Still rising: A Scot living in Japan's tale of a nation trying to rebuild itself
Scots musician and author Nick Currie was living in New York during the tragedy of 9/11, but has since made his home in Japan. Here he tells how his adopted homeland is battling to cope with the earthquake and tsunami, and now a nuclear emergency
I AM in my house in Osaka, steeping up to my neck in the hot water of the blue box-bath, web-surfing on an iPod Touch. I've been back in Japan a week, and still feel jet-lagged and dehydrated after the long flight from Europe. Suddenly I feel dizzy and nauseous. The fluids of my inner ear tell me I'm lurching off balance. This is weird; I haven't moved. Assuming something's wrong in my head, I make a contingency plan to climb out of the water. This wouldn't be a good place to faint. But the feeling soon passes, and I settle back in the bath, reassured by the sound of cawing crows and cheerful voices on the street outside.
This lurch was the muted thud of an earthquake hundreds of kilometres up Japan's Pacific coast, a quake so massive that it shifted the archipelago's main island 2.4 metres to the east and budged the Earth 10cm on its axis, speeding its rotation by 1.6 microseconds and shortening the length of the day. The same huge release of tectonic pressure raised a ten-metre tsunami which carried ships inland and houses out to sea, killing over ten thousand people and turning half-a-million into refugees.
Like the rest of the people of this country I have watched unprecedented horrors unfold. Hundreds of human bodies washed up on beaches, entire towns vanishing from the map, and a nuclear power plant exploding over and over again, spewing toxic radiation into the air and threatening a "re-criticality event" which could see a fission chain reaction ripping through its spent fuel rods.
In the first couple of days my feeling was that if this was The Big One - the earthquake Tokyo has been bracing itself for since the Great Kanto quake of 1923 - it actually hadn't been too bad. Tokyo's skyscrapers were still standing. But as estimates of casualties escalated, and Tepco failed to get its Fukushima nuclear power plant under control, a darker prognosis began to emerge, and a darker mood settled over Japan.
Last Sunday I cycled 25 kilometres to Osaka's Expo 70 park and mingled with happy, relaxed Japanese families sitting on blankets in the sunshine under the early plum blossom. I detected no signs of anxiety. The supermarkets where I went to stock up on rice and other basics weren't more crowded than usual, and prices hadn't gone up. In restaurants, the Osakans were their usual extravert selves, talking loudly, laughing heartily, smoking, eating seafood omelette, drinking beer. Shopping centres thronged. Even the stock market seemed bobbingly buoyant, and the yen rode high.
My girlfriend, in a chic clothes store, overheard a customer buying an expensive designer dress confessing to a certain guilt. "This life is uncertain," the store assistant reassured her."We might as well enjoy it as much as we can."
And yet, buying fish or hanging my washing up to dry on the roof, I found myself thinking: "This may be the last time you'll be able to do this." People in the Fukushima exclusion zone unable to evacuate are being warned to cover their windows with damp blankets and stay indoors, and it was all too easy to extrapolate measures like these to the whole of Japan, despite the early assurances of experts that this was likely to remain a localised event.
I watched a shadow creep across the status updates of foreign friends in Tokyo. On Sunday and Monday of last week gorgeous spring weather made positivity easy. The basic feeling was: "This is Japan. These things happen. Let's relax and chill out." During Tuesday, anxious relatives in Europe, the US and Australia started advising their loved ones to leave Tokyo. By Wednesday night, most of my Tokyo friends had done just that, fleeing the constant aftershocks and nuclear threat to safer places to the south and west.
Huddled over a batch of compelling new information tools - Google RealTime, UStream feeds of NHK World's live TV coverage, various webcam geiger counters, Al-Jazeera's coverage - I've found myself, over the past few days, getting jittery and, sometimes, sick with worry.
My faith in experts - and in the safety of nuclear energy - has taken a hit. On several occasions, government and TV spokespeople have confused milli- and micro-sieverts (the standard measure of radiation dosage), making their safety recommendations almost worthless. Lame-duck prime minister Naoto Kan has sidelined Japan's solid (and sometimes stolid) bureaucrats, but failed to bring much leadership into the vacuum, so yakuza racketeers have stepped into the breach, opening up their offices as refuges and getting supplies to the stricken areas. The emperor has also broken his habitual silence, asking people to be stoical, but also expressing his "deep worry" about the situation in Fukushima.
I was living in New York when 9/11 happened, and find myself in the same frame of mind now. At first, in both situations, things didn't seem as bad on the ground as they looked in the media. Frantic families assumed the whole of New York, or the whole of Japan, was a conflagration. By reassuring them one reassured oneself.
But later, things got worse. The wind changed in the early hours of 12 September 2001, and suddenly my Chinatown apartment was filled with smoke stinking of kerosene and debris. The disaster had long fingers.
As paranoia took hold - in New York it was about anthrax, in Japan radioactivity - ordinary people realised that they too might be caught up in the tragedy.But an abnormal normality - denial, perhaps - took over: the banal obliviousness which is as human as empathy, and possibly more adaptive.
At times like these you divide your time between the small, comfortable world of your friends, your family, your street, your work, and the big scary world of the TV news. But comforting as it is to keep these worlds apart - isn't the TV news always showing us disasters? - there are events (an aftershock, news of a missing relative, a heart-wrenching story from a survivor) which crash through from one to the other, and jolt us into the realisation that we're living through an event of world-historical proportions.
At least this time it will not result in war. The flags and patriotism and lust for blind revenge which marked 9/11 are nowhere to be seen here. The Japanese will pick themselves up, dust (and scrub) themselves down, rebuild and carry on. Theirs is a culture sculpted over millennia by the constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis, and they're still the only nation to have had nuclear weapons exploded over their cities and survived to thrive and even prosper afterwards.
During the last three days it has been unseasonably cold, with snow, chilling winds and sub-zero temperatures hampering rescue efforts. On Thursday, announcements from the power company grew more chilling. A Tepco spokesman admitted that "the possibility of re-criticality is not zero". A radioactive plume could, in that case, poison wide swathes of Japan, and other countries. So far, the winds are westerly, meaning that any radiation would be sent out into the Pacific. Never has the weather forecast been so nerve-wracking.
On Thursday I met up with an Australian who'd left Tokyo, freaked out by the increasingly weird and paranoid atmosphere - the uneasy five-hour sleeps interrupted by jolting shocks, the blackouts and shortages and closures and queues. When the embassies of Australia, Britain and the US joined France and Germany in advising their citizens to leave Tokyo, Ben accepted an invitation to kip on the floor of a language school in Osaka. His eight-hour bus trip took all night: an earthquake hit just as they were leaving Tokyo and the bus spent an hour or so driving aimlessly around Shinjuku.
Ben showed me the grab bag he'd packed with three cameras and only one change of socks, as well as passport, money, laptop, batteries, a sleeping bag and a can of beans. He has no idea when he'll be able to return to Tokyo. I've prepared my own grab bag. It's something the Japanese are taught to do from school age; you never know when you may have to leave in a rush.
I also kept working this past week. Proofs came in of my new book, The Book Of Japans, and I worked through them, unable to ignore the ironic resonances. The book - Candide Meets Kafka - is set on the Shetland Islands, and concerns 12 local 'idiots' who claim to have visited the future of Japan.One of them predicts, in a statement to Shetland police, the exact date and Richter level of a big Tokyo earthquake, so an international panel of experts is flown into Lerwick to hear, in a converted boathouse, the men's purported experiences. The distinction between idiots and experts soon becomes blurred.
When I wrote this book last year I thought it was magic realism, but this week's events have made some passages grimly realistic. Scenarios I put in the mouths of my idiots and projected hundreds of years into Japan's future have actually started to occur. The crisis already has heroes fit for future folk-fiction.
The "Fukushima Fifty", for instance. These selfless nuclear workers, risking cancer-inducing doses of radiation, look likely to join the 108 Suikoden and the seven Samurai in oral legend. If they succeed in stabilising their plant they'll be remembered as long as Japanese is still spoken. Not as long, perhaps, as the halflife of Plutonium-239, however: that's 24,000 years.
There are also new villains. Outspoken Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara actually apologised for saying the disaster might provide an opportunity for some useful reflection on the part of its victims. When video chain Tsutaya launched an advertising campaign with the slogan "When you get sick of all the bad news, we'll entertain you!", public rage made them withdraw it. Wrestling fans, meanwhile, declared that the tsunami was the result of a tantrum thrown by the god of sumo in response to the cancellation of matches following a rigging inquiry.
What we do know, is that half-a-million people are going through almost unimaginable hardship right now, struggling for survival in unseasonable snow, with radiation looming. How will Japan's darkest hour play out? We cannot even begin to speculate. All we can usefully do, at this point, is donate.
• Nick Currie, better known as "Momus", has recorded more than 20 albums for independent labels like 4AD, Creation and Cherry Red. More recently he has published three books of speculative fiction (The Book Of Jokes, The Book Of Scotlands, and The Book Of Japans). He lives in Osaka. For those who wish to donate to relieve the hardship of the tsunami refugees, he suggests Shigeru Ban's Voluntary Architects Network, who are making and distributing flatpack cardboard shelters at communal shelters in Japan: http://tinyurl.com/4s76rme
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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