March 11th 2011: thoughts from three years after

As I write these words, it’s been three years to the minute since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of March 11th 2011. At that time I was preparing, organising and co-ordinating a tour to promote an album that my label had just released in Japan by my Slovenian friend N’toko. Three years later and here he and I are again, with a new album, a new tour, an eerily similar situation.

On March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm I was at home in Koenji checking messages. I already had Twitter open and was able to immediately see the deluge of comments that came through. My immediate reaction was just along the lines of, “Wow, that was a big one,” and in Tokyo, if we’re really honest, it was far from being anything like as bad as it was further to the northeast. It was clearly a bad one, but I didn’t want to feel that it was as bad as all that. The immediate response on Twitter was alarmed, but reassuring at the same time. People were OK. The Internet was my lifeline that day, allowing me to instantly reassure my family in the UK that I was safe, and instantly check up on my wife and my friends.

On March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm N’toko was just stepping out of the ticket gate of Koenji Station after a gig in Nagoya. He stepped out of the exit, the ground leaped and the beacons dropped as one from the streetlights. Welcome back. We were able to get in contact pretty much as soon as he got home and decided to take a walk around town to see if the places and people we knew were OK. Koenji One was fine, Bamii was fine, the weird little bar we used to sometimes hang out was fine. The 24 hour Seiyu supermarket was closed. False advertising! I was outraged. It felt nice to affect outrage at such a mundane thing. It was a symbolic act of affirming our own daily reality over the enormity of the tragedy that had occurred.

My wife was sent home from work but had to walk home because the trains weren’t running. It took her four hours, but others took way longer. Live venues that had been preparing for events that were now never going to happen opened their doors and served coffee and refreshments to those on their long walks home. The main street outside was full of people in a way that you only ever usually see in Koenji at the Awa-odori dance festival every August. Other friends of ours came by and our flat became a sort of meeting place. I just wanted to drink and listen to music. I didn’t want to think about the horrors that were occurring out of my control further up the coast.

My wife turned on the TV and it just showed miles after miles of flames burning over a black sea. I didn’t want to see it. I was safe, my friends were safe, and this apocalyptic reminder that so many others weren’t emphasised the dissonance between the heightened normality of my immediate surroundings and the oblique or otherwise removed echoes of the horrifying reality elsewhere. Reports started to emerge that something was wrong at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I didn’t know there was a nuclear plant at Fukushima and I didn’t know where Fukushima was to begin with. It seemed ridiculously unfair for a nuclear disaster to have been piled on top of the earthquake and tsunami. I looked away from the news and I still refuse to watch videos of the tsunami itself for the same reason I’ve never watched videos of the flames and bodies pouring from the World Trade Center. There are people dying in those images, and they die again and again every time you watch it.

The next night I met up with a friend. He’d had a bad month and was still walking with a crutch after a motorcycle accident. The izakaya where we met was occupied by only one other group of people and they were being particularly raucous. It would have annoyed me under normal circumstances, bit it reassured me this time. My friend took off his shirt and downed a tall mug of beer. Fuck you, disaster, we made it through what you threw at us with our lives intact and now we’re going to rub your nose in it. Where are you?

The supermarkets and convenience stores were starting to look bare, although for some reason beer and chocolate were in plentiful supply. Hoarders had no sense of priorities! Hahaha, see how unfazed we are? Electricity was apparently being rationed, although it never seemed to affect us where I lived. Streets were just a little bit more empty than usual, and there was an atmosphere of uneasy tension that pervaded everything, every place, every event. Or more likely it was just in us and we were projecting it out around us. Radiating it even.

Radiation was everywhere. Not the kind that you can measure with Geiger counters — that was pretty much constant at a level somewhere higher than background radiation in New York and lower than Hong Kong — but in the media and on people’s lips: man, you couldn’t escape it. It turned out Hong Kong had been a popular destination for wealthy Japanese fleeing Tokyo, and my brother-in-law in Hawaii informed us that hotels there were booked solidly with ultra-rich Japanese. The posh private academies where the children of government ministers and corporate CEOs went were teaching to near-empty classrooms as the elites shipped their families out before turning to the cameras to bleat that everything was safe. I believed that Tokyo was safe, and the scientific consensus seemed to back that up, but just hearing these two-faced bastards telling me so made me question it. The Internet wasn’t helping now: it had run out of real information to disseminate and was swarming over every spurious report, blinding us with a blizzard of conflicting stories laced with bitterness and accusation. I wanted to get out.

On Thursday March the 17th I DJed at a small fundraising party at Koenji One with the band (M)otocompo. Their drummer was from Fukushima and their leader had family ties there. They performed a reggae cover of Radioactivity by Kraftwerk and we all relaxed. I wrote about it for the charity book 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake. The next day N’toko and I left for our next scheduled tour date in Fukuoka and within six hours we were in another country.

Kyushu has always been like another country in many ways, and Fukuoka is its capital and cultural centre. There was a charity concert taking place at the Canal City mall but it had less of the sense of immediacy that infused the hastily produced Tokyo fundraisers: we’d experienced the quake firsthand, albeit in a limited form, and it had literally and figuratively shaken us. Tokyoites’ relief efforts were also tinged with guilt and responsibility: it was our insatiable thirst for electricity that the Fukushima Daiichi plant had been built to provide for. Everything we did was shot through with those relationships. The relief concert at Canal City was every bit as well-intentioned, but it was done from a distance both geographical and emotional. It was like a charity fundraiser for a disaster in Indonesia or Bangladesh, for unfortunate people far away. With people in Fukuoka, where they asked about the quake at all, it was with the mild curiosity of someone who had no concept of what it was like. It was heaven to be among such normality.

In the end, we in Tokyo got good at enforcing a sense of normality on our lives. When the government told people not to have cherry blossom viewing parties in the public parks a couple of weeks later, everyone roundly ignored them and had a rousing weekend of drinking and partying anyway. The government position was understandable — putting on a conspicuous show of celebration with the attendant dramatic lighting effects while the northeast was suffering like that would have looked terrible. For those of us who lived here though, it was just as necessary that we mark this tradition and damn well enjoy ourselves doing it.

But we got too good at it, and we forgot. people in Tohoku are still living in portacabins to this day, and with the Olympics coming up in 2020, Tokyo has something else to occupy its attention. I come from Bristol in the UK, and you can still drive past fields of those portacabins housing people who were moved there after German bombs flattened their homes. The cabins became homes and they didn’t want to move; now they are a half-conscious reminder of the destruction that brought them into existence. In seventy years time, will people in Tohoku will still be living in those homes? Will anyone in Tokyo give two shits if they are? In March 2011, music was how we helped drive the immediacy of the tragedy from our minds, but three years later, I wonder if music has more of a responsibility to ensure we don’t forget.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “March 11th 2011: thoughts from three years after

  1. I think music could have more of that responsibility, totally. Nice article, also, you expressed a lot of things I know my friends and I were also feeling. We weren’t leaving, but if we were staying we at least needed our hanami and to feel like things could be normal for the time being.

    And I have to hear that reggae cover of “Radioacivity” haha.

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