37 posts categorized "Japan"

Notes from Godzilla Week

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"I'm totally old-school Godzilla," snorted Master Right.  "It's gotta be a guy in a suit.  None of this computer animation bullshit. That's cheating."

It's Godzilla Week across the Fatherland on Channel Five, and my husband is pumped. 

I learned he was a Godzilla snob early in our relationship.  Having just moved to Tokyo, and wanting to immerse myself in Japanese culture, I gathered some classics of the Japanese cinema on the still-novel medium of DVD.  Among them was Destroy All Monsters (1968), which many fans consider the consummate Godzilla flick. 

"You know," he recalled as he picked the box from the shelf, "this was the very first movie I was ever allowed to attend at the cinema in Kobe, on my own."  Unthinkable nowadays, my future husband would have been five years old.  

He took his discovery as a sign that we were Meant To Be.  For two blokes, things like this amount to a romantic moment.  I can't recall being so misty-eyed since he bought me an orbital sander. 

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Americans first encountered Godzilla in a 1956 release called Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  (Trailer here) But that was a poor reflection of the original Godzilla from 1954. (Trailer here)

In the original, US H-Bomb testing in the Pacific arouses a sleepy sea monster, Gojira.  Japanese speakers hear echoes of two words in his name; the English gorilla, and kujira, meaning "whale".  For centuries, natives of a nearby island kept him out of their hair with the odd virgin sacrifice, but all this nuclear tomfoolery has messed the guy up.  He now has atomic-breath, indestructible skin, and a bad attitude. 

His attitude is a bit hard to figure out, sometimes.  Godzilla helps and protects mankind from time to time, and equally often he just tromples buildings and eats trains.  You don't know what he's going to do.  Dude is out of control. That's the scary part.

Neither good nor bad, but powerful and dangerous—many have written that Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear power.  Some have suggested that Godzilla, an impulsive leviathan, embodies the United States.  Both make sense, when we think about the tenor of the time, and what fate had befallen the nation less than a decade before.

The parallels were so stark, that American distributors edited the film heavily before its stateside release.  They even went  so far as to shoot an extra twenty minutes of footage, casting Raymond Burr as the young reporter Steve Martin (no relation) who explains events into a dictaphone for posterity, reminding us how serious it all is.  The performance calls to mind his later work as Perry Mason, but without, like, the acting.

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Master Right is a child of the late Showa period, so he's in it strictly for the camp value.  The overacting, preposterous plots, and obvious terror devices earn an ironic—but amused—roll of his eyes. 

One of the most obvious terror devices, employed everywhere, is creepy familiarity.  We see icons that we know and love, bite the dust.  That's why every disaster movie set in New York shows the Statue of Liberty, right?

Few viewers from across the world realise exactly how familiar—and accurate—were the models that Godzilla crushed and torched.   In Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla pops up in New York and flattens the newly-constructed UN Building as a warm-up on his way to Tokyo for the main event.  If he had nuked the Empire State Building instead, that would be rubbing King Kong's nose in it, I fear. 

I once lived in that very Manhattan neighbourhood, and can vouch for the model's authenticity.  To the left, the big chap eyeballs a tasty-looking Tudor City, and on the right, the delicious Beekman Tower.  

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Master Right and I can vouch for his Tokyo exploits, too.  We lived in a small two-chome neighbourhood not far from the centre of the city, nestled among the louche gaijin of Roppongi, liquored-up civil servants faking overtime in Akasaka, pompous leaders doing deals in Kasumigaseki (Tokyo's Whitehall or Manuka), salarymen copping a feel at the hostess bars of Shimbashi, and the Emperor himself at the palace.  In the course of several movies, Godzilla would play merry hell with all our neighbours. 

The original film shows him attacking the Diet (Parliament).  Mostly, though, he headed for the mid-rise skyskraper district where our apartment perched.  Destroy All Monsters might confuse the casual visitor, but locals reckon Godzilla beached up around Hamamatsucho, slap-bang in our neighbourhood.  There's even a statue of Godzilla in nearby Hibiya Park, since it is—if you'll pardon the expression—his old stomping ground.

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Given the events of the 21st century so far, such casual depiction of mass destruction in the name of entertainment makes me feel a little uneasy.  Do individuals, or even nations, who have suffered lose their taste for stories of further tragedy?  Godzilla suggests not.   Does it actually help people process horror they otherwise cannot comprehend?  That, perhaps, would go too far.

Tonight, as we sit in front of the Fernseher, watching Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah (2003), we laugh as an unsuspecting band of camera-wielding Japanese tourists are caught unaware by history's most beloved radioactive dinosaur.   Hey, Shark Week is for wimps.

 Images are taken from trailers for the 1954 and 1956 Godzilla movies, and the 1968 Destroy All Monsters.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.


Photo Friday: Walk

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This week's Photo Friday theme is Walk, but in truth, the pictures sort of show a march.  We arrived in Hakone on a festival day in the summer of 2003.  The mountain town celebrated with a parade.  Her streets, though, are barely wide enough for a single car to pass: bands could march, at the most, three abreast.  And spectators got up close and personal with the musicians.

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Our Neighbour, the Cross-Dressing National Treasure

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Nakamura Jakuemon IV. (Photo Steve Ferrier)

Movers hated the tricky corner by the elevator; someone's couch or shoji screen might wedge there for several hours until its owner worked out how to dislodge it.  Walk too hastily, and neighbours would collide head-on, unleashing a torrent of sumimasens and embarassed bowing.  But space in Tokyo is tight, and the Elbow (as we called it) was just one more quirk of living in a quirky city.

As I arrived home late one afternoon, it came as no surprise to see some lads making a clumsy job of getting a long object through the corridor.   Closer inspection revealed that they were paramedics, and the apparatus they had tilted on its end was a stretcher.

Behind them stood a slightly-built chap, wearing a blazer and Bing Crosby hat.  Though clearly a senior citizen, it was hard to pick his age.  His skin looked incredibly smooth and taut, but didn't bear any of the hallmarks of a facelift.  I would learn later that he had just turned eighty.

Recognising me as a neighbour, he bowed curtly and smiled, before he leapt up on to the righted stretcher.  That took some impressive athletics, since he scarcely reached five feet tall, and the stretcher rose a good distance from the floor.  He declined the offer of a footstool to help him up, but allowed the ambulancemen to remove his shoes, before he strapped himself in for the elevator ride to the ground.

A Brush with Fame

Thus went my first enounter with Japan's most famous kabuki actor, Nakamura Jakuemon IV, better known as 中村雀右衛門.    He was the theatre's foremost onnagata, a male who specialised in female roles.   By all accounts, his technique astounded audiences; a few deft gestures would seduce any observer into the belief that they were, indeed, watching a woman.  In 1991, the Japanese government declared him a Living National Treasure.

Living National Treasures get treasured awfully well.  According to my Japanese colleagues, the deal includes an ambulance to whisk you off for your annual check up.  Probably necessary for most of the elderly writers and artists who made up the legion of NTs, but not for a gent who still lifted weights in the gym from time to time.  It helped him bear those monstrously heavy kabuki robes and headpieces.

Master Right made another point.  Even if Jakuemon had needed an ambulance for an emergency, most men of his generation and stature would feel ashamed to be wheeled about in front of all and sundry.  While he didn't seem frail, it concerned us a little, in a neighbourly kind of way.

An Unhealthy Trade

Older kabuki troupers sometimes succumb to poison.  The first commerical versions of doran (the white foundation used by geisha and kabuki actors alike) contained lots of lead, zinc and mercury.  To remove it, traditionalists would use—I kid you not—nightingale droppings, which had the extra benefit of bleaching the skin underneath.  That can't be good for a fellow's system, and it certainly showed in his complexion.

Our concern heightened when a truck arrived to cart away the master's elaborate collection of costumes.  Had he packed it in?  Was the ambulance trip a harbinger of something serious? 

His housekeeper, who also must have been around eighty, seemed to stay cheerful.  (She took to giving me language lessons in the lift; it was a slow lift, you see.)  When I asked after her boss, she haltingly explained that she had dusted off the costumes and sent them to the theatre.  Jakuemon would reprise a classic role, Princess Yaegaki in the drama Jusshukô, for the 75th anniversary memorial service of his "father", Jakuemon III.   

I put the word "father" in quotes for a reason.  Jakuemon had a biological father, who was also a well known kabuki actor.  But he was "adopted" into another family as a young adult.

The Family Business

The power of identity looms large in Japanese culture—where you fit, to whom you belong, to whom you owe duty and from whom you expect reciprocation.   Names don't just represent individuals—they represent these many connections, and take on an importance beyond just saying who's who.   Business cards carry a mystique.   In such a culture, imagine the symbolism of a stage name

In the west, if we discount the artful concoctions of drag queens, stage names often serve a mundane, practical purpose.  Equity rules stipulate that no two actors share the same working name.   Michael Keaton, for example, was born Michael Douglas, but admired the actress Diane Keaton, who in turn was born Diane Hall, the name of an existing Equity member.  Michael York (nee Johnson) chose his nom de scene because "York" was already tested  in the marketplace, as a popular brand of cigarette

In Japan, stage names act a little like family names, and stage "families" construct a lineage based on a cocktail of blood-relations, relations-by-marriage, teacher/student pairs and honorifics. 

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In his movie-star days

Nakamura Jakuemon IV started life as Hirotaro Otani, heir to the stage name Ôtani Tomoemon VII.   In a brief flirtation with movie acting, he actually earned a couple of credits under his real name.

He became close friends with the young man who was the blood-heir to the title of Jakuemon IV.  When his friend was killed in the war, the young man's mother asked if Otani would accept the honour of adoption, so that he may carry on the Nakamura family stage-name.  Since (I understand) Otani had brothers in the family business to carry on the Tomoemon stage-name, he saw it as an appropriate way to honour the family of his friend. 

Like so many other young men, war was a defining experience for the man who would become Jakuemon.  He learned to be a mechanic, and toyed with the idea of becoming one on his return to civilian life.  He enjoyed being high, driving a truck or riding a horse, and even considered joining the maintenance team at the newly constructed Tokyo Tower.

A Comforting View

When I read that fact online, it brought me up with a sharp jolt.  Our apartments were on the fourteenth floor of a building that looked out over what was once the highest point in Tokyo.   Ours looked north on a drab cityscape; as they say on the Gold Coast, we had the Hinterland View.  But Jakuemon's featured perhaps the city's best view of Tokyo Tower.

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Tokyo Tower from our building
Why was I online, googling our former neighbour?   Alas, to confirm reports that he had passed away.  He died of pneumonia on February 23, at 91—an impressive age, even by long-lived Japanese standards.  He performed well into his 80s, treading the boards for the last time in 2010, when his frailty began to show.
Two of his sons are also kabuki actors.  One will use the Tomoemon stage name, and the other, a fellow onnagata, will carry on the Nakamura line.

"Another memory of our Tokyo days is gone," remarked Master Right.  Jakuemon's passing reminds us not just to honour living treasures while we can.  But to treasure life itself.

All photos link to source.


Photo Friday: Blaze

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An odd photo for this week's Photo Friday theme: Blaze.  But anyone who's lived in Japan will know why it answers the theme.

The long sticks are ofuda, talismans bought from Shinto shrine which contain good luck messages or fortunes.  The two heads are daruma dolls; when one embarks on a major project, one blackens an eye of the doll, and one blackens the other when the project is complete. 

The first week of the new year is the most popular time to buy these—their power lasts a full twelve months.  But as the following year turns, the talismans must be replaced, and the old ones burned.  The smoke from all these burning wishes gets up the nose of the gods, and they will sneeze some luck your way.

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Shrines conduct regular bonfires throughout the first weeks of the new year; these spent charms met their fate at our neighbourhood Shrine, the Atagojinja, in early 2001.  Appropriate to the theme, since the shrine is on a hill that used to serve as a fire lookout, and the main totem worshipped here is Homusubi no Mikoto, a god of fire.

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Photo Friday: Ugged

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This week's Photo Friday theme is rugged.  Since I am an effete homosexual, I have nothing rugged to share.  We can do almost rugged, though.   These fancy leopard-skin boots are Ugged, with sheepskin on the inside.  And pirate ugg boots wil keep a buccaneer's feet warm during a casual pillage.
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Where can you get them?  That favourite Tokyo fashion hotspot, Shibuya 109.  Kawaii!

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Photo Friday: Public Spaces

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Not a great photo, technically, for this Photo Friday.  But the subject reveals much about differences in culture across the globe. 

Like all large cities, Tokyo deals with the homeless.  Homeless sleep under bridges, in vacant lots, in shanty towns, in carboard boxes.  There's little need for them to do this; Japan has a decent social safety net.  But the demons that often live in the heads of the street-dweller demand a place in public.  Perhaps the buzz of people around you tempers your loneliness.

But no matter how much craziness scratches the vinyl of their minds, these homeless people are still Japanese.  A sense of order and cleanliness prevails.  Homeless encampments feature laundry facilities.  A homeless man who lived near us in Toranomon would complain loudly to anyone who dropped a cigarette butt on his patch of pavement. Homelessness is no excuse to abandon etiquette.

This shantytown near Ueno station in 2002 shows a remarkable sense of community.  Local police erected barriers near the tents and cardboard boxes to preserve the residents' privacy—Japanese culture draws a strict line between public space and the privacy of your home.   And notice, you gaijin barbarians, that one always removes one's shoes before entering a Japanese home. 

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Reflections on the past two weeks in Japan.

Many have asked if our friends and loved ones are safe.  The answer, for the moment, is yes.

Master Right's family live in western Japan, and our friends in Tokyo are shaken, but OK. We held fears for the family of a dear friend from Fukushima. Luckily her folk live in the inland hills, and so were spared the tsunami.  But the earthquake damaged their property badly, and the family is now together in Tokyo.  As far as situation with the nuclear reactor...well, we'd be fools not to worry desperately for our friends and colleagues in eastern Japan.

As you can imagine, it's been two sombre weeks at our place, glued to N24 and N-TV.   NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, and the BBC are on our computer screens. 

By now, most of you will have read or heard the facts of what happened, and seen images of the aftermath.  Let's reflect on these things for a moment. 

Lessons from Kobe.

The Hanshin Earthquake of January 1995 horrified Japan, not just with the scale of the destruction, but with government impotence in the face of it.

Kobe lay in ruins, and rescuers simply couldn't reach the worst-hit parts of the city.  Many who survived the quake itself died of exposure, without a place to shelter as the cold winter days dragged on. 

They vowed that such avoidable suffering should never happen again, in one of the richest nations on the planet. 

By 2000, when I arrived in Tokyo, many of the current systems were in place.  Evacuation and refuge centres, and the system of accounting for people's whereabouts, had been established.

When I first moved in to my apartment near Toranomon, the police paid a call.   They provided ample information in English to make sure I knew safety drills and precutions (like securing bookshelves to walls).  They told where to report in a quake's aftermath.  In my case, it was the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace.  It comforted me to know that should the need arise, I would share a chemical toilet with the Emperor.

At the office, the drill intensified.  Yebisu Garden Place, then a new development in Tokyo's fashionable inner west, set an example of exceptional earthquake safety in both design and procedure.    An extensive network of building marshalls met regularly to review practice.  That included practice in first aid.

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Here, we see colleagues brushing up on CPR and wound-dressing at the annual Safety Awareness Day.  German readers will be familiar with this sort of thing.  One needs to undergo such training in Germany to get a driver's license, or to work in a school or public building.  But under few circumstances is one required to brush up as often as the Japanese.

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It was easy to giggle at this as over-caution.  But take a look at the video in this link.  At the fifteen second mark, we see people administering CPR with confidence, perhaps learned under such circumstances.

Our local ward government, the City of Shibuya, would provide its Earthquake Simulator on Safety Awareness Day. 

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Spectators climb aboard, and take seats in a small room, built to the same standards as earthquake building codes.  An operator begins to shake the building. 

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As the intensity increases, lights on the wall show the scale reading.  A pendant lamp from the ceiling acts as a reckoner, so that when the earthquake happens, you can judge its magnitude from the swing of the light in the room in which you find yourself. 

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This is more than just a curiosity.  It demonstrates that even though the building may shake or sway quite violently, if it is built to withstand Richter 7 quakes, it will.  If you're caught in the middle of a major earthquake, such reassurance unlikely to completely eliminate your panic.  But if it calms you enough so you can think clearly about what to do next, then it serves its purpose.

By the time Friday's earthquake reached land, it was a Richter 7 in northern Japan.  Sure enough, few moden buildings collapsed. It was the tsunami that proved so destructive.

Protection from tsunami relies less on engineering, and more on organisation.  After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Japan accelerated the development of its  Earthquake and Tsunami Early Warning system, which came into effect in 2007.  It detects the early "P" waves, which simply compress the soil, before the more damaging "S" waves which follow when the compression is released—the latter are the waves that actually shake the earth. (For a simple explanation, click here.)

The system is triggered automatically, with no human intervention.  It gives warnings on TV, public media (such as the jumbotrons of Hatchiko Square, loudpeakers on streets and infoscreens in trains or stations) and it can even text your mobile phone. 

It may give only minutes—even seconds—of warning.  But if you're in a speeding train, an elevator, or a plane that's about to land, that can prove crucial.

This was the system in action at around 2.45 last Friday, interrupting NHK's broadcasts of the Japanese Parliament. 

 

It shows that communities had at least five minutes notice to make a dash, and fortunately, some had more.  Was this warning long enough to save everyone who heeded it?  

Tragically, no.  Like the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Sendai tsunami hit with great speed.  Outrunning the wave as it bore down was impossible. Many of the frail and elderly, often without a car, couldn't have escaped, and had to hope for the best on the upper floors of their homes.

Some lost precious minutes rescuing possessions to take with them. In  rural areas, many would surely try dig out evidence of ancestry.  Ownership of the family farm, having been passed down  for centuries, has an almost religious significance.  Did it cost them their lives?  For some, undoubtedly. 

The system couldn't save everyone. But remember this:

Right now, hundreds of thousands of people huddle in refuges, and over ten thousand are confirmed dead.  There may be more dead.

Were it not for diligent organisation and planning, those figures surely would be reversed. 

In the days since the quake, the Japanese Self Defense Forces have taken nearly 25,000 survivors from the wreckage.  Almost as many, again, have been identified as alive and waiting rescue.  That's fifty thousand more people to add to the list of the living.

The Japanese government mobilised almost 100,000 troops to deal with the crisis.  That's more than the entire US contingent in Afghanistan. (Of course, provisioning these troops creates its own supply-chain problems, but that's another story)

The survivors are miserable.   They're cold, hungry and frightened.  But they're alive.  And we can thank the foresight of those in charge for that.

Trust me, I'm from TEPCO.

The record of some Japanese officials over the past decade or so has not been so virtuous, however.

Has complete atomic catastrophe been averted?  We hope so. Though the news this morning certainly causes concern

It's not as though nobody warned about genpatsu-shinsai, a term coined from the words for earthquake and nuclear meltdown.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (or TEPCO) has given us trouble before.   They have a history of cover-ups, and lax reporting.  That includes at Fukushima.

A whistle-blower once reported TEPCO to the (powerful) Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).  The ministry's only action, apparently, was to blow the whistle back by reporting him to the power company.

Japan was officially prepared for earthquakes and tsunami.  But for atomic catastrophe?  No.  Why?  Because the atomic energy establishment assured us that such an event was far-fetched.

Should we be skeptical of people who reassure us of the safety of anything nuclear, anywhere in the world? 

Three Mile Island showed that the industry can make optimistic statements; not always through malice, but through belief in its own cleverness.   Just read what former governor Richard Thromburgh of Pennsylvania has to say on his experience managing TMI.

The (relatively) smooth handling of TMI—and the pains taken to distinguish the Chernobyl reactor from the sort built elsewhere—made the world complacent about the hazards of nuclear power.  Recent events have given governments pause. 

Especially so here in Germany, where the crisis at Fukushima led to some hasty policy changes.  Bavarians welcome talk of closing the ageing Isar1 reactor at Landshut, north of Munich.   But we remain a tad nervous about the communist-era reactors just over the border in the Czech Republic.  Plans to build reactors in Italy, a known earthquake region, might fray a few nerves, too.

Let me point out a key fact.  The earthquake and tsunami early warning system is a government initiative.  There is little telmptation to cut corners or gouge profits when running it..  On the other hand, nuclear power is a public-private partnership.  The government regulators who control it have close ties to the private sector.  Profit drives the industry, as much as public service. 

One system performed.  The other failed.  Just sayin'.

International Coverage and Response

Andrew Cornell, a journalist for the Australian Financial Review in Tokyo, writes that he and his wife chose Japanese media over international news sources in English.   The Japanese media stay calm, and prioritise fact over drama. 

Many observe, with regret, that entertainment value has replaced editorial judgement in much Western journalism.  The requirements of drama—heroes, villains, conflict, treachery—leach into the fabric of news.  The English-language reporting of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami shows how badly this serves us.

A Chiba-resident British journalist who blogs at Our Man in Abiko, got an invitation to write for the Huffington Post.  He was chuffed, but his pleasure changed to dismay when he discovered that they simply wanted him to seek out, in his words, "disaster porn".

Quakebook cover He is, by the way, publishing a book of crowdsourced experiences of the tragedy, told with respect, and without sensationalism.   He calls it, simply, 2:46, the time of the first shock on the floor of the Pacific on March 11.  I urge you to support the project. 

The media do not respect the memory of those who died, nor the suffering of those who remain, to turn their story into The Poseidon Adventure. Not every tale needs a Bruce Ismay or a Roger Simmons.

As I write, I'm watching CNN's Max Foster as he bullies Noriyuki Shikata, spokesman for the Prime Minister, into using more inflamatory language. No, insists Shikata, unstocked shelves in Tokyo conveninece stores do not translate into mass starvation in the capital. Foster quibbled rather nastily with Shikata's use of such words as "precaution". Perhaps he would have preferred the government spokesman to say omigod we're all going to die.  It would make better television. 

Master Right and other Japanese like him think the western media sensationalising a tragedy which needs no hype. 

The US Embassy actually had to issue an English-language statement telling American residents to listen to Japanese authorities.  And, indeed, to trust the US government, as it works closely alongside.  "There is no double standard," writes Ambassador John Roos, "what we advise our Embassy personnel will be provided to all Americans."   Of course, the US and Japanese governmnets diverged  in their advice later, causing confusion and anger on the Japanese side. 

The US media have used a bullish tone to report the bedlam which followed, inevitably, in the wake of a natural disaster on this scale.   That leaves a bad taste in Japanese mouths.

In Japanese culture, it is ghoulish and insensitive to gawk at others when they are at their most emotionally vulnerable.  Alas, that's pretty much the main reason why Americans turn on the TV, nowadays.

Recovering.

Masa and I were in Tokyo on September 11, 2001.   Our neighbourhood, Atago—a little two-chome district sandwiched in between Toranomon, Shimbashi, Kamiyacho and Shiba Park—was pretty much cordoned off.   The US Embassy was a couple of blocks away from us.

As happened in so many places around the world, the managers of tall buildings added extra precautions. Yebisu Garden Place requested ID to enter the building; standard procedure in many US offices, but extraordinary for low-crime Japan.

Several days later, I passed through the security screening, and picked up my customary Excelsior Latte.  As I  checked emails at the desk (remember, these were pre-Blackberry days) I noticed a request from our New York office.

In a most delicate way, it asked for an opinion on a sensitive subject.  After the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, how long did it take for public spirit to return to normal? 

That was a very delicate subject. And frankly, wouldn't someone who lives in New York have a lot more to worry about?

Our team looked into the matter.  With the Kobe earthquake in January, and the subway attacks in March, 1995 was truly an annus horribilis.

Japan's econmy took an immediate dip in reponse to the Kobe quake.  And no wonder.  The port of Kobe, Japan's second-busiest after Yokohama, lay in ruins.  The nation could still build the goods that would earn money for reconstruction, but had significantly less capacity to ship them out. 

According to sources,  Japan's economy recovered significantly over the course of the year. A fiscal stiimulus package helped the recovery.  Kobe City had restored water and sewerage in about four months, and officially ended its emergency housing efforts eight months after the event.

It took about a year for consumer sentiment and optimism  to reach pre-1995 levels, even accounting for Japan's sluggish economy at the time. (The same pattern held for the USA, as it happened.)

For several  months, people avoided confined spaces with crowds—which ain't easy in Japan, as you can imagine.  Cinemas, theatres, night clubs and department stores showed steep declines in business.  You can't avoid public transport in Japan, but if people could, they did. 

As always, the human spirit recoves.  In connection with the paper, I read Haruki Murukami's Underground, a book of interviews with survivors of the attack.  It is an amazing testiment to human strength. 

Even playfulness recovered.  Not long after, a night club in Roppongi opened.  Owners called it GASPANIC, a morbid joke about people's reluctance to gather in public places.  It was so successful, there are now three branches.

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The Gaspanic Party Bus

The scale of the 2011 tragedy makes it different.  Communities, and the nation as a whole, will certainly need more than a year.  You can't whip up buildings, infrastructure, and economic activity out of thin air.  But how long to recover psychologically?

The rhythms of everyday life comfort the spirit.  Children get back to school, shirts get ironed, meals get shared, jokes get cracked and beers get gulped.  How long before such rituals can comfort Japan again?  I don't know.  I fear it may be a very long time for those affected, and equally so for those who share a sense of community wth them.

Gambatte, or Do Your Best.

One of the anchors on the German network ZDF interviewed Jörg Brase, their Tokyo correspondent.  Surely, remarked the host by satellite, you are living among tragedy and chaos?

Brase corrected him.  Tragedy, yes. Chaos, no.  He described the Japanese response as "organisiert" and "dizipliniert", both officials and the public at large. 

That's how Japan works, day-to-day, and in moments of crisis.  To the extent that something can be done, it will be done. If nothing can be done, then one forges ahead, doing one's best, no matter how grim the prospect.  Nicholas Kristof, former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, writes with admiration at this highly practical philosophy.

Beloved friends, beloved city.

Our hearts ache for those who have lost lives, loved ones, livelihoods, homes and property.   How much more can the nation suffer?  

In particular, what will become of Tokyo, the city we once called home, and our beloved friends there? 

We think about the unthinkable. We can't help it.

I wrote several paragraphs about what might happen to the city under different scenarios, knowing its infrastructure and geography.  I deleted them.  They would upset too many who read this blog.

Rather, I'd like to write about our local liquor store. 

The Atago Konishi Cellars lay just around the corner from us in Tokyo, at the base of Mt. Atago (Atagoyama).  Too often, we overlooked their thoughtful selection of French wine and fine Scots whiskeys, to stock up on jumbo-sized longnecks of Sapporo Black Label beer—its "Polaris" symbol is the world's oldest brand, you know.   For late-night souses, the management provides one of the city's few remaining liquor vending machines, just outside the front door.  Litre cans are available. 

Konishi Cellars first opened its doors in the 1600s, and kept the neighbourhood tipsy ever since. That means our local bottle-o has operated on the same spot for over four hundred years.  Through the great Kanto earthquake of 1923.  Through the fire-bombings of World War II.  

Even in the face of great challenges, Tokyoites will do their best.  They will attend to the demands of the present, and look to the future.  Its citizens will show the courage that has served them in the past.

The city will go on. 

During those years I lived in Japan, my colleagues would worry when I travelled.   I was alone, abroad, and they knew something of my personal carelessness.  Thieves, assailants, strange foods, and countless other dangers lay in wait.  Please, they said, get back to Japan quickly.  Japan, where there's order, where people co-operate, where things work as they should, where you can set your watch by the arrival of the train, where the cab driver will return your phone when you leave it on the back seat, where life makes sense, where it's safe.

Now, it's my turn to worry about you.  And I do.  Our love and thoughts are with you.

Gambatte, or Do Your Best.

One of the anchors on the German network ZDF interviewed Jörg Brase, their Tokyo correspondent.  Surely, remarked the host by satellite, you are living among tragedy and chaos?

Brase corrected him.  Tragedy, yes. Chaos, no.  He described the Japanese response as "organisiert" and "dizipliniert", both officials and the public at large. 

That's how Japan works, day-to-day, and in moments of crisis.  To the extent that something can be done, it will be done. If nothing can be done, then one forges ahead, doing one's best, no matter how grim the prospect.  Nicholas Kristof, former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, writes with admiration at this highly practical philosophy.