Sunday, August 07, 2011

Japan retrospect

You can trace my ten delightful days in Japan on the railway map below: arriving at Narita 成田 (the little pink airplane at lower right) into the snarl of Tokyo 東京 (the blue line to meet the innermost circle, the Yamanote line 山手線; Ikebukuro 池袋 is at its top) for four days, including a day trip to Kamakura 鎌倉 (partway down the little black line dangling bottom center), up for two days to Matsumoto 松本 (northwestward to the left edge two-thirds of the way up, where a blue line meets the black), across for two more in Kiryu 桐生 (northeast to change to the pink Shinkansen until a big intersection, then nine stops on the southeastward black line), then back down another blue line for a final two days in the capital and back by blue line to Narita Airport.

Let me hazard a few reflections on my time here - my first visit in 4.5 years, and my first quality time since January 2006 - inevitably subjective and random as they must be. Japan seems to have internationalized decisively. Korean and Chinese translations appear in many places, and Korean pop and film stars are now visible here. 
(This sign on Mt. Agaki is in Japanese, English, Hangul, and both PRC and standard Chinese.) I also heard many more non-Japanese people speaking Japanese. I noticed that nobody was surprised that someone who looked like me could understand and speak Japanese, and not just in Tokyo. I gather fluent foreigners are common on TV. Lots of new building, including bulky apartment blocks. Cars in unfamiliar shapes, the aerodynamic lines which define the models big in North America replaced by boxy right angles. Meanwhile the newest shinkansen, faster than ever, has a goofy-looking slender nose 15 meters long. The majority of women have brown or chestnut-colored hair. And the Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest structure in the world.

But you're probably wondering about how Japan has changed since March 11th, the day of the Northern Japan Disaster 東日本大震災. The shockwaves continue - literally. In ten days I was twice woken up during the night by significant aftershocks; my friends have been feeling them for five months. (The most disturbing earthquake damage in Tokyo was the liquifaction of some reclaimed land in Chiba. Much of Tokyo's recent growth has been on reclaimed land.) The government asked people to try to cut their electricity usage by 15%, and you feel it everywhere - barely cool air conditioning, dimmed lights, disabled escalators, etc., usually with a printed explanation. Apparently people and businesses have been cutting back more, more than 20% on average, so much that it was hurting the economy. We can't allow ourselves to enjoy life, one friend suggested, knowing that five thousand people who were swept away by the tsunami remain unaccounted for. (As in the US after 9/11 there has been a de facto ban on images of the dead, so not just the missing 行方不明 are absent.) Japan's no stranger to natural disasters, but the scope and ferocity of the earthquake-tsunami seem to have had a profound effect on people. A few people I know went up to the affected areas to help out as volunteers; another told of a friend who decided not to buy a long-planned car but to give the money to disaster "refugees" instead.

And then there's the continuing disaster of Fukushima Daiichi, whose scale remains unknown - TEPCO and government alike have no credibility. Last week some pipes - overlooked in past testing - were discovered to be so radioactive they would kill a person in minutes. Because radiation-affected cows and hay from near the reactor were sold to (and bought by) other farms around the country, beef consumption is way down. (The sign at left is from a restaurant in Ginza, detailing not just the provenance of the beef served - Kyushu and Hokkaido - but the numbers of the tested shipments.) But one is uncertain about many other foods, too. The papers reported hoarding of rice - in case this year's harvest, which will be in stores next year, proves radioactive. Someone told me of anxious parents posing questions at a local swimming pool in western Tokyo - has the water been tested for radiation? what about each of the foods in the cafeteria? The same person wondered aloud whether Japanese people as a whole weren't becoming strange へん, and mentioned that people who were outside Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bombing but went back to search through the rubble of their houses died of the same cancers as those who were there, and in the same time: "sick in six years, cancer in seven." The unsettling thing is that radiation is invisible, and its consequences not initially visible either; how can you know something or someone has not been seriously affected? Japanese popular culture and memory are haunted by the consequences of radiation poisoning (wasn't Godzilla ゴジラ the result of radiation?, the same person asked), and the world of dystopian post-nuclear sci-fi seems close. The worry that Japan will simply go under 沈没, literally or figuratively, is apparently widespread, especially among young people.

All is not well, but life goes on. The devastation of the earthquake and tsunami has renewed a sense of national fragility and solidarity, and Fukushima Daiichi seems to have put everyone in eastern Japan into a state of suspended animation. Can life really go on as it has, or has a new era already begun?

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