After catastrophes, vibrant city of Tokyo turns somber
By Chico Harlan,
TOKYO — Tetsu Hasegawa likes to say that he lost nothing, or at least nothing to be mourned, and that is the only way to preface his feelings about the things that have changed.
There are caveats now, before one talks about loss in Tokyo. After the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. Friday, cellphone service was knocked out in much of the country. But Hasegawa used a land line and was able to reach his family within hours. His home was not damaged. His office building rocked, but there was no confetti of files, no flickering of lights. He walked home that night — nine miles, or three hours, in dress shoes — but he knows people who walked farther. When he became hungry 90 minutes into his walk, convenience stores were already out of the rice balls he craved. So he ate a banana.
“For me,” Hasegawa said, “a banana was enough.”
But in the days since the earthquake and the tsunami, and with Japan now in the middle of a radiation scare, Hasegawa feels certain that something has been lost: a part of Tokyo that he loved. Used to be, no big city on Earth faced fewer big-city problems. The train Hasegawa took to work arrived every two minutes. He played tennis with his teenage kids and didn’t think about pollution in the air. He took the elevator to his 19th-floor office and didn’t think about all the beams and iron beneath him.
It’s not that earthquakes were unimaginable. Everyone at his office had been issued a quake survival kit — a silver-colored waterproof backpack containing a helmet, a flashlight, a small bottle of water and a tin of canned bread. The kits had been sitting around for a while, so last year, someone went around, swapping out the old bread for new cans, with a 2015 expiration date. Like his colleagues on Friday, Hasegawa put on the helmet and headed under his desk as soon as the office building started shaking. He didn’t eat the bread.
Tokyo is different now, and Hasegawa, 45, thinks it might be different for a long time. His wife went grocery shopping on Wednesday, arriving before the doors opened, and 100 people were waiting in line. Now his train comes every five minutes, the platforms are empty, and the men who used to sprint as the doors closed no longer do so. The Starbucks in his office building’s lobby, normally open until 7 p.m., now closes at 4. Some colleagues go home after lunch. Some don’t come in at all. They worry about radiation and Japan’s emerging energy shortage as a result of damaged power plants. Hasegawa thinks Tokyo will have rolling blackouts for months, maybe longer.
“The paradigm has changed all at once,” he said, and he explained that he was ready for it, that Tokyo is his home. But then he told a reporter visiting his office: “You should leave Tokyo. If you stay here, this summer you will have to do your business without air conditioning.”
Hasegawa knows about energy and power, because he works for JX Nippon Oil and Energy — though right now, in a common Japanese practice, he’s on loan for two years to a downtown economic organization. JX Nippon, to put it simply, develops oil elsewhere in the world and imports it to Japan. The company sells much of it to the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Hasegawa once had Tepco as a client. He knew a few salespeople there, and they were “gentlemen,” he said. Now Tepco, which operates the coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is racing to prevent a nuclear disaster, and Hasegawa’s kids ask about radiation poisoning.
Japan’s government has urged citizens to cut their energy use voluntarily. Hasegawa’s family now sleeps with the heat turned off, despite the winter chill. The lobbies of many office buildings in Tokyo’s financial district are dark. The famous neighborhoods with riotous neon signs now look dim. In just five days, the city’s metabolism has dropped, as if in hibernation, preparing for a long fight ahead.
At work, Hasegawa has trouble concentrating. A TV plays in his boss’s office, and Hasegawa swings by every so often to check the news. He scans the Internet for updates from the Kyodo news agency. He doesn’t think the leaking radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi complex will reach Tokyo, 150 miles south, but after another explosion Tuesday at the plant, he asked his wife and kids to stay indoors for all but one hour each day.
Hasegawa had planned to play tennis with his 16-year-old son this Saturday. On Wednesday, his wife texted him to ask him not to — “because of the radiation.”
A lot of the time, Hasegawa feels something just less than sadness. In fact, he’s a little embarrassed at the one thing that really chokes him up. A few years ago, he was on a business trip with seven others in a town nobody knew well. It was lunchtime, and they didn’t know where to go. But Japan is a country where great meals hide in small places, and the group turned down an alley, ducking through a wooden door. The restaurant had four or five stools and two tables, and soon the table space was filled with sushi — platters of it, lined up like jewels on a bracelet. “Fatty tuna and sea urchin,” Hasegawa said Wednesday. “The best sushi of my life.”
Earlier this week, he was scanning the Internet for aerial photos of the tsunami’s destruction. He found a photo of Onagawa, a town that is now little more than wet rubble, and he thought about the sushi restaurant that had been there and the door that he had once walked through. There are many sad things in Japan now, Hasegawa said, and this was yet another caveat.
“But seeing this, for me, was the saddest part.”