Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Tokyo, part two

"Thank you so much for visiting our store. Please come back soon."

The staff in Japanese stores have always been polite. But now, some of them are polite to the point of ridicule. Please visit our store again. Thank you very much for stepping inside these doors even if you didn't buy anything. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it seems as the politeness covers up relief that even foreigners are starting to return to normal life in Tokyo. 

Well, some foreigners. Living in one of the parts of Tokyo most densely populated with gaijins, it is noticeable that many of us have left the city. Almost two months after disaster hit Japan, it seems unlikely that all those who left will return. Most diplomatic missions either temporarily closed shop in Tokyo, or cut down considerably in their service. Some established offices elsewhere, some simply left. But those who meant to come back, largely will have done so by now.  

It's not just the diplomats, though. The ex-pat community seems smaller. Some of those who left might not be able to return. I've heard stories of foreigners losing their jobs in Japanese companies after having chosen to leave Japan after the earthquake. It seems harsh, but at the same time I can see where the companies are coming from. If their employers cannot handle earthquakes, there is very little for them in Japan. If you want to live here, you have to accept the fact that there will be quakes, and some of them might be big. 

As a consequence of the foreigner-drain from Tokyo, though, certain businesses are struggling. Guest houses for foreigners, grocery stores specialized in imported food, the many lunch places in the embassy area - they have all had to live with next to no demand for more than a month, and now that it is picking up again, it might be too late. Some have closed shop already, and from the look of the (lack of) traffic, others might follow. This is only a small part of the economicl and otherwise problems Japan is facing post-crisis, and in the long run not the most important one. But it illustrates the magnitude of the crisis when businesses not directly affected by the crisis, in a city not directly affected by the crisis, are struggling. 

Thus I'd be lying if I said that everything is as it was in Tokyo. It isn't. Much is back to normal - radiation levels included - but there is still a certain gloomy mood hanging over the city. The news are still largely centered around the catastrophe and its aftermath. Closed escalators, dark buildings and other power-saving efforts to compensate for the shut down nuclear plants are constant reminders that the city and the country are still in crisis mode. And despite putting on brave faces there is no doubt that many of us still feel that its uncomfortable with all the aftershocks (fortunately, we haven't had any major ones since I returned. I've only felt one I was certain was a quake, and then several fquakes - fake quakes triggered by anxiety or by injury to your balance, both of whom I've experience frequently since the first big earthquakes in March). 

Despite this, people seem intent on staying positive. And once you start looking for it, it is easy to find bright spots in the gloom. I've had the great fortune to spend most of my time back with wonderful friends - some old, some new. Getting back to normal life here - as normal as possible - has been good for me. I've come across things I didn't even realize I'd missed, and I've discovered new loves about Tokyo. Ironically, one of them was born out of the only thing that's really been bothering me since I got back: the heaviest jet lag I've suffered yet. I haven't been able to sleep much at all, and definitely not at night. So several mornings I've been out walking, discovering a (to me) new side to this wonderful city. Before the city wakes up, there is a strange freshness to it, unspoiled by traffic or people. The few that are out are either on their way home from a party or perhaps the night shift, or they are on their way to work. Shops are being cleaned or the shelves are restocked, and you might pass a stray jogger or two. But there is a completely different pace than Tokyo normally can allow. I didn't realize how calm a city of this size could become. 

And so, despite the anxiety I felt before coming, the overall impression after having arrived is a good one. Japan found its place in my heart a long time ago; Tokyo has now reclaimed it on behalf of the entire country. A few weeks ago I wrote in my status update on Facebook : "Nothing has changed. Everything is different." Coming back to Tokyo, I think it is now more appropriate to say: "Everything has changed. But nothing is different." 

Tokyo Tower is dark. Changed, but not different. 


Misha said...

Sigh... people forget that there is so much more to the situation than just the earthquake. Everything is forced to scale down. Still, your blog gave me a bit of hope for the people of Japan.

I hope that things settle soon. :-)

The Words Crafter said...

This is the most positive thing I've read about the aftermath. I cannot imagine putting life back together after all of that.

In my state, and a few others that neighbor us, there are dozens and dozens of families going through similar life changes because of all the tornados. I believe it takes real courage to stay and rebuild. Or, as in your case, to go back and deal with the changes.

And how cool that you've found so much that's good.

My thoughts and prayers are still with that whole country daily. Stay safe and I hope you continue to find new things to celebrate :)

li said...

Wonderful post. In certain parts of the world (as you say), one must expect to live with the possibility of disaster. And yet I have to say that the Japanese response was impressive - from my vantage-point in the US, there was very little of the widespread panic, looting, hoarding, etc. which often occurs elsewhere. Glad to know that some things are approaching normal, and that you seem to be in bouyant in spirit despite it all.

Liz P said...

I'm glad to hear that you've gone back to Tokyo. It sounds like it will still take a long time to get back to normal, but your post definitely gives hope. If there's a country that can really pull together during a crisis, Japan has proven that they are it.

You reminded me also of when I visited, our first morning there we were up and out around 6AM. It was light, but there were barely any cars on the road, and occasional people walking or biking to work and school. My husband and I just wandered Asakusa, taking it in. It was one of the most peaceful experiences that I'll never forget.

LL Cool Joe said...

I'm glad you've returned too. It always seemed to me that your heart belongs to Japan.

It was very interesting to read this post and found out what it's really like after the earthquake.

My thoughts are with you at this time.

Kelly said...

I'm so glad you're back where you belong!

This is a very good post and really helps us to see just how many areas of life have been affected by the disaster.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm glad to hear you returned to Tokyo.

It sounds like Japan has a long road ahead to getting back to normal after the disasters--but it also sounds like there's definitely reason to hope.

Jan Morrison said...

I like what you say here, Mari! And you are also changed, no? Different but the same. all good.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

You have given the people of Japan Hope. Hope for the future. Thanks for sharing this with us,


Cheeseboy said...

Nobody, and I mean nobody is talking about Japan here in the US anymore. And clearly they still need relief and help.

So interesting to learn about the continued aftermath. I do pray that everyone in Japan can and will get back to normal as soon as possible.

Boonie S said...

Thanks for this interesting report.
Take care.

All the best, Boonie

cerebus660 said...

Another great post, Cruella! If you'll allow me to be totally trivial for a moment, I've awarded you a Versatile Blogger award. Check it out...


Stacy Gail said...

Wow, this was a great post. It's easy to forget Japan's recovery is still going on -- and will continue to go on -- while the rest of the world and its never-ending stream of news rolls on. Thank you for keeping it in the forefront. :)

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