So now we wait. They’re expecting more aftershocks, there are tsunamis moving, and they were talking about landslides, so it’s possible that there will be more injuries and deaths, but so far things don’t seem to have been as horrible as they might have been. We can likely thank human ingenuity for that: Miyagi Prefecture is a known earthquake zone, and the city of Sendai improved the shut-off systems on its gas lines based on knowledge gained from the fires after the Hanshin quake in 1995. We can also thank luck: the Niigata earthquake in 2006 happened after a particularly wet summer, so there was a lot of earth liquefaction. The Hanshin earthquake happened early in the morning, so a lot of people were cooking breakfast. The earthquake yesterday happened in mid-afternoon on a weekday, so probably the greatest possible number of people one could hope for were in sturdy buildings for work.
In Sendai itself, the surface shaking was a 6 on the JMA scale:
6 upper – In many buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. Most unreinforced concrete-block walls collapse. 315 — 400 gal
6 lower – In some buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. 250 — 315 gal
At the epicenter, the less populous city of Kurihara, it was a 7, which basically means anything can fall down.
The Nikkei is now reporting 60 confirmed deaths and says that the environs of the Fukushima nuclear power plant are being evacuated. Before they’d reported no leaks; I hope they’re just being cautious.
News is going to be grim for a while, but there’s a lot the Japanese know about fighting the caprices of the weather and geology gods; that knowledge has already held down damage, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing plenty of stories over the next few days in which it minimizes human losses also.
Added later: The Nikkei‘s little news-crawl function says that some of Tokyo’s private commuter-rail and subway lines are running their last trains for the night. Over 200 bodies already recovered in Sendai. Also—I somehow hadn’t noticed this before—the vibrations in the main quake apparently lasted for two minutes. By comparison, the Kobe quake lasted twenty seconds. But, again, Sendai was ready in ways Kobe was not. For Japan, Kobe was not considered an earthquake zone, so building and land-reclamation codes and disaster plans were insufficient. Response from the federal government was also slack, with private organizations (including the yakuza) upstaging Tokyo by distributing water and supplies while it was still getting its act together.
When you study classical Japanese, you memorize the opening of the Hojoki. (It’s like reading Caesar in Latin class.) The Japanese often cite these lines in times of disaster:
The flow of the running river is unceasing, yet the waters are not constant. Where it pools, the foam that floats up, now vanishing, now gathering, at no time lasts for any length. Man and his dwellings in this world are in every way the same.
The Japanese have a very moving tradition of awareness of the impermanence of life and of stoicism in the face of loss, as the above shows. But there’s a balancing tradition of jaw-setting discipline and tough-mindedness when there’s work to be done. Happily, buildings made of concrete reinforced with rebar against shear are a lot less like foam on the shifting waters than the houses of old. And if disaster response has improved as much since Kobe, Niigata, and the last Sendai quake as we’ve been promised it has, yesterday’s victims are in good hands.
BTW, thanks to those who’ve written to ask whether everyone I know is okay. I’d heard (or at least read a Facebook post) from just about everyone this morning before work. And I just got a message from Atsushi, who walked the two hours home from Aoyama but is fine. Like everyone else, he’s remarking on how many perceptible aftershocks there’ve been. One friend of mine said it feels like living on a giant waterbed.