Dispatches on the Tohoku Earthquake Part I: Rolling Blackouts

by Ryan Sayre

It's been a hectic week. My adopted country has suffered DSC_0152 an earthquake, a tsunami, a nuclear disater, and is now knee deep in an energy crisis. This is to say nothing of the fact that my half-finished dissertation, an ethnographic account of none other than earthquake disaster preparedness in Japan, in the space of five minutes last week, become an artifact. In order to be in the midst of things I returned to Tokyo five days after the quake; not necessarily to gain perspective like a journalist might do, but to lose it, to get swept away in the particularities of life in this time of crisis.

After five hours in a line that was slowly inching forward, it started to become clear to Mr. Oe that there had never been any bus. The line, he realized, had been moving forward not as a result of passengers boarding and deboarding, but because, one after the next, those at the front gradually began giving up, peeling off, and walking home. No one, it seems, thought to communicate back down the line what was going on. When I asked Mr. Oe if he himself talked to anybody on his long walk home, he laughed nervously and then conceded, “We all moved through the streets silently like a band of ants.”

The area where I’m staying in Kanagawa is designated as Group 2 on the rolling blackout map. This means that we'll be off the grid from 9:20am − 1:20pm today. Blackouts will continue in this manner across eastern and northern Japan, we’re being told, until the end of April. After the television clicked off ten minutes ago, my friend begins to fill the silence by reading aloud the Kanagawa Prefecture news reports on her iPhone. An eighteen year old on a motor scooter, she reads, was killed at an intersection during the blackout last night. The police had apparently not put an officer on duty when the traffic lights went black. As she reads, I am busy scooping hot water out of a electric kettle with a measuring cup. I remember when I was a child and the power would go off. I was continually struck by how few things needed electricity to function: the gas, the water, the telephone. In this apartment building here in Japan, electric pump systems ensure that I can neither get a glass of water from the faucet nor flush the toilet. I can neither use the wireless telephone nor the electric stove. Here in Group 2, even a hot water kettle, equipped as it is with an electric pouring mechanism, is of limited use. Only now, as I am writing this, not even 24 hours after my arrival, does it strike me that I am not thinking about the earthquake victims, or the nuclear threat, but instead am already caught up in the thick everydayness of little things.

The crisis in this local neighborhood south of Tokyo is not a nuclear crisis, but an energy crisis. With eastern Japan operating at a 20% energy deficit owing to the loss of power from the Fukushima plant, these blackouts seem oddly enough to be experienced less an object lesson in the dangers of nuclear power and more as a ghost-of-christmas-future image of life as it would be without nuclear power in Japan.

Two days have now passed since my arrival here and it is slowly dawning on me that what I thought was a heightened awareness to sounds due to my exhaustion – a lone cough splits the silence in the train car – was more a matter of my having forgotten the workings of noiselessness in Japan. The silence is not ceremoniously kept for Japan’s suffering, yet there's something that also feels somewhat willful in this silence over these last few days.

The sea of “sold out” signs in front of gas stations and supermarkets across eastern Japan do not reflect shortages, but what is being called, 'irregular demand'. Disaster experts, convenient store employees, and friends contend that these buying practises are driven not by irrational fears of an uncertain future, but by the a-rational mechanisms of fashion. The problem is, they say, that people are buying in excess for no other reason than that they see their neighbors doing so. Buying of this nature is then understood not as panic, but as policy, a cultural response grounded in greed's opposite – the calibration of one's own actions to the actions of those around one. It's hard to take these cultural explanations at face value, but one has to admit that if this panic fueled by fashion rather than fear is indeed to be called panic, then it's one of its more polite and quiet manifestations. I had expected to see no pandemonium in Tokyo, but as regards the troubles in Fukushima, I've been witnessing what feels like Japan's own version of mayhem–a collective quiet. Not a calm per se, but a quiet; a quiet I don't know how to make sense of yet; a quiet perhaps quietly at work in the story of another on of my disaster preparedness volunteer colleagues. Hours after the ground had stopped shaking, as he walked home on the train tracks, he told me, he came across a number of cars stopped at railroad crossing gates with drivers and passangers inside, patiently waiting for the gates to open up.