The things I need to keep telling myself

Posted on 31.07.2016


I go through phases where I have some serious, scary death dreams. Waking dreams like fantasies of my airplane crashing into the sea, or a suicide bomber deciding to hijack my airplane, or a massive earthquake striking Tokyo while I’m on the 20th (or 50th) floor of a building.

I’m going to try to keep this short and stick to the obvious issue of earthquakes in Japan for this, and maybe come back to the other ones and the reasons I think I feel that way sometimes later.

But this is something that goes through my head often here, and it gets exacerbated when you have a spate of smaller earthquakes happening within 4 days. We had a 5 last night while we were in bed, and it felt pretty big.

In the past 2 weeks, we’ve had about 5 earthquakes that you could feel. There are pretty much always earthquakes going on, even though the international news only reports on the big ones that cause damage. Even the news stations here only report the larger ones. If they reported every single earthquake, they’d never have time to report the news.

I can often feel our house shaking very lightly in the evening when there is no train going by, and you can feel my office building on Sundays (when I work on the 20th floor) swaying in heavy wind. And it can be scary.

There are things I try to tell myself, to remind myself, that this is literally the safest place to be in the case of an earthquake. It’s clear. It’s fine.

All the tall buildings in Shinjuku are still standing…

There are so many modern (short) skyscrapers here in Tokyo, and in the big 2011 Tohoku earthquake, they remained standing, even though the quake registered as a 6 in Tokyo (it was a 9 at the epicenter). The great Kanto earthquake of 1923 hit the area at an 8.3, but they didn’t have quite the building technology or criteria that they have these days. So I try not to think about that.

People say that big quakes hit the same area roughly every 100 years or so. So I feel a little safer thinking that the next one shouldn’t happen here for a while. But on the other hand, here I am talking (writing) about it, and that could jinx things, right?

The view from the 20th floor

The view from the 20th floor

I was on the 20th floor last weekend when a 4 hit Chiba, which is close to Tokyo, and that set us shaking a little. I was sitting in a booth with a window, in the middle of a lesson. All I could think to do was look out the window, at the other large buildings nearby. I think I did it to calm myself, but also to see what it looked like from the outside. Inside, it was shaking and felt scary.

The other buildings must have been shaking, too, but it was so minor that I couldn’t see it from where I was (which was actually pretty close). This made me feel a lot better about what was happening in my own building, which is about the same age as those ones I was looking at, if not younger (and shorter).

just hanging out on the top floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, no big deal…

I went to the Mori the other night to see a Ghibli exhibition that is currently running (and that I’ll visit again when Verena comes next week), and I was having the worst anxiety about going up there. I have no idea why. Maybe it had been a long day, and we’d been out since 11, and it was 7pm. I was tired. It was also night, and the view from the top would be beautiful, as it always is. I’ve been up there so many times, and this was the first time I was actually afraid to go up. I think I didn’t want to see that view if there was an earthquake.

I think that this time, it was me being tired, mixed with the smaller earthquakes we’d just had. They seem to come in sets recently, and I didn’t want there to be a bigger one coming. As luck would have it, of course, everything was totally fine. Another 5 earthquake hit the next night while we were laying in bed.

the CatBus will save us.

the CatBus will save us.

But while I was up there, I was trying so hard not to be anxious. It’s a big argument against myself, trying to talk myself down. The Mori has floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase a spectacular view of the city. The building was completed in 2003, and it was fine in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. It was fine, it was fine. It may actually be one of the safer places to be, in the event of an earthquake. That being said, I don’t want to be up there when one happens.

So to calm myself, I stayed away from the windows, and if I was near them, I tried to look at Shinjuku. Shinjuku is like the business district in Tokyo, and it has the most tall buildings in the prefecture (I’m pretty sure). It has the tallest buildings, by far, which are even taller than Roppongi Hills. So they were finished in the 90’s, and the 00’s, and they were fine in the earthquake. It was all fine. I distracted myself by taking photos. In the CatBus, against a wall, etc. Taking photos and watching my friend’s daughters enjoy themselves was helpful.

I have to keep reminding myself that all the buildings in Shinjuku and Roppongi Hills are still standing. There was no damage. They are safe.

the closest I got to the window. My back was against a wall.

the closest I got to the window. My back was against a wall.

While I was at the show, I thought to myself ‘at least it would be a beautiful place to die’, ‘at least I would die doing something fun with people I love‘, and ‘at least I would die looking at beautiful art and doing what I love‘. This is similar to what I think when I have my death fantasies as my planes take off: ‘at least I’ll die doing what I love‘.

And even though that is morbid and maybe sad, it helps.

Neil Gaiman said something interesting in his audiobook the View from the Cheap Seats, that I’m currently listening to, last night. He said: Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

So maybe it’s ok to be afraid of stupid things sometimes. I know earthquakes aren’t stupid, but it’s kind of silly to be afraid of them here. Especially when everyone around me has grown up with them, and survived, and is here with me today. It’s silly to be afraid of your airplane crashing, even though some do. I have to remember exactly how many flights are up in the air every day, and land without incident, every day.

I have to remember all of that.