Japan - a Nation of Calm Amid a Flurry of Catastrophes

For someone coming here from a country where two days of nonstop rain is considered a natural disaster, it's impossible to comprehend this calm and restraint.

TOKYO - Cherry blossom season isn't due to begin for another two weeks or so. For now only the plum trees are in bloom in the 34 million soul-strong Tokyo metro area, a moment before the entire town turns pink.

But on Sunday, the most populous metropolis in the world withdrew into itself. On the surface life was back on track, as people say, in a city whose life track includes around 1,000 earthquakes a year - not including Friday's, which on Sunday was upgraded from 8.9 to 9.0 on the Richter scale.

Pachinko parlor in downtown Tokyo
Alex Levac

The earth shook here as it never shook before, but by last night it was seemed like a normal Sunday evening - the quietest night of the week, the end of the Japanese weekend, despite the fact that Sunday morning there was yet another 6.0 earthquake.

An elderly fortune-teller sat, completely idle, at the entrance to Golden Gai Alley, a strip of tiny bars and restaurants accented by loud neon signs. The soothsayer had nothing to do because even she didn't know which way the wind was blowing.

Over on the next street Aviran, an Israeli from Rehovot who sold silver jewelry on the street, pulled out his iPhone to show us the "global wind pattern" and reassure us that while the winds are blowing cold they're blowing in the right direction, away from Tokyo, at a time when the question everyone here is asking is whether the winds will blow the radiation from Fukushima this way.

Tokyo is a city without the "anxiety victims" common in our parts. The earth shook, but apparently people's hearts shook less. Perhaps people panicked briefly, but of course they did not show it and immediately returned to their routines. Last night Tokyo's denizens seemed to be concerned mainly with the trouble caused to foreigners here: More than one Japanese apologized to me for the earthquake, as if they were responsible for it.

In the extremely loud and incredibly bright Pachinko parlors, located on streets controlled by the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, Japanese of all ages continued to launch shiny balls through the gaming machines.

Anxiety? Horror? National mourning? The only noise last night was made by the Pachinko machines. But a sign at the entrance was a reminder that all was not as usual: The management apologizes for the reduction in electricity use, as a result of which the heating and some of the neon lights are not on tonight.

Last night, planned power cuts starting on Monday were announced in Tokyo, in a country where a third of the electricity is generated by nuclear power plants that were shut down and that suddenly turned into fire and uranium traps.

Tokyo carried on on Sunday, but a foreigner is hard-put to tell whether the mask of correctness, restraint and calm is actually concealing great anxiety over the future. Late last night there was even a long line at the central bus station in Shinjuku for the night bus heading north to Akita, within the quake zone.

A medical student named Sato Achoshi told me he was going to check up on his parents, after hearing about the power blackouts in the city. The bus would use surface roads, since the main highway north was still blocked, and would reach his destination only in the morning.

Anything but gung ho

Flight 051 from Vienna on Sunday was delayed: The Austrian flight crew debated whether to fly to the stricken land before deciding to depart late in order to reduce time on the ground at Narita International Airport. Hundreds of Japanese passengers sat in the plane in perfect silence, the captain issued no in-flight updates, there was nothing that hinted of the aircraft's destination and what had happened there just two days before.

The only drama during the flight was when a passenger lost his wallet in the bathroom. When the plane flew over South Korea the flight attendants sold duty-free items as if all was right with the world. Even when we began the pre-landing descent, no one looked out the window to the shaken land below. Yutaka Sagara, an expert on Alzheimer's disease, said he was rushing to his parents' home, in the battered north of the country.

The arrivals' hall buzzed with rescue teams from Germany, Turkey and Switzerland, in dazzling uniforms. The Swiss brought rescue dogs, and everyone waited for hours to join the convoy to the north. Hundreds of passengers spread out blankets distributed by the airport operators, waiting for the flights that would take them far from here. But even this was carried out with remarkable organization and was nothing like the panicked escapes from similar disaster areas around the world.

The porters gave deep, formal Japanese bows to the driver of the bus to Tokyo, someone came down the aisle with a multilingual sign asking passengers to refrain from speaking on their cell phones and to fasten their seatbelts. A veteran German war correspondent on the bus told me that Afghanistan was easier to report from: Anarchy is preferable to the remarkable Japanese order that prevented many journalists from going north.

Rental agencies stopped renting out their vehicles for fear they would be driven to the disaster area. One driver offered to take passengers up north for 2,000 euros each; the German muttered, "disaster hustler."

Yashira Kitatsuma, an advertising executive, told me later, downtown, that he lay on the floor of his office when the earth shook; the earthquake went for a seeming eternity, growing increasingly stronger, even here, in Tokyo. Two days later, he too betrayed no signs of shock.

Last night we searched the streets for Tokyoites who were glued to their television screens, just one Japanese holding a transistor radio or at least a newspaper. Nothing doing. Panic? Not in Japan. Not one tiny, vague hint in these urban streets of what had happened or could yet happen, from radiation to another earthquake.

Unimaginable to an Israel. For someone coming here from a country where a single case of swine flu is enough to terrorize the entire nation and two days of nonstop rain is considered a natural disaster that even the oldest of the old cannot recall ever experiencing, it's impossible to comprehend this calm and restraint: The BBC reported that a minute after the big one hit, pedestrians waited calmly at an intersection for the light to turn green.

Smoking is prohibited on the streets of Tokyo. Members of anti-smoking watch groups - retirees with too much time on their hands - walk around proferring portable ashtrays to every smoker. In every bar, cafe and restaurant, however, smoking is permitted. Odd city, Tokyo, a city with special yellow lanes for the blind on every sidewalk.

At a local restaurant serving kushiyaki - the excellent Japanese skewers, including skewer-grilled asparagus and root vegetables, everyone who enters is greeted with shouts of "irashaimase!" welcome!

And so it was last night, too, a great display of joy. A karaoke program was playing on the big-screen television, while a smaller screen next to it showed the images of horror, which were very restrained here. Bodies, horrific sights? Not on our screens. No one in the restaurant even glanced at the small screen. Like in the days of the split-screen broadcasts in Israel, where a terror attack and a soccer game could be shown side by side, in Tokyo images from the earthquake played next to karaoke.

It was only when Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared, in a blue sports jacket of the sort favored by our very own Bibi during the Carmel fire, that someone bothered to briefly turn down the karaoke volume and turn up the voice of the premier, who said Japan has not faced such a disaster since World War II.

And Tokyo is as always. Large numbers of people walk around wearing surgical masks: No, it's nothing to do with radiation, just the spring allergies that everyone here fears.

"Tokyo is big and never-ending ... a lost city, my lost city, unending, Tokyo, unending," as Ehud Manor once wrote.