Letter from Tokyo

A week later, a personal diary on the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake.

 

Architecture / Salvator-John A. Liotta

Friday, March 11
The day it happened, I was with Alessio Guarino at lunch in a Sicilian restaurant; it was a casual choice because it's rare that we eat Italian here, but we had booked several days earlier because I told him he absolutely had to try one of the few Sicilian cassatas that's worth eating in Tokyo.
In the morning, I had been at the university, as I am regularly, for the mid-term presentations of the students in the Yusuke Obuchi design studio and of those taking the studio of Cornell visiting critics Cecil Balmond and Roland Snooks: non linear- architecture linear and organic systems applied to architecture. At about one o'clock I Ieft school to go to Nogizaka, near mid-town Tokyo and Roppongi Hills, with the idea of coming back at three to finish up my work.
Alessio is conducting a series of interviews for a sort of visual catalog of the personal and spatial memory of Tokyo residents. I organized a meeting with two dear friends, M and V. Alessio is shooting it all while we discuss some details of the interview scheduled for tomorrow with Juniya Ishigami for Domusweb. Between one glass of wine and the next, with the camera framing an informal shot, we were about to get dessert when N tells us that the there is no more cassata so we order some cannolis that would never be served. Everything starts to shake, windows are broken in long suspended minutes. We leave the restaurant near the midtown Tokyo skyscrapers to see bending light poles, people running with shoes in their hand to cover themselves from falling rubble, cars stopped in the middle of streets, buildings deformed, people paralyzed on the street, objects fallen from top floors smashed on the ground.

After this first shock, we try to figure out what to do; people are still, the sky colorless and we are all waiting to see if the world would shake again or not. These are moments when space is deformed swallowing up our certainties about time. Then, another shorter shock. People on the phone—calling loved ones becomes a priority. As the communication network starts to break down, the apprehension becomes palpable. On the streets people still have hard-hats on; they come together in open spaces or still crouch beneath solid structures. I have two images before me: crazily swaying skyscrapers and paralyzed immobile people. There is no real disorder on the street and no irreparable damage to anything. Meanwhile, a TV in a public bar, or on the outsides of the buildings, show us images of Tokyo but not of Sendai and Miyagi. News of the disaster to the north is not given immediately—we will only find out about it later that evening or the next day.

I leave A, and as I walk through the streets with M and V, more people swell the ranks. The roads are congested. We walk more than ten kilometers to get home, because we are near Shibuya and we have to return to the center. The trains have stopped, the lines blocked. At around 6, when business closes, the streets fill with people; I have never seen so many people in the street not knowing where to go. The 24-hour convenience stores, backbone of urban consumption, symbols of plenty and freshness, where food is normally replaced every three hours, are empty; and given the traffic, there is no way to get supplies. Most workers can't get home and are forced to sleep in their offices. The bike shops are selling out, even very expensive electric bikes. Some stores are providing free bikes to those who live not too far away and who can return them the next day - pro-earthquake solidarity. On the way I talk to many strangers; we talk about real things, like how long it takes to get home, are you okay?. A sort of back-to-basics sharing the same situation of inadequacy: no trains, no telephones, all thrown together in a city that only works with complex infrastructure. All of a sudden our operating system disappears and we end up in an ultra- extended space without the means to live in an "advanced" way. What can be done?

Then going with the flow of these millions of people, this ordered confusion of bodies, I run into two of my best friends, T and N, at an intersection in an area where, under normal circumstances, none of us would have been. We hug each other. It was already evening and we are tired, exhausted, so we decide to have a drink. All the bars are open, the trains stopped, most people can't get home, and being out is almost mandatory, but also good for the soul.
In the bar, we are the only ones checking our mobile phones to see the news that had begun to come through on the web while the others are drinking, talking, eating and smoking. After a few hours we say goodbye and take our respective routes to our homes to see if they are still there. Mine was. But the next day I was to learn that many of my friends and acquaintances were less fortunate. While walls remained standing, furniture and glassware were ruined, smashed to pieces. Y and many others will be able to verify their shattered ruins only the next day, when the trains started to run, and aside from having spent the night in the open, there was also the destruction in their homes to deal with.

Saturday, March 12
Although the people close to me are fine, Japan is devastated. Images of Miyagi and Sendai are unspeakable; they bring terror, showing us horror and helplessness. Resignation is inevitable. In the morning, the loudspeakers placed in each city neighborhood, begin to croak out instructions about what to do and how to behave, providing information on precautions to be taken and on the location of shelters. Helicopters and ambulances on the road move in fits and starts throughout the day. We are all asked to stay indoors as much as possible, not to use electricity. In supermarkets, there are long lines at the checkout counters; you have to wait a half an hour to pay, but it is all done with calm. The tremors continue through Saturday. The gas lines are gone, there is no hot water. You are prohibited from drinking water if it is not boiled to avoid contamination. But everything returns to normal within hours. People are out, but there is no more water in the supermarkets.

While the Japanese media is a bit reticent—perhaps with reason in order not to alarm the population and to understand what is really happening - the international media start to launch scandalous media manipulations. Many journalists bend their thinking and articles to their personal, political and economic interests. Experts in nuclear energy, tsunamis, the economy, health issues seem to multiply. Perhaps without realizing it, the fact of not being in Japan but having the duty of commenting on the situation, many journalists (including some big names) trusted blogs and news that later proved to be unreliable. If, in reporting on the north of Japan they adhered to fact and sense, this was not true in the capital. This circuit of terror feeds fear-creating mechanisms that might sell more copies, but does nothing to help those who have to live through these difficult times. Perhaps the role of the media in these emergencies should be reconsidered.
The embassies - with their continuous bulletins - turn out to be the most credible channels of information also because they are also the places to go in case of evacuation.

Later in the morning, I go to the university to see if there was any damage there as well. Luckily it was minimal. I had left the parts of a 3D printer that I was putting together divided into sections for assembly - screws, bolts, motherboard, arduino and all the rest placed on the table in order. They are still there, screw by screw, maybe even more orderly than before. I wanted to finish putting it together by Friday afternoon and it is still there waiting for me. One by one, I call all the people dearest to me and go home to spend the afternoon on line. Hundreds of demonstrations of solidarity and affection from friends; words that are good for your heart, that make you feel that you're not alone. At times like these, it's also amazing how a single word can make for a happy moment. Even a simple "How are you?".
With one eye on email and another on web updates, at some point tired of the imaginative reconstructions of what was happening in Tokyo by journalists who were not adhering to what is actually going on, I call R, M, V, F, S, N and we make an appointment to meet in front of the Hachiko statue in Shibuya that evening.

When I reach what is considered one of the busiest squares in the world, I find it almost deserted, with the giant screens turned off. Now I understand how much fear has already permeated the population. It is not that the Japanese do not feel fear and remain calm. It is not like that. But unlike the West, there is much more space between what they feel and what they express than there is for us Westerners. For us, what we think is always very immediate and exterior, but for the Japanese, there is an intermediate zone - a distance that allows them to remain cool, controlled. But it would be wrong to think that they don't have true feelings; they just have a different frequency for expressing them. It is a question of how they are brought to the surface. The Shinto and Buddhist cultures are very influential in teaching how transience and impermanence are part of life, that loss is part of things. That there is no refuge from transformation so what needs to happen, happens.

First we go to dinner, then to a bar, the Beat Cafe, a tiny room with a welcoming, but slightly nihilistic and rock atmosphere (like The Big Lebowski), that can hold only 15-20 customers, serving delicious cocktails and playing good music. We talk about what had happened to liberate ourselves, of how the media have used barely credible hyperbole and how much good there was in the music of the 80s, while we watch videos of The Smiths and Talking Heads among others. Next to us was a group of very carefully groomed people with unusual clothing and hairstyles. N says that remind him of Tokio Hotel. They laugh with some very attractive Japanese girls. The day after we figure out that it was really them—a band whose music I ignore, mostly for generational reasons. I think about it and I'm not at all surprised that the only full place was a room of unafraid rockers —this is said with irony. Fear is sometimes the engine that makes us move ahead and that sometimes blocks us. What's to fear? Should we stay cooped up at home? Who cares! A perennial love of the senses and no regrets. Being carefree before dying, but then we don't die and superstitions come into play and we have to find the strength to believe that everything will return to normal.

We sat goodbye and everyone goes home to slip back into media reality, as well as solidarity, to read e-mails from concerned loved ones, friends and relatives who project some justified concern on me and on those who are still here, but they are also projecting their own personal anguish and fear.
With the reactor being constantly monitored and malfunctions of different kinds, I have asked myself more than once, "What am I still doing here?" The news that several friends and colleagues had left Japan or had sent wives and children home, does away with some of the certainties about what to do; it questions your moral certainties, making you lose pieces. But the Japanese are still here; they are calling for calm and asking people not to overreact.

Still, what am I doing here? There is no logical answer but I feel I must stay. I've lived here for six years; I have my life, my work, my feelings, my things. Not that my life is only here; in other places are people I love and have loved, but now here resonates more intensely for me. Sometimes I am the one to reassure those who have asked me to go home: paradoxical, but true.

Sunday, March 13 Images of disaster, tsunamis, earthquakes are now everywhere. Waking up on Sunday the 13th is like medicine harshly entering the bloodstream. An overdose of horrific and disastrous thoughts. To compensate, I detach myself from the media and go outside—a spring day, with sun and people on the street. I try to resolve some bank problems (which in normal situations in Tokyo you can, but which what later proved to be impossible in part). I prepare for the worst, buying iodine, flashlights, etc. etc. The sun in the sky and the spring day make me forget fear; the desire for normalcy prevails. I go to the Hamarikyuen gardens, near the sea, with the first cherry trees in bloom. I sunbathe; I talk with friends on the phone, walking a bit. I read reassuring news from the embassy. For the newspapers, Japan has already been in a state of nuclear cataclysm for three days.

I still walk around the city, and since the Capsule Hotel by Kisho Kurokawa is in the same area, I visit it once again. On the ground floor is a capsule for use by architecture students and the curious general public. The various explanations state that this is a prototype for the dwelling of the homo movens, mobile man or the man of the 21st century. I had forgotten about Kurokawa's ability to read and foresee some themes of contemporary architecture. I continued my walk to Ginza. The radio stations talk about the tsunami and some national stations play the messages of a special missing-people service. Messages like "This is Yuko looking for Hiroshi, I'm worried about you, answer please;" "I'm Mako, where are you my child? Call." 5 seconds to state all the essentials. Sent over the airwaves non-stop, continuous messages of people looking for people who can't be found. Metaphor for contemporary conditions.

Walking further, I pass the Swatch store designed by Shigeru Ban, with hydroponic plants and elevators from the ground floor that lead to the underground stores. The elevators, once below, free circulation from any impediment but when they return above they influence the variations in the forms of the store. Continuous transformation. One of these cubic-transparent elevators goes down to the Swatch store. I go in just to see how this architecture works.
Once inside, however, I am overcome more by the objects than by the space, and I think that several years have passed since I bought my last watch, so when I see one in the shape of a lightning bolt I decide to buy it - not for its function in and of itself, but because I believe I am creating my amulet, a thunderclap against the hardships of these days. At times like these, we cling to anything to find strength. Finally it's evening.

Back home, I focus on polishing up an article to be delivered the next day - a project proposed several months earlier and completely forgotten until we were given a deadline for the next day. I try to keep busy. I talk on the phone at length about the past and future with G, such a significant person in my life. Then again, attached to the media that continues to send pictures of the tragedy, finding absurd hyperbole to describe the disaster that has occurred and what could happen, foreseeing the worst possible scenario for us. Sometimes they give us correct information but also a massive dose of unwarranted alarmism.

Monday, March 14
Sunday, several international conferences (ALGODE) were canceled along with some events (the opening of the Digital Fabrication Lab) and presentations that had been planned for some time and on which we had worked so hard; but it was decided not to cancel the midterm presentations scheduled for Monday with students from Columbia and Tokyo Universities to be attended by Kengo Kuma, Nanako Umemoto and Yusuke Obuchi. Because the Columbia students were here in Tokyo, it also seemed right to give a sign of continuity.
Presentations were made in an increasingly dual atmosphere; one part diving the right amount of attention to the projects done over the past two months, the other fear. Fear and wonder, houses destroyed in memory and architecture on the students' presentation boards. Only half of them were there at the presentation, but they were eager to tell of their research on the logic of nature and how it can be applied to architecture.

In the afternoon, with the presentations successfully completed, I contact more friends in Tokyo and some who had left; we speak about possible evacuation plans and whether or not to move south. Always keyed into embassy news and media considered more reliable, we listen to the recommendations coming from the Japanese government to avoid contact for any reason with the rain forecasted for that evening as it might contain potentially radioactive particles.

We decide to stay for dinner for a few hours. We listen to Hidetaka Takayaka, Hidefumi Ino, Telephone Tel Aviv, CSS, Chilly Gonzales, among others, and we talk about architecture and food and how we will survive with our magical amulets. I can't resist showing them the ultra-kitsch watch I had bought the day before which I had discovered was designed by Jeremy Scoot, considered by many to be the Jeff Koons of fashion, a crazy "weirdo" that puts wings on the feet of stars, singers and dancers. We laugh about his collection of clocks with wings, frames and thunder. But then thoughts comes back to the dead and the violence of nature, scenes of destruction, and about how, if the reactors explode, we will be contaminated and how, if we are lucky, we will only grow a third eye. Getting information, trying to understand, praying to one's God while the helicopters do not stop. M and V cook the delicious dishes that we savor slowly; B and D don't come for fear of rain; T leaves ahead of schedule because a friend is afraid to stay home alone and so prefers to go there; on the computer, R shows us a image that his sister has just sent from the USA - you can see her and her husband hugging, laughing and sending greetings from that part of the world. We need this message of love and joy –true and healthy things that let us think about life. Fortunately it does not rain. We go home. Constant aftershocks, phone calls in the middle of the night, remain calm, remain lucid, have courage, don't give in to temptation.

Four days have passed, but time has proven to be very dense; it is slow and stretched out and, in it, there's room for everyone. Being inside all this makes you feel emotions, pain, fear, love, hopes, wishes and a varied collection of very intense feelings. Being in this situation brings out the need to react and think about what to do in a practical way; it makes you plan, to have plan A and contingency plans - as simple and effective as possible.

Why I have not left yet? Perhaps because I have been able to realize part of my dreams here. Perhaps because, today, this is still home for me - even if I had always believed my home was the world and not just a nation. I don't know about tomorrow. We will have to roll up our sleeves, not lose the faith, calm, love and determination to survive and teach strategies for recovery: tomorrow will be better. If we survive, Nino, the Sicilian chef, owes us one of his cassatas. We will share it with all those that are gone. We'll see what to expect tomorrow.
If you are in Tokyo or you have loved ones in this special and unique city, don't panic.

This article is intended as a partial and personal diary of a few days that will remain forever in the hearts and minds of the people who experienced them. It does not intend to clarify anything; it is not exhaustive but provides some subjective impressions. It is not an official document but a personal report that the author wrote to feel a bit more at peace with himself and partly to rid himself of a burden by making it public. This journal does not intend to offend anyone and is written in memory of those who are suffering and who have left us.
I thank my family in Italy, my friends around the world and then Matteo Belfiore, Valentina Cannava, Rafael Balboa, Toru Fujita, Natalija Ribovic, Tomoko Matsushita, Tomoko Kawai, Federico Scaroni, Yukari Ono, Masaru Miyawaki, Alessio Guarino, Yasuko Fukunoue, Kaon Ko, Abdelhak Talbi, all members of Kengo Kuma Lab-University of Tokyo: my family in Japan.


Salvator-John A. Liotta in Japan has lived since 2005. He is an architect and postdoctoral researcher in the Kengo Kuma laboratory at the University of Tokyo. He collaborates with Domus, Compasses, Presst/letter, Mark.

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