Japan prepares to commemorate Tohoku tragedy

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

This Sunday is the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coastline of northeastern Japan and killed more than 15,000 people.

In January, the central government announced that it would hold a memorial service on March 11 at the National Theater, which faces the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo. The ceremony will be attended by the prime minister and “bereaved family members.” Normally, the Emperor and Empress would attend a ceremony of such significance, but in view of the Emperor’s continued health problems since his recent heart surgery it now seems unlikely that he will be present. Some foreign ambassadors may also be in the auditorium, which can hold around 1,500 people.

The hall, which normally presents traditional theater performances, is not big enough to hold everyone who would like to participate. For that the government would need something the size of Tokyo Dome, but the ceremony, or at least parts of it, will be broadcast live on NHK. According to Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, the Cabinet Ministry originally thought of holding it in the stricken region but decided against doing so because the governments in that area are planning to have their own “official” memorial services, and a number of localities in the region held their own services last Sunday. In any case, there are plans to set up a video link on March 11 in the National Theater with the official ceremonies to be held simultaneously in the three prefectures that were most affected by the disaster — Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate.

The ceremony starts at 2:30 p.m., and though the general public is not invited, anyone can offer floral tributes at the National Theater from 4:30 p.m. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has suggested everyone in Japan — “wherever they may be” — observe a minute of silence at 2:46 p.m., the time at which the earthquake struck on Friday, March 11, 2011. Conveniently, the anniversary happens to fall on a Sunday, so most people who wish to observe it in their own way will be able to do so without having to worry about interfering with work.

However, some people may prefer to observe it by not observing it. At this point, it’s understandable if they feel overloaded by the tragedy. It’s one thing to acknowledge the ongoing work of rebuilding lives in the Tohoku region and determining who was responsible for any lack of preparedness, but it’s quite another to have to relive those terrifying moments over and over again.

Nevertheless, if it has been difficult to avoid the subject for the last year, it will be nearly impossible this weekend. NHK and the commercial broadcasters have already started filling the airwaves with memorial-themed programming that will peak on Sunday. Between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., TV Asahi will devote all of its air time to remembrance under the theme of “Tsunagaro! Nippon!” (“Come together! Japan!”). The other commercial stations aren’t going quite so all-out — Fuji TV seems to be sticking with its normal variety show-oriented schedule — but unlike Asahi’s more or less news-documentary approach, they’ll dilute the heaviness of memory with more nominally entertaining aspects, such as pop collective Exile’s concert “for Japan” on TBS (10 p.m.), and boy band Tokio’s live broadcast of their visit to Dash Village, the farm in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, that lies within the radiation belt around the damaged nuclear reactor and which the band had been developing for more than a decade. Additionally, master explainer Akira Ikegami will recount the particulars of the disaster Saturday night at 9 p.m. on Fuji TV, and NHK will rebroadcast Saturday at midnight its special, originally aired last Sunday, consisting of amateur videos and photographs of the quake and tsunami as it happened, many of which had never been shown on TV before.

For those who prefer remembrance events of a more involving nature, there are plenty to choose from. Almost every Buddhist temple in the country will have a dedicated ceremony, and even if they don’t, one of the main purposes of a visit to a temple is communing with spirits. It is often pointed out that Japanese people only become Buddhists at funerals (and Shintoists at weddings), where the implied presence of the deceased is sanctified. Mourning (tsuitō) thus takes on more than just the adaptive work of accepting someone’s material demise.

The German writer Thomas Mann once pointed out that a person’s “dying is more the survivor’s affair than his own,” and there’s no dishonor in acknowledging that a huge component of grief is the mixture of guilt and relief one feels at outliving those you mourn. The official ceremony on Sunday is meant to have collective resonance, so when the prime minister mentions that people can observe the anniversary in their own way wherever they are, he means to say that they all participate. Though as a concept group mourning is hardly limited to Japan, in Japan it could be said to have the approbation of authority. Local governments throughout the land will also be holding their own anniversary ceremonies.

If Tokyo seems to have more of these kinds of events than anywhere outside of Tohoku, it has to do as much with the city’s heightened sense of vulnerability since the disaster as it does with its greater concentration of people and functions.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, hitting on the theme of “never forget,” is sponsoring a drive this weekend to get people to fill out cards with messages to the victims of the tragedy. The main venue is the West Exit plaza of Shinjuku Station, but there will also be message-card stands set up at the Tokyo Edo Museum in Ryogoku, Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu, the Metropolitan Central Library in Minami Azabu and Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho. And since the flame is the symbol of eternal life everywhere in the world, a charity-drive-cum-candle-lighting event will be held at the foot of Tokyo Tower starting at 6:30 p.m., with taiko (drum) accompaniment. At the waterfront, a festival called “Future Generations” will take place at Odaiba Marine Park at 5 p.m., featuring lanterns on the sea, balloons in the air and messages in the sand. There will also be “hyper-rescue” explanations by Self-Defense Forces personnel, music performances and fireworks. In addition, some commercial enterprises, such as the Happo-en Garden in Shiroganedai, will take advantage of the anniversary to promote their own charitable interests, and the all-day memorial event taking place at the TS Plaza Building in Ginza will solicit donations for a “Light from 3/11″ project that endeavors to erect three spotlights in the coastal city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, pointed to the heavens, similar to the ones placed at ground zero in New York City to memorialize the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in that city. The new Tokyo Sky Tree and the Yokohama Marine Tower will also have events linked to their respective evening illumination ceremonies on March 11 to promote tourism in the afflicted areas.

The national ceremony will be nonpartisan and you can be sure no one who speaks at the event will mention the contentious issue of the attendant nuclear disaster. Unlike annual observances of that other great tragedy in Japan’s recent history, World War II, the March 11 ceremonies recognize an act of God rather than a deed of men and therefore lie outside the scope of controversy. Despite that, the nuclear disaster, which many people believe was man-made, not to mention the country’s perceived lack of preparedness for this and future disasters, certainly isn’t going to be banished from consciousness while the mind tries to concentrate on remembrance. In that respect, the “Peace on Earth” event, which takes place in Hibiya Park on March 10 and 11 starting at 11 a.m., will attempt a more flexible approach to mourning, making the act of prayer something that connects repose for the victims to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Associated with the Earth Day movement, the festival facilitates “citizen appeal” to make “the future a better place.” There will be music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Overground Acoustic Underground and others, as well as discussions, and it’s most likely these discussions will get political in one way or another. If you want just music with your remembrance there’s American pop star Cyndi Lauper performing all weekend at Orchard Hall in Shibuya. She happened to be here when the earthquake hit a year ago, and stayed to carry out her tour — a gesture that did more for national morale than 100 “ganbarō!” (Do your best!) speeches by Japanese public figures. Her return for the anniversary reconfirms her solidarity with Japan and connects this special day to a larger world that feels the need to mourn as well.