Japan: A few critical seconds

Today’s images of the earthquake damage and tsunami in Japan are gut-wrenching. By now, people around the world have seen the images of the wall of mud and debris sweeping unstoppably across the countryside in Sendai. I have relatives living in Japan that I have not yet heard from. Fortunately, they live on the island of Kyushu, far from the epicenter, so I feel reasonable hoping that they are all right.

On NHK this morning, I heard a Tokyo office worker complain that he felt “seasick” from so many aftershocks rattling his building. I can relate to the feeling, if not the magnitude.

In 2005, I spent an amazing summer in Japan working for WeatherNews, Inc. Every day, I reported to work at their headquarters in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo. On the afternoon of 16 August 2005, a 7.2 earthquake rattled our office building. A few items shifted around and fell off of desks, but the electricity stayed on, and the WNI team quickly resumed their work. For several minutes afterward, a peculiar sensation, as if I’d just stepped onto a gently bobbing boat, disoriented me. I found out later that most office buildings in Japan, including the one we were in, are built on “earthquake rollers.” The building literally floats in place as the earth moves beneath it, then distributes the shock of the quake out over time in order to minimize stress on the building.

Today’s quake, like that one, struck in the middle of the afternoon, when millions were at work. It shared its epicenter with the quake I experienced, just off the east coast of Sendai. Between that titanic jolt and dozens of aftershocks, the earthquake rollers certainly have their work cut out for them, and so far they appear to be doing a very good job.

Some dismiss Japan as a nation of superficial novelty – of Pokemon, Nintendo, and Pocky. Some (including myself) criticize its heavily engineered environment for the degradation of its natural beauty. But its people live on the spine of the Pacific, on a land punctured by volcanoes, shuddered by restless faults, and swept by typhoons and tsunamis. I’ve always been amazed at the ingenuity and resilience of Japan in preparing for and dealing with almost any kind of disaster. Billions of dollars and man-hours pour into preparing for those few critical seconds when the earth decides to vent some steam. It is thanks to fantastic engineering and disaster preparedness that the destruction will not be greater, and that the death toll will not be higher. That Tokyo office worker’s building is still standing, and he’s alive to complain about feeling seasick inside of it. I think that’s worth a tip of the hat.

Update: NYT posted some very similar commentary.

Update, 12 March: Good news; all my Japanese relatives are safe and accounted for!