March 28, 2011 / 7:54 PM / 6 years ago

An American Expat in Tokyo Recounts Quake, Aftermath

Wisconsin resident Joan Lambert Bailey and her husband, Rich, moved to Japan on a whim three years ago when Rich accepted a job teaching English at a Japanese university. Joan went to work at an organic farm and writes about urban gardening at her blog, PopcornHomestead and for various publications.

"It was easy to fall in love with the city and Japan," she says.

Their idyllic expat life ended with the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that have devastated Japan. The couple temporarily left their Tokyo apartment for the relative safety of a friend's home in Osaka, an eight-hour bus ride away.

In an interview with SecondAct, the 42-year-old writer talks about what it was like to go through the earthquake, how people are coping and what Americans can do to help.

SA: Where in Tokyo do you live?

JB: We live in a suburb on the west side called Musashi Sakai or Musashino Shi, about 20 minutes or so by train from Shinjuku, a central hub, and about 30 minutes by train from Tokyo station, a very central hub. The closest city you might see on a map of Tokyo would be Mitaka.

SA: What were you doing when the earthquake struck?

JB: We'd spent the month of February in Wisconsin visiting, and I was at home working on an article for Summer Tomato (a website for urban foodies) about a trip to a Wisconsin farmers market. I injured my Achilles during the trip, and so had my foot up and crutches nearby.

SA: What were those first few hours like?

JB: They were quite possibly the most frightening of my life. I stayed outside about three or four hours after the initial quake. The subsequent aftershocks were quite strong, and I was terrified. I also felt motion sickness, which was surprising to me, but not to others who'd been through something like this before. When the news began coming in about the devastation up north and the tsunamis, I was shocked. We slept in our clothes that night as warnings of another big one were issued.

SA: Tokyo is 170 miles from the worst destruction. What have people in the city done for the past week? Are they back at work, helping with aid efforts or staying close to home?

JB: It's a mix of responses. As people can, they go back to work and life. The trains run fitfully. If there is a quake, they shut down automatically. The rolling blackouts run in fits and starts, too, which affects daily life. The majority of people try to carry on as normally as possible. A number of our foreign friends have opted to leave the city as we have, and a number of our Japanese friends have sent their children out of the city, too.

SA: The news is full of reports on the damaged nuclear reactors. How worried are people there about a potential crisis, and what are they doing about it?

JB: People are concerned, but not panicking. It's difficult to find calm, reasoned reports about it, but we're all trying. Panic in a city of 35 million people is less than ideal. There has been some stockpiling and hoarding of food and daily life items, as well as gasoline, but overall people are calm and supportive.

SA: Have people you know been affected?

JB: A number of our Japanese friends have either friends or family in the areas directly affected, and some are still waiting to hear word. Others were stranded in the center of Tokyo after the quake and either had to walk home, upwards of six hours in some cases, or had to sleep at their offices and ride home on intermittent and crowded trains the next day. I think the aftershocks are some of the worst. You just don't know how big it will be or if you should dive for shelter.

SA: What are the aftershocks like?

JB: It's a bit hellish. I come from blizzard-tornado country, which is scary but not like this. I can see those coming, and I can see when they will end. An earthquake doesn't offer that sort of luxury.

SA: What are your plans now?

JB: Originally, our plans were to simply stay put in Tokyo and watch the news. Given that I'm on crutches and feeling low-grade tension as supermarket supplies and gas started running short, we decided to leave the city for a few days. It was also nice to get away from the aftershocks. Now, we're in Osaka staying with friends and monitoring the news while deciding what our next step will be. We're not planning to leave Japan, but we may stay out of Tokyo for a bit.

SA: What else would you want people here to know about what's happening?

JB: People need to know that the situation in Japan is serious and it needs to be watched; however, I am also extremely impressed at how people here are pulling together to help each other and keep life going. It's admirable and humbling.

SA: Anything else you'd like to share?

JB: I would love for people to consider how they can help. A donation to one of the many organizations working to help the victims up north would be much appreciated by everyone. Second Harvest Japan is one I might recommend, along with the Red Cross.

Keep Reading: What You Can Do to Help Japan

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