning my room and catnapping, the day punctuated by the occasional aftershock. I put drawers back into my cabinet, which had fallen during the shaking, and threw away the broken plates and glasses that had shattered on the floor.

Early Saturday morning, I finally settled into bed, somewhat satisfied with my cleaning efforts. But no sooner had I dozed off than I was suddenly jolted awake by the most violent swaying I had ever felt.

When the shaking finally stopped, I grabbed the backpack I’d prepared the day before, heart racing, and, without bothering to put on shoes, ran out of my apartment in a T-shirt and jeans.

As I was running down the stairs barefoot, I was joined by other evacuees. We made our way to the apartment block’s lobby where the exit’s automatic door had stopped, forcing one man to open it manually and allow everyone to escape.

Once again, I felt the need to document what was taking place around me. I launched Periscope in the pitch darkness of the power outage. What I saw that evening is hard to make out on the archived Periscope videos, but I will never forget it. The adjacent building lurched toward us in another aftershock and everyone shrieked in terror, fearing it might collapse on top of us.

What I saw next inspired me. A young man hopped a fence and ran into a collapsing building nearby to search for a woman who had been trapped and was crying for assistance. With his help, she managed to escape. We watched with nervous anticipation as others made their way down to the ground from their high-rise apartments, hoping that another aftershock wouldn’t send someone falling to their death.

In the midst of all this chaos, a man noticed that I had no shoes and lent me a pair from his car. I then walked to a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store where others had gathered to wait out the aftershocks and buy supplies.

I continued to broadcast on Periscope at the 7-Eleven. Here, too, I received the help of strangers. Unable to use the ATM and lacking enough cash, a man helped me buy an iPhone charger. Then, in the parking lot, another kind stranger named “Joe” let me use his headphones to continue my broadcast, and another named Hisamitsu lent me a Hello Kitty blanket to help me stay warm through the cold night. Joe and the other man stayed with me until the early morning hours. I tried to convince them to come with me to a shelter but they preferred to go back to their homes.

Afraid to return to my apartment, I wandered for a time, unsure of where to go and wary of any tall structures. I eventually made my way to Ninomaru Park, adjacent to Kumamoto Castle.

After charging my phone in a bathroom stall, I resumed broadcasting and gave online viewers a glimpse of the wreckage. Paths I had walked mere days ago were now completely covered in rubble from collapsed castle walls. I shuddered to think what would have become of me if I had been under the walls as they collapsed.

As I walked around the grounds, I was surprised to encounter a former coworker of mine who had also taken refuge in the park. Like me, she figured that a flat place was probably the safest location. Eventually, another colleague joined us at the park. He had come by bicycle and informed us that he and our other coworkers were staying at a shelter near their apartment.

Since then, my coworkers have mostly all gone back to their homes, but I remain at the aforementioned shelter, still fearful that my apartment may suffer a collapse. I try to help around the shelter with odd jobs, such as directing traffic and carrying supplies, but there’s little I can do to repay the kindness I have been shown over the past several days.

I don’t know when life in Kumamoto will return to normal, but the presence of the Self-Defense Forces at the shelter and the continued efforts of volunteers are an encouraging sign.

I have no doubt that Kumamoto will overcome this crisis, but it has left us literally shaken. Through this experience I have learned that we can never take our safety for granted, especially in this earthquake-prone country that I call home.

Noel Vincent is an American working as an English instructor in Kumamoto. Twitter: @NoelVincent

A FamilyMart convenience store in Kumamoto is seen shortly after the major quake on Saturday morning.
A FamilyMart convenience store in Kumamoto is seen shortly after the major quake on Saturday morning. | DAISUKE KIKUCHI

Out of the capsule, into the streets

Mashiki was in a state of confusion on Friday, with each town-office worker providing me with different statistics and information. Many of the locals did not seem to know where to go, as public announcements were drowned out by the constant drone of helicopters overhead.

Many of the injured had been brought to the temporary health center at the town hall by ambulance, but due to the damage done to the streets, and because of all the people looking for food or trying to evacuate by car, all roads were jammed.

I visited a couple of evacuation centers in the evening, and talked to many people whose houses had been completely destroyed. But they were resilient, and some, later on in the interviews, started to break into smiles as they talked about their hopes for their new homes. At that time, 20 to 30 percent of buildings had been confirmed as having collapsed, and most of Mashiki had no electricity or water.

It was pitch black and quiet outside when I headed out at 10 p.m. to try to get to Kumamoto, where I had booked ahead into a capsule hotel. As I looked for taxis, there were still people outside clearing rubble from the streets, and families with flashlights heading to evacuation centers to rest.

I was lucky enough to find a taxi to take me to the hotel in Kumamoto, and it was a relief to see the lights and the stores functioning as usual there. The driver, who lived in the area, told me that the city had suffered no serious damage. We were both sure that the worst was over; how wrong we were.

I arrived in a nightlife area of Kumamoto dotted with girly bars and love hotels. There seemed to be a lot of people milling about, young and old, many obviously drunk and enjoying their Friday night, but the driver assured me it was less busy than usual.

Having spent all day running around in a suit, I was desperate to take a shower as soon as I arrived at the hotel around midnight, but a water outage thwarted that idea. The staff said that the water tanks had been damaged. The toilets, too, couldn’t be flushed. Most had nevertheless been used, and there was a lot of evidence of overconsumption of alcohol splashed across the floor.

As I tried to get to sleep around 1 a.m., the lights went out, my phone alarm blared and a huge horizontal shake bounced me from wall to wall in the capsule. Two employees dashed in and ushered us downstairs. There were only about seven others staying at the hotel, mostly day laborers and students. We struggled to work out what was going on from a radio that kept cutting out. When we heard the tsunami alert, all conversation stopped and we ran to get our shoes on. The police came to the hotel and suggested we evacuate to the banks of the river, but nobody followed their advice.

All the workers from the hostess and other bars, including a number of young women wrapped in blankets, as well as locals, were outside, nobody seeming to know where to go, and the air was filled with a cacophony of building and car alarms. Signboards and metal parts were falling from the ceilings of the adjacent shopping arcade, and police were busy blocking off the area. Water was leaking down the walls of some of the buildings.

I walked through the arcade to Karashima Park, where a lot of people had evacuated to. As I had noticed in Mashiki a day earlier, many of the evacuees were still trying to look on the bright side, eager to get back and clean up their houses and offices.

So eager, it seems, that by the next morning, everyone except myself and a couple of foreign tourists had already left. The park was eerily quiet but for the sounds of walls cracking and pieces of nearby buildings coming off and crashing to the ground.

I felt a chill down my spine as I considered the fact that flights from Kumamoto Airport were suspended, and I began looking for possible ways to return to Tokyo.

The trip to Kumamoto was Daisuke Kikuchi’s baptism of fire as a News Desk reporter for The Japan Times. Twitter: @jt_kikuchi.

Only a few blocks from Mashiki Town Hall, this unidentified building spilled its roof tiles into the street. The shops beside it also sustained substantial damage.
Only a few blocks from Mashiki Town Hall, this unidentified building spilled its roof tiles into the street. The shops beside it also sustained substantial damage. | LIAM NOLAN

The powerlessness that permeates normalcy

I threw myself under my kotatsu when the first earthquake hit. Bottles tumbled off my cabinet, and my hanging lamp almost bucked its lampshade onto my laptop. The shaking stopped after 30 seconds, and I spent most of that time huddled under that low table worrying that the lamp was going to break free.

I phoned my girlfriend, Jessie, while sending messages to friends and family back in Canada. We talked about how the aftershocks scared us. Where I’m from in Canada, we don’t have earthquakes, so we certainly don’t have aftershocks. I could feel them rumbling through the ground towards me, never giving me enough time to get to safety. Each shock was potentially another major quake. Two hours after the first quake, which struck at 9:26 p.m. on April 14, one of the aftershocks knocked out the electricity in my apartment, so I evacuated to Kosa Town Hall.

Early in the morning, Line and Facebook informed me of the damage to Kumamoto city and Mashiki. I immediately contacted Sean, Mashiki’s new English teacher. He’d arrived in Japan from Idaho only four days earlier. The earthquake had knocked out his electricity, too, and he didn’t have much food. He feared the moment when his phone’s battery would finally die and he’d be cut off. Together, we drove to eat lunch and document the damage, using my car to charge his phone while we drove.

Buckled streets blocked access to Mashiki’s town center, so we drove to Kumamoto instead. Large stretches of the city’s main shopping arcades were abandoned. Because they were cleaning up damage, several restaurants turned us away without even a word. Though at the time I was frustrated, I appreciated that they were harried too. The majority of Japanese people I met during the disaster were still polite and kind. When we finally found a place to eat, we returned to casual conversation about the coffee and food before a tremor silenced the entire restaurant.

Authorities had roped off most of the castle. From an embankment by its moat, we snapped photos of the castle’s warped and crumbling walls. Seeing Kumamoto Castle falling apart felt surreal, and Sean and I tried to estimate the inestimable cost of repairs. Assessing the damage helped give us some sort of distance from the shock of learning what the quake had wrought; it helped abstract the real people who’d lost so much.

We didn’t encounter much traffic on the way back until we got closer to Mashiki. Cars clogged the main streets, so we worked our way down the country roads lined with rice paddies. At the outer reaches of the town, many shingles had fallen from the houses, and the cracks in the road worsened. I often had to slow down to avoid slicing the car’s undercarriage on jutting shards of road. We took a lot of pictures, but looking at the photos later paled in comparison to seeing the destruction firsthand.

The town center looked like a war zone. The tone of our conversation changed, and we communicated in sighing expletives. Dozens of Self-Defense Force vehicles passed, and the sounds of ambulances and helicopters rang in the air. We tried to imagine what Mashiki looked like from above. Blown-out shops and collapsed houses, where the second floor had slammed into the first, lined the streets. We knew that most of the houses we saw were ruined. It didn’t feel right to linger in Mashiki, and the distance that assessing the damage had given us earlier in the day had disappeared.

After dropping off Sean at his house, I met Jessie at my apartment in Kosa. We went to bed, feeling somewhat secure in the knowledge there would only be occasional aftershocks. But then our earthquake alarms sounded. With nowhere to go, we lay paralyzed, watching my hanging lamp convulse and shelves empty. I felt utterly trapped.

We evacuated to Kosa Junior High’s gym, which groaned and rattled with each aftershock. Many of the town employees inside and outside had been awake for two days trying to keep everyone safe. A few families were in the gym, but most slept in their cars. Ishin, one of my third-year students, brought us one of his family’s blankets. Jessie and I tried to joke with each other under the blanket, but getting and disseminating information through Line and Facebook distracted us. Information exchange made us feel less powerless.

After an aftershock woke us at around six in the morning, I checked my email. Earlier in the week, I’d emailed a Japan-centric travel and culture website about doing articles on Kumamoto and Kyushu. While I was asleep, they’d sent me a rejection letter telling me to have a “great” weekend. Shortly after, the editor sent me a follow-up mail apologizing for his poor choice of words, explaining that it had been a “long week” for him. He told me he hoped all the “commotion” in Kumamoto would end soon. Sometimes, editors have a special talent for taking the sting out of rejection, but in this case I appreciated the chance his poor judgment had given me to channel my frustration toward something concrete.

Jessie and I decided to go across the prefecture to Tamana, her city, with some other displaced assistant language teachers (ALTs). We stopped to pick up Sean in Mashiki. Wider and deeper gulches had formed on most of the roads. Many of the places I’d driven the day before were impassable, so we decided not to risk going into town.

The earthquake closed the expressway stretching from my area of Kumamoto to Jessie’s. We had to go through the city, which suffered catastrophic damage in the second quake. Many buildings had collapsed, and the castle’s highest keep revealed the thatching once hidden under its shingles.

As I write in Jessie’s apartment — with three ALTs sleeping in the other room — aftershocks shake her building. For many of us, shocks lower than magnitude 5 hardly register; we’re getting used to them, though their frequency is wearing us down.

Yet, a few hours after I submitted the first draft of this story — never entirely satisfied with its original conclusion — an even more powerful earthquake struck Ecuador. For the first time in my life, the descriptions of duration, intensity, and of the powerlessness that permeates normalcy for those affected, felt relatable.

Liam Nolan is a Canadian writer and teacher working in Kumamoto. Web: www.liamdnolan.com. Twitter: @LiamDNolan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp