A special visit to Tokyo
By Mohamed A. El-Erian
The opinions expressed are his own.
The check in for my flight from London to Tokyo confirmed that this was not a normal business trip. With a sympathetic smile, I was given a leaflet informing me that my non-stop journey would, in fact, be making a stop-in Korea, for a crew change as the airline company was minimizing the time spent by its staff on the ground in Japan. I was also informed that only three other people had checked in for the business class cabin; and that the crew could well outnumber the passengers there.
The arrival at Narita airport was equally unusual. A whole set of typically busy passport control booths was shut. The other was processing very few passengers, and virtually no foreigners. I went through quickly and was met by a taxi driver who immediately apologized for the lack of heating in the airport terminal. “We are saving electricity,” he explained.
As unusual as all this was, none of it prepared me for what I heard from colleagues in our Tokyo office. Stories of courage were mixed with sadness within a range of personal and family ordeals — all experienced during, and in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis.
I marveled at the way our amazing operational team, shortly after evacuating the building, found the courage to go back in and climb 18 floors to make sure that the valuations of the Japanese mutual funds were properly struck on the day of the earthquake. I gasped at the mother who, faced with a disrupted transportation system, walked for six hours to be re-united with her kids at home. And then there were those who, for a few terrifying minutes when the building “not just shook but danced,” were caught paralyzed in the corridor while drawers flew open and various things crashed around them.
I was there to thank them, on behalf of a grateful company, for their excellent work, amazing dedication and great courage. But they would have none of it.
Rather than accept praise for their achievements under terribly difficult circumstances, they were quick to divert attention to the help that they had received from others in the company. Also, they viewed themselves as “the lucky ones” who now have an even greater obligation to help others in Japanese society recover from terrible suffering and deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
Signs of the remaining challenges were everywhere. Yes, Japan is slowly recovering from the three horrible calamities but so much is yet to return to normal.
Everyone is focused on the rescue operations north of Tokyo that, regrettably, too often result in disappointments but sometimes in amazing miracles. Aftershocks are still too common, with around 60 in the two weeks following the big earthquake, quite a few of which exceeded 6.0 on the Reichter scale.
Public transportation is back, but only to 75-80 percent of capacity. Rolling electricity blackouts are taking place. Certain products are unavailable, with the latest being bottled water as demand has spiked following reports of higher radiation measurements in tap water. Others, such as petrol, are recovering gradually as reopened businesses slowly restock.
Yet, the biggest disruption to everyday lives lies elsewhere. It comes from the invisible and terrifying threat of radiation emanating from the damaged nuclear reactors.
Every colleague I met is now familiar — indeed, fluent — with radiation readings, the conditions of the reactors, etc. And they worry about what lies ahead. Inevitably, some are also concerned that government officials — and even more critically, those from TEPCO, Japan’s biggest utility and the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant — may not be telling them everything.
I suspect that what I saw in our Tokyo office last week is a microcosm of what is happening in the country as a whole. Japanese society is recovering from the horrible calamities, but doing so in the midst of enormous challenges and high uncertainty.
Fortunately, this is a society that has tremendous dignity, courage and determination. The spirit may have been shaken, but it is not broken; nor is the ability to help and respect each other.
I went to Tokyo with a simple objective — to thank my Japanese colleagues for their exceptional work during an extremely difficult time. I returned with even greater admiration for them, and bright hopes for their beautiful country.