Peter Tasker

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Going Back To Tohoku


Peter Tasker


Peter Tasker

As I get off the shinkansen, a familiar face – broad, tanned, smiling – hovers into view.

“Tasker-san, it’s been a long time.”

I scan my memory, jumbled and blurred by hangover, jetlag, lifelag. Got it – he’s a media figure, fronts up current affairs programs, TV and radio. A real pro, and a nice guy too. “You’re looking well,” I respond.

Which is true. He doesn’t look any different from when I last saw him, six or seven years ago. Dapper, sleek as a seal, camera-ready. I, on the other hand, do look different, as confirmed every morning by the face in the mirror.

He explains he’s from one of the coastal towns devastated by the tsunami and he’s here to host a fund-raiser. This surprises me. I associate him with Tokyo, TV studios, the buzz of politics and financial markets. The coast of Tohoku is – economically, culturally, spiritually – as far from the neon wonderland of Roppongi and Akasaka as you can get on these islands.

On the platform, we swap small talk about acquaintances and events. We are saying goodbye when he pauses, as if puzzled by a new thought. “My sister is still missing,” he says softly.

It’s four months since the tsunami hit.

* * *

The last time I came here was in the early nineties, when the implosion of Japan’s bubble economy was starting to get serious. I brought my new girlfriend and we stayed in a resort hotel run by Recruit Cosmos, the protagonist in a scandal that had been the downfall of a string of top politicians and businessmen.

In the spirit of the times the hotel was all shiny black marble and electronic gizmos. The last section of the Tohoku shinkansen had just opened, linking Tokyo station with the remote and impoverished north eastern prefectures. There were high hopes for the tourist industry. In those days there were high hopes for everything.

My friend K, whose family had lived in the area for generations, showed us around. We spent an idyllic afternoon on the Go Stone Coast, so-called because the smooth round pebbles resemble the black pieces used in the game of Go. The sea was sparkly and calm. Through the translucent water my feet looked bigger and whiter than usual.

K’s four year-old son didn’t go into the sea. “He’s scared of tsunami,” she explained. “He’s a good swimmer, but only in swimming pools.”

My girlfriend watched intently as I played with the little boy in the lazy heat.

K watched her, just as intently. “You should marry her,” she told me later.

“Really? I hardly know her. Besides we don’t have anything in common.”

“You won’t do any better.”

Sage advice. I took it.

* * *

“Love For Tohoku”, “Let’s Go For It, Japan” – after the triple disaster of 3/11, the whole country is awash with slogans. The shinkansen that brought me here bore the phrase “Let’s Connect,” which reminds me of “Only Connect,” E.M Forster’s famous epigraph to “Howard’s End.”

Japan is connected, though not as connected as it used to be.

K and I are connected again, though it took some time. In her town the tsunami destroyed the telephone lines and the base stations for the cellular network. It was weeks before I found her name on a webpage listing the survivors.

* * *

The drive from the shinkansen station to K’s town on the coast takes two hours. I don’t remember any of the landmarks, so I set the satnav of my rented Toyota for the railway station.

When I arrive, I find there is no railway station, no town center either, just acres of rubble, twisted metal, shattered plastic, wires, shelves, spoiled household goods, formless mess. A mile from the shoreline, a capsized fishing trawler nestles between broken buildings. A dead car sits in a river, water up to the windscreen. The air is acrid with dust.

I meet K. next to a buckled sign that says “Welcome to the Go Stone Coast.” The buildings around it have all collapsed. Like much of urban Japan, this once throbbing hub of commercial activity was a fragile assembly of brightly-covered surfaces. The tsunami knocked them down like a house of cards.

On the phone K told me “Women are strong.” She is smiling and crying at the same time.

* * *

The early 1990s were a strange time in Japan. Something had changed, but nobody know quite what or how serious it might get. The stock market was the canary in the coal-mine; the Nikkei Index fell from 39,000 at the end of 1989 to 14,000 in 1992. At the time Japan had the biggest stock market in the world, so this was asset destruction of Godzilla-like proportions. But worse was coming. Japan real estate prices had been closely correlated with stock prices on the way up, and it looked a fair bet to me that the same would happen on the way down. Given that every loan made in Japan by a Japanese bank was collateralized against real estate, this could only mean financial armageddon. Gulp!

A Japanese newspaper rang me up one day. They were running a poll on how long people thought it would be before Japan gets back onto the growth path. I said eight years, which proved to be much too optimistic. When the paper was published, I found I was far out on a lonely limb. The consensus of investment professionals was two or three years. Just a blip, in other words.

The Japanese establishment were similarly insouciant about prospects. They didn’t think highly of financial markets and the people who worked in them. As long as manufacturing industry was churning out export surpluses, what could go wrong?

Corporations were similarly bullish. Marinas and resorts were sprouting up everywhere. The idea was that the now wealthy Japanese public would do what the newly wealthy have done throughout history – kick back and enjoy their wealth. On one side of the island of Kyushu stood Seagaia, a super-expensive hotel- resort-complex with an indoor Hawaiian beach. On the other was Huistenbosch, a vast resort and housing complex modelled on a Dutch town, complete with canals, windmills and cheese-making Dutchmen in clogs.

In Tohoku the shiny black Recruit hotel where we were staying was almost empty. K’s husband was working as the head chef at a monstrous new hotel right on the sea front. The two of them had moved back from Tokyo in order for him to take the job.

* * *

“Japan is still the future. And if the vertigo is gone, it really only means they’ve made it out the far end of that tunnel of prematurely accelerated change.”
William Gibson

* * *

K stands at the entrance of her parents’ house. Except there is no porch, no house, nothing even identifiable as the remains of a human habitation. The concrete exo-skeleton of the next-door building next door is still intact. A smudge at shoulder-level indicates the height of the third wave, the smallest.

“We were lucky. In this town we remember the tsunami in nineteen sixty, which did a lot of damage here. So we kept doing the drills. In the next town along the coast they had no damage in then so they weren’t prepared.”

In an average year there were two or three alerts for a “large scale” tsunami, most of them barely visible to the eye. Each time K drove to her parents’ house and took them back to her place a mile up the valley. There they drank tea and waited for the all-clear message to appear on her mobile. She did the same this time. Her father, still spry in his late eighties, came in sandals , slacks and a light sweater. After the tsunami, those were his only worldly possessions

A few weeks later, K came across something gleaming in a pile of rubble further up the valley. It was his medal, conferred by the emperor for fifty years of service as head of the local post office. It means a lot to him. Even now his nickname is “bureau chief.”

“Some people lost much more,” K tells me. “They had their life savings at home.”

Unthinkable in the UK or the US, but many Japanese keep large amounts of cash in household safes. In a country with little burglary and repeated banking crises, it must have seemed a sensible choice.

I picture those safes – some containing tens of millions of yen, according to K – battered and rusted on the sea-bed.

We drive to the neighboring town. The whole place has been washed away. Thirty percent of the workers in the local government office were killed. The only structure left standing is the concrete shell of the big hotel on the sea-front, the place where K’s husband was once head chef. He left that job years ago. Like Seagaia, Huistenbosch and most of the bubble projects that dot the Japanese landscape, the hotel had long been an economic shell.

K’s husband went back to Tokyo to find work. Her son is there too. She tells me they rarely come home, even for the New Year holiday.

She shows me the graveyard of cars, eight hundred of them, some just dented, others crumpled like beer cans.

“If you come at night you can hear voices, people trapped inside the cars calling out for help,” she says. I check to see if she is joking. I don’t think she is.

* * *

We were all bubble jockeys in the late eighties. Japan’s industrial juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Autos, consumer electronics, semiconductors, ships, machine tools – Japanese companies dominated all these sectors. Economic growth was double what it was in the creaky Western economies, with no unemployment and almost no inflation. After Black Monday in 1987, the US and most of Europe slid into recession while Japan powered on.

The financial bubble had spawned an industrial bubble – massive over-investment in steel, autos and other sectors – and also an intellectual bubble. There was a booming sub-genre of books, called Nihonjinron (“Japanese theory”) which held that Japan’s superiority in technology, management, and economic performance was based on the unique features of Japanese culture. I once met a writer who claimed to produce over sixty volumes of Nihonjinron a year.

The Japan That Can Say No was the title of a book co-authored by Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist politician, and Akio Morita, the legendary founder of Sony. One of Ishihara’s contributions was to suggest that Japan should retaliate against US trade sanctions by stopping the supply of vital components , such as semiconductors, to the US military and offering industrial secrets to the Soviet Union.

When the book became a bestseller in Japan, such was the uproar that the US Defense Department rushed out its own samizdat translation for circulation amongst policy makers.

The book appeared in 1989, the last year of the great bull market in Japanese stocks, also the last year of the Soviet Union’s existence. Few people expected the demise of either.

The west had its own version of Nihonjinron, often edged with fear and paranoia. Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One, more nuanced than the title suggested, kicked off the trend. Nuance soon went out the window. The twenty first century would be “the Japanese century,” we were told by such luminaries as Lester Thurow. The secrets of Japanese corporate success were revealed in The Book of Five Rings : the Real Art of Japanese Management, which presented the writings of legendary swordsman and killer Musashi Miyamoto as “the Japanese equivalent of a Harvard MBA.”

Le Japon Achete Le Monde was a best-seller in France, and it did seem as if Japanese companies were able to pay any price for the assets they wanted. Pebble Beach, the Rockefeller Center, Columbia Pictures, half the LA skyline – all came under Japanese ownership. The boss of one real estate company is said to have deliberately overbid for one multi-billion dollar property – he wanted to claim the title of the world’s most expensive deal.

How could this be a smart idea? Japan was indulging in a massive economy-wide potlatch, but nobody wanted to see it or say it.

Ishihara invited me to dinner a few years later, when the banking crisis was getting too serious to ignore. By this time Japan wasn’t saying “No.” It wasn’t saying anything. Ishihara was charming and polite and dismissive of his 1989 potboiler. He would prefer people to read his novels instead, he said. referring to the work which had won him prestigious literary prizes when he was still a student. That creative spark had been dead for decades, which struck me as a bigger deal for him than he liked to admit.

At the end of the meal, he abruptly turned the conversation to the subject of Kiichi Miyazawa, the pro-American moderate who headed up one of the mainstream factions.

“What do you think of him?” he asked.

I was ready with some bland words about economic policy, but Ishihara carried on, uttering his only words in English of the evening. “I think his head is like the end of a penis,” he said.

* * *

Japan is different. Japan is the same. Different the same way. The same in different ways.

* * *

It may not be possible to rebuild the devastated area in the centre of town. The ground has sunk. The shoreline has come closer. The seawall has gone. Just clearing the rubble could take two years.

The train-track is buckled and broken, submerged in places by heaps of debris. That line was loss-making, K says. Does it make sense to rebuild it?

Her own business is in trouble too. She runs supplementary classes, mostly for children from the local elementary school. But that school was right in the path of the tsunami. All were evacuated safely – this is the town where they take their tsunami drills seriously – but now they travel by bus to distant schools.

We visit the local newspaper headquarters, on a hill far from the shore. It’s not just an office – the printing is done on site too. I’m impressed a local newspaper exists, given the regional population of under fifty thousand.

The senior journalist, is in his late fifties. Shaggy-haired, denim-clad, he reminds me of the guy who handles the John Lennon role in one of Tokyo’s Beatles copy bands.

“On the day of the tsunami, the electricity was cut. The roads were blocked. TV, internet,and cellphones were down, so we had no communications at all, no petrol. Still we managed to put out a paper. We used a generator to power a photo-copier and made a stack of copies. Our reporters went out on bicycles and distributed them by hand, free of course.”

He shows us a single A3 sheet containing a blurred photo of the wave and a factual summary of what happened that terrible day. Some of the reporters who went out to cover the story never came back.

In the following weeks, communications remained patchy. The town reverted to an early twentieth century state in which people used candles to light their homes, moved around by bicycle and relied on the local paper for vital information such as where they could buy food and daily necessities.

The journalist is proud of the role his paper played in the disaster. He doesn’t know how it will fare in the future. Everyone here is concerned about the future.

I’m thinking of the elite journalists at the big newspapers in Tokyo, spoonfed information by bureaucrats and politicians at exclusionary “press clubs.”

I’m thinking of the journalists in the UK recently discovered to have hacked the cellphones of murder victims and the families of dead soldiers.

British journalist. Japanese journalist. Tohoku journalist. Same word, different meaning.

He shows me a large black-and-white photo taken from the roof of a hospital. Water is everywhere, cars and houses being swept along like toys. In the distance a dark shape is visible. The second wave is on the way, the largest, the one that brought so much death and destruction

The next few issues of his paper are filled with lists of names.

* * *

We’re connected. We’re not connected. We’ll always be connected. We’ll never be connected.

* * *

I’m slurping buckwheat noodles with K. This is the only noodle shop left standing in this part of town.

We’re impressed with Cyndi Lauper, who arrived in Japan on the day of the earthquake and carried on with her tour and showed a lot of heart in interacting with fans.

We’re impressed with Lady Gaga, who performed at the Japan MTV awards ceremony and involved herself in various charitable activities such as designing a T-shirt for Uniqlo.

We’re not impressed with “bad boy” Liam Gallagher, hairy-arsed rockers Queens of the Stone Age and all the other foreign artists who cancelled their Japan dates because they were scared of the radiation. Wusses, the lot of them.

We’re even less impressed with the multinational company which cancelled its off-site in Shanghai on the grounds that it was dangerously close to Fukushima.

Where do you even start with the Chinese shoppers who panic-bought all the salt they could lay hands on, in the mistaken belief that it contained enough iodine to protect them against radioactivity?

The times are strange.

* * *

And always were.

On the cusp of the nineteen nineties, Japan bulls were on a Pamplona-style rampage. One media-friendly foreign economist predicted that Japan’s economy would outstrip the US in scale by the end of the century and the Nikkei Index would soar from 38,000 to 100,000. Goldman Sachs recruited him and made him a partner.

As the Japanese asset bubble grew ever more frenzied, the idea of “Japan as Number One” began to attract less admiration and a lot more fear and loathing. French prime minister Edith Cresson likened the Japanese to “ants.” American politicians vented their anger by taking sledgehammers to Toshiba VCRs on the steps of Congress.

In an inglorious echo of wartime propaganda, Newsweek marked Sony’s purchase of Columbia Pictures with a cover featuring the Statue of Liberty kitted out as a geisha and the strapline “Japan Invades Hollywood”.

Japan, not Sony. Hollywood , not Columbia Pictures. Invades, not buys.

The paranoia escalated. In his best-selller Agents of Influence Pat Choate described lobbying by Japanese companies “as so vast and well-organized that it constitutes a virtual shadow government.”

There was an obvious gap in the intellectual market and into it stepped a disparate group of academics and journalists dubbed the “revisionists” by Business Week, the house journal of corporate America. Their thesis was that Japan operated a completely different economic system from its Western competitors and this difference, deeply rooted in its culture and politics, was what made it so strong.

They offered this syllogism –

Japan is different. Japan is strong.
Japan’s difference is the source of its strength.

Some of the most prominent revisionists knew little about Japan and wouldn’t have been able to read a Japanese road-sign, let alone a newspaper, but that didn’t matter. Their ideas had immense political value in the United States.

US auto companies, for example, now had a ready-made explanation for why Japanese cars were selling so well in their home market while American-made cars had next to no presence in Japan. Unfair competition, tilted playing fields, cartels, closed markets. That sounded a lot better than the alternative view – that Detroit was producing overpriced junk

What followed from this premise was even more gratifying. Retaliation, quotas and punitive tariffs to level the playing field. And if you can’t beat them, why not join them? Surely America should have an industrial policy of its own, complete with subsidies and tax breaks for big business.

But what if Japan’s boom was actually a bubble? What if Japan’s economy was about to enter an endless tunnel of stagnation and financial crisis? That would be disastrous to the case. Suddenly the need for tariffs, quotas, subsidies etc would seem much less compelling.

No surprise, then, that the revisionists refused to entertain such a possibility. When the Japanese stock market crashed, a number of arguments were deployed to show why it didn’t matter. What was happening in the symbolic economy of stocks and real estate, we were told, had no relevance to the real economy of factories and production. The whole slowdown was actually a charade planned by fiendishly clever bureaucrats in order to fool gullible foreigners. Anyway, it was just a blip in Japan’s relentless ascent to supremacy.

In 1992 the Nikkei Index fell to 14,000, making a decline of 65% in under three years. The policy debate carried on regardless, like Roadrunner running on air after he’s gone off the edge of a cliff. Pat Choate came up with The Second Pearl Harbor: Say No To Japan. The newly elected president, Bill Clinton, held a conference in his home state to discuss the most pressing issue of the day – how to handle the economic challenge posed by Japan. Ones hopes the participants got the full rock-star treatment. It was to be the last ride on the Japanologist gravy train.

The godfather of revisionism was Chalmers Johnson, a brilliant political scientist and polymath whose groundbreaking MITI and the Japanese Miracle spawned the whole “Japan is different” paradigm. Johnson visited Japan and declared that nothing had changed. On an internet newsgroup, he lambasted me as an “Adam Smith Jugend.” It was a classic example of Godwin’s Law – people who were pessimistic about Japan’s economic prospects were comparable to the Hitler Youth. I was delighted to be on the other end of it.

So how did the predictions go? Not so well. The Nikkei Index finished the decade at 19,000, a far cry from 100,000. Japan’s economy stalled and ended up one third the size of the US economy.

Nissan got into such a mess it had to be rescued by Renault and restructured by a Brazilian-Lebanese CEO drafted in by the French. Japan’s consumer electronics industry gradually lost its mojo, and once great names like Pioneer, JVC and Sanyo disappeared from the radar screen.

Japanese companies failed to make an impact in personal computers, and the market for the hottest new product in the world, the cellphone, was dominated by companies from Finland and Sweden.

Nobody wrote books about The Viking Principles of Management or Saying No to Scandinavia. At the turn of the century the evil empire – we always need an evil empire – was no longer Japan, but Microsoft.

Japan’s “invasion” of Hollywood didn’t go so well either. It turned out the trusting Sony execs were taken for a ride by the slickster duo at the top of Columbia, one of whom was Barbara Streisand’s barely-literate former hairdresser. That was nothing compared to the MGM deal, though, which holed one of France’s largest banks below the water-line and set off a financial crisis.

* * *

“In the Expert, competence is transmuted into social authority… During the process of conversion, he is not without some competence (he either has to have some or make people think he has), but he abandons the competence he possesses as his authority is extended further and further, drawn out of its orbit by social demands and/or political responsibilities. That is the paradox of authority, a knowledge is ascribed to it and this knowledge is precisely what it lacks when it is exercised…”
Michel de Certeau

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.”
Sam Goldwyn, or Yogi Berra, or Nils Bohr

* * *

So many dead are present.

Sitting in K’s house, working my way through a lavish meal of local delicacies, I find it hard to register that one of the biggest natural disasters of recent times occurred right here, that people have died in their houses just a few minutes away by foot.

“The first thing was the sound,” K says. “A horrible crunching roaring sound. I went out into the garden and saw the wave coming over the top of the pedestrian bridge. That’s when I knew we had to get out of here too. “

The water flooded into K’s garden but stopped there. By that time she and her parents had fled into the mountains. They spent days up there , living in an old people’s home with no electricity, no heating, no phone. Luckily there were some gas canisters and a portable cooker. She defrosted some frozen food and cooked it up for the hundred inmates, who had been left to their own devices.

“We were lucky,” says K’s father. “It would have been much worse if the tsunami had come in the night-time.”

I hear this again and again. These people who have lost so much keep saying they are lucky.

The image sticks in my mind. The black wave rising out of the black sea, engulfing the entire town while everyone sleeps.

I wake in the middle of the night. The window is open as K’s house has no air-conditioning. For a moment I fancy I can hear that crunching, roaring sound, racing towards me at frightening speed.

* * *

Nippono-phobia reached its populist zenith with the publication of Michael Crichton’ s Rising Sun in 1992.

Crichton was a talented story-writer who blended thrills and spills with scientific speculation in the tradition of H. G. Wells’ early novels. The earnestness behind this new opus was apparent from the bibliography, in which he listed up the English language sources he had ploughed through before putting pen to paper. I was flattered to find my own name there, less happy to see it misspelt.

Sadly, Rising Sun was not one of Crichton’s better efforts. The plot was convoluted, the dialogue as clunky as a pair of geta sandals and the politics simplistic. Essentially corporate Japan took on the role of the deadly virus in The Andromeda Strain and the rampaging dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

Crichton described his book as a wake-up call to American industry,” but Asian American activists saw it as an updating of the old yellow peril literature, backed by acres of guff about Japan’s supposedly unfair trading practices and uniquely “different” culture. Ironically the brilliant Japanologist who is the mouthpiece for authorial opinion claims that Japan is “the most racist society on earth.”

There was worse. Despite his reputation for heavy research, Crichton displayed a tin-ear for Japanese names. He gave the sinister technology company the name “Hamaguri”, which means clam. It is also a slang term for female genitalia favored by writers of salacious literature.

In the book’s Japanese translation Hamaguri becomes “Hamaguchi”, which has the advantage of being a regular surname. But the ridiculous Hollywood movie reverted to Crichton’s original. When our Japanologist hero – Sean Connery, speaking awful Japanese with a Scottish accent – visited the tech company’s offices, snickers broke out in cinemas all over Japan, at least from the male component of the audience.

* * *

“The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.”
Oscar Wilde

“I’ve never really wanted to go to Japan simply because I don’t like eating fish and I know that’s very popular out there in Africa.”
Britney Spears

* * *

K’s father returns from a funeral – attending funerals is a full-time activity these days – upset because he has mislaid his prayer beads. He doesn’t like to go to a funeral without his prayer beads.

You need a body for a funeral. No body, no death, no remembrance. Bodies show up every day, but there are still many thousands of missing. Their relatives grieve and cannot put them to rest.

* * *

K looks good, especially when she’s angry. Her big bright eyes harden as she tells me about the local crime spree. “People took things from abandoned shops,” she says indignantly.

“What kind of things?”

“Riceballs, drinks. There were even cases of people taking money from broken cash dispensers. One high-school boy took tens of thousands of yen.”

“Any violence?”

K looks puzzled. “Of course not. Why would there be violence?”

I was thinking of the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the gang-fights in the superdome, the shots fired at medical helicopters. Tens of thousands of troops and national guardsmen were dispatched
to the scene. In the words of the governor of Louisiana, intended to be reassuring, they had M16s locked and loaded and were ready to kill.

A few weeks later an epidemic of smash-and-grab looting was to spread across the cities of Britain, as gangs of youths made away with I-pods and I-pads, large screen TVs and box-fresh trainers. One of the few retail chains left unaffected was Waterstones, the book store.

Japanese looting. American looting. British looting. Same word, different meaning.

* * *

The past is never over.

At the height of the bubble, the Recruit scandal seemed emblematic of the corrupt ties between business and politics, the kind of malarkey satirized so brilliantly by movie director Juzo Itami in his Taxing Woman (Marusa No Onna) series.

Hiromasa Ezoe , founder of Recruit, was arrested and jailed for distributing pre-IPO Recruit shares to a roll-call of establishment heavyweights, including the CEO of NTT, the chief cabinet secretary and a series of LDP bigwigs. In Japan’s overheated bull market pre-IPO shares were surefire money-makers.

It seemed like a rare victory for the forces of integrity, personified by the dogged, diligent officials of the Tokyo Prosecutors Office, the nearest thing Japan has to Eliot Ness and his untouchables.

Then this year Ezoe sends me his own account of what happened. He continues to maintain his innocence – unusual in Japan, where contrition is essential for forgiveness – and is on a personal crusade to expose flaws in the system.

What he describes is shocking. On arrival in the cells where he was held for interrogation, he was subjected to a rectal search with a glass rod. The prosecutors use stress techniques that would not be of of place in Guantanamo Bay. They bully and bluster and threaten to take down his company unless he signs the confession they have cooked up. They are super-sensitive to the moods of the media, in fact seem to get most of their evidence from newspapers and weekly magazines.

Ezoe was an outsider, a man from nowhere who built a huge company that helped to revolutionize the recruitment market, as well as building condominiums and, yes, flashy resort hotels. He wanted to gatecrash the establishment, to make contacts that his personal background had prevented him from developing. They were his shares to allot. If he hadn’t done it himself, they would have been allotted by the financial institution handling the placement instead – no doubt, in exchange for favors of some sort.

The way Ezoe tells the story, he received no commercial benefits from the people who received the shares, and in any case they had no competence to direct any his way. There was quid, but no quo beyond social acceptance. If so, the emblematic financial crime of the bubble years was no crime at all, and the real scandal was the cowboy justice meted out by the prosecutors.

* * *

The future never arrives.

After retiring in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, ex-Prime Minister Kan had this to say.
“If the evacuation zone had expanded to 100, 200 or 300 kilometers, it would have included the whole Kanto region. That would have forced 30 million people to evacuate, compromising the very existence of the Japanese nation. That’s the biggest reason why I changed my views on nuclear power. If there are risks of accidents that could make half the land mass of our country uninhabitable, we cannot afford to take such risks, even if we are only going to be playing with those risks once a century.”

In 1982 Chalmers Johnson published MITI and the Japanese Miracle, lauding the foresight of the bureaucracy in crafting Japan’s industrial policy. A dozen years before that, MITI officials had supervised the construction of a nuclear power plant on the Tohoku coast.

The cooling system was located outside the plant’s protective shell. The five reactors were built side by side. Used fuel was stored on site, yards from the sea.

Catastrophic tsunami hit the Tohoku coast once or twice a century. The risks were obvious to a child of four. I know because I spoke to one back in the early nineties.

* * *

K shows me the family graveyard, on a patch of high ground not far from her house. “I’ll be there soon,” she says.

White stones, green trees, blue sky. It looks like a great place to be. It looks like a great place to not be.

* * *

I say goodbye to K and leave the coast behind.

It’s a different Japan now. It’s the same Japan.
It’s a different world now. It’s the same world.
We’re different people now. We’re the same people.
The black wave is coming, next month, next year, sometime, anytime, not never.

Here is there. Then is now. Connected.

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