December 31st 2011

Well, it’s been months since I last wrote an update, so long that the word ‘update’ as a title seems wrong, so maybe in the wonderful tradition of Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America, this is my Letter From Tokyo.

I got back to Japan yesterday, after spending 2 weeks in the UK.

I took the bus into Tokyo from Narita airport. If you have never been to Japan you may not realise that ‘Tokyo New International Airport’ is not actually in Tokyo, it’s in Chiba, the prefecture to the east. It takes at least an hour to get into the city and I usually take the bus. It was around dusk and there was a beautiful view of Mount Fuji against a pinky-orange sky, quite stunning. It was the perfect view to come back to.

Jetlag is a wonderful thing, and turns my usual not-morning-person-at-all into a 6am rise-and-shine type, and so here I am in front of my computer, wearing my purple hanten (winter indoor padded jacket) pecking away as this year, and what a year it has been, finally comes to an end. While I was in the UK I was asked by a number of people about how life in Tokyo is now, and the answer is, as normal as it has been almost all year. But, and it is a big but, just looking at the newspaper shows how things are very much what I referred to before as the new normal. Here’s a selection of headlines from the domestic news pages this morning:

* Businesses locked out of aid; red tape denying tsunami-hit firms access to government subsidies

* Evacuees enjoy early toshikoshi soba (noodles traditionally eaten at New Year)

* Year’s last search made for victims

* DNA analysis identifies 2,383 disaster victims

Every day has been like this; although Japan dropped out of international daily headlines a long time ago, we are still getting a lot of information in Japan. This is really important, because although for most of us life has been remarkably normal for all but a matter of days or weeks earlier in the year, for the people of Tohoku it is still very hard. People are still living in temporary housing and who knows if or when some people from Fukushima can ever go home.

One story did make the international headlines recently, and it should be filed under Very Good News We Waited A Long Time To Hear:

That does not mean that everything is OK, and TEPCO has asked for a lot more money to pay compensation etc. but the fact that they have succeeded in a cold shutdown is Good News. In the same category is this:

It does make the point that the voting took place in March and April and a lot of votes may have been cast before March 11th or after that as a kind of sympathy vote, but anyway, it’s a positive story and I hope it encourages people to visit this great country. To anyone reading this; you always have a place to stay in Tokyo and a very willing tour guide! I do love to show people around.

So, one more time, a round-up of the situation here:

Fukushima and radiation: see above.

Earthquakes: obviously I have not been here for the last fortnight but in November and the first half of December we seemed to have a few, and I have just paused and wondered about how to refer to them. The new normal again. Before March 11th I would have said they were quite large, but after The Big One I would say, not so much. A bit rattled, but not shaken or stirred!

School: It was a busy term, and I ended the year feeling drained, as usual for the time of year. The school continues to support various efforts in Tohoku and I feel very proud that we are sticking with them. As I mentioned before, ANA has a slogan it put on some things after March 11th; Forward together as one Japan (心をひとつに、がんばろうニッポン). The people working on the ANA counters at Heathrow were all wearing badges with it, and when I told one of them I liked it she gave me a sheet of stickers, so I can tell you that it is also (in French) Tous ensemble avec le Japon and (in German) Gemeinsam vorwärts Japan. When I think about school and the events of March 11th I think of these things:

* One of my colleagues, at the end of that first week, saying, ‘I think we’re going to be OK’ and the feeling of relief I had when I heard her say it.

* The retired Bishop of Tokyo, who is also the Chair of our Board of Governors, saying how proud he was of how the staff coped and took care of all the students stranded at school that night.

* Hearing all the mobile phone alarms go off one afternoon warning of an impending earthquake, and looking over to one of the 1st year classrooms and seeing them all shoot under their desks. Alarm over, they all came up again and carried on studying.  The new normal.

* Reading all the 4th and 5th year essays written over the summer and feeling again how many people were directly affected because of relatives in Tohoku.

* Feeling very grateful to the British embassy for doing such a fantastic, calm job. Not being a monarchist I sometimes feel at a bit of a loss when other people come over all excitable and patriotic about weddings, jubilees etc. but this was one time when I felt like waving a flag and being Very Proud To Be British.

So, that was 2011.

May I just say, 2011, you were quite a year, and I shall not be sorry to see the back of you, but at the same time, I feel blessed and privileged to have learnt so much and seen so many inspirational things. I have seen people really pull together, stay calm, just put one foot in front of the other and, as ANA have put it, move forward together. That’s quite something. In an age of such digital connection, to just be there for someone, to be part of something is a powerful feeling. As I wrote before, the Japanese concept of 一期一会, ichi-go ichi-e (this is the moment), and the quote from Howards End, ‘Only connect‘ resonate with me. I have always loved the Howards End quote, but it was so real for me this year.

2011 has been a learning experience. It’s also been stressful. Not only the earthquake and the tsunami then the Fukushima situation, but also Dad’s death. On top of that, a doctor convinced me to try a new anti-migraine medicine this year and it had horrible side effects and even though I no longer take it it has left me with more migraines than ever. Bother. At school there have been stresses too.

But – and here is another big BUT.

BUT my triumph is this; I was me through it all. In the week after March 11th I could feel the tension in my body like I have never felt it before, but I was still me. The tension in the air around Tokyo, on the trains, in the shops, was like electricity, but I was still me. There was no evil twin, no Munch-like Scream version of me who came out and ran around.  I was me.

And so to 2012. I have high hopes for you, 2012. We all got through 2011 so we must be stronger. There’s lots going on at school that is very positive; a link with a school in the UK, a new colleague (and goodbye to a less-than-positive one). I have some friends back; 2011 started without them and my life is richer for having them back now (you know who you are).

I wish you all a positive, healthy, joyful and blessed 2012. I will end with an adaptation of what they used to say at the beginning of That Was The Week That Was, a programme I never saw, but that Dad quoted to me once when I was first living in Asia, I don’t remember if I was in China or Japan, but I remember him writing this:

‘That was the week that was, it’s over, let it go.’ So it feels right to end this long e-mail with this:

That was the year that was, it’s over, let it go.


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