American literary critic and author Lionel Trilling once noted that American culture “peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect.”
In the movie based on Michael Crichton’s book Rising Sun, Sean Connery’s character said that, by contrast, the Japanese confront a problem by focusing on the solution, not the blame, suggesting “their way is better.”
The Japanese response to the devastating 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima certainly support that claim.
You will recall that on March 11 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the coast of Tōhoku, sending massive waves as high as 133 feet crashing across Iwate Prefecture. Nearly 16,000 lives were extinguished, 125,000 buildings destroyed, and the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear facility resulted in a meltdown that will affect many more lives for years to come. (For a little perspective consider that less than one-tenth that number died in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.)
You would expect this kind of catastrophe to permanently scar the psyche of a nation. (Consider: The United States lost six buildings and 3,000 lives on 9/11, and the entire world changed as a result.) Stunningly, however, the Japanese simply picked up the pieces, licked their wounds, and moved on.
You might have heard that Japan is a bit prone to quakes. Japan lies in one of the most seismically active areas of the world, at the junction of the Eurasian, Pacific, and Philippine Sea plates, the great tectonic plates on which the surface of the earth rests – and which insist on colliding with each other with disastrous consequences. Tokyo seems to be in the worst possible spot, and with its mass of skyscrapers and huge, densely-clustered population, a major quake here would be a catastrophe of historic proportions.
The risk is so great and deemed so immediate that Bill McGuire, a hazards specialist of University College London, describes Tokyo as “a city waiting to die,” despite its stringent quake-proof construction ordinances.
Other doomsday predictions for Japan’s fate come from all over, with Stanford University of California even predicting “The largest catastrophic loss in history!”
The last major quake to hit Tokyo, in 1923, killed some 200,000 people. Tokyo’s population was a mere 3 million at the time. Today, it’s approaching 30 million. When it comes, it’ll be ugly.
The residents of Tokyo go on about their business quite contentedly, as if blissfully unaware of the chaos lurking just below the skinny tires of their tiny kei cars. Out on the streets of this magnificent metropolis I found myself wanting to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Sorry to disturb you old chap, but you are aware that the ground beneath you plans to swallow you?”
Americans are fond of saying, “live each day as if it’s your last!” The Japanese really do. It’s quite a remarkable thing to witness.
And so, thoroughly enamored of her people, Soo and I set off to explore this ancient city.
We began with a visit to the Meiji Shinto Shrine, where, since it was Sunday, we found ourselves right in the middle of a huge wedding. We were particularly fascinated with the ceremonial kimonos being worn by so many worshippers and wedding guests. We knew immediately we’d like the place when the first things we encountered were walls of extravagantly decorated sake casks at the Shrine entrance. Apparently Shinto gods really like to booze it up.
We next explored the Imperial Palace, the centuries-old residence of Japan’s now mostly ceremonial ruler. I was delighted to discover that, though the Japanese revere the Emperor as a god, you could stroll right up to his front door. Not all gods are so hospitable.
I suppose it’s a residence befitting a living god, straddling about 3 ½ square kilometers of parkland in the middle of Tokyo on land some estimate to be as valuable as the entire coast of California. Many of the original structures were destroyed (surprise, surprise) by earthquake, or damaged by American bombs during WWII.
The entire residence was reconstructed, and in 1968 the East Garden, called Higashi-Gyoen, was turned into a charming public park, like New York’s Central Park without the hookers.
The area is constantly abuzz with activity and a favorite spot for joggers and locals taking their pets out for an imperial poo. I couldn’t help but imagine the rooftop snipers picking off anyone foolish enough to try to jog across the White House lawn (which is not, by contrast, the home of a living god, just the house of a civil servant).
Their open hospitality did not, however, extend to allowing us in for a cup of tea with the Heavenly Sovereign, a direct descendant of the crocodile goddess, Amaterasu.
Pity. I’ve never met many people descended from crocodiles. I’ll bet they’re interesting, in a toothy, amphibian sort of way.
So, ignored by the royal family, we contended ourselves by watching a regal sunset over the Nijūbashi Bridge and Imperial ponds.
For dinner we met some colleagues at Gonpachi S Nishi-Azabu Restaurant, an old but spectacular two-story wooden structure with an open courtyard. The layout was the inspiration for the masacre scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, and famous former patrons have included US Presidents Clinton and Bush the 2nd.. Our friends, who treated us to some of the best sushi we’ve ever had, casually inquired over dinner “how a great nation like America could indulge in the pervasive anti-intellectualism necessary to twice elect a man like the aforementioned Bush 2.” I noted that Japan has blown through seven not-outstanding prime ministers in the last six years alone, and we all agreed, loudly, that the world would be better off without politicians. I’m not sure we were really advocating anarchy here, but with a belly full of warm sake, everything sounds like a good idea.
As delicious as that meal of raw fish was, it didn’t compare to the next night’s feast .
After a long day of work I was exhausted, so instead of heading back downtown, Soo and I wandered across the street from our hotel to Hiroshimayaki, on the 38th floor of Ebisu Garden Place. We enjoyed some magnificent Japanese beef and a dish I’d not seen before, a vegetable Bracken-starch dumpling which was somewhat akin to a Japanese pizza.
It was scrumptious. We ate til we hurt, not an easy proposition in a country of moderate portions. The Japanese way of cooking may just be better, too.
If you find yourself in Tokyo, and you should before the earth swallows it up, go there. Your taste-buds will thank you.