The class had barely begun before the skyscraper started shaking and the students ducked under their desks.
Was this the big one for Tokyo? I wondered.
It wasn't. Within 20 seconds, the swaying stopped and the students retook their chairs, ready for class to resume.
The year was 1984, and we were dozens of floors up in a Tokyo office tower. I was leading an English class. To this day, I recall how unfazed these young Japanese students were in the face of a decent-sized quake.
When the earth started moving on March 11, many in Tokyo and northern Japan were similarly unruffled. After all, earthquakes are so common on their archipelago that some joke about it. A popular proverb lists the four things Japanese most fear – "earthquakes, thunderbolts, fires, fathers."
Few are joking now. The 9.0 quake that struck March 11 was Japan's greatest in recorded history, unleashing a tsunami that quickly killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and triggered a still-unfolding radiological emergency.
Four days after disaster struck, a group of seven Japanese journalists visited The Bee. They had been in the United States during the quake, on a travel fellowship organized by the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Holding copies of our Tuesday front page, they asked us why the Japan disaster was such huge news here.
We explained that the combination of events – quake, tsunami, nuclear near-meltdowns – made it an unusually riveting story. And Californians, we noted, have a strong connection to Japan, both culturally and economically.
On reflection, that answer didn't fully do justice to the question. Why, amid so many world events, has the Japan disaster captured so much media and international attention?
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