On Panic, Fear and Reality: Six Days After the Earthquake

By now I reckon I’ve received at least a few hundred emails, facebook wall posts, and skype messages asking about my and my family’s well-being, offering support, including plane tickets to Germany (thanks Katja!), and sending words of encouragement. It’s beyond moving to know that people are concerned so much about us. I want to thank you all again and again.

I’m not going to tell you everything is rosy here. Obviously, it’s not. In Japan’s northeast there are whole cities and towns full of displaced people who have been living in freezing shelters, eating very little, with a shortage of medicine. There are thousands more still trapped in the wreckage. And there are courageous people helping them, including over a 100 search and rescue specialists from my very hometown of Los Angeles working this very minute.

But what seems to be alarming the world right now the most is the nuclear reactor crisis. This issue seems to be creating the most fear, pushing all kinds of buttons in the most people. And rightfully so, we should be very concerned. I’m not going to tell you not to be afraid. We’re not robots after all. And I’m not going to tell you to completely trust the authorities. They are fallible humans in a chaotic situation dealing with their own fears. And if you believe in a conspiracy to keep the populace ignorant, I don’t have anything to say about that. Who really knows.

This is what I do know. Fear and panic makes everything worse.

The sensationalistic headlines that I read from various countries do not match the reality that I have observed in the past week. For instance, many news outlets reported a tenfold or even twentyfold temporary spike in radiation in Tokyo on Tuesday. I looked at the actual radiation readings that were being reported and you know what? You sitting in front of your computer or smartphone and reading this post has given you more radiation. I haven’t heard one nuclear physicist say that Tokyoites would be in danger were a worst case scenario happen. So let’s table that concern for now. Maybe I’m an idiot for believing nuclear physicists, but who else am I going to believe?

I’m going to clear up some other misrepresentations of the situation here in Tokyo. I live in the southwest of central Tokyo in a neighborhood called Ebisu, and we’ve ventured out for lunch or walks every day since the earthquake.

There Is Plenty of Food.

In the first couple days after the earthquake many people stocked up on food and water and many shelves emptied as a result. But the shelves were never completely empty. In my local grocery store there were no eggs, processed meats and instant foods, but there were lots fresh fruit and vegetables. There was no milk but a good amount of apple juice and yogurt. My friends in other parts of Tokyo found lots of eggs but no tissues, or no citrus and bananas but lots of strawberries. So it depended on the neighborhood.

Now, the stores are almost completely stocked. I went to a bakery yesterday and it was brimming with pastries. And no one was in line. We went to our favorite sushi place today and we could order anything on the menu.

For those first days, most people didn’t work so they could connect with their families and recover from the shock, so deliveries weren’t made. So it was amazing that grocery store workers decided to come to work to provide us with food.

Not One Building in Tokyo Collapsed.

As noted in the previous post, I survived being in a glass building. If the 9.0 earthquake didn’t topple any buildings here, then I’m not too concerned about aftershocks. We’ve had quite a few big ones but so far none of them have caused casualties.

Electricity Has Been Flowing All Week.

There have been planned rolling blackouts but not for central Tokyo. I guess the businesses and government located here were considered too essential. So the suburbs bore the brunt. Even then, because people have been conserving energy, many of the planned blackouts didn’t happen. There was supposed to be one tonight, anticipating heavy energy use because of the cold, but everyone conserved enough that it wasn’t necessary.

Many businesses have turned off signboards and many lights. Some restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner. Even piped in music has been turned off. So the stores are not glaringly bright and it was nice not to have the barrage of ambient music. In fact, it was surprising how I never noticed there was music being played before in many public spaces until I walked through them in silence.

The Internet Was Never Interrupted.

When cell phone systems were overloaded the day of the earthquake I was able to communicate and contact people through skype and facebook. However wary you are of facebook, it has been an amazing resource for us here.

Traffic Is Normal.

I didn’t observe any traffic jams. In fact, traffic seemed lighter than normal since people are conserving fuel.

Tokyo Is Still Bustling with Activity.

It’s not as busy as usual, but lots of people are out and about. Cafes and restaurants are full. We went to that sushi place today at 2pm, and nearly all the seats were taken.

Some of my foreign friends have left the country or ventured further west or south. Most of them had already planned to go on these trips so they just pushed up the departure date. Still others decided to go on a short vacation since some of their companies cancelled work for the week or because their relatives beseeched them to come. And still others have left or plan to leave because of radiation concerns.

The Trains Are All Running.

Some lines have had limited service and others have had less frequent service. And when there’s a big aftershock, the bullet trains stop running until the tracks are checked. But otherwise, you can get anywhere around here as usual.

There Is Still No Mass Panic.

I went to Haneda Airport earlier this week and the scene was very normal. There were no hordes of people clamoring to leave. One of my friends was in Narita Airport today and she reported that it was a bit busier than normal, like during a major holiday, but no problems nor delays.

There’s no mass unrest from mistrust of the government. People are nervous but calmly watching the situation carefully. No one is looting. Neighbors are helping each other out. Normally aloof Tokyoites are a little warmer towards each other. The mindless rushing about has slowed to merely rushing about.

There Is No Information Blackout.

Nearly every TV station has the news on and they are examining everything about this disaster from every angle. And NHK devoted their main channel to foreigners, making announcements and giving updates in English, Chinese, Portuguese and more. There are scientists from world organizations and foreign governments monitoring radiation levels and offering assistance and updating the public.

And through it all the people of Tokyo are not panicking. And I’m so grateful for that.

8 thoughts on “On Panic, Fear and Reality: Six Days After the Earthquake”

  1. Wind, thanks for the update. It’s good to hear first hand what is really going on. I am envious of the culture you describe and, although I know that most Americans respond to crisis in the same “help thy neighbor” kind of way, our “take care of my own first” leanings of late are getting stronger. The people of Japan have modeled kindness for the world to see.

    Thinking of you and your family.

  2. Thank you so much for the clear look- at least in Tokoyo. I am a colleague of your sister and she has been on my mind. I know you through Nancy and I am very happy to learn that you all are well.

    The horrors of people toll and the pain of loss is what is on my mind. I watch the juggling of the multiple crisis and am amazed at how the Japanese are steadfast.

    Thank you and well wishes to you all.

  3. Brother Wind,

    Thanks for giving a view into your experience and your perspectives and know for sure that you and all of Japan are in my thoughts.

    Peace and Love,


  4. Dear Wind,

    Thank you so much for sharing this lucid, sensible account of what is really happening in Tokyo. The world is reeling from what happened and it’s so good to know that the whole of Japan is not in crisis… and it’s especially relieving to know that you’re doing well, housed, fed, and in a relatively normal flow of life. I’m so immensely grateful for that.

    Sorry I didn’t contact you sooner — I was on a 5-day meditation retreat when all of this happened.

    I’m sending prayers and love to you, Tomoko, Moka, Nancy (is she there?) and everyone in Japan. I just hope the world community sees this as an opportunity to collaborate in addressing disaster and crisis — to make a web of recovery and healing — because it’s so clear that no person or nation can do it alone.

    Big love, blessings, and gratitude,

  5. thanks for the words of encouragement. i feel the japanese people around here really appreciate the support the international community has been giving.

    we went to the hiroo neighborhood (lots of foreigners live around there) for lunch on friday and it was fairly quiet, but far from empty. also at the ebisu garden place (tourists go there) there were mostly locals. but beyond that, life has been fairly normal.

  6. Wind, what I get from your report is a sense of hope that is so often lacking in the media. News reporters could learn a lot from your manner of conveying information. You stick to the facts but still manage to be uplifting.

    1. thanks. i guess it’s natural for the press (and maybe all of us) to pay attention to any signs of doom and gloom. but it just feels better to throw in some good news in there too.

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