The earth shook at 12:50 P.M. in Japan yesterday. A hotel room-service waiter was knocking on my door at precisely that moment with a pot of coffee when the floor began to tremble under our feet. It went on forever - about 10 seconds - and it was frightfully scary.
The room, from the lofty heights of the 15th floor, just rocked and rocked - the floor, the ceiling, the closets and the beds. It shifted from side to side like a drunk tottering before a fall.
For a moment, it seemed that the entire skyscraper was about to collapse on its side. Just one more rocking motion and that was it. But apparently renowned Japanese construction methods headed that off at the last moment.
Japanese television broke in immediately with a news flash: a six on the Richter scale. But this time, that level was felt with particular force in Tokyo. Even the television camera shook and shook, transmitting the images taken by a cameraman who was certainly skilled but who yesterday looked like he was suffering from Parkinson's disease.
The room-service waiter set down the coffee tray, as if nothing had happened, and silently went on his way, not forgoing a bow, of course.
But the quake didn't subside completely. An hour later the wall continued to sputter, emitting a strange whisper, and my legs continued to feel the quake for a while after that. I had broken out in a cold sweat, the Israeli that I am, not having practiced such things.
It wasn't my first Japanese quake. The first one for me was this week while I was sitting in a Toyko subway car, but that time we would never have known a thing if it hadn't been announced on a loudspeaker.
I recalled an earthquake in Israel. I was standing in the middle of the day one Friday a few years ago in the corridor of the newspaper's editorial offices, deep in conversation with the publisher, Amos Schocken. All of a sudden we felt something strange under our feet. We rushed to the Internet to learn that Israel had been hit by an earthquake. Not really an earthquake. More of a quakelet, a mild breeze, a blink of an eye compared to yesterday's Japanese temblor.
Yesterday morning had begun badly, too, with another explosion at another nuclear reactor, as usual over the past four days around six in the morning. Another blaze engulfing it, this time more mysterious than the ones before. A blurry still photo shown on television displayed the remnants of a cloud of smoke with a grayish core and a tiny object shooting on high, apparently from the force of the blast.
Beyond that, no further details were provided. But the next piece of frightening news arrived a little bit later. It was raining in Sendai, the city that was hardest hit in the big quake on Friday. The rain could spread radioactive fallout, which would be vastly more serious.
And if that was not enough, the afternoon brought the next piece of frightening news. The chief cabinet secretary, who has been holding news conferences every day in an effort to calm the public, was announcing increasingly worrying information. Then he disclosed that the government had decided to evacuate the last of the staff at the afflicted reactors, due to the extreme radiation that was being emitted.
In other words: Japan was giving up on efforts to cool the Fukushima reactors and catastrophe was closer than ever. At this point they might bring in helicopters, like some primitive remedy for a dying patient, but the airspace above the reactors has been closed for a while. And the radiation map on the front page of the Japan Times just gets worse, as does the sense of threat here.
There is no use describing the scene on the street. The Japanese remain steadfast. Just a moment after the quake, through my hotel window, I saw people on their way and cars driving by as if nothing had happened. There is also no use describing the deep unease and concealed fear of what is in store here, despite the facade of normality, despite everything.
Yesterday for the first time a Japanese citizen was heard complaining on television about the government: "They're not telling us the truth. They're not telling us anything," the man said, a portent perhaps of future waves of public criticism.
There is a growing sense that maybe the government knows more than it's reporting, or even worse, that maybe no one knows the truth, even the government. One way or another, the decision yesterday to abandon the reactors was a bad omen. Japan was throwing up its hands, even if just for now. More than ever, it seemed yesterday that Fukushima could become Hiroshima.
Goodbye, Japan. As I write this, it looks like we'll soon be leaving. There doesn't seem to be an alternative. Most foreigners have already gotten out, and the last of the foreign guests have already left my hotel. It looks like we'll have to observe the land of the rising sun from afar - the land that has fallen to such depths of disaster. Our hearts go out to this country.
We have learned this week to love Japan and the Japanese. We will remember the many victims and the destruction. We will remember the nobility and restraint that we have seen here. It finally became clear that the disaster is far from over, and perhaps, God forbid, the worst is yet to come.
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