In the Quake Zone

The ground here in Sano, Japan is still shaking as I write at noon on Saturday, March 12, 2011, the day after the largest earthquake in the nation’s history. It struck 21.5 hours ago.

I was working at my desk as usual when my shoji — sliding doors of translucent veneer in the case of my office, though covered in white paper in most cases — began rattling on their rails. They’re the best early warning system I’ve found, so I knew an earthquake was arriving but had no idea how big it would be.

The early tremors that shook my shoji were nothing. The roar of the earth that followed is what really tipped me off that this was no ordinary wineglass rattler. Imagine a wind you might have heard high on a mountain sweeping down toward you. That’s scary enough. Now imagine that wind being made not of air overhead, but of earth underfoot, barreling up at you.

I shot from my chair to secure the office. I covered the computer, put my expensive vase on the floor, unplugged equipment, and was just heading for the kitchen when the quake slammed the building. The neighborhood surfed on dirt. The lights swung from the ceiling, then blinked out. For a second I thought they were smart earthquake lights that sensed the tremors and turned themselves off to avoid sparking a fire, but then I noticed that all the power was out.

From inside every cabinet came a delightful tinkling of glass as if a small party had broken out to toast the arrival of spring, then the party turned horrible in a fight between stemware and cookware in the kitchen, books and printer paper in the office, with a great attempt on all fronts to pour forth in a tidal wave of debris across the floor. The quake-resistant, spring-secured kitchen and office cabinet doors held fast, though, and no tidal wave appeared — at least not in my building. Farther north, a tidal wave of the real variety gathered strength to devastate the coastline with such fury that Hollywood special effects departments are going to need to rethink the way they’ve depicted such events. They’re even worse than portrayed.

Once the initial slam subsided, people rushed into the streets. The elderly, who are legion in Japan and prepared for anything, arrived in white hard hats. One of them asked me if that wasn’t an incredible quake, and I tried to lighten the mood by pretending I hadn’t noticed.

“Quake?” I replied. “Nothing happened here,” I said, gesturing to my place.

She looked confused, then turned toward her home. “This house has always given me trouble,” she began, and started to describe how it had shaken the dickens out of her. I felt bad and cut in.

“I was just joking,” I told her. “I felt it, too.” I thought for sure she would have known I was kidding. Pretending to not notice that quake was like pretending to not notice daylight. She looked at me without smiling, then said sternly, “This is no time for telling lies, Mr. Kelly.”

That’s what the Japanese call jokes like the one I’d just attempted, lies, and she was right. It was no time for that. I got caught up in the thrill of danger and my sense of humor is what I use to deal with such moments, but I cast it aside in a hurry and joined in conversations about who needed what, when the next wave of the quake crashed upon us. Then the next. Then the next.

So it went. Wave after wave coursed through the land, sending power lines swinging and roofs crashing and the ocean surging. The trains stopped. The emergency announcement system blared that the power had gone out due to the quake.

As darkness descended and still the power stayed out, people lit candles in their homes. I moved around the city to see how it coped with the situation, even as the tremors continued. Traffic lights didn’t work, so cars edged their way cautiously into big intersections until the police showed up later to direct. Islands of light betrayed where emergency power had kicked in: the hospital standing tall and staying busy, a home for the elderly that was a type of hospital itself, vending machines that apparently contain batteries to keep selling drinks through any crisis.

A few convenience stores had power, but quickly no food except the dried, instant variety, and then even that was gone. People bought magazines, which I thought odd until I saw by the looks on their faces that what they sought was a part of normal life that had seemed so banal half a day earlier. In a snap, anything that symbolized that placid pace through a typical day became valuable, so off the shelves it flew.

Darkness fell, really fell when no man-made glows pushed against it in a million domes of modernity. The stars came out. I noticed them with joy because they were much brighter in the purer darkness. They made me think of soldier stories where men noticed something beautiful in nature as they fought, like a flower on the edge of a foxhole or a red-winged bird singing on a branch shot through with holes. I observed the world through no such dire circumstance, but the post-quake landscape gave me enough of a nudge in that direction to better understand my fellow man under duress.

I climbed a hill at the edge of town to look down on the sea of darkness. It was creepy. Where usually an endless field of lights extends to Tokyo, only a few areas of light appeared. Directly below the hill, eerie pools of headlights moved slowly around, many looking for missing family members who were unable to take the trains home. There were no city lights around the cars, just the headlight pools drifting along invisible grids like ghosts shaken from their graves.

With most people early in bed, the shaking continued. Isolated reports from community leaders holding radios on the streets informed me on the way home that northern Japan lay in ruin. The voices came leaden, delivering facts so directly that their effort to suppress emotion was in a way more emotional than if they’d cried out their sadness at each collapsed school or deluged farmhouse.

The chain of facts overwhelmed me. There was no break, no “In other news” transition to a different grim event, much less a weekend human interest sideshow. One statistic after another emanated from the radios in a legato of misfortune.

Eventually I reached a saturation point. There’s a limit to how much disaster I’m capable of processing. The adjectives peter out somewhere beyond tragic and catastrophic and devastating, and then those once horrible emotionless facts become welcome as a way to make sense of the event and form a plan for moving ahead. Let’s reduce that number of missing people. Let’s get the lights back on. Let’s make toilets flush again. How about some real food on shelves? The disaster list turns into a checklist. That’s the human spirit, alright. Let’s crawl up out of this hole!

Through the night we huddled in our capsules atop the rumbling island. When the first photon of sunlight touched the Land of the Rising Sun, we became the land of the rising determined and got straight to work on our checklists. One day, they’ll be complete and life will become a boring string of daily predictability again, within which some kid is bound to complain, “Nothing interesting ever happens to me.”

To be so lucky, young one.


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  1. Posted April 18, 2011 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    Found your blog by chance .
    Socks to Japan is a wonderful idea . So simple , so warm and needed . I have been in Japan more than 30 years and one of my first jobs was to pack socks by the thousands in Nara Prefecture .
    Millions of socks later I found better pastures and although lived nearby I bade goodbye to that nice family that trusted me with their merchandise and helped me and my kids to survive .
    I will try to communicate with the GOUKIs and the whole city is known for their socks , including a museum etc .
    No promises , but I hope to get you as many a good pair of socks and warm messages a I can .
    Now, an above knee amputee and diabetic bitter old man , I DO hope to at least help some by sending socks .
    GAMBATTE !!!
    Antonio ( Katawa ) Ferreira

  2. Peggy donahue
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    Wow! You tell it super well, Jason… entertaining, complete, full of feeling and heart! Thanks for what you do… and for doing it so superbly! Love, PachaMama

  3. Sharon Springer
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Excellent reporting. So glad you are well.
    I am now living in Florida, but used to live across the road from you in Allenspark, CO.

  4. Jennifer
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Your personal story is well worth forwarding. I am glad someone forwarded it to me. I especially feel the saturation point with you. It breaks my heart ever time I turn on the news. I can’t turn it on today. My prayers are with you in the coming days.

  5. Jim Neering in Estes
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Jason, Talked to Emily today about your well being. Glad you are OK. As you can see she directed me to your site. The comment by Mahalo Nuiloa is right on target about self-righteous bubblehead commentators.
    I think we are headed for a meltdown in the US. Dollar meltdown that is.
    So happy you are well.
    Jim Neering in Estes

  6. AlohaZoo
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    A friend of mine in SFO forwarded your article to me. Thank you very much for writing this piece, Jason. So much of what is “reported” on so called “mainstream media” in the US have been conjectures made by self-righteous bubblehead commentators that your honest and sincere personal account was very touching and refreshing. I look forward to reading more of your reports.

    Mahalo Nuiloa and Aloha,

  7. David‎ in BerkLake
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Holy Smokes, what beautiful, poetic journalism. Thank you.

  8. FOFF
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Shame on you for joking at this old lady.

  9. Peggy clark
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading your letter. It was written as a real person and not as teh media presents everything. I will continue praying for all of the people in Japan and their countries ercovery.

  10. David Ellis
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I hope you have a good escape vehicle just in case a real meltdown occurs. You are living rather close to Fukushima.

  11. Valentina
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Jason. I have been through earthquakes of 5.5 magnitude and about 20 sec. long and it was the most horrible experience so far. I cannot eveny imagine how it was to feel twice as much shake for so long! Hang in there – God is watching over all of you. May God bless you!

  12. Michele Grinoch
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    I’m so glad to learn that you are safe! I did think of you soon after hearing about the disaster.
    Thanks for sharing what it feels like to live through these incredible moments. We don’t get that through mere news reports.
    I can hardly imagine what you and the other residents of Japan are going through.
    I wish you all the best.

  13. Jackie Jacobs
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    How did the Akashi airport stood up this vast distruction. What about the bridge that leads to the airport that is built on the ocean. I am anxious to know how that new modern engineering marvel withstood that type of vast distruction. I did research this information, but was not able to find any thing on this subject. Please tell me somethng.

  14. Jackie Jacobs
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for responding so quickly. It must have been a horrowing experience for you. I was able to share you account with my friends and co-workers. Thanks again! Be safe!

  15. John Fraser
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Jason, glad to hear you are safe. As i sit in Scotland complaining about the weather. I opened your email, and it just makes you think how lucky most of us are.
    What strikes me was the power of the tsunami, no camera can bring home the total carnage and devastation. Ships weighing 1000s of tonnes being moved along streets like a matchbox. We really are tiny compared to the power of the earth.
    Try and stay safe and high! And no that we are all thinking about you in Scotland.

  16. Posted March 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, everybody, for the wonderful support! My Japanese friends have expressed great surprise and gratitude at the concern of Americans and other foreigners from far away. It’s touching, and makes me proud.

  17. Tom Mock
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Jason, Thank you for your candid and colorfull description of the quakes in Japan yesterday. Your insight and humor is a welcome relief to the drab news agencies reporting. Do ask us for help and where we can send it to do the most good. God bless.

  18. Cadizat
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Japan,Japan: all the news is of Japan. Yet Japan is not but one
    island. Have all of them been hit, or some worse than others?

    • Posted March 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      The focal point of damage was the Tohoku area of the main island, Honshu.

  19. Jeremy
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the update Jason – harrowing depiction. Good to hear that you are okay.

    Commiserations to all that have been affected.

  20. Chris
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    How close are you to the Fukushima reactor? Some news agencies are reporting a meltdown, I’m still a little worried about your safety.

    • Posted March 13, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Too close, I’m afraid, about 120 miles with no major mountain range intervening. We’re on evacuation alert. The worst will probably not come to pass, but we need to be ready just in case. The worst-case scenario, as I understand it, is a hydrogen-bomb-like explosion that scatters radioactive fallout across our area.

  21. Sally
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Jason, I think humor is exactly the right, and best, approach when disaster strikes. There’s nothing like it to ward off panic. The immediate emotional reaction is, “If he can make jokes then the situation must not be as dire and terrifying as I thought, so I guess I can calm down.”

    If I’m ever caught in a catastrophe such as you’ve just experienced, I hope someone like you is living next door.

  22. Clemens
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Glad to hear you are alright! My thoughts are with the people in Japan.

    I really hope the situation in Fukushima can be contained.

    I am wondering though if the events there are having an impact on your opinion on nuclear power?

    As an Austrian I live in an area which suffered from fallout of the Chernobyl disaster and I have always regarded the views on nuclear power expressed in the kelly letter with skepticism.
    Murphy’s law is what always comes to my mind: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”.
    It seems that once again it holds true.

    Some experts even have expressed the opinion that it is irresponsible by Japan to build nuclear power plants because of the constant threat of earthquakes.

    Let us hope for the best.

    • Posted March 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Good points. I’ll address the nuclear industry in an upcoming letter. Plenty of people agree with you that nuclear power in a quake zone is a bad idea, but others say that only adequate backup facilities were missing in this Fukushima case.

  23. Charles M Mitchell
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    Great portrait of Life as it is in Japan,right now.
    This made me think of the saying”That that doesn’t kill us will make us strong.”
    Stay strong friend.

  24. Atmar
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    As with others, you are the only person I “know” living in Japan, so I thought of you immediately when I became aware of the awful tragedy brought on by the earthquake . I am of course happy you came through it so well. God bless you and the people of Japan. All of you are in our thoughts and prayers.

  25. Carlos
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    Glad to hear you are doing well in the midst of it all there. Really appreciate your insight and first person account. I am hoping you can provide us all a way to help that will can be direct support to those in need.

  26. Ben
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Jason… thanks for the update, we only see the same videos over and over here in the USA, hard to imagine the real picture. Glad you are safe, we will be thinking of you.

  27. Chas.
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Dear Jason:

    You tell about a very compelling experience, and tell it very well indeed.

    Kind Regards, Chas.

  28. Chris
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    I thought about you the moment I learned of the quake and tsunami. I am glad to hear you are well and safe. That has to be a complete mind blower.

  29. Stan Yasuda
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    Just glad to hear you’re safe. We’ll pray for those who died and those still missing. The quake is bad enough, but to be followed by a tsunami…leaves me speechless. Thanks for the update. Take care!

  30. Joseph A.
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Yes, you were the first person I thought of when the quake hit Japan. I was reading your great book: The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing which has almost become a kind of Bible for me since I discovered it. You are doing investors a great service by publishing such a book and offering a fantastic newsletter at such a discount price. I am sure that forces beyond our comprehension will help you and the people of Japan recover from this tragedy.

  31. Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:51 am | Permalink


    Definitely moments for the Zen prepared. Being in the moment, “Be Here Now” a la the Ram Das book title, is actually the only awake option to dream states.

    Horrific, for sure, and with nuclear releases reported as well. But hardly touches the events of 8/6/45, was it, almost 66 years ago when Truman’s intended nuclear Tsunami was unleashed first on Hiroshima.

    There’s no alternative but to be “Cheerful”, nonetheless.


    • Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

      Oops… Of course it was ‘August 6’

  32. Mat G.
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Jason, it’s good to hear you’re OK. I hope that your friends and family have also made it through the disaster.

  33. Mohan
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Jason, thanks for the update and glad to know you are safe. I was born and raised in Asia so I am sure that the country will bounce back to its past glory. The will and determination of the Japanese people will keep them strong. Please take care and be safe.

  34. Charlie
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you made it through safely. I’ll keep you & your adopted countrymen in my prayers.

  35. Mike Capern
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    I so appreciate your candor, humility and human insight, in the midst of this tragedy. Thanks for sharing this. Would appreciate your insights into the best ways of supporting the relief efforts, in the days ahead.

  36. Rich S.
    Posted March 13, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Jason, thank you for the update. I’m thankful you are ok and my thoughts and prayers are with you and all of Japan. Please take care and stay safe.

    • John I.
      Posted March 13, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      Jason, What a harrowing experience that must have been. Glad you’re okay. Hope all gets back to normal soon.

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