There's a god for that
I watch the news for the next four hours, until the hostel’s official “lights out” curfew hour of 10 o’clock.
Grasping at the announcer’s meaning, I retrieve my pocket-sized Yohan dictionary and search for unfamiliar vocabulary: damage, destruction, injuries, casualties – words that my compact traveler’s companion was not designed for. Some of the stronger words I can guess from context or familiarity: closures, explosions, deaths; while the dual tragedy’s key words – jishin and tsunami – need no translation.
More frustrating, though is my unfamiliarity with the kanji of basic place-name geography: Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Chiba. These, the east coast prefectures, stretching for 425 kilometers, are blinking red and yellow on the map in the lower corner of the television screen, communicating – without the need for names – the scale and extent of the event.
These are the communities in crisis, the announcer reading from fresh reports as they arrive in random order, snippets of information, an unbroken sequence, a roll call of disaster:
These are coastal cities where time reveals and videos record, second-by-second, not just a wave, not a crest, but an unstoppable mass that lunges and churns from sea to earth, that heaves and swirls over seawalls, that crushes and swallows lives and hope.
One report after another is handed to the announcer, pressed into duty by the urgency of stranded commuters, the needs of information-starved officials, and the watchful nation of citizens that just need to know. The announcer, in short-sleeved shirt and without a tie, is clearly not the polished anchor of the nightly news, but he serves well. And the production team makes do as well: stitching together video clips as they come in, cutting in with hastily called briefings from first-response leaders, dispatching reporters and camera crews to Tokyo’s transportation hubs, composing one bulletin after another for the announcer to read. These first bulletins are weighted toward the status of Tokyo: its train service, any open roads, the extent of the blackout (especially as night approaches), where people are finding food (since most eateries are without electricity, thus closed). And throughout the announcer’s staccato of news, he himself is overridden by the emergency public broadcast system announcing aftershocks as they occur.
Then “man on the street” interviews begin to be filed, as NHK crews manage to get communications established with their studio command center. One reporter has encamped at Shinjuku Station, where, over the next several hours, he files reports on the status of the Yamanote Line (Tokyo’s inner loop that serves millions of riders each day) and JR East’s suburban lines. Another reporter calls in from Lawson’s and AM-PM convenience stores, where shelves were emptied of batteries, cup-a-noodles, and bottled drinks within the first couple of hours. Another has filed reports from outside a major hub – was it Shibuya or Hamamatsucho or Akihabara? it could have been any of them (and probably was all of them) – showing a taxi stand with no taxis and a bus terminal with empty bays, and thousands of commuters waiting in lines that snaked around the block. Another has filed reports on the complete gridlock that occurred on the roadways, both major and minor, as movement in any direction was blocked when everyone simultaneously attempted to exit Tokyo’s commercial, government and business districts. Then as daylight faded, and the stranded sized up their options, sales clerks and white-collar salary-men began walking, with or without flashlights, to their suburban homes an unknown number of hours away. Those who weren’t fit enough for such an adventure began their long wait in public spaces, on chairs, on the floor, or in opened rail cars. In some places, first-response coordinators handed out small emergency care boxes containing water and snack food and blankets.