From where I sit - After the quake: we shall carry on

March 17, 2011

When the earthquake hits I am dozing with a pile of academic journals on my lap.

It's spring vacation here in Japan and with university entrance examinations completed I've got a month to catch up on research before the new academic year begins in April. My university is in central Tokyo and it's an hour's commute, so I have decided to stay at home. I pick up my camera to record one of our regular tremors for a geologist friend and it is only towards the end of the long quake that I realise I need to get under the table. When it is over, the sirens sound so I go outside and chat with a woman who has fallen off her bike in front of my apartment building. We are both giggly because we are scared and we know this one is serious. Then I come back in and skype my parents to let them know I am alive. We watch the tsunami roll in simultaneously on NHK and the BBC.

A couple of hours later, I receive an email from a Japanese colleague at work discussing a student who lacks sufficient credits to graduate.

"Are you OK?!" I respond. "Yes," she replies, "but there is no transport so many teachers and students must stay overnight at the university."

She sounds rather pleased to have the opportunity to keep working in her office.

"And by the way, tomorrow's graduation ceremony has been postponed."

Neither my mobile nor my landline works so I go to Facebook where many of my seminar students have already checked in.

They write that they are fine but that they are also stuck in central Tokyo, and that the local convenience stores have run out of Pot Noodles.

Some decide to walk home. Most Japanese keep a pair of trainers in their lockers for when quakes (or suicides) halt the trains. One student walks for eight hours.

Spring vacation is the best time of year for carrying out research and writing papers. Foreign lecturers rarely get tenure in Japan and many universities limit the number of years a foreigner may work for them, a system known as the "revolving door", as lecturers move from campus to campus. So publication is essential for academic survival.

I spend the weekend sitting at my computer transcribing an interview, one eye on the television which announces a 70 per cent chance of another quake with a magnitude of seven or above in the next three days.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan warns of extreme hardship ahead but strongly believes we can overcome this crisis by joining together.

This is the essence of the Japanese ganbaru - do your best, never give up - spirit.

One of my students updates her Facebook status with: "We are all together...I believe everything is going to get better."

Aftershocks strike every hour, so I tape my wobbling computer monitor to the table and carry on. It's what we do here.

On the Monday after the quake, the government advises people not to take the limited public transport services and to stay home when possible to save electricity.

One of the university administrators telephones to ask if I will teach an extra course this semester. "So are you actually at work?" I ask. "Yes," she says, "because the university president said that 'We didn't have to come in'?", which meant they were expected to make the effort.

"Can I have your answer by the time of the graduation ceremony which has been moved to the 20th. And, by the way, when are you coming in?"

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