Saturday, March 12, 2011

Marcus' account of the earthquake

Hello everyone,

I'm sending this email out to all the very kind people who sent their good wishes to me and Ikumi and Ikumi's family, thank you all so much. We are safe, Ikumi's family are all safe, and we join you in your prayers and metta for all those who have been affected by this disaster. Thank you.

Be safe and happy,

Marcus & Ikumi

calm though the whole earth trembles

I moved to Japan last week. I came here, after many years of living and working abroad, in Thailand and Korea mostly, to join my wife, Ikumi, to find a job, and to finally start putting something in the bank. I love Japan, the quiet, the cleanliness, the tiny temples tucked into odd corners between brand-new metal and glass skyscrapers. But the economy isn't doing so well these days and my job hunt is turning out to be harder work than I imagined. Still, I have a few interviews lined up and on Friday morning left early to see a man about a job down in Kamiyacho.

The position turned out be not quite as I'd imagined, with a start date still months away, but promising all the same. My next stop was the Tokyo governments' help and advice office for unemployed foreigners. They call it 'Hello Work', I call it The Job Centre, and Ikumi, taking a day off work to help me find it, came along too. It's on a street near Shinjuku right next too Tokyo's Korean town and just past some of Tokyo's seedier streets. We walked warily around a group of half drunk gangsters going into a girlie bar, and looked into the Korean shops and thought about a second lunch.

The woman at Hello Work explained that the economy is not doing so well these days and that my job hunt might be tougher than I'd imagined it would be and I nodded politely as she took my details. We looked through the listings and after I'd rejected all the jobs that involve teaching two-year-olds (I kid you not) was left with McDonald's (must have fluent Japanese) or toilet cleaner (must be female and have fluent Japanese). But my Hello Work advisor did have a great list of places that offer free language lessons and I put a copy in my bag.

We all stood up and my advisor bowed to Ikumi. Ikumi bowed back. She began to bow to me. I began to bow back. The next thing I know is that me and Ikumi were crouched down under my Hello Work advisor's desk, wondering how on earth I came to be on an ocean-liner on a particularly choppy stretch of open water. The room, and my stomach, gradually stopped moving and we thought about getting back on our feet. But not for long. During the next few lurches we scuttled over to a more roomier desk, Hello Work advisors really need more work space, and told each other that everything was going to be okay.

Watching the signs hanging from the ceiling was the only way now of knowing if the building was still moving around us as the internal balance mechanism in our inner ears or wherever it happens to be had simply given up on what it considered an unfair workload. We sat on the floor and waited and slowly, slowly, moved back out into the open office space of Hello Work. "If our life was a film or a book", Ikumi managed to joke, "this would be a really crap ending".

We walked out into the street and I noticed a temple on the other side of the road. I can't pass a temple, in any country, without taking a quick look, and, thinking it was all over, we went across. It was a Soto Zen temple with a lovely statue of Kanzeon in the courtyard and we bowed in respect and wondered what to do next. The street was full now, with people in a state of real shock and we walked towards Shinjuku thinking we'd just get a train home. At least that was out plan until the street started moving under us.

The trees were shaking, signboards swaying, I noticed a crane on top of one the buildings swinging wildly from side to side. People were stood in total silence, many were sitting on the curb, the entire phone network was down and so not a single person was talking into their mobile. The oddest thing about the whole event was, for me, the silence. Yet at the same time no one was screaming or running or panicking in any way. The cars had stopped driving, and apart from the sound of distant sirens and the sight of trees flying about on a windless day, everything was somehow very still.

We decided to get as far away from buildings as we could and headed to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. A picture of the crowds around the station made the front page of many newspapers the next day, but we skirted the edge and made for the safety of the trees. A few minutes later we were in a landscape of ornamental lakes and bridges, with not a person or office tower in sight. A group of elderly ladies in formal kimonos came out of a teahouse and asked what was going on. So absorbed had they been in their tea ceremony, they'd missed the entire thing. On the lawn outside a stone lantern had tumbled over, and had gouged a deep hole in the earth.

We left the park and hour or so later. It was getting dark, and bitterly cold, and we knew we had to find shelter somewhere. The entire transport network, buses and trains, was down and we didn't want to sleep in a station. On my last visit to Japan I'd been deeply impressed by the interior of Tokyo's St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral and I wondered if it might remain open for some of the many thousands of people like us with no way of getting out of the city. It took us about two hours to walk there and they did indeed open their doors to the city's temporary refugees. All four of us.

We saw on the TV on my mobile phone (thankfully still working) that at nearby Ikebukero, one and a half thousand people were taking refuge in the underground passages of the train station. One hundred and fifty people were spending the night at the Jodoshinshu Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple. But at St Mary's there were just the four of us. Me, Ikumi, and two students from a nearby university. The young priest and his team provided snacks and hot water and tatami mats to sleep on and turned the heating up and left it on all night for us.

In the end the floor was too cold to sleep on, but we managed a couple of hours and then passed a good night eating and reading. I read a couple of chapters of Ikumi's novel out loud to her, she's currently reading Joanna Trollope's 'Friday Nights', and we went over some of the more tricky English. And I spent some time with Stephen Mitchell's wonderful translations and adaptations of the psalms, a book I'm rarely without these days. And we watched more TV and waited for the morning to come.

We took a couple of trains to get to the outskirts of Tokyo, they weren't running any further, that were so crowded the breath was literally squeezed out of us. When we got to our interchange though, as we shouted out "sumimasen, sumimasen", somehow a passageway was found and other passengers pushed and pulled me and Ikumi through the dense crush of bodies to where we needed to go. I felt immense gratitude for the Japanese people here. At no stage had I seen anyone panic, or complain, or shout. The trains were heaving with tired bodies just like ours, but everyone was nothing but polite.

At the end of the line, we started walking. Around us were hundreds, thousands in fact, of people all doing the same, quietly and purposefully walking home. If a helicopter had flown overhead it would have seen all the main streets out of Tokyo, in the blinding early morning sunlight, full of tired commuters making their way on foot from station to station. At one point we found a train that was running and, from its window, looked out at a far off bridge made dark with its line of office workers on their way home.

We finally got back at about noon and had lunch, a hot shower and watched the awful devastation that the earthquake had brought. As we watched TV we felt small aftershocks run through the house. On the way home I'd joked about that being the last time I ever go to the job centre, but now it didn't seem quite so funny. I checked my email and found my inbox full of messages of concern from friends and family, concern for me and Ikumi, for Ikumi's family, and for all the people of Japan. Those good, calm, resilient people of Japan.


I've taken the title of this account from Psalm 46 of Stephen Mitchell's adaptations.
The first verse of which runs:

God is our refuge and strength,
our safety in times of trouble.
We are calm though the whole earth trembles
and cliffs fall into the sea.
Our trust is in the Unnamable,
the God who makes all things right.


  1. Marcus, so very happy you and Ikumi are safe!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Marcus. I'm glad that you and your family are safe.

    Kwan Seum Bosal!

  3. Thank you so much.
    And allow me to join you in your thoughts for all those who have suffered in this disaster.
    A deep bow,