Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: Social Issues

Tokyo Since 3/11 (Part II: A City on its Knees)

(Shibuya in the evening on April 1. The two large screens on these buildings are black, shop signs like those for Tsutaya and Starbucks are unlit, and billboards are not illuminated either. Only the street lights on Sentāgai street and the lights in the buildings are on.)

It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this post, but hopefully I can do it now. To understand what I’m talking about here, it might help to read the first part that I wrote about the city and how I experienced it before the quake.

As a person in the crowd before the quake, I hardly reacted to Tokyo as a whole. My moods were based on my own limited sphere of daily interactions with friends, in discussions at the university, or in communicating with people I work for. I lived in a tiny subsection of the Tokyo metropolitan area. . . That changed on March 11.

As it started shaking, the first reaction was in the nervous system. I sat in my apartment and saw everything around me shake far more violently than I had ever seen it shake before. But, when I went for cover I grabbed my computer and pulled it under the table with me. Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with people trying to assess the situation. It was as if the greater nervous system of Tokyo and of the affected parts of the country were reacting just as I had physically. Just as I had looked around the room trying to assess the situation in my direct surroundings, the greater community was trying to assess the greater situation primarily through the Internet. Even NHK was broadcasting online.

After the earthquake ended, I was in shock. I mechanically cleaned up my room and headed into the street. Everything looked normal. Even the supermarket was already cleaned up again, the only sign of damage a strong smell of alcohol in the liquor section. Everything seemed normal except at the train station, where people were waiting outside, and along the streets running parallel to the tracks, where people were walking in larger numbers than usual.

But beyond these concrete signs, there was a strange electricity in the air. I was super aware of my surroundings, and I think it wasn’t just me. Considering that every individual is so incredibly helpless in the face of an earthquake, and considering friends’ and acquaintances’ reports of higher levels of awareness that seemed similar to my own, it’s probably safe to say the whole affected area, including all of Tokyo, was in shock. Everyone was in shock.

In shock, people tried to find their way home amid the transportation shut down. In shock, people were faced with the messes in their homes and began cleaning up. In shock, people sought the company of others.

Shock, or acute stress reaction, supposedly lasts for two to three days. Amid aftershocks, however, I am sure that it lasted much longer that three days. Even now, after each new aftershock, I’m sure it sets in all over again, but I guess we’re getting used to that reaction in a way.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I went to Kyoto for a few weeks right after the quake (I had been packing to go when the earthquake hit. For more on that, see my post about the Kyoto trip.) When I arrived in Kyoto Station and saw the relative normality with which Kyoto was operating, I thought it very strange, probably because I was still in shock when I arrived.

So, I wasn’t in Tokyo when the shock there developed into sustained high levels of stress, but from my regular contact through E-mail and Twitter with friends, from conversations with those who came to visit Kyoto, and from the news, I got the distinct impression that Tokyo had been knocked to its knees. Department stores were closed, train service was running at about 70% on only local trains, blackouts rolled through the city to conserve electricity, and rain kept people home from work for fear of radiation.


(My train station on April 1. The lights are off and the information board shows only local trains are running.)

When I got back to my apartment in Yokohama on March 31 and headed into Tokyo on April 1, these changes were still apparent. In my neighborhood that first evening back, I noticed people were hurrying straight home instead of stopping in shops, pubs, or restaurants along the way. The convenience stores were half lit, and the quiet neighborhood streets seemed somehow quieter than they had been before.

The next day, I went into Tokyo to the university. Although it normally takes less than 25 minutes to reach Shibuya from my train station, on the local train it took almost 40 minutes. In Shibuya that evening, the large video screens and shop signs were dark. Shibuya was so dark, in fact, that it was hard to see people’s faces.

Not only was the lighting darker, but people were smiling less. Life seemed to move on almost like normal, but an unusual sensitivity and fear was palpable in the crowd. The devastation in Tohoku was far more real, far more present in people’s lives than it had been in the lives of people in Kyoto.

By now, I think I don’t notice the difference in mood much anymore. In the last two weeks, I have adjusted back to the crowd, and it’s harder to see how the whole city is doing. But when my Noh teacher visited from Kyoto last weekend, he confirmed that the mood in the city was different, darker, and yet hopeful.

There is a new sense of purpose, a new focus on the really necessary things in life. Most importantly, I have found a stronger sense of community here, and I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this. People are bonding in new, stronger relationships. It’s a great time to be in Tokyo. We’re standing up again. . .

Tokyo Since 3/11 (Part I: Before the Quake)

(One of the few pictures of the city I took before the quake, not that this particular view has changed much since. This is Yamate-dori, a major traffic artery that runs from Shinagawa-ku to Idabashi-ku and goes right by the University of Tokyo Komaba Campus here.)

What is it like in Tokyo now? How are people coping with the aftershocks and radioactivity scares? How do people feel about the devastation further north? I’ve been meaning to write more about this for some time now, but it’s incredibly hard to find the pulse of a city without confusing it with my own.

But I’m going to try to tell you how I see it, as an international grad student in the last couple weeks of spring vacation before the new academic year starts. My apartment is in a part of Yokohama on a major train line that runs directly to Shibuya, and I go into Tokyo almost every day even when I don’t go to the university. I have had a lot of time to meet with friends, take walks through the city, and join gatherings of young people, including the protest on Sunday.

My diagnosis is that the mood in Tokyo is perhaps not as stressed as it was the two weeks directly after the big quake, but it has not returned to how it was before the disaster. It’s going to be hard to say how I came to this conclusion. It will probably take a few posts to get all my thoughts up. For now, a few thoughts on cities in general and what Tokyo used to be like (now that I can compare before and after). . .

Is it even possible to take a city’s pulse, to evaluate its temperament? Aren’t there too many individuals, too many people all going their own directions, doing their own things, each with their own thoughts and feelings? Normally, yes.

A city has an ecosystem on a scale similar to a rainforest (can you tell I come from a forested place?). It is an organic amalgam of people and by people. Every day, it takes in air, water, food, electricity, and commodities, and releases waste. These are transported on roads and rivers, through cables and sewers that weave through the city like blood arteries and vessels. The city breathes, and its circulatory system moves all manner of things throughout its reaches. Within this system, people are like blood cells, moving along the same routes, on subways, trains, buses, and taxis through the city in an hourly, daily, weekly rhythm like a heartbeat.

What differentiates a city from an organism, though, is that as it grows, it does not slow down like the heartbeat of an elephant as compared to a mouse. It does the opposite. It speeds up. (For a fascinating take on this, see RadioLab’s episode on cities.) Maybe it’s the drive to preserve our own individuality that makes us busier? But even so, the residents of a city cooperate to make something greater. From the basic infrastructure through to business, the arts, academia, retail, and the service industry, each part functions like an organ within this huge man-made system that moves and grows organically.

When this system functions normally, we don’t notice how it functions (unless perhaps we’re small town kids not used to the big city yet, like I was not too long ago). But no matter how well adjusted we are to the system, we go about being happy, sad, hopeful, concentrated, worried, or whatever all according to our own situation, according to personal interactions with other individuals, objects, and parts of the system we come in contact with.

A little over a month ago, Tokyo was perfectly tuned and adjusted. Its heartbeat beat so precisely, as trains left stations within seconds of the schedule I download to my phone, as people filled the city each morning on their way to work, as anything one could ever want was available somewhere on the well-stocked shelves of convenience stores, department stores, supermarkets, bookstores, hobby stores, clothing and design shops. . . The only variations in the system as a whole were caused by rain (more rubber boots and umbrellas) or the allergy or flu season (more face masks). Delayed trains were so rare, train operators apologized for one or two minute delays. . .

As a person in the crowd, I hardly reacted to Tokyo as a whole. My moods were based on my own limited sphere of daily interactions with friends, in discussions at the university, or in communicating with people I work for. I lived in a tiny subsection of the Tokyo metropolitan area. . . That changed on March 11.

(To be continued. . .)

4/10 Anti-Nuclear Energy Protest

Yesterday, the anti-nuclear protest at Kōenji that I took part in stretched on for five hours – six if you count the hour before it began!! There were so many participants that because they were so carefully directed by the police into a single street lane, it stretched on forever and moved quite slowly. Protestors were orderly, but adamant, remaining until the end in the square outside Kōenji Station.

It was like a huge moving festival. A large sound truck blasted the neighborhood with chants and music, and people danced. Where I helped carry a banner, though, we were so far away from the truck we couldn’t hear it. Other musicians played drums, flutes, guitars, trumpets, pots, and we all chanted. It was a great atmosphere.

According to one man counting us from the roadside, we were 8,000 people, plus thousands more watching on UStream. According to a report by Kyodo News, we were 15,000!

In the days to come, I hope to write about how I understand the experience. In the meantime, here are a few pictures. . .

Update: Haha! How embarrassing. I’ve fallen into the Japanglish trap again. This time I used the word “nuke” for nuclear power instead of for atomic bombs! Sorry! I’m going to try to correct that. . . Does “nuke energy” work? Um. . . no. “Nuclear Energy” it is.

A Sunday in April 1961 (“The Beatnik Riot”)

(Image from NPR. Click on the image to see their report on the story.)

On April 9, 1961, folk singers who had been rejected a permit to sing in Washington Park, NY, took to the park to express their position. They sang folk songs, and the police began taking them away. NPR says this protest had lasting significance as one of the first US protests of the 1960s.

A documentary entitled Sunday was filmed that day by Dan Drasin and was made into a 17 min 9 sec film that you can see on his site. I highly recommend it.

This Year’s Cherry Blossom Festival. . . Cancelled?!

(Last minute flower viewing at the Komaba campus of the University of Tokyo.)

Yahoo.co.jp showed a photo today announcing the cancellation of this year’s cherry blossom festival in Chiyoda (part of Tokyo). That means the evening illumination of the flowers will not happen, say festival organizers. We all need to save electricity, certainly, but we may also need to celebrate the blossoms more this year than any other. It’s a chance to spend time with friends and family in beautiful natural settings with plenty of food and alcohol to grease the cogs of social harmony.

When I visited the company I used to work for in Kyoto, which provides luxurious accommodations in Kyoto townhouses, they said that although the houses had been booked solid for the sakura season, mostly by foreigners, cancels from abroad were pouring in. The tourism industry is hurting this cherry blossom season, even in parts of the country that were unaffected by the disaster and that rely on tourism revenue to sustain their economies.

Just today, I went to a party for the new graduate students in my department at the University of Tokyo. Most years it is a flower viewing party, but the food and drinks were served indoors this year. I have no idea who made that decision. However, at the end of the event, one professor suggested we go outside to view the blossoms, and we all tromped outside just as the sun was setting, lighting up the flowers magnificently. I love them now, just before they burst into full bloom in almost overwhelmingly fluffy pink clouds.

And thus the new academic year begins. . .

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