Japan Woes

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011, under ,

Nicaragua, 1979. Popular uprising against the misrule of the President Somoza (of whom the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, ‘Sure he’s sonofabitch, but he is our sonofabitch’). In the course of the next couple of years the civil war led to the deaths of some 5% of the population, and a deposition of the president after a 43-year dictatorship, the longest period of the state-sponsored terror in Latin American history. The post-revolutionary mood in the streets was one of unhinged celebration of the new-found freedom, whereby people expressed their contempt for conventions and rules at every possible opportunity. This was in particular manifested through the mass disregard for traffic rules. Here’s Norman Lewis, quoting a policeman in Managua, from the excellent travel essay ‘Beautiful Bean-Stew Faces’:

‘It happens all the time’, he said. ‘They’ve all gone crazy about freedom, so wherever there’s the chance to drive the wrong way down a street, they do. The latest crazy thing is that traffic lights are supposed to interfere with personal choice, so they are tearing them down all over the town. They are out to prove we’re really free’.

This reminds me of a Serbian idiom, ‘ko da su s lanca pušteni’, literarily means ‘as if they were unleashed from the chains’. By contrast, in Japan hardly anyone is on a mission to prove they are free or independent. This very much applies to traffic and driving. On March 11th I was watching live pictures as tsunami mercilessly wiped everything in its path. The fluid mass of debris was approaching a line of cars orderly waiting in front of the traffic lights. The drivers would be very much aware of the nearing onrush of water. Yet not a single car moved! Or not until the big wave was so close that the cars suddenly found themselves scrambling for the dry patches of land. But by then it was too late.
We think of stoicism as a very British virtue – all Blitz spirit and 'women and children first' – but would we react to a disaster with the kind of resilience the Japanese have?Ian Jack, The Guardian
Anyone who has been to Japan or met a Japanese person would have been familiar with their general distaste for personal conflict or the showing of personal initiative. Here, the name of the game is respect for privacy, team work, collaboration. These attributes are particularly apparent in smaller communities, villages, towns, companies. In the aftermath of the nuclear leaks, the sense of allegiance and self-sacrifice yielded some astonishing results in Tokyo where the previously announced power cuts never materialized due to the fact that people dropped their electricity consumption by such margin that not only the cuts proved unnecessary but there was in fact a surplus of energy! Yes, hard to imagine something like that happening in the UK.

In Tōhoku, however, the picture is much bleaker. Japanese fortitude and composure has been pushed to the limits by the multifold disaster – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis, the ensuing supply difficulties, the rescue operations hampered by snow and freezing temperatures. After a week of living on the verge of starvation and with shortages of water, fuel, heating, electricity, and medical supplies, there have been first reports of angry exchanges and even punch-ups among the locals. No reports of looting as yet. No doubt in many countries these would be a norm much earlier on. And it doesn’t help that most of the afflicted are the elderly – Japan being an alarmingly aging society, with more than a quarter of population over 65 years old.

In the meantime we can only dare imagine what it feels like to live under such conditions – on a daily, hourly basis. Some would say, at least these people have been spared their lives. Then again how much of a consolation is that when no help is in sight? One middle-aged woman, who lost two members of her family together with her house, said: ‘I am alive, but I don’t know if that’s good or bad’.

In response to my recent email to a colleague, a teacher in Kyoto like myself, in which I asked how worried he was about the current threat of nuclear contamination, Shaun talked about his general concern and quipped how this part of Japan [Kansai] feels like a different country, rather disconnected from the northeast. ‘Different country’ is certainly one way of describing the apparent normality to be found on the streets of the ancient capital. People go about their business. Shops, restaurants, bars, pachinko parlours are all teeming with punters and customers no more and no less than usual. The city trains and buses are running on time (compare Tokyo’s lines, either cancelled or operating with reduced service). The only thing out of the ordinary are these small bands of activists who are to be seen, and especially heard, lined up at busy street corners and outside the larger train stations, incessantly chanting so as to draw cash donations from the public. Oh, and today I noticed that in my local department store they have partially switched off lights in certain less-visited shopping sections.

Speaking of lights, I’ve been thinking how Japanese post-war hefty reliance on, and investment in, nuclear power must seem now rather ironic, also bearing in mind the Hiroshima and Nagasaki catastrophes. That Japan has decided to build so many nuclear plants is a direct result of the country’s paltry allotment of natural resources. The nuclear power has become the major source, accounting for about 29% of Japan’s energy.

Meanwhile, people living in the northeast as well as in the Kanto area (around Tokyo) remain very concerned about the imminent future, and understandably so. There is an ongoing poll in the Japan Times online, dubbed ‘Stay or go’, which looks like this:

And here is how the votes stand only a few minutes later (March 21st ):

You can check how the votes develop, and vote yourself, here. At least most foreigners have somewhere to go to. The poll would surely look different had it been conducted solely in the Kansai region, where I suppose gaijin do feel safer. Yet, should there be another major explosion at the plant, god-forbid, the worry-wrinkles would inevitably set upon the faces of my fellow Kyotoites.

A fellow poet living in Osaka presented his poem few months ago in our writing workshop. The title was ‘Post-Nuclear Pasta’. My favourite bit is this post-apocalyptic moment when the speaker explains how things were 'before':

We used to have tomato sauce for our pasta,
I tell the dull kid who lives on the other side of the scorch-marks.
He was born just a few months after the hot flashes.
He’s got weepy eyes and a cauliflower nose.

When I tell him we used to eat tomatoes and that they didn’t have
hard, crusty skins neither, he snaps, “You’re off your Geiger counter!”

Little did the author know how topical the stuff would soon turn out to be. The poem must be pulsating like a GM tube at the moment. Well, here’s a map which shows how the counters are pulsating in the north of the country. Note the useful comparisons with the radiation in daily life. Click to view larger size.

March 21st, 2011

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