Earthquake evokes fond memories of Watanabe

AT time of writing, news is still emerging of the disaster in Japan. In 1994 I went to Japan twice, in order to promote a record.

Here, in the UK, Japan, isn’t usually thought of as a holiday destination. UK citizens who travel there mostly do so either for business or academic purposes.

For the handful of Essex musicians who, like me, have done rock tours there, it can be a culture shock.

After a 12- hour non-stop flight from Heathrow to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, there’s long drive in heavy traffic through the 40-mile sprawl of Bladerunner-style modernity which is Tokyo.

When you check into your hotel room, as well as the usual fire-drill signs, which you’ll find anywhere in the world, you’ll also see one which tells you what to do in event of an earthquake.


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In Tokyo hotels, this sometimes takes the form of a grisly little cartoon, warning you to stay away from windows and not to use the lifts. One frame depicts a man, crouching behind a chair, sheltering from falling masonry.

It’s somewhat disconcerting to see such a thing, especially if you’re travel-lagged and far from home. Earthquakes, along with typhoons, however, are facts of life for the Japanese.

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My first trip, in June of 1994, also happened to coincide with an edgy political episode for Japan.

I stopped worrying about earthquakes, when I learned from reading the Japan Times that there was a small nuclear crisis pending.

Mr Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s ageing leader, was hinting that he might launch a nuclear weapon at his enemies. Since it was known that he probably didn’t have the capacity to hit the west, it was thought that he might try and hit Tokyo instead, thereby knocking out the world’s financial markets.

The drama unfolded during my first few days in Tokyo, eventually simmering down, when former US President, Jimmy Carter brokered a peace deal.

Within weeks of the crisis, Kim Il Sung died of old age and I returned to England.

Whilst events unfolded, however, I learned as much about the Japanese as I could. With me was the thought of the small possibility that they might be the last people on earth that I’d ever know.

The Japanese, have certain similarities to us. They are an island race – one even more insular than we ourselves are.

Japan was pretty much a closed country until Portuguese traders arrived there in the 17th century. Even so, they remained hostile to western imperialism for a long time afterwards.

In a crowded country, the Japanese have a politesse similar in some ways to our own, if rather more formal.

After a while in Japan, upon returning to the UK, it can take a day or two to get out of the habit of bowing to to everyone you meet.

I once returned to the UK, for instance and, still jet-lagged, bowed to someone in the local newsagents.

One big difference between the Japanese and ourselves is in our meterological and geological circumstances.

Every so often, as as just occurred in Japan, a natural disaster comes along and, like a giant hand across a chessboard, sweeps everything away.

British culture, history and our sense of self is buttressed by the permanency of our ancient monuments, castles and ceremonies.

Unlike us, the Japanese, with an equally rich history, have been forced by circumstance to regularly embrace the new. Their sense of self is embedded somewhere deep within them.

They can also be very kind and hospitable.

Mr Fumitake Watanabe, a young record company executive, once invited the guitarist and singer Captain Sensible and me to have dinner with his family at their home on the outskirts of Tokyo.

His father, a genial businessman, told me: “You British are amazing. You invent everything – computers, machines and music. But then, we Japanese manufacture it – and the Americans sell it!”

Mr Watanabe’s glamorous aunt, a former air stewardess, told us fond stories about her first visits to London. For a while, the two of us didn’t feel quite so foreign.

Yet, as you walk around Tokyo, stray too far from its centre, and you won’t even understand the street signs, since very few are in Roman script. You will, in effect, be illiterate. That, in itself, can be unsettling.

On my second visit to Japan, it struck me that I’d travelled all that way and yet never so much as set foot on honest soil – only concrete. I suddenly felt very far from home.

Early one humid September morning, Nel, a fellow musician and I left our hotel and escaped to nearby Yoyogi Park, so that we could walk on grass and see trees.

I remember standing in bright sunlight exclaiming: “Nel, what the hell are we doing here? We come from bloody Colchester!”

The moment passed and we returned to the hotel to to wait for our transport to Osaka, our next destination.

Now, while the world’s eyes are on the Japanese and their troubles, my thoughts return there – to Fumitake Watanabe and his family, to all the people we met, to the incomprehensible street signs and the packed Tokyo underground stations.

And then I remembered another way in which we’re not so different to our Japanese friends.

The Great English Earthquake of 1884 occurred in Essex.

It shook Colchester’s North Station, killed a couple of people and did substantial damage to the villages of Peldon and Wivenhoe.

By comparison to events in Japan, it was nearly nothing.

Do we feel lucky? We should do.

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