Peter Conrad (1969) is a Swiss banker who has always worked abroad: Milan, Hong Kong, Monaco and Tokyo. He’s been married but now, he is single. He is very keen on exploring what’s new in architecture, arts, food science and local events: he looks at things with the wide-open eyes of a boy full of awe who dips his finger in a pot of Nutella.
Peter arrived in Tokyo on February 3, 2011 and on March 11, that same year the earthquake devastated the island, changing its destiny forever. “In such emergency Japan offers to the world the best view of its values and beliefs” says Peter.
It was a quiet afternoon. I was at the office at 3 pm, when suddenly the horizon seemed to jump, going up and down for about a minute. Japanese people are precise even when they have to describe an earthquake’s dynamics: if the oscillation is horizontal – no big deal. When it is vertical, then it is a problem. This one was vertical.
For a week the atmosphere has been electric. At the beginning I was not too worried. I soon learned that the best way to calm down is to watch my Japanese colleagues who know exactly what to do. Usually, when earth shakes, they are happy. This time they were not laughing.
Unlike previous earthquakes , the intensity was rising dramatically. The buildings in the front were oscillating. It was a dreadful vision.
First stage bis
A break. After ten minutes, another tremor. Everyone understood that the situation was serious. All connections depended on the Internet. The phone lines were cut off. Out the window, we could see a fire that broke out in the distance.
The first announcements spread throughout the building: jammed lifts, “all stay inside, put on the helmets and take the survival kit” (water, gloves, masks and a few other things).
At around 5.30pm we went out down the stairs. All organized, no nervous break downs. I had a date out that soon turned into a surreal walk. Millions of people were orderly going back home. At a western glance it was an amazing demonstration of how the society defends itself thanks to synchrony. Think of what would have happened in an individualistic society. In Tokyo I heard silence and discipline. After three hours I was at home.
Second stage flashback
As I was going home I spotted some details of normal life. Shops were open, people were sitting in bars and restaurants. For some students it was their graduation day. In such occasions girls wear bright and colorful kimonos. I saw the same colors of Hero, the film of Zhang Yimou, where colors have a double meaning.
On the one hand they identify the narrative times; on the other they represent the emotional waves that go along with the narration.
On Sunday it was clear that the situation in the nuclear power plant was serious. European embassies feebly invited foreign citizens to leave the country. Germans set off in crowds, followed by the French. I was mulling spending a few days in Hong Kong until the emergency faded. Leaving would have shown a not-so-good example, and strangely I found myself in the emotional enigma of wanting to share all might happen with my japanese colleagues and friends.
Thinking over the third stage
Loneliness is part of expatriates’ lives, especially for singles. Freedom and independence can become an illness, and if you chase them, you have to accept the flip side. We live in a temporary reality, hovering between our culture and the one in which we live. Staying here in these days has been a personal choice to remind myself that I belong to two worlds – my world and the world I will live in from now on.
Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Spring 2011