National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
March 22, 2011 • Volume 8 / Number 6

Guest Commentary by Dr. James L. Gulley

Devastation and Hope: An NCI Scientist’s First-Hand Account of Japan’s Resilience

Dr. James L. Gulley Dr. James L. Gulley

As the horrifying events and aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami continue to unfold on our television and computer screens, it’s difficult to imagine how any nation could recover from such calamities. But, based on what I personally witnessed, I have great hope for Japan’s future.

As some may know, NCI has had a long and vibrant relationship with the Japanese cancer research community. At any given time, dozens of scientists and researchers from both countries trade places to collaborate on research projects, participate in training, or deliver lectures. My latest—and most memorable—lecture in Japan happened to fall on Friday, March 11.

I had been invited to take part in an international meeting in Japan that included a short presentation and discussion with some of the conference participants. The venue for this talk was the 11th floor of an office building in Kawasaki City, 30 minutes south of Tokyo by Metro train.

I was only about 10 minutes into the lecture when, at 2:46 p.m. local time, the earthquake hit. Having lived in southern California for 8 years, I was somewhat accustomed to earthquakes, but this was an experience that really had no precedent for me.

It started as a relatively mild tremor that became a slow steady crescendo, culminating in a cross between a rollercoaster with sharp turns and a very turbulent flight. The clear sway of the building felt like a tree being whipped by the winds of a hurricane. I was standing, but my more experienced hosts calmly directed me to sit down. After the shaking continued for about 20–30 seconds, they encouraged me to get under the conference room table.

One of my first thoughts was that, if I were to be in the vicinity of an earthquake, what better place than in a building designed by Japanese engineers and built to Japanese code. We nervously joked about developing motion sickness but earnestly hoped the quake would stop soon. My thoughts raced and questions swirled in my mind as I looked into the eyes of my colleagues. Where is the epicenter? How serious is this?

One thing was clear: This wasn’t a routine earthquake.

As soon as the tremors stopped, we made our way in a single-file march down the 11 flights of stairs and out to a large courtyard. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the complete order and clear preparedness of those around me.

Once gathered below, we didn’t have to wait long for information. Although the electricity had been knocked out and cell phone service allowed only emergency calls to get through (an automatic measure to avoid overloading the system), text messaging was working, and the ubiquitous smart phones were getting information about the epicenter and magnitude of the quake from news sources.

Word arrived quickly that the danger was far from over and that a 6-meter tsunami was likely.

As someone with an interest in natural disasters, this bit of news concerned me much more than the earthquake itself because I knew buildings could be built to withstand even a mighty quake, but a 6-meter tsunami could be much more ruthless and devastating. Of course, it was numbing to hear moments later that the tsunami estimate had been increased to 10 meters.

Despite this warning, the “all clear” was given, and my colleagues and I filed back up to our 11th floor conference room and finished the lecture. Since the electricity was out, I presented on one laptop to the front of the room while those in the back of the room followed along on a separate laptop.

Our discussions were lively and somewhat nervous, given what we had just experienced. The exchanges were punctuated by dozens of aftershocks and announcements on the PA system that the power was out (as if we didn’t know).

We ended our discussions at 6 p.m., still unaware of the full degree of devastation unfolding in the north. Clearly our plans to go out for dinner were going to be put on hold. Unfortunately, the quake had ended all train service. The normally efficient mass transit system ground to a halt while engineers inspected the rails. The sidewalks and streets were clogged with a torrent of people heading out to the suburbs.

My hotel was a 3-hour walk away and no taxis could be found. So my colleagues and I resolutely started our cold (40 degrees Fahrenheit) blustery (gusts up to 30 MPH) journey. I wished I had brought my hat. Our conversations soon drifted to relatives and friends who lived north of Tokyo. These conversations turned to small cheers when several were reached by texting.

Eventually, we were able to make it across the river into Tokyo and located a bus that would take us a bit closer to the town center. An hour or so later, we arrived at the home of Den, a prominent doctor in Tokyo and one of the meeting participants. Although he could have driven me to my hotel, Den and his wife Adair took into account the day’s events and instead invited me for a home-cooked, vegetarian Japanese dinner.

Fortunately, by this time, cell phone service had been restored, and I was able to let my family know I was safe.

When we checked a GPS, we saw that all the roads into town were completely blocked. The seriousness of what had occurred began to settle in, although we still didn’t fully comprehend the degree of the devastation. By this time, it was after 10 p.m. My hosts graciously invited me to stay with them, and I was able to sleep (despite intermittent sharp aftershocks) in their study.

Of course, it wasn’t a surprise that my flight out the next day had been cancelled, but thankfully I was able to return home on Sunday, March 13. By that time, news about the lives lost, the extent of the destruction, and the uncertainty about the future began to emerge.

Looking back, I know that my experience pales when compared with what many Japanese citizens are going through. But I can’t say enough about the resilience I witnessed, as well as the gracious concern and hospitality of my scientific colleagues. Even when they had relatives they couldn’t contact, their first thought was to ensure the safety and well-being of those around them.

I am certain that this fortitude, along with the help and support of countries around the world, will sustain the nation of Japan and its residents in the difficult months and years to come.

Dr. James L. Gulley 
Director, Clinical Trials Group, Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology
Principal Investigator, Medical Oncology Branch 
NCI’s Center for Cancer Research