Life abnormal in Tokyo

TOKYO — Here in Japan, it seems that each time you think things can’t get worse they do. All of Tokyo is now in suspense over the real potential for significant radioactive material to be  blown into the city. Nevertheless, people continue to have to live their everyday lives as best they can. I’ve been ...

Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

TOKYO -- Here in Japan, it seems that each time you think things can't get worse they do. All of Tokyo is now in suspense over the real potential for significant radioactive material to be  blown into the city.

TOKYO — Here in Japan, it seems that each time you think things can’t get worse they do. All of Tokyo is now in suspense over the real potential for significant radioactive material to be  blown into the city.

Nevertheless, people continue to have to live their everyday lives as best they can. I’ve been talking to people about how they are coping and here are a few more of their stories.

My friend Haruo Shimada reports that when the earthquake hit, virtually all telephone service ceased. But miraculously his wife Kimiko managed to get through to him to report that she was stranded at the Imperial Hotel in downtown Tokyo. No cabs were available so she said she’d just walk the three miles home. But Kimiko is a grandmother with a bad knee. So Haruo told her to stay put and he’d drive by to pick her up, suggesting that they could also then pick up their daughter and take her to the nursery school — about ten miles away- to pick up their two grandsons.

Five hours later, Haruo had finally covered the three miles and pulled up at the Imperial Hotel where Kimiko was patiently waiting. It only took 4 hours for them to drive back home.

Fortunately, his daughter did not receive his e mails telling her that he would pick her up and drive to the nursery school. She walked for two hours to the school and then walked from there with her boys back home. Haruo noted that it was a good thing she did because had she driven with him it would have taken ten hours.

A commentary on the stoicism and determination of the Japanese to keep living their lives was provided by the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra on the night of March 11 when the earthquake first hit. Despite the unprecedented confusion and chaos of the streets of Tokyo, the orchestra insisted on going ahead with its performance of Romeo and Juliet under the direction of Alexander Lazerev.

Eventually 80 people managed to get to the concert hall where they had as close to a private performance as they are likely ever to get. Upon conclusion, the members of the orchestra, having no way to return to their homes, wrapped themselves in blankets and slept for the night on the floor of the concert hall.

Next day, they went ahead with the scheduled afternoon matinee with about a third of those who had actually bought tickets in attendance.

But for all their ability to cope and to suffer hardship and frustration in silence and good humor, the Japanese are not immune to bad planning and irrational reactions. For example, many Tokyoites went to the train stations only to find that the trains were not running because the rail companies feared a suspension of electric power. So people went home and tried to drive to work only to find that the stop lights had been turned off in an effort to save electricity. But this only caused chaos in the streets with long lines of cars burning gas and trying to fill up at gas stations where pumps weren’t working for lack of electric power.

Of course, far more damaging has been the incredible series of mishaps, poor planning, and blunders in dealing with the nuclear reactors. At first, I discounted a lot of the sensational headlines and scare stories about meltdowns and radioactive clouds. Many nuclear experts around the world argued convincingly that there was unlikely to be a true meltdown and that if one did occur it would not cause any significant increase in radioactivity over any extended area.

Well, now I’m not discounting. As in many other situations, it seems the experts and the conventional wisdom have been wrong. We must now hope that extraordinary measures will yet save the day.

Clyde Prestowitz is the founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a former counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, and the author of The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership. Twitter: @clydeprestowitz

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