Post-quake life in Tokyo

As a Tokyo-based writer, I’ve written no less than four books on Japan in addition to countless blogs, newspaper articles, magazine features and reference texts. While I hesitate to use the word expert, I consider myself to be profoundly knowledgeable about the country that I’ve lived in for the last five years.

Yet despite these credentials, I have struggled for weeks to summarize any clear thoughts about the recent Great Tohoku Earthquake. Even as I finally sit down now and haphazardly hack away at my keyboard, what follows is little more than a scattered and solitary perspective on post-quake life in Tokyo…

With that said, I do hope that my brief narrative offers some perspective on the present mood here, albeit through the eyes of a resident foreigner. I’ve also made a conscientious effort to remain objective in the hopes of cutting through all the fears, paranoia and criticisms that reside in the media as of late.I guess I should start by saying that Tokyo is quite literally running at half-power.

Rolling blackouts have been implemented in order to conserve power for the whole of eastern Japan. In a city defined by its 24/7 lights, the lack of flashing billboards and neon signs has left the streets feeling rather gloomy. Stores are also powering down, with high-consumption devices such as freezers and display cases left unplugged.

In terms of food, Tokyoites are most definitely not starving. But we’re not exactly living the culinary high-life either. In my neighborhood, about half the restaurants and bars are still shuttered. Milk and frozen products are absent, and toilet paper and bottled water are very limited, but most everything else is still available in one place or another.

A brief note on contamination: We have been advised to steer clear of any produce, dairy and seafood from Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures. Supplies from western Japan are in fact reaching Tokyo, but shortages of specific items vary from day to day. Again however, contrary to some news reports, there is still abundant food in Tokyo.

Moving on, transportation remains severely impacted by the quake.

Inside the Yamanote line, which circles central Tokyo, the situation is surprisingly normal. Most subway and elevated lines are running without interruption. As you move into the suburbs however, the situation becomes much more complicated. Periphery lines are subject to delays and even closures depending on the time of day.

The country’s famed shinkansen or bullet trains are also rather uncharacteristically off-schedule. Aftershocks are still rattling the northeast, keeping the Akita, Aomori and Tohoku lines at a standstill. On the contrary, eastward lines to Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe are all on schedule, which has fueled a mass exodus to western Honshu and Kyushu.

The subject of whether or not one should leave Tokyo – or Japan entirely – is probably the most frequent subject brought up within the resident ex-pat community. Much printed and online debate has centered around this issue, but I personally do not feel that there is a definitive right or wrong answer.

For those with young children, the decision to leave is an easy one. The same goes for high-ranking business executives and government personnel that can quickly uproot and recommence their work elsewhere. Everybody else – including myself – are monitoring the news daily and assessing any and all viable options.

For contracted English teachers who may have only planned to stay in Japan for the short-term, the decision to leave is again an easy one. But for other foreigners with more permanent jobs and/or Japanese spouses, leaving everything behind presents a far more difficult challenge.

(For the record, I count myself to be in the latter group).

Media coverage of the event has been extensive, but there remain marked differences between the stories told by domestic and foreign news organizations. I’d argue that the truth lies somewhere between both extremes, though it is probably impossible for the general public to really know what’s going on right now.

The Japanese coverage has sought to minimize fear, albeit at the expense of complete transparency. Foreign coverage has at times been sensationalist, but solid investigative reporting has uncovered some surprising kernels of truth. Criticism of the TEPCO power company and the Japanese government has been widespread here and abroad.

At this point, reconstruction efforts are already underway, even though it will still be many more months before the situation at Fukushima stabilizes. And there is much truth to the oft-cited ‘Japanese spirit’ that has united a nation in the face of horrific tragedy. The economy will also rebound, but lost lives and property can never be replaced.

To end on a personal note, I will be indefinitely suspending my ‘Big in Japan’ column here at Gadling. Although I have immensely enjoyed covering weird and wonderful Japan, at this time I don’t feel that it’s all-together appropriate. In the future, when wounds inevitably heal, I look forward to again writing about the country I love.

However, I still remain committed to covering the wider world of travel, so please do continue to stop by Gadling and check out my articles. I have just returned from a trip through Chiapas and Oaxaca, and will soon be kicking off a mini-series on the *other* Mexico. Stay tuned.

And finally, thanks for reading my thoughts on a deeply sensitive issue, and I do hope that I have been able to present an accurate assessment of post-quake life in Tokyo. For those of you presently residing in Tokyo, please feel free to chime in and share your experiences and thoughts in a constructive manner.