Japan, earthquake are buddies

Japan, earthquake are buddies

And on Friday, among the many panoramas of destruction emerging from the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, there it was: without sky-high flames like the exploding oil refineries or unimaginable flooding like the 10m tsunami wrought, but a familiar, childhood sight. The recognition finally made the disaster real.

I grew up going to an international school in Tokyo, where earthquakes arrive as regularly as the Metros criss-crossing the city and punctual to the second. I remember dozens of earthquake drills at school, when as primary students we crawled under our desks before marching to safety in single-file. I also remember many tremors; some rolled like lapping waves, others banged, and the rest barely tickled. But I don’t have a single recollection of combining the two - when an earthquake frightened us enough to put the drills to good use.

So when I woke up on Friday to an email from my mother, who still lives in Tokyo, bearing a message to the point in just five words, I completely missed the point. It must have been the subject line, “Earthquake”, that threw me off. “I’m @ Home And OK!” she wrote. My reply was something along the lines of, “Sorry I forgot to call last week! —Michael”.

I went on Twitter and Facebook, where media outlets’ impassioned declarations of “BREAKING” attempted to slap me awake to what had by then become, in technical terms, a Big Deal. I even chatted online with two friends in Tokyo, the lucky few who didn’t lose their internet or power, asked about the earthquake, heard about 100m skyscrapers bending and “the world shaking”... and went out for a snack.

It wasn’t because I was callous. Years of training to prepare for the big one had made “Japan” and “earthquake” harmonious bedfellows in my mind, peas and carrots, something I thought of as certainly harmless and with almost, even, fondness. So it took seeing a picture that burned the childhood association - the image of a landmark from weekend family outings going to ruin - to rip the wool over my eyes. And I finally saw the heart-breaking tragedy.