A Musician’s View Of Japan

A Musicians’ View of Japan

Occasional Blogging

March 11, 2011: There’s an Earthquake!

I had just walked up the stairs and arrived in our second floor offices when a co-worker greeted me with the words, “there’s an earthquake!” Sure enough, I stopped and felt the building shake. There was absolutely nothing alarming about this, especially today. For the past week Tokyo had been shaking due to a series a minor earthquakes in the northern part of the country. This was just another in that series of unremarkable (for Japan at least), tremors.

But this one continued. For a while it slowly gained in intensity, then, like a Balinese gamelan performance, broke into a sudden rush of explosive, noisy energy. Such a pattern is normal for earthquakes, and one can usually guess how long and strong it will be. But this one just kept going, becoming more cacophonous. Things were starting to fall of the desks and shelves.

Our office, the International House of Japan, has a huge floor to ceiling honeycombed steel frame set between a mid room pillar and the wall, especially constructed to prevent the building from collapsing in a major earthquake. I went to this frame, thinking it would be the safest part of the room. I ended up holding on to it to remain standing. 

After about five minutes, the shaking stopped. Five minutes is a very long time for an earthquake. Most, like the Kobe earthquake in 1995, lasted less than a minute. When the shaking settled, we all stood, silent, in the office, looking at each other in disbelief. 

The building manager rushed in, asking if everyone was ok, then said we should leave the building. We picked up our coats and walked out to the parking lot, which was already full of people milling about, talking, even joking about the quake. I looked at the weather site on my I-phone and saw that the epicenter was off the coast of Iwate Prefecture and had registered a 7.9 on the Richter scale. Everything looked normal outside. No buildings seemed damaged, and traffic was running as normal.

After a while we decided to go back in. I turned on a television to watch coverage of the quake. It soon became apparent that a major tsunami alert had been issued for the northeastern coast of Japan.

Soon the cameras were streaming live images of the waves as they rushed into the villages, coastal areas and farmland. The sea effortlessly hit and hurdled the huge concrete wave barriers with a ferocity that caused plumes to shoot upward like gigantic, watery fireworks. In other places, however, the water began flowing in gently, like an overflow from a bathtub, but the amount kept increasing until it reached ferociously cascading proportions. 

Cars, trucks buses were caught in the swell and floated about like toys. Boats streamed inland and crashed into buildings and bridges. Houses came rushing down. The most heartbreaking scenes were those of people in cars trying to outrun the waves but, because of unfortunate turns in the road, ended up driving right into the water. Some abandoned their cars when they saw they could go no further and began running. Tons of detritus surged inland, some of which caught fire, creating surreal scenes of floating conflagrations.

While this disaster unfolded, our building once more jolted to life. It was an aftershock. We all ran outside again, but this time the atmosphere was not so innocently festive. The images of sudden death in the northern prefectures were already ingrained in my mind.

Once more I entered the International House. Inside I ran into Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer and social activist who had just arrived in Japan the day before to give a series of lectures and interviews at the I-House and other venues. We planned a reception for her that night. She loves music, and we had arranged that I play shakuhachi for the reception. The previous night she came to my university class and to hear a presentation of traditional Edo Period koto/shamisen/shakuhachi ensemble music and had fallen in love with the sounds. 

I asked her how she had fared the earthquake, thinking she might have been shocked and frightened. Not at all, she said. She had heard about Japan’s ubiquitous earthquakes and therefore thought that this was just par for the course. She looked genuinely concerned when I told her that this was a very serious tremor and that tsunamis were ravaging the north at this very moment. Her partner told me with a wry look that if this happened in India, the whole place would be reduced to rubble in an instant.

I continued watching the television while numerous aftershocks rattled the building. None were as strong as the initial quake, but their insistence and frequency were annoying. 

By this time, it was apparent that major damage had been done, though in Tokyo only a handful of buildings suffered structural damage. What was clear, however, was that the trains were stopped and there was no information on when they might be starting up again.

Then came word that Arundhati, who in the meantime had gone out to visit Yasukuni Shrine, was stuck in a huge traffic jam and could not make it back in time for the reception. It was also clear that people were now too worried about making it home and had more important things to do than to attend a reception, so we cancelled.

The problem now was, how were we to get home? From years back, emergency planning in the city has requested that commuters research and think about how to walk home in case of a disaster. Now was the time to put this into practice. I was actually rather excited about the prospect.

Around 7 PM two younger colleagues, who lived in the same general part of town, and I set off. Time permitting, I often walk part way home after work, so I knew the shortest and least congested routes to get us out of the city and on our way home.

The city had a slightly festive atmosphere. Some Tokyo office workers carried generic looking backpacks that were labeled simply “disaster kits.” Others had donned helmets and face masks or had exchanged their work shoes for more comfortable sneakers or walking shoes. More and more people took to the streets and began walking in the same westerly direction as us, and they too had backpacks or carried emergency items. There was a definite sense of “evacuee fashion” amongst these Tokyoites. 

As the evacuees swelled in numbers, the sidewalks became as crowded as the streets, as after a summer festival or fireworks display. Folk helped each other out, gave directions and, above all, were patient. At one place, we had to wait as a group passed by, going the other direction. It was a wave of a few hundred high school students, following their teacher. They were obviously from out of town, on a school trip to the capital. They were chatting, giggling and exuding all the energy and curiosity of youth. I asked one of the female students where they came from.

“Okinawa.” This was said in a giggle; surprised but excited.
Wow, I said, This must have been more than you bargained for! When do you return?
“Tomorrow… maybe.” By now her friends had crowded around to get a glimpse of the foreign man who had started talking to them. I wished her good luck, and they all giggled again, waved and said “bye bye” as they walked away. These youths had just experienced something they would remember for their whole lives and tell their grandchildren, yet they were still excited to be noticed and speak to a stranger on the streets of Tokyo.

The traffic was horrendous, and walking turned out to be much faster than going by car. As we trudged along, we noticed stores along the way that posted helpful signs on the windows: “Please feel free to use our toilets.” “We will stay open all night, you are welcome to stop, rest and get warm.” Policemen helped people find their way, and at one busy intersection they were handing out face masks to help folk cope with the heavy exhaust fumes from all the traffic.

The ubiquitous 24 hour convenience stores (konbini) lived up to their names. We stopped in several on our way out. I purchased an extra T shirt to keep warm, some hot food and drinks. Their toilets were also available.

The 14 km hike in the cold, however, was beginning to take its toll. I was getting tired and chilled and looked forward to arriving home and heating up the bath. When I finally arrived, I discovered the elevators were not working. Apparently, they stop automatically and can only be reset by the elevator maintenance men. I did not know this. So I began the ten story climb. It was not as bad as I thought, however, because it used different muscles than walking.

At last I reached the front door and took out my keys. Strangely, several lights were on inside, even though I had turned them off before I left in the morning. When I opened the door I saw why.

In my office and bedroom, chests, file cabinets and bookcases had all “walked” to the center of the room, hitting the light switches on their way. In my office, books were scattered all over the floor, but the only parts of the bookshelves themselves that had come loose and fallen were, ironically, the expandable rods that were supposed hold them upright in the event of an earthquake. So much for that great invention.

Foodstuff had been ejected from the cabinets that lined the hallway, and a bottle of expensive champagne I had been saving for a special occasion lay broken on the floor. It contents spilled everywhere. The aroma of all these ingredients mixed together reminded me of the aftermath of some great Dionysian festival that had been suddenly abandoned mid-way through.

The kitchen was entirely blocked by a fallen cabinet/sideboard that previously had been home to my plates, glasses, tea cups and crystal. These utensils were now all over the floor in a kaleidoscopic array of colorful shards. I could not access the refrigerator, but it seemed still humming along.

I turned to the tatami mat room where instruments are. The case where I keep my collection of world flutes (including my shakuhachi) had literally fallen on its face; instruments scattered everywhere. On top of this cabinet were set of Balinese cymbals (chen chen), mounted on a colorful wood carving of a turtle. This had probably fallen first, since it was at the bottom of the pile, and I could imagine the sounds as it came crashing down, followed by the flutes and other percussion instruments. I was both relieved and regretful I was not at home to hear this seismic symphony.

After the shock of all this wore off, I began basic cleanup. It was past midnight however, so I soon tired out and was, fortunately, able to claim my hot bath (since the gas still operated), before I carved space out of my bedroom to sleep. I lay there, going over the images of day and thought how fortunate that we in Tokyo still had our homes, basic utilities, and, most importantly, our lives. 

As I fell asleep, I realized I was not all that attached to my crystal anyway.

Kitchen Instruments hall






Monday, March 14, 2001 The Aftershocks

It took most of the weekend to pick up, throw away and clean the place. Mika came, and with her detailed help we were able to put things, more or less, back into order. Fortunately, only a few, non-essential instruments were damaged, the shakuhachi were fine, including a specially made glass shakuhachi. Many calls, mails, and Facebook messages arrived from friends or family who are genuinely worried, and each required a thoughtful response. There are so may other things that have to be seen to; arrangements to be made, work related issues to deal with, food and supplies to purchase, and, most troubling, trying to keep up with the developments of the deterioration of the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

Both the Prime Ministers’s office and the electric company (TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company) held periodic news conferences to try to explain the situation. These were commendable efforts, but the problem was that they tended to contradict each other, even though the news was supposedly coming from the same source (the emergency situation team at Fukushima Dai’ichi Genpatsu). The Prime Minister’s office announced a certain finding (like at one point when the radiation levels near the plant spiked to 400 milli Seiverts/hour), but when the electric company, in their press conference, mentioned the same fact, they tried to cover up the actual number, saying it was uncertain. They had not known the Prime Minister’s office had already released it. The press had great fun with this one.

Another, more severe, miscalculation on the part of TEPCO involved the rolling blackouts they had to introduce because of the powers plants that went offline. They divided the Kanto Plain into several areas and announced that electricity to certain areas would be cut for up to three hours daily. 

The Japanese may mistrust nuclear energy, but it keeps their neon lights on and the economy humming, and when plants go offline, a major portion of the electricity (and robust economy) goes with it. 

Most Japanese went along with this plan, realizing that rolling blackouts (called keikaku teiden, “planned outages”) would be the only way to prevent major disruptions in service and fairly spread the remaining electricity around. People bought extra supplies, hunkered down and prepared to ride it out.

The first deadline came and went. No blackouts. It seems that everyone cut back on their power consumption, negating the need for any blackouts. Yeah for the basic civil concern of the Japanese citizen, I thought. 

But another deadline brought a different story. TEPCO began their blackouts in the northern part of the Kanto Plain, but one of the affected areas happened to be a refugee center in Chiba. In the midst of the cold, suffering and uncertainty the evacuees were already experiencing, their electricity had been cut off. Had TEPCO not considered this possibility? The frightened, shivering folk were shown on NHK television and subsequently enraged the public. A few hours later NHK showed a clip of the Governor of Chiba calling TEPCO officials into his office and yelling at them for their stupidity. There was a kind of satisfaction in watching this, but it was also apparent that the governor was posturing and taking advantage of the situation for his own political purposes.

TEPCO is not exactly know for transparency and willingness to share information, especially regarding the nuclear power plants. Throughout the years there have been numerous cases of deceptive practices, collusion with local governments to obtain permits, and hiding/falsification of data. Some of this has been documented and brought to trail but much is just hearsay. Their reputation is not good regarding truthfulness. Still, their precision in getting timely electricity to millions of homes in eastern Japan, the dedication of their technicians and their well oiled PR machines means that most Japanese trust what they say.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit my knowledge of nuclear power plants comes mostly from watching The Simpsons, so it is easy for me (and most of the nation) to believe TEPCO’s polished presentations and their fulsome praise of nuclear energy. The TEPCO people know this, and they maintain a pontific attitude, essentially telling the pubic to “trust us, we know what is best; don’t bother yourself with the details.” But this time, their attitude turned out to be a great miscalculation. Not surprisingly, they have ceased their press conferences.

Even in normal times this kind of attitude (which is endemic to those in positions of political or economic power in Japan) is tiresome, but in emergency situations it is absolutely dangerous. One just can’t get enough information to make an informed judgement.

In the midst of all this, I was wondering whether Tokyo was safe, but nothing the officials said was helpful. Thinking of a future in Tokyo with rivers full of green, glowing three-headed fishes a la The Simpsons, I called my brother Mike, who is a nuclear engineer. Familiar with the types of reactors in use here, he calmly explained that 1) A Chernobyl type massive explosion was impossible, 2) In a worst, Three Mile Island type scenario, the released radioactive iodine particles would disperse and decay very quickly, and that 3), the heavier (and more deadly) cesium 137 particles tend to settle directly into the earth and are not prone to spreading (unless exploded through a nuclear device or in the case of Chernobyl).

Good, I don’t need to leave Tokyo. But I did ask him to send me a pocket dosimeter. He said they were probably sold out now, since there was panic in the western US. He did tell me how to make my own out of a glass jar and tin foil.

Though I have not yet tried to make my own dosimeter, it is good to have brothers like him.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011 A Stiffled Spring

There is some panic buying going on, but so far no critical shortages of the necessities. The news media and stores try to persuade folk from hoarding. The power outages (some of which never materialize) and uncertainty of the nuclear situation understandably urge people toward self preservation and the stockpiling of essentials, but their sense of civic responsibility remains, and this gives rise to contradiction. One can see this dilemma in faces of shoppers as they push their carts down the supermarket aisles. 

I happen to stop by the rack where bottled water is kept. There were only about four bottles left, but above the shelf was a sign asking people to limit their purchases to one bottle apiece.

A young housewife was eyeing the bottles, then she glanced up at the sign. She looked at the bottles again, obviously her mind questioning whether to take one or all. She suddenly became aware of me standing there, turned and with a sheepish look asked, do you think it’s ok? Obviously, she wants more than one bottle. Perhaps, not so obviously, she has tapped into what was going on in my mind as well, and her coquettish question became an invitation to co-conspiracy.

I was more intrigued by the sudden and unexpected intimacy of this encounter than I was by civic duty, so I smiled and said why not? The tension broken, we laughed and each ended up taking only one bottle apiece, though I compensated by going to the sake section and stocking up there.

NHK has temporarily become like CNN, a 24 hour news channel but without the irritating, self promoting commercials. Amongst the logorrhea of commentary on the television, however, there are a few revealing snippets of the tragedy’s true scope and what the nation is really going through. The enlightenment comes not from the newscasters, but from the survivors themselves.

A man was interviewed by NHK as he picked through the rubble of his home: 
Who are you looking for?
My Father.
His body? 
No, not the body, it probably won’t be found, I just want something to remember him by.

One village in Iwate Prefecture was having a town meeting when the tsunami struck. The topic of the meeting? Tsunami preparedness. The mayor and town council members are still missing.

Of all the horrendous news clips being shown on TV (Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic calls such video “disaster porn”) there was one clip of an elderly man rescued from his house with his wife, after about 72 hours being trapped inside. He came out smiling at the news crews, saying saiken! saiken! (rebuild, rebuild). This moved me beyond words.

To make matters worse, a cold front descended on the northeastern parts of Japan, stifling the Spring and plummeting temperatures back to mid-winter ranges. Now the disaster area is covered in white, and the luckless survivors have to contend with the cold as well as everything else. I watched as one woman searched for her family in the snow. I rarely try to write haiku, but this one popped into mind.


Hisaichi no
Mujou no yuki yo!
Haha sagashi

The disaster area.
In the heartless snow
A search for a mother.


Thursday, March 17, 2011 To leave or not to leave…

Today I finally left home and the Sengawa area and went downtown to work. It was mid-morning and the trains were not so full, but the faces of my fellow commuters were drawn, sullen and tired. Even though Tokyo was not nearly as affected as the areas of direct hit, the people here are wearied and worried about the future. Otherwise, daily life seems near normal. Amongst the foreign community, however, the question of whether to leave or stay suddenly became a pressing topic.

It is due to the uncertainty of the nuclear power plant and the possibilities of radiation. A few of my Tokyo friends called to ask my opinion about leaving, and I told them what my brother said, though it seemed small reassurance to them. Later in the day, I noticed the US Embassy recommended evacuation from around the Fukushima plant, from an larger radius than what the Japanese government already ordered. A few hours later, the embassy announced that they will provide flights for US citizens who want to leave Japan altogether. Just last month, during the Egyptian uprising, I noticed the US Embassy offered evacuation for its citizens there as well. I remember entertaining the smug thought that this situation could never occur in Japan.

Many around me seem eager to leave. One friend decided to escape to Kyushu. Two of the artists who had just arrived on the Japan-US Creative Artists’ Exchange Program (which I curate through the International House of Japan) decided, at the urging of their families back home, to temporarily evacuate themselves back to the states. Two long term resident friends of mine said they wouldn’t mind staying but decided this would be a good time to take a trip abroad anyway. And Temple University, where I am teaching this semester, arranged a charter flight to fly its foreign students and staff out of Tokyo and bus its Japanese students to Osaka. Suddenly, leaving was all the rage.

I gave it serious thought, but in the end, after balancing my responsibilities, anxieties and desires, decided that if there was no immediate danger in Tokyo, I could do more good here than anywhere else. It is, after all, my home and where my friends and loved ones live. It is entirely a personal choice that each one must make. 

When time came to leave the office, the manager walked in and informed us that due to the cold front, more electricity is being consumed and there may be a general blackout. The trains were cutting back service again. He urged us to leave early, which in Japan means no earlier than five anyway.

I take the Oedo subway line from Azabu Juban to Shinjuku, where I transfer to the Keio Line. The Oedo Line is a smaller gauge than most subways in Tokyo and is always crowded, but today it was packed beyond belief. Everyone obviously got the news to leave early.

Although a large crowd waited to board at the station, only a handful of people were able to board when the train finally arrived. I was, luckily, one of them. The doors struggled to close, but riders’ butts, shoulders, arms and bags got stuck in them. Through the train’s loudspeaker system, the driver repeatedly urged people to get off and take the next train, but no one budged. He tried over and over, each time politely requesting people to disembark. After his last announcement, however, he forgot to turn off his mike, so everyone could hear him mutter over the intercom, “this ain’t gonna work!” (これじゃダメだよ). The whole train burst into laughter, a few people stepped aside, and we were finally able to get on our way.


March 18, 2011 Anarchy at its best

Much has been made in the foreign press about the public civility of Japan and their cool response to the disaster. The foreign press makes the inevitable comparisons with Katrina, Haiti, Pakistan and other third world countries (and yes, in the realm of civil discourse I consider the USA a third world country) and points out the extensive looting and anarchical lawlessness that boils just under the surface in these societies, waiting to erupt during an emergency.

Yes, compared to many places Japan is very civilized, and that is one of the many reasons I live here. Yet in yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun there was an article about looting in some of the disaster areas.

It seemed to me that people in New Orleans looted for mainly two reasons; as an angry reaction against oppression and years of economic and social alienation or as an attempt at survival. The first scenario was demonstrated by people walking into the ruined department stores and grabbing whatever they found, believing they had the inalienable right to take stuff that wasn’t locked or guarded. The second scenario is more understandable; think mothers stealing loaves of bread for their children.

Japan just doesn’t have the first condition, and the second condition rarely occurs, so I was very interested in this article.

It mentioned that earlier this week there had been 146 cases of theft in the disaster area that were reported to the police, most of them desperate attempts to get the basics for survival. For example, someone broke into a convenience store and tried to take money from the ATM machine. When he was caught, he confessed, saying that he needed money to buy food for his employees. Gasoline is also a much sought after commodity, and there has been several arrests for stealing gasoline from parked cars and trucks.

There were also some blatant cases of looting, though, like the theft of brand goods from abandoned stores, but these were rare (so much so that they merited mention in the Asahi Shinbun).

The one I liked the best: the reporter observed four high schoolers breaking into a vending machine and stealing tea and canned coffee. He followed the kids as they returned to the evacuation center, where they immediately handed out the drinks to the elderly. 

Anarchy at its best.


March 20, 2011 Catfish and Cormorants

Instead of the usual CM, now the television stations air public service messages, sponsored by the Advertising Council Japan. These ads feature the poetry of the Japanese poet Miyazawa Shôji. An example:


“Kokoro”wa daredemo mienaikeredo
“Kokoro zukae”wa mieru.
“Omoi”wa mienaikeredo
“Omoiyari”wa daredemo mieru

No one can see the heart,
But you can see the works of the heart.
No one can see thought,
But you can see thoughtfulness.


The visuals accompanying these poems are simple vignettes showing people helping each other, mostly consisting of scenes of school children helping out the elderly. These commercials are obviously a call toward compassion and help for the earthquake victims. 

The visuals tend toward the maudlin, but it is always nice to see poetry with a succinct, driving observation of the soul. And how civilized to use poetry as a means of public education!
Today I went to see my old friend, the writer Donald Richie, who lives in Ueno. He has been sick and mostly housebound the last year and a half due to a series of illnesses and strokes, but he enjoys when his close friends call on him.

When the earthquake struck, he was out walking in Ueno Park with his Korean friend Dae Young. Ueno Park is Tokyo’s oldest public park and the site of the Ueno Zoo, the venerable Kan’ei-ji Temple and several world class museums, universities and research facilities. 

The two were walking alongside the zoo, next to the cages of the eagles when they noticed them suddenly becoming agitated and flying up against the top of their caged enclosure, as if trying to escape. This was strange behavior, Donald thought, as these huge birds are usually sedate and content to sit on their perches. At the same time, a massive flock of cormorants, who normally float on the pond next to Ueno Park, mysteriously flew up in a large group. Pondering this unusual animal behavior, they continued their walk. About fifteen minutes later the quake struck and they both had to hold onto a fence to keep themselves upright.

I’ve heard other such stories of animals who act bizarrely right before a big quake. A friend of mine once swore that the cats in his neighborhood always climbed up on the roof a few minutes before an earthquake. 

There is a folk belief in Japan that catfish can predict earthquakes, and many people used to keep them as pets just for that reason. A few years back, the meteorological agency did a scientific study to see if this was true, but they could not find any empirical evidence for this and considered the myth busted. Perhaps they should have studied eagles and cormorants instead.


March 23, 2011 A Catalyst for Change

More and more machinations at Tokyo Electric, Tepco, come to light. On Monday, the front page Japan Times reported that Tepco faked repair records. Ten days before the quake hit, in a report dated Feb. 28th, an inspector admitted that he failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment in six of its reactors at the Fukushima plant. Did this failure exacerbate the tragedy when the tsunami struck? In typical doublespeak, the nuclear safety agency said “We can’t say that the lapses listed in the February 28th report did not have an influence on the chain of events leading to this crisis.” Not exactly the most reassuring of statements, even considering that it is probably a direct translation from the Japanese.

In Japanese, the use of double negatives adds a certain elegant distance to the topic and allows for “squiggle room.” One can say something without actually saying it, and the reader can make their own interpretations. This requires an active participation on the part of the reader to look deeper into the subject and read between the lines. In literature and poetry this is absolutely wonderful, but when we’re talking about emergency situations, such literary devices are best left out of the equation. 

The Japan Times article continues: “For many in Japan, Tepco’s track record on safety and its various coverup attempts added to the suspicion being generated by the flow of opaque, erratic information about Fukushima.”

The public is fed up with Tepco and its years of questionable activities. One wonders, then, where were the activists and whistle blowers?

They were around, but no one paid them much attention.

Activist film director Watanabe Fumiki, who was born in Iwaki City in Fukushima (near the reactors), made a movie in 1994 entitledBarizôgon. It was a dramatization of an actual incident; the life and putative accidental death in 1989 of a 26 year old whistle blower who took on a crooked mayoral campaign and cover-up at the nuclear power plant in Ôkuma, the town where the Fukushima Dai Ichi reactor is located. 

Although the movie tended toward sensationalism (as befitting the life of the director), it showed how Tepco, in collusion with the local politicians, stifled any meaningful opposition and bought off the locals by offering them perks, like covered soccer stadiums, in exchange for their acquiescence and support of the nuclear power plant.

The Japanese consultant guru Ohmae Ken’ichi stated, in a recent Youtube broadcast, that Tepco was “rotten to the core,” and mentioned the soccer stadium as example of their bribery of the local folk. He also pointed out that even though Tepco gets 30% of its energy from nuclear power plants, it refused to have nuclear experts on their board, so therefore no one in management could understand or explain the problem at Fukushima to the public.

In spite of this disaster and its ramifications for the foreseeable future, this could very well turn into a catalyst for positive change in Japan. There needs to be accountability from the government and huge monopolies, like Tepco, to the people and, more importantly, a better sense of participation in government and a questioning attitude by the folk themselves. 


March 24, 2012 The Quest for Chiaoscuro

The public spaces in Japan, normally well lit and flooded with light, are darkened as a result of the efforts to conserve energy. Train stations cut electricity to the escalators, heaters and unnecessary signage. Stores reduced their lighting and turned off loudspeakers. At night, only street lights at major intersections are left burning, and the unceasing neon billboards that shine above entertainment and shopping areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya are turned off. The city is subdued and quiet.

Gone is the sense of Tokyo as a 24 hour city with unending pleasures and diversions. The people, too, have hunkered down and seem resigned to endure the power shortages. Blame and recrimination can come later; for now it is a matter of getting back on track and adjusting to the new reality.

This new reality, however, I find not so unpleasant. I went to a large “home center” near my house; a recently opened mega-store that sells everything from pets, tools, household goods, furniture, etc. (think of a Walmart on steroids). Normally, every aisle has irritating miniature flat screen TVs screaming about the products in their vicinity. The sheer numbers of these little devices scattered throughout the store made for an unbearable, permeating cacophony. Now, however, they are shut off. The glaring fluorescent lights are dimmed, and it is actually a pleasant place to shop. The people browsing the aisles were contemplative and relaxed.

Could it be we are too intoxicated with the abundance of light and sound? Such dependance can’t be healthy, and in musing the excess of light I am reminded of the classic work of Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows, written in 1934: “So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excess illumination. Teahouses, restaurants, inns and hotels are sure to be lit far too extravagantly.” 

If extravagance dulls the senses, crises sharpens them. I recalled Tanizaki’s words as I walked through Shibuya station. I suddenly saw, in a passageway I’ve walked thousands of times before, how beautifully the natural outside light interacts with the darkened depths when the artificial lights are turned off. Instead of a bland, whitewashed consistency there was clarity between light and dark, and each appeared recognizable, begging to be understood. 

In the midst of this small epiphany, I noticed a poster on one of the station pillars: it was a black and white etching by Rembrandt (The Portrait of Jan Six). The outside sun illuminated a dark interior; only the human figure was bathed in light. Like the station where it hung, light and dark were in perfect juxtaposition. The title of the poster: Rembrandt: The Quest for Chiaroscuro.



April 17, 2011: Some Stories

This tragedy has engendered thousands of stories. Some are known and told, some are kept hidden in the hearts of the survivors, and some are taken, literally, to the grave. At some point it would be nice to create a collection of these, but here some that stick in my mind.A family returns to their home ravished by the tsunami. All that is left is the foundation: no walls, no rooms, no trees from their garden, no personal effects, no neighbors. The grandmother also perished in the waves. Their once lively neighborhood is now a desert. But wait, they say, there is a single suiren (daffodil)  and a few tulips growing out of the barren earth where the garden used to be. The grandmother planted them some years ago and enjoyed them when they broke from the ground, one of the early flowers of Spring. They remove the debris from around the flower, water it then take a photo, happy to have at least one memory to take with them.DSC00054

I am reminded of the famous story of the tea master Rikyû and the morning glories. The powerful warrior lord Hideyoshi came to view the famous morning glories that bloomed throughout Rikyû’s garden. Before Hideyoshi arrived, however, Rikyû cut down all the morning glories. As a disappointed (and possibly furious) Hideyoshi walked through the garden and into the tea house, he saw that Rikyû had saved just one morning glory, put it into a vase and set it in the tea room. In the one is the all. 

Soon after the earthquake struck, the Emperor appeared on the television and spoke to the people. It was said that this is only the second time in History that the Emperor made a direct appeal to the public through mass media. The first time was in 1945, when he announced Japan’s surrender. The incident had its share of intrigue, but it got the message out, although his formal speech was apparently beyond the understanding of most of the listeners.

This time the Emperor spoke a measured, concerned speech, easy to understand. He said what the people wanted to hear; calm words of reassurance. Granted, they were only words, but powerful ones that the politicians could not or would not say.

Later, after making sure that his presence would not get in the way, he and the Empress toured some of the refugee centers. I was moved to see these two people get on their knees, bow to the survivors and talk individually to as many as time allows. Of course the movements and words were highly rehearsed and scripted, and it was all theater, but if ever theater had a social purpose, this must be it.Not all the stories are good or uplifting, however. The Japan Times reported yesterday that some of the people fleeing the area around the Fukushima Nuclear power plant are being turned away due to fears they may be contaminated with radiation and contagious. The evacuation centers are requiring that they have local government issued certificates proving they are not contaminated before they are allowed to step foot inside the centers. No matter that this has absolutely no scientific rationale. It is simply fear and discrimination.

And racism exists right below the skin of the Japanese society. After the 1923 Tokyo/Yokohama earthquake, rumors abounded that foreigners (Koreans) were committing arson and poisoning the waters. These rumors led to mass hysteria, a rounding up and lynching of Koreans, Chinese and even Japanese with regional dialects. The lynching stopped only when the army intervened, but it is said up to 6000 were killed.

I witnessed a similar phenomena myself during the AIDS scare in the mid eighties. The Japanese looked at this as a disease brought on by foreigners and subsequently every foreigner was suspect and shunned. In actuality, the disease spread here primarily through the infamous Japanese sex tourism prevalent during the time.

Thanks to access of much greater information now and the fact that so many foreign countries aided Japan during this crisis, especially the US military, the rumor mill cannot really blame foreigners this time (though I did see some postings on the MIXI electronic BB that blamed foreign students for a rise in sexual assaults in the disaster area, a claim that was quickly refuted by the police). Nonetheless, a scapegoat is always convenient, so who better than the weak and vulnerable—those that had to leave their homes under the threat of the unknown, unseeable enemy radiation. But my favorite story is a personal one. A friend whom I’ve known for over 35 years recently came to visit. He was a butoh dancer and in the past we performed together on many occasions. He has always incorporated elements of Shintô mysticism in his dance and life, and through the years he has revealed the fascinating world of Shintô kami (deities) for me. 

He still loves to talk about the Shintô kami and how they manifest themselves in the activities of the world and human society. 

He suddenly appeared at my apartment and wanted to talk about a major change going on in the world of the kami. Up to now, he told me, Nakatsu no Kami (中津神), the “father” deity which manifests itself as the corporeal (physical) and the individual ego, has been in the ascendant. This has created the material world we live in and the strong attraction to physical we all feel and are held sway to. His time is finishing up, however, and the female kami, Motosu no Kami (元津神), is waiting in the wings to return. She represents the mother, the giver of life and breath and a return to spiritual values. 

Nakatsu no Kami is a deity of Ise, representing the lineage of Shintôism that connects with the Emperor and the Imperial family. Mototsu no Kami is from Izu and represents a type of Shintôism that is more earthly, innately spiritual and, I would think, not polluted by its association with modern Shintô and its power and pomp. 

Now is the time for the Nakatsu no Kami to give into the Mototsu no Kami, my friend stressed. This regime change in the world of the kami will lead humankind back into the forgiving world of the spirit, not beholden to the pressures and stress of materialism. To this end, he said, the world will undergo violent changes: volcanoes will erupt, earthquakes occur and the world will experience a necessary upheaval. Such upheaval will be painful but eventually result in a new world order.

The interesting thing about this encounter was that it occurred on February 21, about three weeks before the great earthquake.

As I think back on this what he told me, I recall the image of the Emperor, the representative of the Ise line of Shintôism, getting on his knees and bowing to the survivors who lost all their possessions. Indeed, the order has been reversed, and now I know why I was so moved by this sight.

June, 4, 2011: Preparation
In this morning’s paper, The Japan Times reported a story about the Junior High School in Kamaishi, Miyagi Prefecture close to the ocean. Whne the quake struck, the teachers realized that they must evacuate the school immediately to higher grounds and began to implement their evacuation proceedures. They were supposed to gather all the students in the school grounds, do a head count, then lead them to the designated safe area. However, the immensity of the earthquake knocked out the electricity, and they couldn’t make the announcements to lead the students out. Japanese students are not normally are urged to think independently, but instinctively they gathered and began running to the higher ground, the older ones encouraging the younger to keep up. On the way they passed an elementary school, where the teachers had gathered the students on the third floor, thinking it would be safe.The teachers, however, saw the older students running by and decided they, too, should evacuate the school, so they followed. Once they reached the designated evacuation area, however, an older resident warned them that it may not be safe there either, so they continued running up the hills, the older students staying back to assist the younger ones.Then it hit. The powerful waves full of deadly debris easily engulfed the Jr. High School and the nearby three storied elementary school. It even came up and covered the first evacuation site, stopping only a few meters away from where the students gathered.Although the total number of victims in Kamaishi numbered around 450, only five casualties were elementary or jr. high school students, thanks to the quick thinking and independent action by the students.In contrast was the tragic incident at Ôgawa Elementary School in Makiishi City, Iwate. After the earthquake, the teachers took 40 minutes to begin the evacuation. They were simply making sure all procedures were being followed: taking roll-call, waiting for parents to come pick up their kids, and then re-checking the roll. Since the school had been designated as an official evacuation area, they discussed with the various townspeople who gathered there if they should move to even higher ground. By the time they finally decide to head out, it was 50 minutes after the earthquake. On the way to the secondary evacuation site, only 200 meters away, the waves overtook them, and of the 108 students who set off, 68 were killed and six went missing.In the first instance, it was the kids themselves who took off, without waiting for their teachers to lead them. The second, unfortunate situation shows how adherence to the rules in extreme situations can literally kill.