Monday, March 28, 2011

(4) March 12-13: Stranded commuters returning –and buying-up

By my estimate, in the case of an earthquake happening directly beneath Tokyo, the disruption of traffic would result to 6, 5 million people not being able to return to their homes. Since this time the earthquake’s epicenter was in the sea outside Sanriku, I believe the number wasn’t that big. On Saturday morning, the trains leaving Tokyo were marginally full of people coming back from the workplaces where they had been stranded last night. People in suits wearing helmets and carrying bags filled with emergency provisions they had bought the day before from supermarkets and convenient stores, were returning home with a sense of relief on their faces. I knew their feelings; that was how I too was feeling that Saturday, the day after the big earthquake. I returned home with a feeling of security and the hope that things will start getting better.

Since on Sunday the trains hadn’t yet returned to their normal operation, and since the weather was good, I felt like a visit to the local department store. It’s a big store and everything (store and customers) was business as usual; what you’d normally expect on any Sunday. Since the memory of the big earthquake was still fresh though, when I took the elevator I had a worrying feeling that an aftershock might hit and that the elevator’s mechanism might not stop the cabin as it was supposed to. While I was doing my chores, I heard from the shop’s PA system “Right now, there was an earthquake. This building is safe so please, don’t be alarmed”. I hadn’t noticed this earthquake but the day was not a normal day so I did get a little worried; I confirmed I knew where the shop’s emergency exits were and I headed for home.

While returning home, I noticed that although the expressway had less traffic than usual, the gas stations had long queues of cars waiting to fill up. At that time, I couldn’t quite understand why; it was only later, when I went with a friend from the neighborhood to the local supermarket that it made sense. Things like bread, water, milk, instant ramen noodles and rice had disappeared from the supermarket’s shelves, a very rare occurrence in Japan, where supermarkets almost never run out of stock. People were buying-up.

From Saturday there had been shortages in electric power so the Tokyo Electric Power Company announced on Sunday that they will start enforcing planned rolling blackouts. Personally, my concern was for the operation of the train network; I wasn’t worrying much about gasoline and provisions. Apparently though, most people weren’t sharing my view; the earthquake and the possibility of power outages combined with shortages in provisions and gasoline, created for many people the urge to buy-up and stock anything they could find. I could understand how they felt and I had no intention to do the same. Still, the sight of the empty shelves and the long queues at the supermarket’s cash registries with carts filled to the brim, made me feel the urge to go and pick up a few more things. This is what is called “hoarding”, isn’t it?

These long queues in the supermarket and the gas stations, made me understand how the post-war generation who lived through an era of great shortages or how the families with small children might feel, how strong their sense of urgency must be. Up until now, the phrase “there is no bread” didn’t mean much to me; many times I had bought bread even if I didn’t really need it. Most company employees in Japan buy their lunch from some bakery or some convenient store during their lunch break –some even buy their breakfast from these stores. Seeing these store shelves empty of things like bread and instant ramen noodles made me realize the meaning of the word “shortage” and the severity of the situation.

A friend told me something interesting: this kind of compulsive buying-up doesn’t only happen here, in the eastern side of Japan but also in Kansai, an area not affected by the disaster. Immediately after the earthquake, the shops’ shelves were probably full. But because the people’s consumer behavior changed, we experienced this partial shortage of things. Also, because in the disaster stricken areas production of goods was halted or decreased and because there were big problems in the distribution channels, people who really needed some of these things hadn’t access to them. So, many stores had already boxed provisions for these areas; this was obvious from the stickers on the boxes. The Petroleum Association of Japan went a step further: they put an advertisement in the newspapers asking people to be more moderate in their fuel consumption for the benefit of the people in the disaster stricken areas. Eventually, though, people understood that buying the bread and rice they needed for the next day was enough and the buying-up lessened.

All these made me think that the Japanese people have the tendency to think that security and safety come for free. In the aftermath of the Great Kobe Earthquake, 9/11 and the problem with the social security system, we started realizing that we need to develop a sense of self-responsibility; we still rely on the state and the services and facilities provided by our society and our social system but we tend to think that we have to be able to protect ourselves and our family. This has made us forget that the spirit that lies in the heart of the existing social system in Japan is a spirit of relying on our neighbor, of cooperation and mutual help, of feeling that the person next to us is a comrade and a companion.

Maybe now it’s the time to remember this spirit and, once again, built on it?

Toyama Atsuko

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