Northeastern Japan was hit by M8.8 earthquake, the biggest in Japan’s recorded history, at 14:46 local time today. Tsunami warnings along broad areas of the Pacific coast were immediately announced, but it took only an hour or so before the world watched in horror as massive tsunamis swallowed the coastal farming towns of Sendai, and oil refineries in Chiba and Miyagi burst into flames. Frustrated at the limited Australian coverage, I turned to my sister in Bangkok, and asked her to broadcast NHK World from their TV through Skype. As I write, NHK World is reporting on damage in many areas of Miyagi, Ibaragi and Fukushima prefectures; the tsunami warnings; the problems with telecommunications and public transport systems; the official declaration of a nuclear emergency; and more. The death toll of tsunami victims is on the rise, and tens of fishing boats are yet to be accounted for. Transport is on a halt: fourteen Bullet trains are stranded between stations, and the decision has just come through that JR trains in the affected areas will not resume tonight. The mobile phone systems have been clogged up, and text messaging works only infrequently. Hundreds of thousands of people, including myself, have not been able to establish the whereabouts and safety of their family members, and they will not be able to go home if their work or school is far away. Home is not necessarily safe, either, and many no doubt wonder if their houses are standing intact tonight.
All this information is coming in not only from NHK World via my sister’s Bangkok home, but also from my friends who are actually sitting at their desks at work right now, talking to me on Skype and Facebook, or emailing me from time to time. Where telephone systems have failed, the Internet has enabled me to get in touch with my dear friends. It’s started to tremble again, it’s so scary, one friend tells me from time to time, and we have been discussing the pros and cons of her walking home from her company. Her husband is away on a business trip to Hiroshima, and there is no way of contacting him, or of having him home tonight.
In fact, access to Skype and Facebook is a privilege right now. NHK World reports that hundreds of thousands of houses in Sendai and many other areas are without electricity, with no prospect of having it back for many days, if not weeks, to come. Hundreds of thousands of those who will have to move into emergency shelters tonight won’t have access to the Internet. This of course includes those who do have electricity in Tokyo or Yokohama, but no IT literacy, like my mother, who we – my sister in Bangkok and myself in Sydney, have been unable to contact. I curse at myself for not talking to her for so long. In the age of hyper-communication, images of and information about disasters like this are at your fingertips even if you are located overseas. Yet, the more you know and see, the less assured you are.
Just like the horrific earthquakes that hit Kobe and Niigata in the past, the true magnitude of the damage caused by today’s quakes will not be known for many months to come. For now, I pray for the safety of all the people affected, and my thoughts are with everyone who has not being able to contact their loved ones. I hope you will join me in my prayers.