University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Fear and trembling in quake-hit Japan

My semester abroad has got off to a rough start, reports a former University of Copenhagen student in Japan. Now, almost a week after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, the situation only seems to be getting worse, she reports

I am crouching under a wooden table in our kitchen while the floor under my feet is moving violently. The whole building is trembling and rocking from side to side and I hear the furniture slamming against the walls, objects falling to the floor, glass shattering.

I’ve been in Tokyo for only three days. Here to study for a semester at Sophia University. Since the classes don’t start until April, I thought I’d get here early to get familiar with the city and travel for a few weeks. I’ve moved in with three other young foreigners in an apartment on the 9th floor, downtown Tokyo. That’s where I am, alone, when the mayhem begins.

When the shaking finally recedes – without actually stopping – I hear sirens and someone shouting into a megaphone. I barely know a word of Japanese, I don’t have internet, and the telephone network is down. It’s only when my flatmates come back and we get an internet connection that I realize exactly how bad the situation is.

Aftershocks and new threats

We spend the rest of the day trying to reassure friends and family back home, we monitor the news, especially for tsunami warnings, and keep a backpack with the essentials close by in case we need to evacuate. It’s horrifying to see the disaster unfold and the aftershocks keep coming, each of them unsettling our nerves.

When we go out to get something to eat late in the evening, the streets are packed with taxies and people walking. With trains and metro out of order, these are the only ways to get home, and a lot of people live far from their work.

The next day, on the streets of Tokyo, it seems like nothing ever happened. There is no sense of panic, everything is open and people seem calm. I take a night bus to Hiroshima – because that was my plan, not because I’m really worried about the nuclear plant. I feel terrible about the disaster, about all the people who are affected in northern part of the main island of Honshu, but I don’t see the damaged nuclear plant as a real threat to people as far away as Tokyo.

Uncertainty and confusion

I’m now staying with some friends in Kyoto, while the situation at the nuclear plant seems to worsen by the hour. It’s hard to figure out how to deal with it: What is exaggerated and what is played down? There is an abundance of information, but no clear answers to the most pressing questions. I want to know how bad it can get; the worst case scenario. How far away could there be a danger? And what will the long-term effects be? The uncertainty is nerve-racking.

I had read a reassuring report by UK’s chief scientific adviser, saying ‘unequivocally’ that Tokyo would not be affected, yet today the UK embassy is – along with more and more others – advising people to leave Tokyo. More and more people are fleeing the country altogether.

I’m also uncertain of how I should act, as a foreigner in a country in deep crisis. Right now I’m not even a student yet, I’m just a tourist. It feels wrong somehow. Yet at the same time, it won’t help the country if all the foreigners leave. The Japanese go on with their lives, and here, far from the actual disaster, they don’t even seem much affected by it.

Right now I’m trying to keep calm and let the situation unfold. For the moment, I’m not about to flee the country: I still feel safe where I am, 600 km from the nuclear plant. But I’d like some clear facts, and I’d like this gut-wrenching uncertainty to be over.

Follow Hanne Arnold on her blog here.

Stay in the know about news and events happening in Copenhagen by signing up for the University Post’s weekly newsletter here.