It is March 15th, and I am sitting here in a Starbucks sipping an iced tea and listening to music. Everything looks normal and the few people that are here are reading books, relaxing and generally going on with their lives. Sounds like a normal day? On the surface it could seem normal, but if you look around you can see the subtle differences. This Starbucks location is normally open from 7am to 10pm on weekdays has announced that from tomorrow they will cut their hours to 8am to 6pm, and outside the window things change even more. It is 8 am and there are virtually no people walking around, no children being herded by their mothers, few salary men running for the train, even fewer delivery trucks. Walk out the door and wander around: things change even more.
Walk down the street and you will notice a bit less traffic. You do not have to walk much farther to see that gas stations are out of gasoline, and most are also out of diesel. Look in a convenience store window as you walk by and you will notice a lot of empty shelves. Some have been clever enough to move stock they do have to the front of the store or shelves adjacent windows to draw people in, but there will likely be no consumables or water for sale. Toilet paper is the same. If you are just running out now, you might’ve out of luck. Walk further down the street to the local supermarket and you will see people lined up hoping to get things they need or at least think they need, but the shelves are bare but for a few things the staff found stacked at the back of the store room and have just now pulled out and shelved. Buying alcohol is not a problem and there are some fresh fruits and vegetables to be had, but pretty much anything that can be stored for any length of time is gone.
Leave the supermarket and head over to the department store. But wait, most department stores are locked down tight, their steel shutter doors keeping out people eager for their wares and hiding any damage that might have occurred of Friday. Want to buy a portable gas stove? You had to be there on Friday or been lucky enough to find one at an outdoor supply store afterwards. If you don’t have to go to work on the rather chaotic trains, you might as well just go home and get on Twitter while watching a streaming broadcast of NHK world news on your computer of mobile device. But don’t forget to charge your gadgets if you live in an area scheduled for blackouts, because who knows, they might actually happen.
Sitting at home you notice something strange: it is too still. There is a strange seasick feeling that sometimes come when things are calm, the constant magnitude 3-4 aftershocks being so common that they become normal and almost comforting. The small ones are so much better than the big ones that people feel some guilty relief when a small rolling quake has just finished. Everyone feels for the people a couple of prefectures to the north who have suffered so much loss, and many want to help, but there is a certain amount of survivors guilt in the air. People here in Tokyo both feel appalled that such horror was visited on neighbors and guilty relief that they have not yet had to experience such hardship. At least NHK assuring people in Kanto that they are likely to suffer greatly in the near future removes some of the guilt.
Some people are lucky enough to be able to go north and help those affected directly, but most do not have that option. Most of us just have to stay here in Tokyo and try to live as if things are normal, pretend that things will be normal in the near future, and imagine that things will stay that way. The truth is that there is a good chance things will not be normal for a while. This disaster has been too personal and close for most here, no more devastating but more personal than the Hanshin quake, something that cannot be easily brushed aside by the business mecca that is Tokyo. Maybe it is a time to get shaken up, and change ways, to get out of the funk that has had the economy spiraling for several decades, to pick up and say “we will do better, we will make a better future and that we will succeed.” Maybe this is disaster as an opportunity. The horrible toll the disaster has wrought should be mourned, but what better tribute to those loved ones lost than to make the future brighter. So much can be done. So much has to be done. Maybe it is finally time to look to the future instead of mourning the past.
I know that I would rather live in that Japan.