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In Tokyo, the Search for Solid Ground

Author: David S. Abraham, International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. 2010-2011
March 11, 2011
New York Times


I looked at my co-workers and then dove for cover. I thought that's what one did during an earthquake. But no matter how I contorted my 6'3” frame, my legs jutted out from under my child-sized desk. The shaking lasted a long time. I prayed it would end, hoped it wouldn't get worse. To calm myself, I thought about my niece and nephew back in Maryland.

When I finally emerged, a colleague told me that the earthquake was centered in northern Japan. Peering at her computer screen, I fixated on a news report's color coded map of the country. The north was red; Tokyo was orange. (May I never know what red feels like.)

It was only about 3 p.m., but I asked my colleagues if they were leaving. They didn't know. One asked me if I'd heard the warning on the loudspeaker two minutes before the quake. But as a foreigner who is struggling to learn Japanese, I hadn't noticed it, or didn't understand. I began to fear that I was missing the information I needed to make an educated decision on what to do. No one else had a clear plan either. Then the ground shook again.

Another colleague told me that it wasn't an aftershock, but another quake, closer to Tokyo this time, but still not as bad as the 1923 quake that devastated the region. After the ground settled, I was amazed to find that none of my co-workers were leaving the office. I couldn't tell if it was dedication to work, fear or confidence that the worst was behind us. I feared it was only indecision; I left.

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After the Disaster

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David S. Abraham discusses his decision to leave Japan, based in part on the lack of reliable information available since the earthquake.