UCA News

Plain chaos after the Japan quake

The X, formerly Twitter, platform further complicated the situation
Firefighters work at the scene where a multi-story building toppled over and crushed a house in the city of Wajima on Jan. 3 after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture on New Year's Day.

Firefighters work at the scene where a multi-story building toppled over and crushed a house in the city of Wajima on Jan. 3 after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture on New Year's Day. (Photo: JIJI PRESS / AFP / JAPAN OUT)

Published: January 03, 2024 11:32 AM GMT
Updated: January 04, 2024 10:57 AM GMT

I had just returned home from my usual visit to a shrine, a meaningful ritual especially here in Kyoto, which everyone strictly practices during the first days of the new year.

I had settled on the sofa and started scrolling through the latest news on X (formerly Twitter), without even remotely imagining that the social media chronicle would report on the events that were about to happen here at that precise moment.

At the first slight tremors, I didn't even dare to get up.

In Japan, the earth often murmurs, and we listen, yes, but distracted by something else, in a sort of "default setting." As long as the entire building isn't violently swaying, it means it's the usual 'passing' shock.

But this time it was different.

The initial tremors, usually fleeting, immediately took on an unsettling rhythm. Twenty seconds turned into forty, then a whole minute.

The house, my two-story refuge, took on an incessant, aggressive vibration. Above me, a quilt hanging from the ceiling — an improvised shield against the light from the roof window — now waved frantically, immediately signaling the possibility of an extraordinary event.

At that moment, instinct spoke. I had to leave. I sprang towards the porch, driven by an urgency that overpowered thought. Once outside, I was greeted by a sight that materialized the gravity of the situation. The light pole outside my house, usually an unflappable sentinel, trembled disturbingly.

In Japan, from a young age, people are taught to seek safety outdoors during an earthquake, to avoid the traps of a wall, a roof, or indeed a collapsing pole. The sight of people, standing outside, looking up worriedly, confirmed the seriousness of the moment.

My neighbor, equally alarmed, came out with his whole family — the first time I saw them all together. With anxiety etched on our faces, we exchanged a few hurried words before I remembered I had left my phone on the sofa, my lifeline to the outside world — the one thing all disaster preparedness courses explain you must always have with you.

The conviction that this was a potentially terrifying earthquake began to take hold as I thought of returning inside to find it, yet everything continued to oscillate.

Having grabbed the lifesaving phone, I hurried back outside. The earth continued to jerk for another four endless minutes.

With the phone in hand, I frantically searched for news.

In Japan, X is not just a social network, it's the pulse of the nation, especially in times of crisis.

The information came in waves. The epicenter, the magnitude, the immediate calls for help. People were trapped, houses damaged, and some were even on fire — the entire nation was in shock.

Furthermore, a tsunami warning had been issued along the entire coast.

My mind went back to that fateful March 11, 13 years ago, when it was the tsunami, not the earthquake, that took almost all of the nearly 20,000 victims.

Meanwhile, the earth had fallen quiet here in Kyoto, though, not at the epicenter 300km away where dozens of aftershocks followed in a disturbing gallop over an area of more than 100km.

The chaos following the earthquake was palpable. The first obstacle was distinguishing reliable news amidst the flood of information coming online. Among the numerous appeals from people claiming to be buried alive under the rubble, it was difficult to discern reality from fiction.

The X platform, notoriously inclined to reward viral content with monetization, further complicated the situation. Some users suggested caution, highlighting the possibility that someone could exploit the tragedy for personal gain.

Meanwhile, the radio reported that people in the disaster areas had an additional problem: they were disoriented. Many had been directed toward emergency centers, but the timing couldn't have been worse.

Jan. 1 is traditionally dedicated to family visits, families that are usually hundreds of kilometers away. This meant that many people were in unfamiliar places, making it difficult for them to find shelter and orient themselves in an already chaotic environment.

When you live in Japan, the first thing you learn after your home address is the location — indicated by your municipality of residence — where you can take refuge in case of disaster.

Winter, in the region hit by the earthquake, added another level of challenges to the misfortune. Considered one of the coldest provinces, the lack of electricity aggravated the situation.

In rural Japan, where heating systems depend mainly on air-conditioning, heated carpets, or electric blankets, i.e., in the presence of electricity, indoor temperatures could become glacial. This explains why many, probably thousands of people, even those whose houses had not collapsed, were forced to rush to the shelters. The need for material warmth, not just safety, had become urgent.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read second part here

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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