Friday, 18 March 2011

Thursday 17th March 2011 - morning

Photo: Maxiumum radiation levels detected in the Tohoku and Kanto region.

Woke this morning to news that the British Embassy was going to charter planes to evacuate British citzens to Hong Kong. The flights will be free for those from the immediate disaster area but will cost 600 pounds for those outside. SIX HUNDRED POUNDS!! FOR A FLIGHT TO HONG KONG! The benefits of privilege are becoming apparent.

I would like to know how company expats were told (by whom?) to leave on Tuesday while the embassy did not officially advise British citizens to leave Tokyo until Wednesday. Were companies given an unofficial tip-off? Company expats will have departed, probably in business class, to some expensive hotel in the USA or the UK – or to their homes. Us local hires make our own arrangements. I am a university prof and have the money to buy my way out if need be. One British colleague has relocated to the Sheraton Osaka. Another, an American, departed for the US from Fukuoka. The real losers in this situation will be the young graduates who are working here at language schools to pay off student debts. Average language school salaries are about 250,000 yen per month (1,932 pounds). They may not be able to afford to leave. And they may not be allowed to leave. Japanese universities are on spring vaction until 1st April but language school employees work around the clock. If they leave, they may be fired. Having said that, there must be plenty of empty classrooms this week. With lights off in Tokyo and few trains, most people will be staying home. But the teachers must still turn up.

Yesterday morning I went into the HIS travel agency in Nagoya just to see what flights were available. All English-speaking staff were dealing with non-Japanese-speaking foreigners. Is it OK Japanese? said a clerk. Yes, it is. An American woman sitting at the next counter said she was flying to Guam. You should go there too, she said. It`s an American ..... She couldn`t think what to call it. She settled for `territory`. While my travel agent looked for available flights from Nagoya and Kansai airports, I asked him if many foreigners had been in. He gave me a big smile and said, Oh yes. There were various flights at different prices. On some airlines there was just one seat or there were seats only in business class. Other airlines were charging over 400,000 yen for a seat. But Emirates was less than 100,000 yen. I said I`d think about it. The new semester begins in two weeks. If I fly out , I`d just have to turn around and come back.

I phoned my university and asked what the situation was. They said there was going to be a meeting about whether the new semester would begin on time or not. I said I was considering flying out for a few days and was told, “Well we can`t stop you”. Well we can`t stop you. What is that supposed to mean? I appreciate that admin must have a lot to do, particularly as they had been trying to contact students in the north, but like Japanese officials they seem to be reacting to events rather than having any plan of action. Decisions seem to get made on an ad hoc basis. A couple of hours later I got a text saying that all university clubs and circles had been cancelled. You think? Like the Japanese people, I would like a clear statement from my leader, in this case the university president. I am getting one lot of news from the Japanese press and a completely different story from the foreign press and nothing at all from my university. The Japanese people too are seeing this disparity.

I think this is the issue that is really annoying the Japanese people. Naoto Kan was on his way out before this disaster. No-one trusts him or his government. It was reported that he became very angry when he found out that Tepco had been lying to him about the seriousness of the reactor situation. If he doesn`t know what is going on, who does? The emperor? I asked a Japanese chum how she felt about watching the message from the Tenno (Japanese emperor). Was she impressed? She would have been more impressed, she said, if he hadn`t been speaking from Kyoto.

The emperor is in Kyoto? I said, amazed.

Yes, she said, he`s been evacuated down there with all his family.

Way to send a message of calm and solidarity to the Japanese people. I told her that the Tokyo crows seemed to have disappeared too.

Of course, she said, They are very clever birds.

The key to staying safe is to follow the crows or the Emperor then, I said.

Follow the crows, she replied. They are much smarter.

So this is why Japanese people are panic buying and why foreigners are voting with their feet. There`s no clear message or instructions from any respected leader and now Japanese people are worried that anywhere east of the Emperor in Kyoto is going to get radioactive fallout.

Japanese people are the best at keeping things on track. The trains run on time to the second, every food imaginable is easily available here, and there is little crime. But when something goes badly wrong, it seems very difficult for authorities to get a grip of such situations. We saw this with Kobe and with Aum Shinrikyo. Which is why no Japanese person with any common sense believes the government now.

So now no-one knows what is going on or what is going to happen. The newspapers carry worst-case scenarios which show that Tokyo is perfectly safe from radiation. I`m sure it is. The real problem is that there there is little transport and no food and more quakes and power outages.

Since I have nothing to do down here, and no books or journals to read, I went to the British lecturer`s lecture. It was on Magic and the City. Christopher Robin introduced me to many of his colleagues, I am a Romanticist, said one. I am a Romanticist, said another. I am not a Romanticist. I am a historian. I felt deficient in some way. I asked Christopher Robin why there were so many Romanticists and he said that it was because it was an interesting period in literary history, when the industrial revolution and the ability to do mass printing sparked the birth of the modern novel. That didn`t explain however why so many Romanticists were taking notes using expensive fountain pens. The old guy next to me kept taking a fountain pen out of his breast pocket, unscrewing the top, writing a note in copper plate, screwing the top back on and replacing it in his breast pocket. Every five minutes. I thought it might have something to do with the weight and importance that literary types place on the written word but Christopher Robin said that many Romanticists actually live in the 18th century. His thesis supervisor lives in a Georgian house surrounded by 18th century literature. He had the curtains replaced with shutters because this was the norm in the 18th century.

The main point I liked about the lecture was when the lecturer talked about the self and its relationship to place. Peter Ackroyd wrote that the chaos of a large city can only be controlled by means of private ritual, and that people focus on something small to make sense of something frightening. This has been very true this week. It was not the quakes nor the reactor fires which caused me to leave Tokyo. It was the small breakdowns in my daily routine: the power cuts, the lack of food, the dimmed lights.

Half way through the lecture an alarm went off. People jumped and Christopher Robin had to explain that it was just the bell for the start of lessons.

After the lecture I met up with my Japanese chum and we went out to a kaiten sushi (conveyor belt) sushi bar on the pretext that pacific ocean fish was probably going to be contaminated, expensive or just unavailable in the near future. A couple of of ojisan (middle-aged Japanese men) next to me ordered whale sushi. It was 525 yen a plate and it was snow white.

1 comment:

  1. Despite the tragedy -that is VERY real. This is fun to read.
    Keep posting from wherever you are, please.