April 24th 2011

First of all, Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Joys of Spring, Happy Sunny Sunday!  I hope you are all having a wonderful weekend.

It’s been about 2 weeks since I last sent an update, and there’s been a long gap because, really, I don’t think there’s much to write.  (I know I always write that and then end up with a really long e-mail, but . . . )

At school we are about 3 weeks into the new school year, and everything feels the same as usual.  The timetable is the same as always, the only difference I can think of to the school day is that the students are supposed to leave the school by 4:30, when they are usually allowed to stay until 5:30.  Lessons and homeroom etc. are over by 3:30 so all this means is less time for club activities.  Teachers are allowed to stay as long as they would usually.  I’m not sure if we’re saving electricity or just getting everyone home safely and earlier.

The students are now allowed to bring their mobile phones (cellphones) to school; previously they weren’t supposed to, but of course they did.  Since about 150 students were stranded on March 11th and they all pulled out their phones to try to contact their families, the school has had to acknowledge the obvious, bow to the inevitable, and think of a new approach.  This means that all the students have signed a promise to turn their phones off at school and keep them in their bags, but they are allowed to have them at school.  A lot of the senior high school girls go to cram school after school and go home on the train at 8, 9 or even 10 at night, so I was always rather relieved they had their phones with them, and since March 11th I think everyone has really appreciated how technology has helped us stay connected.  So, we have a new rule.

However, the wonders of technology mean that the newer models of phones have an emergency function which makes a kind of high-pitched woop-woop-woop noise when an earthquake is detected.  In some models turning off the phone means the alarm is disabled, in some it will still sound even when the phone is off.  The reality of this is, in the middle of a lesson you suddenly hear the alarm from phones in bags, and then you have to wait 10 or 20 seconds before the earthquake hits, and that is a very strange time.  Everyone stops, I look at the students, they look at me, and we wait.  Now, for people in Tohoku, that 20 seconds could be life-saving.  In addition to the alarm, there is also a text message which tells you where the epicentre is and so you can know very quickly if you need to start to make for higher ground.  In Tokyo, though, we just have some time to get ready for everything to start rattling and swaying, and it’s just a very spooky feeling.  (My phone is 2 years old and doesn’t have this function.  I think I could go and have it upgraded but I’m not sure I want that sound woop-woop-wooping in the middle of the night.)

This brings me to the subject of aftershocks, which is really the only thing we are still dealing with in Tokyo.  They are frequent, daily really, and still large enough to be disconcerting.  Part of the ‘new normal’ I’ve mentioned before is just how accustomed we’ve become to such big quakes – but we need to get used to them because they could go on for a very long time.  The weird thing about them is, even after they have stopped, I still feel like everything is moving – apparently this is a common feeling, because the movement affects the inner ear.  Some people, especially in Tohoku, have to take motion sickness tablets to counter the effects.  I just feel wobbly for a while.  I continue to berate each aftershock, but I continue to be ignored!

The situation at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima is a long-term incident now and TEPCO has been forced / obliged to issue a timeline.  It seems that if they have everything turned off, cooled down and contained by the end of the year we’ll be doing well.  The radiation that was detected in Tokyo’s air and water is now either back to normal levels or undetectable, but the 20-km exclusion zone has been made into a legal requirement, since some people hadn’t left and some were going back sometimes to get things from their homes (can you blame them?).  They may be allowed back by the end of the year, or maybe they won’t ever go home.  It’s unbelievably sad.

There seem to be more lights on in Tokyo, and the big screens in Shibuya are on again.  I was there this afternoon and saw 2 demonstrations.  The first was outside the station, and was quite loud.  People were collecting signatures demanding that pachinko parlours close to save electricity.  For anyone who doesn’t know, pachinko is, according to Wikipedia:

Pachinko (パチンコ) is a Japanese gaming device used for amusement and gambling. A pachinko machine resembles a vertical pinball machine, but with no flippers and a large number of relatively small balls. The player fires a ball up into the machine, controlling only its initial speed. The ball then cascades down through a dense forest of pins. In most cases, the ball falls to the bottom and is lost, but if it instead goes into certain pockets, more balls are released as a jackpot. Pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, but modern ones have incorporated extensive electronics, becoming similar to video slot machines.

The machines are widespread in establishments called “pachinko parlors”, which also often feature a number of slot machines. Pachinko parlors share the reputation of slot machine dens and casinos the world over—garish decoration; over-the-top architecture; a low-hanging haze of cigarette smoke; the constant din of the machines, music, and announcements; and flashing lights. Modern pachinko machines are highly customizable, keeping enthusiasts continuously entertained.

Because gambling for cash is illegal in Japan and Taiwan, balls won cannot be exchanged directly for cash in the parlor. Instead, the balls are exchanged for token prizes, which can then be taken outside and traded in for cash at a business that is nominally separate from the parlor, and may be run by organized crime (yakuza).

This last fact is interesting, and what they don’t say is that some pachinko parlours are owned, or are believed to be owned by North Korean interests, and therefore playing pachinko may in some way support the regime there.  Some of the placards at the demonstration were pictures of Kim Jung-Il grinning and clutching a wad of cash, I suppose the implication being that by playing pachinko you are draining the grid of power and being unpatriotic at the same time.

I have mixed feelings about the whole close-the-pachinko-parlours idea.  I have only been in one once, taken by a friend who loved it, and it was truly a vision of hell.  Because of all the little metal balls, the noise is deafening.  On top of this they play very loud military music and it’s full of cigarette smoke.  I am not a fan of gambling, loud military music, or smoking, but for some people this is how they spend their weekends, this is how they relax, and while life is very much back to normal (well, our new normal) here, I think we are all a bit tired and stressed and if people want to play pachinko to unwind, I think they should be allowed to do it.  Of course, I must also add that I have no idea how much electricity is being gobbled up, and if it is really guzzling a lot then maybe they need to find a way to reduce that.

The other demonstration was a march, here usually referred to as a parade, against nuclear power.  I have seen smaller ones, but this was the biggest I had seen so far.  They had a smallish police escort, and some were whole families.  Many of them carried sprigs of the same yellow flower, but I don’t know what it was.  Their placards called for an end to nuclear power, and they were intent on making their own music or sound as they walked.  Most of the time this meant drums, spoons on bottles, this kind of thing.  I did see one man with a pianica, which I enjoyed because it is such an odd instrument.  Apparently (thank you again Wikipedia) it is the name Yamaha gives its melodicas, but they are bigger than the melodicas I saw in the UK.  These are quite large and have a hose attached for blowing into, so you can put it on a desk and play the mini keyboard.  Imagine a regular melodica and some bagpipes had a baby and you’ll have the general idea.

I have mixed feelings about this demonstration too.  I would not have ever called myself a fan or advocate of nuclear power, but at the same time, fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases and renewables just don’t seem to be able to supply energy in the amounts we need.  Nuclear power isn’t going away, but maybe we shouldn’t build 6 in a row like they did at Fukushima Daiichi, that seems with hindsight to have been a bit daft.  I had hoped that all this effort we have been putting into saving power would make us realise that we don’t need all those lights, but some are back on.  A lot of escalators are still off, but the lighting is certainly not as dim as it was.  The real test will come in the summer, because we can’t use the air conditioning as much as we usually do, there is definitely not enough power for that.

Tohoku.  As far as I know, the situation there is not really any different.  Many thousands of people are still living in temporary shelters, and with the start of the school year some had to move from school gyms to other places so the children could go back to school.  It seems to have been handled well in some places, in others not so well.  Thousands of people are still missing, and the government has changed the law so a missing person can be declared dead after 3 months instead of 12.  This was to speed up the process of getting financial aid to surviving family members.  I found out recently that it’s illegal to bury a body in Japan, you can only bury ashes.  With the great number of people who died, and the infrastructure in those areas being so damaged, there has been no alternative but to bury people in mass graves.  At a later date these remains will have to be dug up and cremated, but for now it just can’t be done.  More heartbreak for the people left behind.

Despite the fact that most of Japan is completely safe and I think now all the embassies have said  there’s no reason not to visit, tourist numbers are down.  I read this article a few days ago:


It’s particularly frustrating because everything is so normal here, it’s hard to understand why people aren’t coming – but then, the  foreign media was so irresponsible, maybe the view is different from outside Japan, even now.  It’s also sad because the Japanese economy really needs to get moving again and tourism would help.

Since March 11th, I have been amazed by how everyone has been so calm, so friendly, and so supportive.  A lot of people seemed to go out of their way to make a connection, even for a minute or two.  I have often been reminded of something that I have had to help translate at school, something that is part of the school’s philosophy but is actually something quite old.  In Japanese it is ‘ichi-go-ichi-e’, and while I have had to translate it at school with varying degrees of success, I found this explained it much better:

Ichi-go ichi-e                                                                                                                               You may think that the traditional art of Sadou (茶道) is a strange place to glean lessons that can be applied to various aspects of our daily lives, but the simple practical lessons from the Zen arts run deep and wide. Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a concept connected to the way of tea; it expresses the ideal of the way of tea. Roughly translated the phrase means “one time, one meeting” or “one encounter; one opportunity.” In the way of tea we should respect the host and the others in the garden and the tea room and honor the moment as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime gathering. That is, we should cherish every meeting for it will never happen again. Ichi-go ichi-e is a reminder that each tea ceremony is unique even though the elements are familiar.

(By the way, the subtitle for the movie “Forrest Gump” in Japanese is ichi-go ichi-e. I suppose this is because the Forrest Gump character appreciated every moment and every chance encounter without a thought of being anywhere except where he was at that moment.)

I think that a lot of the experiences we have had since March 11 could fall into this category.

So as I said at the beginning of this e-mail, today is Easter.  Ash Wednesday was March 9th, just 2 days before the earthquake and tsunami that started all this.  It has a been a strange Lent, marked out by other things, but it has also felt right that we go through this during such a time.  I found the following on the Archbishop of Caterbury’s website soon after, and I have saved it for today:

This year’s Easter will be a very special Lord’s day. It will be a precious time when we take a new step toward hope, like a small shoot growing up amidst the rubble.

This was written by Rev. Prof Renta Nishihara, an Anglican priest and Vice President of Rikkyo university.  Our school is affiliated with Rikkyo, which is also called St. Paul’s.  Every year half the graduating class enter the university and our headmaster used to be the headmaster of the boys’ junior high school.  Our deputy head’s husband is an administrator at Rikkyo, and while she was co-ordinating everything at school on March 11th, her husband was helping to turn the university into a shelter for thousands of people who couldn’t get home that night.

You can read the whole article here:


So I am finished and it has been another long e-mail.  While I have written a lot what I would like you to understand the most is that really, life is very ordinary here now.  I think I have written so much because I like thinking about everything and love this city so very much, and I want everyone to know that we are fine, we are more than fine and while it has been difficult it has also been a huge privilege to be here, to see so much goodness.

The sermon I heard today was about ‘little resurrections’ and I feel that every day since March 11 has been a series of such ‘little resurrections’.  Sometimes it’s stressful, and I know I need more sleep than usual, probably because I am not sleeping as deeply as before.  I think it’s also easy to be affected by other people, and when someone you know is anxious it’s easy to absorb that feeling.  But, and it is a big but, we are getting there.  After March 11th we put one foot in front of the other and just kept going.  We couldn’t say we knew it would all be OK, and that first week was really awful, but we thought it would be OK in the end.  We’ll still have aftershocks for a while, we’ll still have news from Fukushima for months to come, and the people in Tohoku will need support for years before their lives resemble anything like what they had before and some things will be in their hearts forever.  But today it has been a bright sunny day, Tokyo was crowded, and it was all good to see.


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