In April of 2003, near the beginning of a trek through China optimally-timed to coincide with the outbreak of SARS and the resulting hooplah and chaos, I paid a visit to Nanjing and, being a resident of Japan, to its massacre memorial and museum. The effect was striking: the setting was bare and bleak, sculptures of hands and cowering mothers dotted an unbroken expanse of white gravel. The first indication of oversell was the need of Chinese museums to drive in nails with sledgehammers: piped in scary music. Wordless choral wails over an ill-fitting drum beat emerged tinnily from behind every large rock.
I chided myself for approaching such a memorial from the perspective of a film critic and braced myself for the excavation site, where the remains of tens of thousands of victims have been and are still being uncovered. As I descended the stairs, I noticed that not only had the music not stopped, stage directions flanked the doors. In Chinese and English, signs directing visitors to be somber, respectful, and more were placed periodically in front of the glass walls of the corridor.
What I realized then was that the government agency that built and laid out the memorial had blown it by trying to dictate how people experienced it. They had taken an event that would elicit sadness and sympathy from anyone and then taken responsibility off the visitors’ shoulders and blunted the discomfort, fear, sorrow, and sympathy people would naturally feel by telling them how to feel and when to feel it, then how to show it.
What on Earth does this have to do with Japan Eats?
Well, as one of Japan’s most-celebrated seasons begins its all-too-brief roll up over the country, Governor Shintaro Ishihara asked Tokyoites to refrain from the centuries-old custom of picnicking under the city’s sakura trees and from drinking alcohol in public.
“Why,” you might reasonably ask, “would he make such a recommendation when so many voters have been cooped up indoors, upset by the relentless news of the country’s worst recorded natural disaster, or even worse? Don’t people need some icon of normalcy?”
Well, the 78-year-old Ishihara, never known to have considered another person’s feelings before, has decided that Tokyoites need to show that they are in mourning for the dead and missing and in sympathy with the bereaved in Tohoku.
See where I’m going?
Ishihara, who was quick to call the earthquake and tsunami divine retribution upon a selfish, greedy people and slow to insincerely retract his remarks, needs such instructions. Ishihara, who has a decades-long record of boastful ignorance and gratuitous offense seldom mitigated by any expression of sympathy or human decency, needs to be told how to feel, when to feel it, and how to display it. The people of and in Tokyo do not.
Governor Ishihara, I shall hold my metaphorical tongue.
In addition to celebrating the coming of Spring and the beauty of nature, hanami has long been also a collective appreciation of that beauty’s ephemerality and the fragility of that which we all love and admire. Hanami is marked not only be the enjoyment of the season and the moment, but by nostalgia for the seasons past and wonderings on the seasons yet to come.
What better symbol could there be for our present moment?
No one (except the Governor, who may be trying to make up for his gaffe in hopes of being reelected) needs to be reminded of the suffering of our compatriots in Tohoku. It holds a prominent place in almost every conversation, it dominates all media, it tugs with an awful weight in every heart.
Hundreds of Tokyoites are volunteering every day to go to the stricken areas to help. Thousands more are helping from Tokyo. Millions more are donating money, blood, and supplies. Everyone is in mourning. Everyone sympathizes.
It helps no one to focus on your own appearance, to make a show of how sorry and sad you are. That is self-centered.
Merchants, vendors, brewers, cooks, and people in blue plastic tarp factories still have and need jobs. Tokyo is not dead and won’t be dead until its people decide to make it so.
The people of Tohoku are in our hearts and on our minds. We are giving all we can and we urge all of you to do the same. However, we are going to the park, drinking sake from Tohoku, eating delicious Japanese fruits and vegetables, and appreciating another hanami season, just as people throughout Japan have done, in good years and bad, for centuries. We might even attempt some bad poetry. We hope you’ll do the same.