My Experience During The Japan Earthquake One Year Ago

Friday, March 9, 2012


It struck around 2:45 in the afternoon on what had been a beautiful spring day. I was nearing the end of my contract as an English teacher at a middle school about an hour outside Tokyo. I’d been in good spirits due to the winding down of the workday and the promise of the weekend. My current ease wasn’t to last much longer.

The 9.0 earthquake and following tsunami was a massive disaster for the people of Japan. Thousands had been killed and in one village alone 10,000 people were feared missing. Luckily for me, my town was pretty far way from all the devastation.

This is my experience of the quake.

I was in the teachers’ office with three other sensei, deeply engrossed in writing something for my blog. The wind outside had been fairly strong all day, shaking the windows of the paper-thin walls and blowing documents all about the office, so we didn’t notice the tremor at first. A teacher murmured “Jishin” (earthquake in Japanese), which brought me out of my transfixed state and raised my head from the screen. I felt my desk and the floor underneath me jolting slightly.

Iʼm ashamed to say now that a smirk began to form on my stupid face. I remember saying to a few friends that “I donʼt want to have lived in Japan a whole year and not felt a single earthquake,” which was the case up till then. I take that back now. “Is this finally it?” I thought. What are they so worried about, itʼs not that bad?

The shake gathered in intensity over the next 10 seconds. Soon the whole school was beginning to sway and the earth was showing no signs of resting. The seriousness of the situation began to take hold. “This’ll do now,” I thought, but the Pacific Rim had other ideas. I stood up from my desk and tried not to show the unease I was feeling. The teachers attuned to the seriousness of the situation, sprang into action. They put on helmets, switched on the TV and made an announcement to the students to remain calm. All the while I stood still, useless and frightful, not knowing what to do. It became apparent that this wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, no matter how much I wished.

The waves of the quake would gather in intensity for a few moments, shaking everything wildly and rocking the whole school. They would weaken but only for a few seconds before returning to full strength. Above me, I wondered if the roof would cave in, bringing down two floors of desks, chairs and screaming children. The rattle of the office walls grew in intensity as the earthquake did. I looked towards the open door; there was an escape route. “Get out, Get out!” my brain screamed at me. I tried to fight these thoughts and looked at the faces of my co-teachers. They weren’t panicking, so neither should I. I stared at the TV (not understanding a word) and tried to compose myself.

Meanwhile the Pacific Rim continued to force itself under Japan, causing mayhem and destruction on the surface and brewing up massive waves in the sea. Perhaps the worst part was when I felt the tectonic plate I was standing on begin to roll. The ground felt like a boat swaying on high seas or a plane shuddering in turbulence. I had never felt a fear like this. As the floor bobbed up and down like ice cubes floating in a glass, I felt very insignificant and not in control of my own destiny. No wonder people used to blame earthquakes on the gods. Unsure of what to do I copied my co-teachers and tucked myself under my desk, preparing for carnage.

I must give complete respect for the Japanese people. In a country divided by three plates of the Earth’s crust, they are prepared for and have experienced many earthquakes. Everything is built with earthquakes in mind and must pass strict requirements. This quake was extraordinarily strong. I’m in awe that the level of destruction caused by the earthquake itself wasn’t that high.

I think the quake lasted for two minutes in total. As the earth came to rest again, I slowly pulled myself up from under the desk and sat in my chair. I was shaking uncontrollably. The teachers came running back into the staff room for an emergency meeting to decide if the students should go home.

The school caretaker came in and continued to clean around us. She looked at me and quickly said something. By the time I registered what she said (“Scary wasn’t it”), she’d already gone to clean something else. Good job too, because I was still shaking and wouldn’t have been able to speak anyways. I held my hand out in front of me and watched it shake. “If she can continue to work, then I can get over this,” I thought. I sat there and tried to decipher what the teachers were talking about.

The din of the teachers’ chatter was abruptly stopped as a strong aftershock hit us. Everyone went silent and sat still for just a moment, bracing themselves. Collectively, the teachers shouted, “The students!” and rushed out of the room to evacuate the kids. By the time most of them were out the door, the aftershock had finished.

A minute later, the students quietly filtered out of the school and onto the playground. I was surprised at how calm and quiet they were. All of them wearing yellow cushions on their heads. Months before I asked one of my co-teachers why all the students have cushions on their seats. She told me they were in case of earthquakes. I didn’t see the connection right away. “What good is a cushion in an earthquake?” I ignorantly thought aloud. The hairs on my skin rose as I realized the grim reality. Yellow is bright and easier to see in rubble.

On the playground, the students were counted and sorted into groups. In around 10 minutes, the older students led the younger ones back home. I felt safe on the playground, as there wasn’t much to fall on our heads or bury us alive. The earth had finally come to a rest again. We went back into the teachers’ room and on the TV were images of a tsunami washing away cars, bridges and buildings as if they were nothing but toys. Not being able to read the Kanji on screen, I blurted out, “Where the fuck is that?” to a co-teacher. “Miyagi-Ken,” he replied, “It’s miles away. Northern Japan.”

When I got home I called my panicky parents and reassured them that all was okay. I went to the supermarket expecting it to be mayhem with people buying up stocks preparing for the end of Japan. But, life carried on as normal. I tried to gauge the faces of everyone. Were they scared? Apparently not. As I walked home I saw workers continuing to build a new house, unperturbed by the day’s events. I went home and tried to get back to my usual Friday-night routine. Sleeping was hard, frequent aftershocks, a feeling of seasickness and fear mongered by the media kept me awake for much of the night.

By Ben Cowles


About the Author

bencowlesbioBen Cowles has been living, working, traveling and teaching in East Asia for the past six years. Having grown tired of monkeying around in the class room, he has decided to turn his hairy opposable thumbs to freelance writing. Ben is currently the alpha male at

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