“Where were you when...?” Nearly a year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, it is still a common topic of conversation. As an old friend and I walk from the railway station near his home in Shin-kemigawa, Chiba City, I ask him where he was when the tremors began. He motions toward a building across the way: “I really thought it was the end,” he says simply. He then points to patches of new asphalt in the pavement, repairs to the damage caused by ekijōka: liquefaction. “After the first aftershock, I rode my bicycle home. But the pavement had all turned to mud. This is all reclaimed land, you know.” Luckily for him, he lives up the hill from the bay. His house suffered little damage.

Much of our area, including all of Chiba’s Mihama Ward, where my wife and I live, consists of just such reclaimed land, though our apartment complex was largely unaffected. Farther west along the shore lies Urayasu, just this side of the Edo River, which forms the boundary with Tokyo. Coming over the river on a homebound train in years past, I would often think how pleasant and convenient it would be to live in that area, which, after extensive landfill projects four to five decades ago, had become quite trendy. The name is taken from an old word for Japan, Urayasu no Kuni—more or less literally, “the land that soothes the heart.” The phrase first appears in the eighth-century Chronicles of Japan. It is written in characters that suggest “inlet-restful.” From the tall apartment buildings in Urayasu, one has a splendid view of Tokyo Bay. Located one station away, on the banks of the Edo River, is Tokyo Disneyland.

Ironically, “inlet-restful” has now become synonymous with liquefaction, a word that only twelve months ago I would more readily have associated with St. Januarius than with seismic effects. A former colleague at Keio University, who, like me, retired at the end of March, told me with a rueful smile that his building in Urayasu was among the more than 75 percent that were severely damaged by liquefaction. Thirty-two Urayasu residents and homeowners have brought a large lawsuit against the real-estate developer Mitsui Fudosan Co. for not informing them of the risks or taking preventive measures, but the overall effect of the earthquake on property values in the Urayasu area has reportedly been minimal. (In the West one might have expected to hear more people mention the biblical warning against building your house on sand.)

There has been much more concern about the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor—and in a surge in doubts concerning the feasibility of nuclear energy in general. Before the earthquake, resource-poor Japan had long taken nuclear power for granted. Back at the beginning of the 1970s, when I taught English several days a week at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s facility in Tōkai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture, there was unquestioned pride in Japanese technological prowess, and I couldn’t help regarding the scientists and engineers I met there with fondness and respect. Some years later, the most common reaction to the Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters was “It couldn’t happen here.”

That confidence began to erode in 1999, when an accident at a nuclear-fuel-cycle company in Tōkai-mura took the lives of two workers and severely injured dozens of others. The antinuclear mood is even stronger now. The awesome destructive power of the tsunami would have been sobering enough on its own, but there was also the spectacle of a secretive company defying an indecisive government. By July of last year, the prime minister himself, Naoto Kan, had begun calling for a reduction in the nation’s reliance on nuclear power. Surveys now show a sizable majority of Japanese opposed to what once seemed to be the answer to Japan’s energy needs. In mid-January thousands demonstrated in Yokohama, calling for an eventual worldwide ban.

There are, however, many other concerns on the minds of the Japanese. What drove Kan from office last September was not only dissatisfaction with his response to the natural disaster (and the resulting party factionalism), but also his call for doubling the consumption tax over the next three years, from 5 to 10 percent. As a pensioner, I am hardly happy with the proposed change, but the grim fact is that Japan’s population is both aging and declining. At the end of January, the Ministry of Health and Welfare released a demographic estimate for the year 2060. It predicts that the population will be a third smaller (87 million), and that 40 percent of that population will be sixty-five or older. I try, not very successfully, to imagine our granddaughter struggling at the age of fifty-five to support her aging parents as a member of a much-shrunken workforce. Partly in the belief that Japanese militarism had been a consequence of overpopulation, the U.S. Occupation was discreetly supportive of legislation in 1948 to legalize abortion. It remains a common form of birth control. Today only Monaco has a lower birthrate than Japan.

The nation’s population crisis, along with internationalization, has opened up the once quasi-taboo topic of immigration, though much change would still be required to make that a realistic option. In 2010, according to Justice Ministry statistics, only 13,391 foreigners were granted Japanese citizenship, and of these the great majority were resident Koreans and Chinese. Those falling into the “other” category were fewer than 1,600. (I’ll be particularly curious to see 2011 statistics, as they will include me.)

Filipinos form the largest non–East Asian foreign community in Japan, numbering over three hundred thousand. Thirty years ago the faithful at the church I attend in Chiba were overwhelmingly Japanese. Today there is much greater ethnic diversity, with the increase in the number of Filipinos being the most striking change. For some years now we’ve had a Japanese-language Mass on Sunday mornings and a Tagalog-English Mass in the afternoon, with the fourth Sunday of each month set aside for a Mass conducted in a combination of Japanese and English, followed by a Spanish Mass in the evening. Since 2006, the largest number of international marriages in Japan, which have tripled in the past two decades, has been between Japanese and Filipinos.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, when exaggerated doomsday reports from abroad and panicking foreign embassies contributed to the abrupt exodus of tens of thousands of non-Japanese who were working or studying here, a rift appeared in the ex-pat community. Among those who remained, a derogatory new term was coined for those who left: flyjin, a play on the Japanese word gaijin (“foreigner”). Not surprisingly, such expressions of resentment have triggered a counterreaction. Meanwhile, the devastated tourism industry has begun to recover, albeit slowly. When a German friend came for a visit, he told us that friends and relatives had expressed alarm, warning him only half in jest he would be radiant (strahlend) when he returned. A less irrational disincentive for would-be visitors is the cost: for reasons we noneconomists find hard to understand, the value of the yen has soared to historic highs, first against the dollar and now against the euro.

The peculiar mixture of happy-go-lucky optimism and melancholic fatalism that characterizes so much of traditional Japanese culture seems all the more apparent in these strange times. Toward the end of January, the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo issued a disturbing new forecast: a 70 percent chance of a massive trembler in the capital area by the year 2016. Previous estimates gave a thirty-year figure, but last year’s disaster and the ongoing smaller quakes since are said to be a “mathematical omen” for the more immediate future. As I work out on the treadmill in a state-of-the-art sports club, I watch a television program about earthquake preparation. The elderly owner of a noodle restaurant points to the thick rubber strips that run down the front of shelves holding the hundreds of bowls that have replaced those he lost last March 11. There is a smile of satisfaction on his face—and just a hint of self-mocking irony.


Related: 'Dreadful Portents': Letter from Japan, by Peter Milward

Charles De Wolf is a linguist and translator of Japanese literature. He is professor emeritus at Keio University, where he continues to teach linguistics and comparative culture.

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Published in the 2012-03-09 issue: View Contents
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