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A quiet weekend in Tokyo

I want to start this post with a reminder: Although Tokyo is fine, the destruction in Tōhoku is indescribable and the tragedy remains immeasurable. I have lost my faith in the international media and I have never trusted any politician, so I do not want to repeat what they say. I can only tell you what I experience, personally, in my own tiny sphere in Tokyo.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I walked to Asakusa along the Sumida River to take photos of Tokyo Sky Tree, which reached its maximum height of 634 meters on 18 March 2011 with no fuss and no fanfare. It is now the second tallest man-made structure in the world.

The streets were quieter than usual, but my shitamachi neighbours were out and about: families strolling next to the river, mothers biking with their kids to well-stocked supermarkets, old guys sleeping in sunny spots on the river embankment. Asakusa and its famous icon, Sensō-ji, were busy but not crowded.

I did not see one single white person. While I was walking along the backstreets of Taitō and shopping at a local supermarket – in other words, clearly doing non-touristy stuff in an area with few white residents – I was stopped by two random strangers who asked me why I had not left Japan. (I should add that shitamachi residents are known for being less reticent than other Tokyoites.) When I told them Japan is my home, they bowed, said thank you and reminded me to ki o tsukete (take care).

Clearly the tourists have left Tokyo, and that's probably a good idea: power and transport remain iffy, and residents need to focus their energy on their own emotional stability and the recovery efforts in Tōhoku. Still, it hurt to see so many empty sightseeing boats on such a beautiful day. More evidence that life is not normal yet, but at least the boats kept going for their small number of passengers.

I thought, sardonically, that this white exodus has solved at least one perplexing problem: whether to acknowledge other foreigners or not. (Read about it here.)

This morning I went to my hairdresser in Akasaka. Although I'm happy to go native in all things, the one exception is my hair. Japanese hair and Caucasian hair are very different, and they require different products and different styling. I have light brown hair (you may call it reddish blonde if you feel poetic, though "classic mouse" might be more appropriate) which I don't want to entrust to a suburban used-to-black-hair stylist, so I go to Who-Ga in Akasaka. Incidentally, if you're still in Tokyo and if you need a hairdresser, I can recommend them. They're not cheap, but they're excellent, and a neck-and-shoulder massage is always included in the treatment. That alone makes it worth it.

Akasaka, too, was quiet. No white faces. My stylist told me that most of their foreign customers had cancelled their appointments. The ones who haven't left are like me: older, have lived in Japan for several years, regard this country as their home.


Kyodo News reports: "A record 262 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater were registered in the seven days following the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku temblor on March 11, according to the Meteorological Agency. The frequency of aftershocks of that magnitude until noon Friday was the highest recorded in Japan."

Until noon Friday? That means their report doesn't include the 6.1 aftershock that hit Ibaraki on Saturday night. Ibaraki is close to Tokyo, so we rocked a bit. (The earthquake that levelled Northridge in Los Angeles in 1994 was 6.7, to give you some comparison.) Compared to 9, 6 ain't that bad, although that Saturday night quake also continued long enough to make me wonder whether I should dive under my desk. The problem is that the big one started very slowly – it only felt as if the end of the world had arrived about one minute later – so every time there's a biggish aftershock, my heart rate accelerates while I wonder whether this one, too, heralds the arrival of the pale horseman.

I discovered a video that illustrates graphically how many constant aftershocks we've had. It's no wonder I'm seasick. (The Hero confirms that he also feels a bit off balance.) One second in this video = one hour. The big one is at 1:17. Haunting music, ne? I don't want to embed a video in this blog, so you can watch it here or here.

Japan's engineers have found ways to deal with quakes. Their next challenge is tsunamis, but what do you do against a 10 meter wall of water? (Watch a video here.) Declare all coastal areas a no-man's land?

Media frenzy

I've noticed that Libya has now replaced Japan on the world's front pages. After the revolting fear-mongering frenzy of the last ten days, the media has lost interest in a country that refuses to surrender to panic. Tōhoku has a staggering number of stories about human suffering, courage and compassion, but that's simply not as sexy as a nuclear nightmare, but that stupid reactor just won't blow up, so what's a newspaper to do but start salivating over the potential deaths in Libya?

Begone, Western newspapers.

Further madness overseas

My mother lives in a retirement home in South Africa. We have a long-standing arrangement that I call her every Sunday, so despite frequent chats during the last week, I called her again this afternoon.

"Mum, nothing to report, everything in Tokyo is OK."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"Don't worry about me."
"That's what I tell everybody who asks me why I don't tell you to come home."
"Who's everybody?"
"The people in the retirement home. They tell me I must tell you to come home."
"Eeeh? It's none of their business!"
"Exactly. I tell them it's your decision, and I think you're old enough and intelligent enough to make your own decisions."

I'm shocked that meddling busybodies are putting pressure on my mother to persuade me to go home. I'm also grateful, yet again, that my mother is made of stronger stuff than that. Dankie, Ma!


Tepco, Tokyo Electric Power Company, is known as Tōkyō Denryoku Kabushiki-kaisha or Tōden 東電 in Japanese. The Japanese have now started calling it 逃電. It's pronounced in the same way, but the kanji  means to flee, to escape, to abandon or to run away. Nobody is very happy with Tōden right now, and this concern is exacerbated by the company's bad history of cover-ups.

I must also add that the Fukushima 50 and various other emergency workers have emphatically not run away. They remind me of this beautiful wisdom delivered by Theodore Roosevelt during his Citizenship in a Republic speech in Paris on 23 April 1910:
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

I've mentioned a few times that I feel seasick thanks to the frequent aftershocks. I've learnt that there's a Japanese word for this dizzy feeling even when there's no earthquake. It is called 地震酔い,  jishin yoi or earthquake sickness. 

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