At first it feels reassuringly familiar. The sun is shining in Shibuya, salarymen are rushing around and teens are chatting as they make their way across the famous crossing. But there are telling signs of change. The sensory overload of flashing neon lights and video screens that normally blare across Shibuya are switched off and disquietingly blank. A glance at the red lights on the nearest vending machine – and the one after, and the one after – confirms that all the water has sold out.
At the supermarket in my Nakameguro neighbourhood, there are politely apologetic notes limiting toilet paper and water bottles to one per person in the dimly lit aisles. And I later find myself momentarily losing my local Natural Lawson store, which is virtually unrecognisable at night without its bright lights. This is Tokyo today. The same – but different.
I was outside Japan on a long-planned sabbatical when the earthquake and tsunami rocked the country on 11 March. Accessing information about the unfolding disaster on a painfully slow internet connection located a 20-minute jungle trek away from my wooden hut in a small rural island in Thailand was a surreal experience.
It goes without saying that compared to the struggles facing the grieving, the homeless and the jobless, hunting for toilet paper and switching off the lights in Tokyo – now that I’ve returned home – is not much of a hardship.
But the subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in Tokyo’s landscape show the extent to which countless residents and businesses have been touched by recent events. Tokyo may be famed as the world’s leading temple to consumerism, but a new sense of self-restraint is emerging, not just in terms of electricity outage and shopping. It’s also palpable in the mood of residents. Even with the arrival of the cherry blossoms, partying is far from the minds of most. Those whose diaries were once filled with art exhibitions, fashion events and opening parties are now busy with a whirlwind of fundraising.
As Tokyo adjusts to “after”, a massive relief operation continues around the clock a few hundred kilometres north. The removal of rubble, the construction of temporary housing and the provision of vital supplies are top of the agenda. In-between monitoring ongoing efforts to regain control over the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the government is also preparing several new budgets to help cover the expense of what is forecast to become the world’s costliest disaster.
It’s just the beginning of the mammoth task of rebuilding the nation in Japan’s most important and challenging mission since the end of the Second World War. And back in Tokyo? The future for residents may feel more uncertain than “before”. But life will of course continue. The same – but different.