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Adario Strange

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The Tokyo Syndrome

Posted: 03/20/11 05:55 PM ET

I'm not sure if anyone would believe me unless I had proof, but exactly one week before the Sendai, Japan Earthquake and the beginning of one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history, as fate would have it I sat down and watched, for the first time ever, The China Syndrome the '70s epic detailing a fictional cover up of a major nuclear disaster in the making.

But while part of my beat is technology and science, I wasn't watching the film to weigh in on nuclear issues. In fact, I was only doing research on the film so the pun-intended title of my recent technology piece "The China Syndrome: Why Baidu is not more Evil than Google" would not inadvertently strike the wrong note due to some oversight from my not having seen the film. Yes, the viewing was a purely tangential exercise to cover my editorial hindquarters. I had no idea that what I was watching was a parable laced with issues and decisions I myself would have to grapple with just a week later. Interestingly, this story was filed on March 16th, the exact 32-year anniversary of the film's release, a film whose release oddly pre-dated the very real Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the U.S. on March 28, 1979, by just 12 days.

Now, as the nuclear accident in Japan rounds its way into nearly of week of frantic efforts by brave Fukushima plant workers to bring the situation under control, the chain reaction on a larger scale is easier to discern. The domino effect of the historic 9.1 earthquake led to the amazingly destructive tsunami, which then revealed a nuclear plant in peril, finally culminating in global panic that has sent the stock market surging up and down in concert with each new development in crisis-saddled Japan.

But here on the ground in Japan, I bore witness to another layer of the story that resonates far more for locals than the international audience: the Tokyo syndrome. What began as a city coping in unison with an earthquake that spared, but nevertheless deeply rattled, Japan's capital city has gradually turned into a mass exodus of Japanese and foreign residents into other, far away Japanese cities, and in some cases flights out of the country all together. I call it a syndrome because in the last week I have watched the same process play itself out repeatedly with such predictable regularity that it has quickly become a recognizable behavior.

First there is the resolute determination to remain in Tokyo no matter what and continue to honor the contract that all Tokyoites tacitly sign that says: you knew a disaster was likely coming, you enjoyed the city's highs, now support it through its lows. Then the person learns of someone close to them who has decided to pack up and leave for Osaka, or perhaps Spain -- a piece of intel that gives the person pause, and just a little doubt, but they soldier on. And then they hear of another story of a person they respect and consider a tough cookie also leaving. All this while the hum of sensationalist media reports broadcast hourly updates on what fatal new turn the nuclear emergency may have taken. And then, another strong earthquake aftershock hits. I've seen it happen at different times over the course of the last week, but it's at this point that many decide enough is enough and maybe playing it safe is not such a bad idea after all -- and they pack their bags.

I speak from experience. Situated in my Roppongi office, I not only came out of the initial earthquake unscathed, I was also similarly determined to move forward with business as usual. Such is the way of most happily cynical native New Yorkers. And then I started getting the calls. One from a fellow Tokyo resident who happened to be out of the country on business telling me to get out of Tokyo -- immediately. I brushed this off with the kind of war weary New Yorker bravado that is relatively easy to muster even in the wake of a major earthquake. Then the tsunamis came, and the calls tripled, now accompanied by frantic emails from friends overseas. Still, I studied the geography and knew that those of us in Tokyo were amazingly fortunate compared to the tragic fate of those further up north. In fact, myself and a group of friends had begun plans to gather a team to travel to the tsunami area and offer search and rescue support, or whatever help the experts would allow us to render. And then... the news of a nuclear emergency broke. It's at this point that I began to doubt my own metropolitan obstinance. And like clockwork the calls and emails from friends and family went from pleading to near anger that I would insist on staying in Tokyo in light of recent developments -- this was Saturday.

I should take this moment to mention that just hours after the major quake, we continued to experience very strong aftershocks in intervals that "seemed" to occur every couple of hours. Thus, I couldn't sleep and, news junkie that I am, my eyes and ears began to ache with the unending torrent of bad news. Sunday the calls and emails were essentially hysteric. Mind you, half of these messages were from Tokyo veterans, not U.S.-based media followers drinking up the latest headline of doom. So it was then that I began calling those of my friends and associates that I knew were still in Tokyo, and asked them all if they wanted to come along with me to another city farther away from the potential of a strong wind carrying nuclear radiation to Tokyo's manicured streets and sci-fi skyline. Almost uniformly I heard snorts, snickers and teeth sucking at the mere suggestion of leaving the city. Clearly, to them, I had somehow bought into some sort of panic meme. I was roundly dismissed and told to calm down.

It was then that I took a moment to think of the major New York City crises I had lived through: the 1977 New York blackout and subsequent violent riots, the 2003 U.S. national blackouts, and of course 9/11. In each instance, I just happened to not be in wrong place at the right time, and each time I had managed to gather my wits about me in time to move forward into a safe place relatively unharmed. But living abroad can sometimes set your survival compass off a few degrees. Rather than the certainty I would have had in a "New York minute," in the otherness of Japan, surrounded by kanji, and a culture not my own, it became too easy to second guess my normally rapid instincts.

So I turned off the television, the Internet stream and the Twitter feed, and found a moment of quiet stillness. I decided, three days of no sleep staring at a moving question mark was enough. I would end nearly 72 hours of tense somnambulation and accept a full night with my body switch in the OFF position. If when I woke the next day, Monday, the Japan I knew was still in the throes of frantic uncertainty, I would simply pack and leave.

Hours later, I stared from the window of a taxi on my way to Shinagawa Station, bound, some now say ironically, for the safe and quiet confines of Hiroshima, a place where there were familiar faces and the beginning of an emergency network. As we made our way to the station, I will never forget seeing Tokyo going about its business in slow, orderly, dignified fashion.

From the taxi window I watched a mother playing with her child in a stroller; another block on I saw a jogger stretching before her morning run; and just before reaching the train station I saw a woman who looked to be in her seventies delicately sniffing a bouquet of flowers in front of a store. To the casual observer, Tokyo was as normal as ever, the historic earthquake already a memory in the city's rear view mirror.

But when we arrived at the train station, I was pulled back into reality. Hundreds of Tokyoites politely, yet tensely jostled for space as they attempted to find their way to the end of a packed que awaiting an extraordinarily delayed train (a distinct rarity in Japan). Nearby, others like myself patiently lined up to score a Shinkansen ticket to another part of Japan -- a section of the station that seemed to be doing far more brisk business than usual. If I were in the gritty environs of New York's 42nd street subway, the scene would have been reassuring in its familiarity. But in the order-framed mechanism of Tokyo living that I had become accustomed to, the scene was somewhat unnerving for the uncharacteristic dis-order that seemed to peek out along its edges.

Hours later when I arrived in Hiroshima I sat and downed yakitori with a friend who works in Tokyo but hails originally from the town housing Japan's famed Peace Memorial Museum. It turns out that he had left Tokyo early Saturday, mere hours after the initial earthquake. Tall, fully bi-lingual, and possessed of a unique duality of Western and Eastern perspective, I asked him why he had left so early. In short, his answer related to the spectre of nuclear radiation.

Unlike violent weather, or any number of natural disasters that can be seen, forecast, and sometimes even avoided, he pointed out that his family was well acquainted with the fact that nuclear radiation is not something that can be courageously faced up to, or diligently guarded against through sheer force of human will -- if it is present, and you are there, you have a problem. But, I asked, what about the experts who said that Tokyo was so far away from the disaster at Fukushima that there was no safety risk. He looked at me over his glasses, paused for effect, and told me -- by the time they know enough to tell you to leave, it is likely too late to effectively put yourself far enough away to completely avoid exposure. Although he is certainly not a nuclear expert on a scientific level, I found it hard to challenge his right to be overly cautious given the history of his city which made him a nuclear expert at least on a cultural level.

You see while most Tokyo residents, Japanese and foreign alike, have lived and made peace with the threat of a catastrophic earthquake looming over the city (often referred to as The Big One), few factored in the possibility that the event would result in a nuclear disaster that, while as of this writing is still not registered as harmful to residents in Tokyo proper, nevertheless occurred close enough (about 150 miles) to cause many in the city to fear for their safety.

And although there are quite a few Japanese cities that boast a strong compliment of business and cultural leaders, all with a unique regional flavor, Tokyo remains the epicenter of the country. It's where the art world lives, it's where nation's tech startups start up, where the embassies of the world make their Japan case, and where the country's top fashion houses, banks, restaurants, and intellectuals gravitate toward, even though many from other parts of the country will deny that this is true in the same way that Chicago still chafes at the mention of New York City being the true Gotham City. And though the city is hardly as international as say London, it is indeed where you are likely to find the greatest variety of nationalities in the entire country. Tokyo is one of the few places in the Far East to be called, even briefly, but quite legitimately, the Paris of Asia. So when such a place is threatened with even the slightest possibility of being uninhabitable, the impact felt spans more than geographic preference and bleeds into the realm of changing the very face of Japan that the world has come to know. Alas, we still do not know if such an unfortunate turn of events will come to pass, but if optimistic views prevail, Tokyo will be more than okay in short order.

Still, over the next few days my Hiroshima friend and I welcomed a steady procession of fellow Tokyo residents who had finally succumbed to the Tokyo syndrome, and those that didn't join us in Hiroshima sent missives from Kyoto, Osaka, and Fukuoka, each sounding more relieved than the last. Sadly, many of my friends have simply left the country, many unsure if they will ever return. For those of us still holding on to our hope that things will soon return to normal, the brief step back into Japan's outer reaches presented the opportunity to reflect clearly, free of the constant tick of media prognostications and the latest results, measurements and tolls of damage to humanity and infrastructure.

In fact it was just last night, sitting over beer and wine with a group of three new arrivals from Tokyo that I learned a new word jokingly tossed around to describe our new status in our temporary city: nanmin (Japanese for refugees). And to those of our friends and family still holding fort in Tokyo, we could only hope they were the ones who made the right choice and that we had simply wasted our time and money on a trip with no particular itinerary. In that frame of mind, the Tokyo syndrome could then be repurposed to describe our collective desire to return to the city we all love, with things back to normal, hoping that the biggest threat to the routine precision of the Tokyo megalopolis could once again be the odd late train, the occasional communication hiccup between nationalities, and the inevitable protocol fail that comes with learning the ways of the most crowded, cleanest, busiest and most elegantly aggressive city on Earth.

Adario Strange is the Editor-in-Chief of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Journal, International Editor for the SyFy Channel's DVICE tech site and is working on creating a new search database of Asia startups at Zenroll.com