Springtime is meant be full of life and merriment in Japan. It’s the time of renewal. The paddies in the countryside are ready to be planted with a new rice crop. The end of the school year means kids should be enjoying their break. High school leavers are sitting university entrance exams and graduates are getting ready for their first day at work.

And of course it’s getting close to cherry blossom time — and the party season that comes with it. People get together under the trees, and drink endless cups of sake and TV news should be dominated by the movements of what they call the “cherry blossom front” the blossoming of the trees that slowly creeps up from the south.  But this year, the news is dominated by deteriorating conditions at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. The cherry blossom front has not yet arrived in Tokyo, only pink and white plums are in bloom, but instead, a wave of radiation has been delivered from the north.

Five days since the massive earthquake and tsunami swept away what safety measures were in place at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, radiation, though “low enough not to be serious health risk” has been detected in Tokyo.

As I write it seems the problem is getting worse rather than getting better. People have been going to bed hoping the crisis will be sorted overnight, or at least stabilised, only to be wakened by another aftershock or bad news about another Fukushima reactor failing.

The government has also been slow to get a grip on what’s really happening. So, despite the 24-hour coverage and not just because of the blackouts, people are being kept in the dark and fed the usual.

The overcast sky outside my window reflects the gloomy mood of the whole city. Fewer people are out on the streets, so they are at least taking seriously the government warning to stay in doors. Those who want go to work are having trouble getting there because of the cutbacks in train services caused by the power shortage. Many have fled the town altogether and some Kiwis, Aussies, Canadians and other expats I know have taken the advice of their respective embassies and left the country. Quite a few people have evacuated from Tokyo to stay with relatives and friends in the west and south where it seems safer. Just exactly how far away we need to go before feeling safe, nobody knows, but people are leaving in droves. Those who have no place to go, or are resolved to stay and see it through here are stocking up with food, toilet paper, batteries, bottled water and other essentials.

On more than one occasion, I have been asked whether I know where to buy a radiation detector. Appliances stores prominently displaying radios, torches and other “goods for disaster” instead of iPods and iPads. Long queues are at every petrol station, as only 10 litres can be purchased per filling.

Nevertheless some things seem to be carrying as be normal — outside my place construction workers are busy digging up the road and pouring concrete for a new building and company employees in tidy blue suits are wandering around the business districts at lunchtime as usual, but with many shops and cafes have put their shutters up or cut their menus down so what’s available isn’t as commodious as they are used to). But to me it’s all a bit surreal.

Big department stores are closing because they can’t get enough staff to come in. Shops have put up little notes to say they are sorry for the inconvenience, but they can’t turn as many lights on as they usually do. The vending machines that usually glare the streets to lure the customers have been dimmed. Radio messages advise people not to get into lifts just before a “planned” rolling blackout and people living in high rise apartment towers are having to walk up many flights of stairs and, for a few hours at least every day, they have to do without water, lights and heating.

People are slowly but surely realising how dependent they have become on the convenience of switch-on-when-you-want electricity. Radios warn people to be careful when using the candles, which may cause fire when the earth shakes again. They have been re-acquainted with darkness. Not all that long ago (well, 1983) I recall being here during a series of rolling black outs supposedly caused by whatever Middle East war was on at the time.

It is an not an easy way to have to live but at least it is spring time. In the dead of winter (although it has been pretty chilly here of late) or the sweltering heat of mid-summer, people might not be able to cope.
The outspoken governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, who recently announced he will seek another term as the world’s most powerful man, enraged potential voters by calling the tsunami disaster as a “divine punishment”. I seem to recall the troubled dictator of Libya saying the Kobe earthquake of 1995 was
god’s revenge”. We don’t know which god it is we have infuriated, but the Fukushima radioactive debacle will have significant repercussions for the future course for Japan and the world.

We see some signs of new coming out of these dark times. More people do seem to be aware of the fragility of their convenient modern lifestyle’s dependence on electricity. As they did before in the 1980s people are capable of saving massive amounts of electricity. As I was told in a private talk with the cabinet minister assigned to promote energy conservation, it might be enough if people just turned down their air-con coolers by one degree. In the terrible gridlock that happened when the power went down on Friday, the only way for lots of workers to get home was to walk all night. We have to wait and see if the sudden imposition of the leaner lifestyle has any long term effect. It could be the beginning of a new era, more appropriate for the post-peak oil era, for the entire nation, and maybe the world. Learn from Japan?

*Rick Tanaka lived in Australia for many years and worked as a freelancer for the ABC and SBS in TV and radio and was well known to Triple J listeners in the ’80s and ’90s as co-presenter (with Tony Barrell) of the Nippy Rock Shop. He and Tony also co-wrote two books about Japan.

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