Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Tokyo Swaying

The tremors that presage a major earthquake seem to follow a similar pattern: shake-shake-shake, and then a pause of around 5 seconds, followed by continous shakes of increasing intensity, until they reach full intensity.
I don't know in terms of magnitude on the Richter scale how strong the quake was felt in Tokyo, but on the Japanese scale, which measures one to seven, with seven being the strongest, it was a weak six (which was measured on the Richter scale at a 7.2) in Miyagi prefecture, about 300 kilometers northeast of Tokyo, and a solid four in Tokyo. Being on the fifth floor of our 42-storey building is either a blessing or a curse: My colleagues on the 39th floor were nauseous from the swaying of the building, which continued for five or ten minutes after the quake was finished, whereas I was only mildly nauseous, mostly owing to the non-prescription sleeping pill I resorted to last night when I sprang awake at 2:30, and wondering whether to start running for the stairs or risk being crushed under 37 stories of rubble.
The building did what it was supposed to, which is sway, releasing the energy in the process, but I do wonder what the limits of it's swaying are...and don't want to find out any time soon.
The shinkansen that I use, the Tohoku shinkansen, was stopped for most of the day, since it passes right through the epicenter. The information available in this day of supposedly high information penetration was laughable: None on JR East's website, and only extremely general, and as it turns out not particularly timely or accurate, information on Yahoo!'s portal. I went to Tokyo station anyway, just in case, and because it is on the way to Ueno, where the normal trains leave from. Lo and behold, they were just starting to run Shinkansen's between Tokyo and Nasu-Shiobara, or so the signboard said. I still had to wait about 45 minutes. I met an American guy from Utsunomiya, and we talked, but in the rush for seats, I got one and he didn't. I offered to give up my seat from Omiya onwards, but it took nearly 45 minutes to get there, and he gave up and got the normal train from Omiya. Ironic, because the train ran at normal speed after that.
I asked the HR department what policies, if any, they had in such a case, vis a vis paying for a hotel or alternate transport if I was not able to return home. They were wholly unhelpful. It is a good thing that things were not so bad, because otherwise I might have actually needed to deal with their idiocy. God forbid a real disaster happens...then again, their stupidity would be the least of one's worries in such a case.
And here we have the reason for the impermancy of buildings in Tokyo: The more solid they are built, the less flexible they are, which means that they would fall down after a few earthquakes of this size, and after one major one like that which hit Miyagi. Things are not always what they seem: The comforting solidness of Europe, while real, and wholly appropriate to the place and history of Europe, disguises a possible fragility in the face of earthquakes, while the flexible wood and steel buildings of Japan, while not as seemingly solid, possess the flexibility to survive in the place and history of Japan. For that I am grateful.

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