NOTE: For several months in late 1988 and early 1989 the Japanese Emperor Hirohito lapsed into a coma as a result of severe illness. Although Japanese medical practice held that nothing should be publicly said as the nature of the disease, it was commonly understood to be cancer. Given his advanced age, eighty-seven, chances for his recovery were slim. In keeping with this somber mood, the entire nation went into a prolonged period of jishuku, or self-restraint. No one wished to appear too happy, too celebratory, in this saddest of times. Even those who had little or no feeling for the Emperor, or Imperial tradition, bowed to intense public pressure and cancelled weddings, festivals, office parties, New Year's celebrations and all other outward displays of public enjoyment. In consequence, the Japanese, a people of outward form and appearances, turned to the most mundane of daily events to replace these occurrences.
"Jishin, jishin," the office buzzed as I arrived for work. I hadn't seen the place so animated since September, when Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox Day had given us back-to-back long weekends and my co-workers happily planned trips to visit family, or decided to just play and loaf about. Since that time,the Emperor had fallen ill, and they were disappointed as the succession of Athletics Day, Culture Day, Labour Day, and the extended New Year's period of O-Shogatsu's usual celebrations were replaced with jishuku, or self-restraint. Even the famous fall festivals in Nara, Kyoto, and Takayama were severely scaled down or cancelled outright. And pity the poor families who had weddings planned, new additions to the family, or other joyous events. They all had to be downplayed. The Emperor was ill.
But now the office was buzzing. "Jishin, jishin," it went. What was this? Had I missed something? I turned to Sugiyama, our office manager. At 9:30, he told me, we would have an earthquake. A big one. Many people would die. The city would be levelled. There would be much hardship. We'd be consumed by fire.
I was amazed. Could disasters be forecast with such accuracy, then? I knew the Japanese were an orderly and obedient people, but did even their natural disasters occur according to plan? Was it our duty to die for some obscure reason? The Emperor's illness perhaps? Why weren't we fleeing for the train stations, the airports? Where was the panic? Was this an example of the shinjinrui, the "new kinds of people" I had heard so much about in Japan? If so, I liked the old.
"No, no," Sugiyama reassured me. Not a real earthquake. Today was hosai kunren, or emergency drill. Today's emergency? Jishin, or earthquake. It must have been the season.
"What am I to do?" I asked.
"Nothing. Just sit there and follow directions when the earthquake comes twenty minutes from now."
I busied myself at my desk. Fifteen minutes later, Matsuoka got up and began to strip. Was this part of the drill? Were we to flee the building with no more than nature gave us? He was down to his shorts when our kacho, our cautious section chief, came in brandishing a neatly pressed, grey uniform for him to change into. Matsuoka was our office representative, part of the building's shock troops who would survey the damage, shut off the gas, fight fires and ensure that everyone made it out safely. Each section had one. His pants didn't fit quite right, however, and Matsuoka was left sitting in his shorts, black rubber boots and bare legs visible to us all as our kacho ran out to get a larger pair.
Miawaki, sitting next to Matsuoka, giggled. "You look ridiculous," he said.
"I feel ridiculous," Matsuoka answered. Around him, the office was all smiles, obviously enjoying the absurdity of the situation. I almost thought Ohori was going to break out the sake.
With seconds to spare, kacho found the pants and Matsuoka struggled into them, not bothering to take the rubber boots from his feet before forcing his legs through. Just in time. A few more seconds and we'd have had to cancel the earthquake. Only in Japan did you have to dress for disaster.
The alarm went off and Matsuoka ran out the door. A calm voice came over the intercom and informed us to get under our desks until we were told it was safe to do otherwise. I spent about five minutes with my large foreign body hunched over, looking at my shoes. Cut off from sight of each other by the desks, Ohori did his best Bob Hope imitation and fired off a whole string of jokes designed to boost the troop's morale. We were almost sorry when the intercom said we could come out from under our desks. The earthquake was over, we were told, but cautioned NOT TO DO ANYTHING UNLESS INSTRUCTED TO DO SO. I wondered how we could wait for instructions in a real earthquake when the intercom would surely be broken.
Miawaki answered my question. From out of nowhere he acquired one of those little coloured flags that are so common with Japanese tour groups. With handkerchiefs over our mouths to protect us from imaginary dust and gas, we marched down the three flights of stairs behind him and out of the building. Here, we lined up behind our flag. We might have been at a medieval jousting match or knights being called to arms. I expected the fair Guinevere to come riding by at any moment.
Ours was not the only flag. Each section of each office dutifully lined up behind their standardbearer's flag. We waited like that no more than three or four minutes before Matsuoka and his shock troops came rushing around the corner. They checked to see that we were all present and accounted for and reassured us that all was fine in the building. As he turned to leave,his hard-won pants fell down around his ankles and he fell flat on his face. Another fine mess you've gotten us into, Ollie. Without missing a beat, he pulled them up and rushed of to see what the sirens were about.
The firetrucks and ambulances came roaring in. They clattered to a stop, firemen jumping off, unravelling hoses as they ran into the building, which was now somehow engulfed in smoke. We could see now what Matsuoka and his men had been up to. Smoke bombs! What a show! The special effects were great! Of course, we broke ranks to get closer to the action. Before we arrived, a scream echoed through the air. On top of the building was someone furiously waving her arms, pleading for help, clouds of staged smoke billowing behind her. Obviously, Matsuoka and his rubber boot gang hadn't accounted for all of us.
The firetruck swung into action, its extension ladder only just stretching to the top of the building. Fist raised in triumph, Perilous Pauline, or whatever her name was, was lowered to the ground, put on a dolly, wheeled to an ambulance and, lights and sirens ablaze, rushed with great fanfare to the hospital. Never mind that the building behind us was also a hospital. That would have subtracted from the drama of the situation. And drama it was. Everyone had a role. Matsuoka and his men once again mysteriously out of sight, onlookers took it upon themselves to blockade the streets, pull over cars, and play traffic cop.
Within seconds, a great WHOOSH rent the silence and flames licked high into the air. Festive colours of orange, red, and yellow lit up the sky. When the initial smoke cleared, we saw that Matsuoka had set off a series of carefully controlled fires in the parking lot. Crowd control barriers, ropes, and firemen ensured the crowd's safety as we were urged to gather around. The fire chief played his loudspeaker like a carnival barker, urging us to step closer and see the next attraction. How could we refuse? P.T. Barnum was right. There's one born every minute.
Flames leaped into the air and the crowd rippled with anticipation as the firemen demonstrated the use of the various fire extinguishers. By now, there was close to a thousand of us. Passersby joined in, abandoning their cars on the roadside. An old man leaned from his second story window across the street as if trying to join in on the fun. Others rushed down. Only a solitary woman on a third floor balcony was oblivious to the excitement, calmly going about hanging her laundry.
"Step right up," urged the fireman-barker, trolling the crowd for volunteers willing to take a try on the fire extinguishers. As a practical demonstration and running commentary on their use had just been given, we were all familiar with the proper procedure. A little urging snagged four brave souls willing to try their luck. A round of applause and shouts of encouragement swept the crowd. An official photographer emerged out of nowhere and began snapping away. As the barker shouted out instructions, the brave souls advanced on the fires, extinguishers held before them like lances. At the barker's command they stopped, just feet from the raging infernos.
The crowd went silent. The barker hushed. Slowly and carefully, the four followed his precise instructions. They turned the extinguishers on end, unscrewed the valves, held the hoses out at precisely forty-five degree angles, gave them a sharp tug, and pressed their plungers. Great clouds of chemical smoke engulfed the flames and smothered them. All that was left were the pans of liquid kerosene. The crowd regained its voice, clapping and cheering and offering to stand rounds of drinks for the brave fighters.
Then the winds changed and the chemicals blew back into our faces, chasing us back in to the relative safety of the building. But the smoke still hadn't cleared and tears were soon streaming down our faces. Slowly, the chatter died down and we settled back behind our desks for a sober day's work. It was a sad time in Japan. The Emperor was ill and we were all exercising self-restraint. This was no time for a celebration.