The mouse-click marathon through a dozen different news sites is now as essential to our rise-'n'-shine ritual as the first cup of coffee. "Welcome to day eight of our live coverage," the BBC live feed greeted me yesterday. Wow, already a week? It feels more like an impossibly protracted bad day. Imagine how long it feels to the folks up north.
Given the tenuous & mercurial situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, we're all but enslaved ourselves to the news cycle. By the time we've checked our various e-mail accounts, friends' blogs, live streams, and embassy websites, it's time to recommence the rotation - after all, something might have changed in the past four minutes! But a snake can only swallow its tail so far before it wants to vomit. The cost of constant connectivity is ceaseless stress. This paranoia has prompted a mass exodus of foreigners fleeing Tokyo for Kansai and Kyushu - which strikes me as an ill-advised strategy. Not only are hotels out west packed like sardine tins, but what will happen if (god forbid) a major aftershock strikes the other side of the country? The ensuing panic & local strain upon resources would be double what it would otherwise be.
We've already seen how quickly support systems can be stretched to the breaking point by a shell-shocked populace. The above photo, snapped this past Tuesday by my friend Lee, captured a sight common to every convenience store & supermarket in the Tokyo metropolitan region. Everyone now has their pet story of some asshole panic-buying. I saw two young women march out of my local mini-mart with eight loaves of white bread and a half-dozen boxes of Frosted Flakes. A day later, a friend witnessed a single woman lugging 15 kilos of rice through checkout. My neighbour Jonny watched one man sweep a whole shelf clean of tofu, and later saw a couple wipe another store out of their entire supply of diapers. (Maybe all that Wonderbread was giving them the sugar-shits?)
Selfish shoppers, however, have marked the nadir of post-catastrophe panic in Japan. Many an overseas commentator has noted the lack of looting, rioting, or other such bedlam that typically rides disaster's coattails. Explanations for the near-undisturbed order of Japanese society have tended to note the culture's homogeneity, immense pride, and innate collectivism. (There's also the ubiquity of authority figures, both legal and, er, other.) But Jonny feels these interpretations ignore the taciturn unease that can be felt around the city: "This feels more like resignation than stiff-upper-lip stoicism to me." This would explain all the panic-buying minus the panic; it does feel as though we've surrendered to the dull inevitability of the worst-case scenario and are merely acting accordingly.
For sure, Japan has suffered a miscellany of worst-case scenarios over the past century. The relative calm of the Japanese amidst misadventure may be part Pavlovian, part harrowed familiarity, but it certainly doesn't stem from an abiding faith in state power. Mistrust of the government has clearly crested when even MTV is accusing Prime Minister Kan of diffidence. Emperor Akihito's five-day-late* televised address provided the perfect analogy to the country's administrative & corporate leaders: in a suit more rumpled than Japan's topography sat an aged man, shielded by privilege and power, with a prehistoric grasp of P.R. offering platitudes instead of strategic substance.
There's certainly panic to be found if you're looking for it - just not amongst the Japanese. Thousands of foreigners have either fled westward or are seeking safe passage out of the country. On Tuesday, the French were the first to loudly shit themselves by calling for their citizens to evacuate; the Germans weren't far behind, spurred by scaremongering news sources like Der Spiegel.
Which brings me to the current bête-noir of every foreign resident: alarmist mass media. To hear it told by the Western media, everyone not yet dead is vomiting blood from radiation poisoning and this airborne death will gradually blanket the globe, crippling mankind and leaving us vulnerable to invasion by Venusians who will kill your grandmother and punch your baby in the face.
By now, every foreigner I know has received a frightened & tearful phone call or e-mail from abroad, pleading with them to leave the country. What else would our families think when every report suggests an outcome of, at best, a cancerous time-bomb, or at worst, "bigger than Chernobyl." Consequently, there's been a massive push-back amongst local bloggers to combat media delerium, emphasizing the relative (and it is relative) normality reappearing across the country. After all, how immediately desperate can the situation be when Japan's already been replaced by Libya, Bahrain, and Côte D'Ivoire for above-the-fold coverage?
Yesterday, my wife & I strode out across Western Tokyo to assess the level of local pandemonium that CNN et al. were reporting.
As you can see, it was utter ataxia, total societal dissolution. Granted, there's an uncanny pall created by the number of still-shuttered shops; electrical shortages have dimmed the neon glare and silenced commercial loudspeakers. But by the most important measures, life continues undaunted.
The most infuriating side-effect of the nuclear neurosis is that it's distracting from the true disaster still unfolding in Tohoku. So displaced is the world's worry that donations are currently a measley sixth of the amount pledged towards the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Of course, playing up the nuclear problem appeals to the solipsism & self-interest of the West: what happens when/if the radiation hits there? Could a similar catastrophe strike their nuclear facilities? News outlets can't sell ad placements at premium prices while reporting that the Fukushima meltdown is strictly a localized danger. Meanwhile, the American government (and others hoping to avoid Katrina-style embarrassment) is covering its ass by overplaying the urgency of the situation - while nevertheless requiring disaster-stricken American citizens to pay for their own evacuation. Consequently, as opposed to helping the suffering in Tohoku, many in the West are crying narcissistic Chicken Little, weaving the calamity into their own twisted agendas, or retreating into masturbatory navel-gazing.
The bottom line is this: there are 50 selfless workers literally giving their lives to ensure that the nuclear problem remains a limited & local one, while over 10,000 victims remain unaccounted for and 380,000 people have been left homeless. There is little, if any, clean water, fuel, or electricity in Tohoku. These people need help, not impotent hand-wringing.
As for the rest of the country, we're no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop. We've got our lives to get back to, though after a full week of confusion & tragedy, it's nice simply to stop and smell the roses. Or ume blossoms, as the case may be.
* - Interesting trivium: this is also how long it took George W. Bush to reach New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.