Twitter and the Quakebook

How an English teacher in Japan compiled a book of first-hand accounts of the earthquake in one week

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Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

This is the story most of us know:

At 2:46 p.m. local time, on March 11th, a 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, followed by a tsunami almost 40 meters in height. Thirteen thousand people died, a nuclear power plant partially melted down, and more than 100 000 buildings collapsed in the most earthquake-proof nation on Earth.

Here’s a story we haven’t heard:

Yesterday morning I woke up my son early and told him, “We’ve decided to leave Sendai. Please know that you might not be able to return to this house again. It will be at least a week, maybe a month, or a year before we return. Or maybe never. Start packing your clothes in the school bag. You will not need any of the first-grade textbooks nor your notebooks because there will be no more school in March. You can take your baseball gloves with you, but will have to leave behind the bat."

Two more. This one a Japanese family living abroad:

When my smartphone chimed at 3 a.m. Friday in Ontario, bringing news of a massive earthquake in Japan, I woke [my wife]. Her parents were in Miyagi. She muttered something about calling them in the morning and went back to sleep. We’d spoken to her dad only a few hours ago. It could wait. Morning came, and the TV showed images of cars washing under a bridge like ice floes on a spring river, fishing boats perched atop buildings, entire villages reduced to mud-covered rubble. We called and called to no avail.

One more, back in Japan:

My 70-year-old mother refuses to go to a shelter and insists on staying at home. She says she’s not bothered by magnitude 3 earthquakes. Even though the government seems to have forgotten her, she is perfectly calm.

Those passages come from a book of stories compiled within one week after the earthquake struck. The book is called Aftershocks: Stories From the Japan Earthquake, but most people just call it “Quakebook.” You can buy it on Amazon for $9.99, and 100 percent of the proceeds go the Japanese Red Cross.

My guest today is the book’s originator. He’s an English teacher in Japan—in a little town called Abiko, about an hour’s drive north of Tokyo. In the book, and on his blog, he refers to himself simply as “Our Man in Abiko,” so at his request we’ll do the same.

He rounded up writers and editors to put together Quakebook in just one week, with a few famous names contributing, such as the artist Yoko Ono and the science fiction writer William Gibson, but mostly it contains the voices that go unheard when the 24-hour news networks move on to the next big story.

This interview was recorded 25 April 2011.
Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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