A Month After the Shock, a Different Japan

April 13, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — A surreal chorus of clipped buzzing noises pierced the silence on my rush hour commuter train one morning this week. It was the earthquake warning alarms of the passengers’ cellphones indicating that another temblor was imminent.

Everyone grabbed their phones, fearful that it could be Tokyo. The epicenter was Fukushima Prefecture. We would be spared. But who knows about those troubled nuclear power plants that line that prefecture’s coast?

Our train was delayed, so I messaged the friend I was to meet, whom I know from when we both lived in Russia: “Life more unpredictable than Moscow!”

In fact, just as in those days, I had stocked up on some basics during a recent overseas vacation. “Did you buy batteries?” the flight attendant asked me on the flight home from Honolulu to Tokyo. She would not have asked before March 11, the day the massive quake and tsunami ravaged northeastern Japan.

A month since that blow, I am living in what feels like a different country. The reliability and material abundance of Japan that had us smugly expecting everything always to work are no longer. While residents of the hard-hit areas continue their struggle to find places to live and work, we in Tokyo are fortunate enough to go about our daily ways. But we bear a nagging sense of malaise.

A frequent question in conversations these days is, “I wonder what’s going to happen to Japan.” The uncertainties range from whether or not the spinach at the market is dangerously radiated, to how soon, if ever, the quake-debilitated industries will recover.

And the bad news keeps coming. This week the government announced further evacuations around the damaged nuclear plants and raised the rating of the severity of the accident to the most serious level.

The toll of dead and missing, now close to 27,000, continues to rise with recent fatalities revealing the hardships of the aftermath. A 62-year-old woman was found frozen to death in Niigata Prefecture near the fourth evacuation site her family had moved to. Suffering from dementia, she had apparently wandered off and gotten lost. A man died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Iwate Prefecture after he lit a briquette stove in his car to keep warm while waiting overnight in a long line for gas. A 64-year old man from Fukushima hung himself after learning that the organic cabbages he spent 10 years cultivating could be carrying radiation.

Eerily, just a few hours after people around the country observed the passage of one month with a moment of silence, a series of strong aftershocks struck central and northern Japan. Television news showed a young boy howling in a shaking evacuation center, as if his fatigue from nature’s relentless harshness had reached its limit.

The reaction of the child stood out amid the silent suffering of most Japanese. There is plenty of anger toward the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company for their haphazard crisis management and lack of disclosure. But the national traits of a stiff upper lip and a near-fatalistic acceptance of one’s lot have kept the Japanese composed and orderly.

At the same time, the calamity is making us more tolerant, softening our rigid adherence to social norms. I recently overheard a woman telling a friend how irritated she was at some people who were taking up the entire step of an escalator. The strictly observed practice here is to leave one side open for the hurried people who wish to walk up. “But then I thought, maybe they are a family that evacuated to Tokyo,” she said. “So I decided not to say anything.”

That may seem like a tiny concession, but the social inflexibility of the Japanese is a factor that in a broader sense isolates the country from the global community.

My son matriculated to middle school this month, and the teacher’s welcoming remarks also stressed the altruistic. “You may have simply thought, ‘I feel sorry for them,’ or ‘that sounds really tough,’ but that is better than not thinking at all,” the teacher said. “This major earthquake has given you the chance to be compassionate to others.”

For those in the disaster zones, concerns can extend to rehabilitating an entire community. A friend of mine who lives about 50 kilometers from the nuclear plants e-mailed me the most positive outlook he could muster for his home prefecture. “If in the future we can look back on this time as an important lesson in rethinking energy issues, then that would be a consolation for Fukushima.”

It is such composed and visionary thinking that will serve as a solace to Japan.