Michael Dickison: Nuclear fears dim Tokyo's glow but not its spirits

Herald reporter Michael Dickison, who is fluent in Japanese, reports from a remarkably changed Tokyo.

Tokyo usually heaves at night. Lights glimmer and flush from buildings reaching high above you, pushing out the stars.

In winter, the windows of packed trains cloud over with the heat of bodies pressed together. Cold hands reach out for cups of hot sake in smoke-filled restaurants.

Driving back from the earthquake-ravaged north, the raised motorways squeeze through mazes of skyscrapers. The towers are as big and countless as ever, but their lights are out. Japan's ongoing nuclear disaster has dimmed the capital's glow.

Power shortages caused by the blown nuclear plant in Fukushima have forced Tokyo Tower to turn off its often garish illuminations. It rises as a cold steel frame, a black shadow. Office buildings are just as dark.

In commercial districts, flashing neon signs have been snuffed out. Giant television screens that form rings around major train stations are blank, and department stores are shuttered and dark.

The streets depend on these lights. Without them, they are lifeless alleyways. The bars, restaurants and even the trains lose their spark.

There are plenty of people out, even on a weekday night, red-faced from drink and staggering.

It's better than staying home and worrying.

I push through crowds to meet a friend I've known since kindergarten.

Work has slowed to a standstill at the investment bank he works for as expats leave in droves, fearing clouds of radiation. Any business deals involving foreign companies have been put on indefinite hold.

So his office has been out eating and drinking. It appears to be a common tack in the nervous aftermath of the earthquake.

"It was the scariest thing I've ever experienced," he says, recalling the shaking. His earthquake-proofed office building bowed toward the ground as it swerved back and forth.

Now, on his desk, alongside a triple screen charting the movements of financial markets, he displays real-time Geiger counter readings from around the city.

The radiation spiked one day, but he says the levels have been so low he shouldn't worry too much.

He's not leaving Tokyo, anyway.

Outside, on the dark roads, a few silent taxis carry the last stragglers home.

Aftershocks continue through the night. At dawn, they seem to arrive every five minutes. Some roll like lapping waves, others build up to a banging, and the rest barely tickle.

But the one at 7am is forceful enough to cause delays in the subways and commuter trains.

Escalators leading down to underground stations have been turned off to conserve power. So have half the lights in the corridors to the subways. Commuters rush through dark caverns.

I step on to a subway I used to take everyday. The metal carriage is packed during the rush hour, with bodies filling every corner. But the physical squeeze is only half the usual pressure.

A central business district is barren. Maybe I've lost track of the days, I think, because the streets cutting between office complexes look like Sunday mornings.

At one point, I see more cotton masks than business suits. This is Tokyo, where business suits rule.

Many companies have sent people home.

The power cuts in the city shut down a few train lines each day. Without them, many people just can't get to work. The inactivity is surreal.

Even inside the offices, half the lights have been switched off.

I take an elevated train to Meiji shrine, an oasis tucked behind the eccentric Harajuki shopping area.

Past great wooden archways, the shrine takes you away from the scrambling of the city.

Following custom, I drop a coin into a box and pray. The woman beside me turns and smiles. We acknowledge the earthquake is on our minds.

"Yappari shinsai no oinori desuyone."

There's nothing else to pray for.

Around a big tree are boards where people have hung up wooden cards with their wishes.

"I wish that even one extra life is saved in the disaster areas," says one.

"Play for Japan," it adds in English.

I wish that the spirits receiving these supplications know how to overlook the typical Japanese failure to separate Ls from Rs.

The shrine has also put up a poem written by the long-dead Meiji emperor for the occasion.

"If our ten million / citizens and their support / we can bring together / then any accomplishment / I believe we can achieve."

This may be a clumsy translation (by me), but the Shinto shrine is nevertheless a revealing nexus between spirituality and the Japanese nation. Religion is hard to pick apart from Japan's mixture of traditions: Shinto, Buddhist, Christian, the miscellaneous and the undefined. My pre-school, for instance, was attached to a Buddhist temple, and every morning 4-year-olds went through the motions of reading out chants to a beat. We couldn't read, and they weren't even Japanese. I still wouldn't know the meanings, except that every other character meant "nothing". It's a formless religiosity.

The headline on an English-language newspaper warns of the radiation detected in the oceans. A Japanese-language newspaper leads that power shortages are likely to continue into summer, which starts about July and is when usage goes up to power air conditioners.

The difference in headlines is the diverging focus between the people who call Japan home and those who merely live here.

Radioactivity has far graver dangers than late trains. For anyone free of too many ties, it's the greater concern.

But for those rooted here, there's no thought of leaving; any evacuation would be temporary.

They will live here regardless of the imperceptible threat of nuclear radiation, so that's just something they'll have to deal with. The power cuts, then, are more tangible. At least for now.

It was true even in Fukushima, near the nuclear threat, and it was true in Sendai, a city overwhelmingly shut down and swamped with thousands of deaths.

Even in those places, nobody planned to abandon their hometowns. This was assumed, and even when I specifically asked there was no real consideration given to the idea.

Across northern Japan and Tokyo, among everyone affected by the earthquake in one way or another, the answer has been that home is home - earthquake, tsunami, radiation or not.

- NZ Herald

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