A New Yorker in Tokyo finds humanity after the quake hit:
The epicenter of the quake was about 230 miles away from Tokyo, but its effects were felt in the marrow of citizens in Japan’s capital city.
After shooting a bit of video, and helping out a few foreign tourists, I made my way back home, straightened things up in my largely unscathed apartment, and immediately headed back out on my bike to survey the streets.
This is something of a personal ritual. In New York, whenever disaster strikes, I don’t sit by the glow of cable news, I get out on the streets and look for the pulse of the event. Preferably at night, preferably on a bike.
Hey, if one is “cursed to live in interesting times,” one should at least respect the moment’s historical import and drink deep of the eschatological trough.
The homeward bound crowds filling the streets seemed to peak at 4 p.m. Yet by 11 p.m. the streets were still jam packed with office workers walking home, only now framed by bumper-to-bumper traffic that moved far slower than anyone on foot.
Here and there you could see a mother holding the hand of a child wearing what I can only describe as a platinum colored hood-hat that was so cute, yet simultaneously utilitarian I can only assume this is a widely used safety hat given out to children in lieu of a full on helmet to guard against falling debris.
A trip to five different convenience stores to replenish my battery supply revealed only clean and completely empty shelves, dutifully manned by store workers who, despite the fact that they had nothing to sell, continued to energetically issue that familiar “irreshaimase!” (welcome) refrain. In the face of the empty shelves that hinted at social panic if left to continue another day, the Japanese sense of duty was a reassuring touchstone.
Now looking at the facts emerging in the aftermath of the quake, the truth of exactly how epic this whole thing was (is) becomes more tangible. Reports have the death toll at 200-300 people, and authorities expect that number to pass 1,000. As I write this there are an estimated 4 million buildings in Tokyo without power as a 23-foot wall of water bears down on the country and places as far away as Hawaii brace for the worst.
In what may come to be known historically as the Sendai Earthquake, we now learn that it was the fifth largest on the entire planet since 1900, and the largest ever in the history of earthquake-prone Japan.
Yes, this was historic, but it was also somehow personally cathartic. Today I watched one of the most crowded cities on Earth–not New York–comport itself with grace and aplomb in the face of swaying skyscrapers and a severe interruption (and in some cases, ending) to life as we know it.
As a native New Yorker who experienced my city’s massive blackouts and riots, and finally the end of the World Trade Center, I recognize this business of being cosmopolitan, fragile, tough and empathic all at once.
What I surprised me today is that within a culture I’ve spent so much time studying, and highlighting the differences of, I now understand–no, intuit that these people born on the opposite side of the planet are nothing less than exactly as courageous, terrified, and optimistically unsure as everyone I grew up with in the U.S.
The Western sci-fi novels are wrong. Japan is not Mars. It’s more like a space station in which our distant cousins simply have different ways.
Ultimately, days like these give rise to a kind of pan-cultural adhesive that serves to bind us together no matter how different we want to think we are.