On January 17th, 1995, I lived three blocks away from where I do now (I’ve lived many places in the meantime, but never mind that). The Nagai area is at the very bottom of Osaka City, a short bicycle ride from the next city, Sakai. We were all coming off a long weekend, Coming-of-Age Day. It’s the holiday in Japan when anyone who turns 20 in the previous year gets to put on a suit or kimono and go down to the city hall or ward office and get a certificate from the mayor, and start to pay income tax, and get the right to vote (which few exercise) and smoke (which many have been doing for years). It used to be quite a thing, if you were 20.
The 16th was a cold night. I recall being in Nishitanabe that evening, on the other side of Nagai Park. This was probably not the night my neighbour Sean and I helped the one-armed drunk man out of the bushes in the ditch (he had fallen off his bicycle), but I must have been in that vicinity. I was dreading getting up for work the next day. I remember that much.
Early in the morning, before sunrise, I had the distinct impression that someone was shaking me awake, up-down, up-down. Half-asleep, I tried to push the invisible hand away, jolted awake when I realized I was alone. The pushing had become a swaying, and when I jumped up from the futon, I felt like I was in a rowboat, almost losing my balance. It seemed to go on a very long time, and when the swaying subsided, I opened a window and looked out. Stillness: no cars, no one shouting, or running out into the street. In the twilight, there was the moon and two planets (Venus and Jupiter? I forget), and nothing else: you don’t really see the stars in the Osaka sky.
I went back to bed. I didn’t know what else to do. I noticed a draft, saw a curtain move – the vibrations had shaken open the balcony door. I closed it, locked it, again crawled under the quilt. The phone rang: Jousuke in Toyonaka, north of Osaka City. His room was a shambles, with overturned bookshelves, a knocked-over television and a crack in the wall. “Wow,” I said, “sounds like you had it worse up there.”
“Aren’t you watching television?” he all but shouted at me. I wasn’t – didn’t occur to me. In Japan, it’s the first thing anyone does in a situation like that. I turned it on, and the first image I saw was the Hanshin Expressway, the main elevated toll-road between Osaka and Kobe, lying on its side. They did have it worse up there. A death toll was posted in the corner: 30. That’s terrible, I thought, thirty people killed. Of course, before the day was through, the toll was at around 5000.
On an impulse, I called home. It’s a good thing I did: they would have been turning on the suppertime news in a few moments. You’ll see some pretty bad things on the news, I told my mother, but I’m okay. Soon afterwards, the phone lines were flooded, and we could barely even make a local call (an enduring image of later that day: dozens of people patiently standing in line at green pay phones, contacting relatives to tell them the same thing I told mine).
There were aftershocks throughout the day.