A Tokyo resident on facing his fear and living with earthquakes

David McNeill thought he was ready. But, as he remembers in this extract from a new book, the reality was beyond his worst fears

Everyone who lives in Tokyo mentally rehearses where they will be if the Big One strikes. When I first arrived as a student, I found myself walking through a sprawling, crowded, low-ceilinged shopping centre underneath the city's business district, pondering the apocalypse.

The word didn't seem inappropriate. Tokyo has a remarkable history of almost biblical destruction. In 1923, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami levelled much of Yokohama and Tokyo, crushing, incinerating or drowning at least 100,000 people. Even the national icon, Mount Fuji, looms threateningly 60 miles away, ready to spew millions of tons of ash down on the world's largest metropolis.

I've often been asked: how do people with millennia of horrific collective memories manage to repress them and get on with life? One answer is that they don't. The fear of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes runs very deep among most Japanese. Time and again after 11 March 2011, we would hear stories of people diving for cover, fleeing their houses or running from the coast the moment the tremors began – instincts that would often save their lives. But thousands of others ignored those ancient responses in the disaster that left nearly 19,000 dead or missing, and a huge swathe of the Fukushima countryside contaminated with radiation from the triple meltdown at the Daiichi nuclear plant.

In Ofunato, a city with a history of devastating tsunamis, Akio Komukai, a factory worker, described speeding away from the coast after the quake struck and meeting children on their way home from school. "They were walking towards the sea and I rolled down the window of my car and shouted: 'There's a tsunami coming, you need to run away!'" The young people looked at the 61-year-old, said "Okay, okay," and kept walking – an episode one imagines being repeated in its way down through the centuries. "We forget that the sea is close because we build next to it," Akio said. "Then the tsunami comes and washes away the houses and you can see the sea again. And we're reminded."

Urbanites can believe that they are safe from natural disaster. They are safer than ever before, after all. But periodically they are given a reminder that the cost of the collision between primordial seismic instability and life in our most sophisticated cities can still be terribly high. The 1995 Kobe earthquake took 6,400 lives, injured 400,000, wiped out 2.5 per cent of the nation's GDP and orphaned dozens of children. What would happen if it was Tokyo, many wondered.

On 11 March 2011, I was standing with my partner, Nanako, in Shinagawa Station, one of Tokyo's biggest train hubs. It was a crisp, sunny afternoon during one of the more pleasant times of the year in the city, and it was a happy time for us. We were waiting for the birth of our son, Luka.

The quake began, not like many quakes do, with a jolt, but with an almost lazy undulating rocking motion that slowly built in intensity until the station's roof rattled violently and glass fell on to the platform. A woman somewhere screamed, others clung to husbands, wives or children. A man ran for the exit and fell over the ticket barrier. It is rare to see Tokyoites panic, and it terrified me. We stood frozen to the spot, hearts thumping violently and watching the roof, silently praying it wouldn't fall on our heads. The tremors seemed to go on forever. Kobe lasted for 20 seconds; later we would hear that the shaking from what became the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami went on for nearly six minutes.

The explosive force that we felt at 2:46pm had been released by one of Japan's most unstable faults, about 19 miles beneath the sea off the northeast coast. The earth's crust is made up of eight large tectonic plates that have been moving and grinding against each other for millions of years, and the largest – the Pacific plate – dips under the slab of rock beneath Japan's main island, Honshu. Eventually, the stress of that friction is released, but seldom as violently as on 11 March last year. Scientists would later estimate its force at more than one million kilotons of TNT – the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 released 15 kilotons.

The following morning, I set off for the devastated northeast coast with two colleagues to report for The Independent. As we sped along the highways, deserted apart from ambulances and army trucks, we listened to radio bulletins about what would become the biggest story of all – a fire at a six-reactor nuclear plant in Fukushima. The announcer's adjective-free, rigidly factual coverage, filtered through the emotionless tones of a professional translator, gave little sense of the urgency, but the news was terrifying nevertheless. A reactor core in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant may have melted, the announcer informed us. An explosion had torn the roof from the number one reactor building. Radiation had leaked into the atmosphere. Evacuation orders were issued to 20,000 people living within 10km (6.2 miles) of the plant. At tea time the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, announced to millions of Japanese that the safety perimeter has been extended to 20km. And we were driving towards it.

Throughout the following days of reporting, the news filtered in through our mobile phones. Foreigners were fleeing the capital amid fears of nuclear contamination. On 17 March, the British Embassy, until then a steady, sober voice in the storm, advised its citizens to "consider leaving Tokyo and the area north of the capital." The US Embassy, meanwhile, was secretly planning the evacuation of 90,000 of its citizens. The US Seventh Fleet has moved its ships, aircraft and personnel to open sea, away from Tokyo, because its equipment detected high levels of radiation.

Among Nanako's texts, one that said the stores had run out of milk and water. "I had nightmares and woke up… I'm thinking about you every second," she wrote. "U have to come home asap!! Please!!!!! My tears will not stop … xxx."

That was the final straw. The next morning, I hitched back to Tokyo with a crew of emergency workers. The normally bustling capital felt like the blood has been drained from its veins. Rolling power cuts, food and petrol rationing, the growing death toll and the constant threat of more aftershocks and tsunamis filled TV screens. Self-Defence Force troops were shown dropping water from tungsten-reinforced planes flown 300 feet above the Daiichi plant's overheating reactors.

Thousands of schools were closed and factories and businesses were operating reduced hours to save electricity. Many foreign friends in the city had already quietly left, drifting off to Osaka, Hong Kong, South Korea or Thailand.

But even as panic flickered on the edges of Tokyo life, all around me I could see salarymen going to work in the mornings, housewives queuing for water or milk after dawn. Throughout the worst week of the crisis, a diligent clerk at my local video store phoned daily to remind me that I had failed to return a DVD.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, there would be comfort in that thought. Luka was born in June. His mother had been briefly a nuclear refugee, fleeing Tokyo for Osaka when he was still inside her belly. He appears mercifully unharmed by that ordeal. Already the extraordinary events that occurred before he was born are fading from view. Someday, perhaps, he will watch them in grainy footage and we will try to tell him what it felt like to glimpse into the abyss.

Strong in the Rain – Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill, published by Palgrave MacMillan, is available from 30 November.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

£30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS, Crystal rep

£25000 - £30000 per annum + bonus+benefits+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

Residential Property

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Residential Conveyancer - Wiltshire We have a...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment