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. . .