How Does an Earthquake Really Feel? A Personal Account of the Kumamoto Earthquake

  • The frequent natural disasters that happen in Japan are certainly off-putting for foreign visitors and ex-pats, especially if you come from a country that never suffers from them. Moving to Kumamoto, I felt secure in the knowledge that, as some locals put it, ‘earthquakes never happen here’. The last major earthquake in Kumamoto was 120 years ago (the magnitude of the 1889 quake was 6.3 and killed 20 people) and aside from that, there is not much to speak of other than occasional, small typhoons. So as you can imagine, for a major earthquake to happen while I’m living here is quite a shock. Like many people here, I’ve never experienced a major natural disaster before – this is my story of the Kumamoto Earthquake.

    Thursday, April 14th

    Kumamoto 1

    Author’s photo

    I was in the supermarket when it happened – after finishing work at 9 in the evening I often stop off at the Aeon supermarket across the road to get some reduced-price bargains. I’d only planned to buy a couple of bento boxes for lunch the next day but, on a whim, had filled my basket with cut-price deals – a move that I would be incredibly thankful for in days to come. I’d just paid the cashier and was heading towards an exit when the earthquake started.

    A shake in the ground, slight but noticeable. I stopped walking. Suddenly, a lurch as everything shook violently. Products started falling off the shelves and smashing on the ground. With so many breakable things and so much to fall over, I quickly discovered that a supermarket is a scary place to be during an earthquake! Just minutes earlier I’d been standing in the wine aisle. Thinking of all the shattered glass, I hoped no one was there now.

    With everything shaking so violently, my first thought was to get out of the building, but it was nearly impossible to walk, let alone run, so I stayed put. Bits started falling from the ceiling so I tried to stand somewhere without anything dangerous above me. The lights shook violently but thankfully the electricity didn’t cut out. With my heavy shopping it was difficult to stand and I nearly fell over. I don’t know how long it lasted. When the main shaking stopped, a man tentatively ran over to me and indicated that if it started again we would dive into the piles of duvets and pillows a few meters away (I had luckily been situated next to soft furnishings section of the mall.) We stood very still for a moment, holding our breath. When it stopped he called out to two other women who were nearby and said we should make for the exit. I was amazed to find my bike still standing in the bike park.

    Cycling home (slowly, carefully) there weren’t any aftershocks at all until I got back into the house. The toilet was flushing continually (brown) and our belonging had scattered everywhere, but nothing had broken. I was in the house tidying when the first aftershock happened. This time I was prepared. I crouched down to the ground and covered my head, steadying myself against the wall. It was quite something to see all the sliding doors opening and closing by themselves. Our apartment is on the 5th floor – almost more scary than the shaking itself is in the quiet moments afterwards when the building continues swaying which is all the more noticeable while you are on a higher floor.

    Kumamoto 2

    Author’s photo

    Soon after that my partner got back from work and we continued tidying, but the aftershocks started getting bigger. The earthquake alarm went off on his phone, and with the whole building swaying we made a dash for it. Five flights of stairs and we were out into the street, standing in the middle of the road so that we weren’t underneath the electricity cables. More ferocious shaking so we headed towards the park which is just minutes down the road. Hundreds of people were gathered there. Nearby, I thought we had walked past a drunkard when I realised that the smell was coming from the off-licence – there was liquid gushing out from under the floor and the road was soaked with booze.

    We stayed in the park until it died down and got back home about 11 to finish tidying, with aftershocks continuing but much less fiercely. We went to bed at about midnight but what with all the helicopters and sirens (the prefecture police station is across the road) we couldn’t get to sleep. In the end, we got about 5 or 6 hours, so not too bad considering.

    Friday, April 15th

    Kumamoto 3

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    The next morning’s aftershocks were much smaller and further apart. To get out of the house for a bit we had a walk up to Kumamoto Castle to see the damage, but apart from that there wasn’t any big damage in the city centre. Back home we got out the communal dustpans and swept up the plaster on the stairwells of the building. Hairline cracks had appeared on the surface of the walls all the way down the stairs. In our apartment building there are lots of older people who would have struggled with cleaning the stairwell so we pitched in. Our 76-year-old neighbour said it was the first big earthquake for her. It was a 6.2 magnitude – not a destroy-everything-in-its-path size but certainly very serious and very scary. Nine people lost their lives.

    By lunchtime on the Friday we thought it was all over. The aftershocks were very small and we could see that damage was minimal in the city. Out in Mashiki (the epicentre – 7 miles from our home) there was much damage done and rescue teams were working to help victims, but where we were it wasn’t too bad at all. My partner went in to help tidy up his office, and I had an impromptu day off while my school’s building was being checked for safety. It was a nice, sunny afternoon. I went out for dinner, had a bath and it was just a normal evening. Or so I thought.

    Saturday, April 16th

    Kumamoto 4

    Author’s photo

    We’d been asleep for about an hour when the earthquake struck. There are mixed reports about the exact size but it was at least a magnitude 7, probably more like 7.3 in size – the same as the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that killed 6,000 people. As the first one was 6.2, maybe a size 7 doesn’t seem like it would be that much bigger. However, measuring earthquakes is not an exact science and the scale is not linear. Having been literally thrown from my bed at 1:25 in the morning, I can assure you that it was much, much bigger.

    The electricity had gone out and we could see nothing. I ran to the cupboard to grab the emergency flashlight but it had gone, scattered away somewhere into the darkness. The sound was fearsome – doors sliding back and forth, all our belongings (which we had just tidied back into place) crashing to the ground, large furniture shifting and skidding across the room, sirens, alarms – it was terrifying. It had been a hot night and neither of us were fully dressed. We pulled on our clothes as we fell towards the door, grabbing at anything. The air felt dusty – I coughed and reached for my water bottle as we made for the door but it was gone. Instead I picked up my bag which was packed (as always) on the floor. In those moments of terror, you don’t think straight. What I wanted was water, so I grabbed my bag thinkings ‘If I find water, I can put it in my bag’ – never mind the fact that what I really needed was already in my bag: wallet, keys, I.D.

    We flew down the stairs, feet barely touching the ground between the 5th floor and the 1st. We had woken, dressed, and reached the street in under 2 minutes. From there we didn’t stop to wait outside the house. We ran straight to the park, shaking from adrenalin and from the unsteady ground. We were some of the first people there, but over the next hours, there were hundreds of people gathered on the damp grass.

    In our haste to get out of the quivering building, we had been ill-prepared for the temperature outside. As the night wore on it got colder and colder, with me in pyjamas and yukata and my partner in a T-shirt and summer shorts. We paced between the park and the street outside our house. Several neighbours were standing around outside, including the building manager. After an hour and a half, and with a long pause since the last tremors, we tentatively went back into the house to grab a few supplies.

    Kumamoto 5

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    We changed quickly – warm clothes along with winter coats, hats, gloves and scarves. Into bags we piled food and drink supplies, as well as blankets, torches, and a tarp to sit on. Within a few minutes we were back on the street. The hairline cracks that had appeared after the first quake had now split open and large pieces of plaster were scattered on the floor. While the damage in our building has not proved to be structural, in the darkness it looked a lot worse. The house shook and we got back out as soon as we could, spending the night curled up under blankets in the park along with hundreds of other people, not sleeping at all.

    The rest of Saturday was like a blur. We were exhausted – completely run down. What with only one hour of sleep, and only five or six hours the night before, we had very little energy. After our night in the park, we returned to the apartment and the first thing we did was prepare emergency bags that have sat next to the door since, ready to grab if we need to run – blankets, food, water. We managed to take a nap in the afternoon which was no small miracle with the noise of the sirens and the constant shakes of aftershocks.

    In our building there was no gas or water. Gas was not such a problem as we could cook in the oven and microwave since the electricity was still on, and we had a few canisters of gas which we could use on our portable cooker (bought, can you believe it, just in case of an emergency like this.) Water was the bigger problem. We quickly rationed what drinking water we had and stocked up on other liquids like juice and coffee from vending machines that hadn’t yet been emptied. Non-drinking water was a problem too – we couldn’t flush the toilet, wash our hands or wash the dishes after we’d cooked. Most of our day was spent trying to find water. We filled every bucket and bottle that we could. In the evening, we lined our pots and pans outside on the balcony in anticipation of rain.

    Kumamoto 6

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    Sunday, April 17th

    Do you know how much water the average person uses every day? It’s completely crazy, and something you might not have thought that much about if you haven’t had to go out and source every drop that you will need and carry it home in a bucket. Of course it varies between different people, but what with baths, showers, toilet flushing, face washing, teeth brushing, laundry, dishes, and of course drinking and cooking, the average number is about 150 litres per day, though some sources quote twice that much.

    Our plan had worked – our pots, pans, dustbins, nabe pots and buckets had caught the rainwater – some full to the brim and others not so much, but at a first glance it looked like a lot of liquid. You can imagine our disappointment to discover that all of the water together was barely enough for one flush of the toilet (which, by that time, certainly needed flushing!)

    Kumamoto 7

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    We spent the morning searching for drinking water. Many of the convenience stores were still closed and the ones that weren’t had nothing on the shelves barring coffee, alcohol, chocolate and ice-cream – everything else was completely sold out. I had a brainwave about a vending machine we had access to that might not have been emptied yet. We found it fully stocked and were overjoyed. We didn’t empty it completely, reasoning that if other desperate people found it then they too could be pleasantly surprised, so we bought 8 bottles of water (4 for us, 6 to distribute to the neighbours) and 2 soft drinks.

    Non-drinking water was the bigger problem. We found out that a local school had running water and went up to investigate before carting the buckets up there. There were tents pitched in the school courtyard and people sleeping in the classrooms and corridors. In the end we didn’t need to fetch water from the school (which is lucky because it would have been quite a walk carrying the buckets back) as when we returned to the apartment, we found out that there was now running water on the ground floor which was also drinkable. Getting the buckets from the 1st floor to the 5th was much easier than carting it all the way from the school would have been!

    We took another walk up to see the castle (from our kitchen window we could already see that the tower was missing its roof tiles) after the big quake the castle exterior had turned from black to brown as all the tiles and cladding had been shaken off to reveal the wood beneath. The damage was shocking, and much of the area was closed off.

    Kumamoto 8

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    Monday, April 18th

    By Monday, it seemed like things had really quieted down. Aftershocks were much milder and further apart. We did some cleaning up and in the evening went down to the Kumamoto International Center to help prepare and serve a hot evening meal to those who had been evacuated. But then at 8:42 in the evening there was an aftershock measuring 5.8 magnitude – much larger than the usual ones. Despite being smaller than the main quakes, this tremor was almost as scary. When you think it has all died down and you’re out of the main danger, to suddenly be thrown back into a scary situation is really unnerving. We were at home when it happened and dived under the kitchen table, ready to grab our emergency supplies and bolt out the door if need be, but thankfully that wasn’t necessary. Once the earthquake alarm had stopped going off we stayed put under the table for another minute, just to be on the safe side.

    That evening was one of the most stressful. Even after that 5.8 tremor, we were fairly certain that there were not going to be any more big quakes (though of course it was just guesswork because you can never really tell.) It seemed that the main danger was over. We now had access to water and gas, we had enough food and the shops were slowly reopening and giving us more options for supplies. But we were exhausted.

    Kumamoto 9

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    In an emergency situation like the big quake that happened in the middle of the night, you ride through it on adrenaline – it gives you energy and enables you to keep going no matter how tired or stressed you are. Adrenaline enables people to survive in crazy situations and do things they never thought they could do. But after several days of constant, low-level stress, days of jumping at every noise and holding your breath at every little shake, you become completely run down. You spend as long as you can being strong and powering through it, but once the immediate danger and fear is over and the adrenalin runs out, you’re exhausted.

    Sleep wasn’t a problem and it was one of the main reasons we decided to stay in the apartment as we knew we would get no rest in a shelter with hundreds of other people. And, since so many others were in need of help, we didn’t want to drain resources when we could get by on our own. Despite getting enough sleep we were completely worn-out, low in spirits. We had our basic needs catered for but what we were lacking in was the strength to deal with the stress.

    Summary: Tuesday, April 19th and beyond

    We are still without gas or water in the house, but as gas canisters are slowly being restocked in the supermarkets and we have running water on the ground floor, we can get by. Day by day the shocks get smaller and less frequent. It is still stressful and frightening, especially on the 5th floor when the house sways back and forth, but after several full nights’ sleep in a row, we are regaining our energy and motivation.

    Kumamoto 10

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    The main thing that gets you through is the team spirit and camaraderie that emerges at times like this. We have never been close to our neighbours – we don’t speak much Japanese and many of them speak no English at all, so out of the 20 or so households that share our building, we don’t really know anyone on a first name basis. But that has all changed now.

    After the second quake, about 70% of our neighbours fled to evacuation centres or away to family further afield. As we decided to stay, we made daily contact with the other people in our building who did the same. The hardy old building manager directing us to water, the lady who looked close to tears when we bought bottled water and shared it with her, the restaurant owner from the ground floor smiling cheerily and asking if we were okay. We’ve taken care of each other. A middle-aged lady from a few floors down was overjoyed when we brought her some water, and since then she’s given us a loaf of bread every day. A couple who have been staying in their car since the quake have been bringing us a hot breakfast in the morning from what is leftover at the evacuation centre. We’ve all clubbed together, and it’s nice to really feel like we’re part of the community – something that had been almost completely lacking in our Japan experience until now.

    Kumamoto 11

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    There are still thousands of people who cannot (or will not, out of fear) return to their homes, but slowly the city is picking itself up, dusting itself off and moving on. Out of the city, in small places like Mashiki that have been badly hit, there is much danger still to come. The rain that we are predicted to have in the next fortnight will worsen the situations with landslides. Roads will be even harder to navigate and houses that had crumbled away will now be buried completely. But here in the city centre, we’re doing okay.

    Kumamoto Castle will be in a state of devastation for months (and years!) to come, but for much of the city I’m sure it won’t be long until things are ‘back to normal’. While major natural disasters are rare in Kumamoto, Japan as a whole is used to these incidents and the support has been overwhelming. There is a lot to be said for the 頑張る (ganbaru) attitude of the Japanese during times like this – staying strong, doing your best, and helping each other out will see you through the worst of anything.

    Related Articles:
    All You Need to Know About the Kumamoto Earthquakes: Sequence of Events up to Present Condition
    Bosai: Preparing for Disasters and What to Do When They Happen