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. . .)

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