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Disasters push Japan's rites of spring aside

Monday's national holiday marking the vernal equinox is traditionally associated with family reunions and visits to graves of ancestors, conventions now too painful to contemplate for many just after the earthquake and tsunami.

March 22, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Earthquake victims eat lunch at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, Japan.
Earthquake victims eat lunch at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata,… (Paula Bronstein / Getty…)

Reporting from Tokyo — This year in Japan, the rites of spring have transformed themselves into the rituals of sorrow.

Monday's national holiday marked the vernal equinox, the start of a season enshrined in the nation's classical art and literature as a time of fragile, fleeting beauty. But at this spring's onset, Japanese find themselves gazing upon an unfathomable landscape of death and destruction wrought by earthquake and tsunami.

The vernal equinox, like its autumn counterpart, is traditionally associated with reunions of kinfolk and visits to graves of ancestors. Both of these conventions, though, carry terrible resonance at a time of shattered families and nameless bodies piling up in makeshift morgues, a particular horror in a society with meticulously observed funerary customs.

"I came here to rest my mind for a moment," said Taro Okuzawa, pausing at a tiny Shinto shrine perched, incongruously, on the rooftop of a busy department store in Tokyo's Ginza district. "I try to grasp what has happened to us, and I cannot."

Springtime normally ushers in a procession of Japanese matsuri, or festivals, many with roots in the eternal rhythms of agrarian life, the turning of seasons or the ways of the natural world. This year, for many, nature's terrors hardly bear contemplating: shaking earth, waves like dark mountains, radiation's invisible menace.

Although cherished as cultural touchstones even in a hyper-modern, gizmo-laden land, traditional matsuri are likely to be scarce this spring. Their loss, only one among so many, is nonetheless mourned.

In the old shrine-dotted Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa, organizers had prepared for months for a celebration known as the Golden Dragon Dance, an exuberant whirl of lanterns, chants and drumming. But it would have fallen on March 18, only a week after the earthquake; it was swiftly called off. So was an even bigger festival in the neighborhood, a three-day extravaganza known as the Sanja Matsuri, which normally takes place in May.

"The earthquake we just had is a once-in-a-thousand-year event, and we decided we needed to forgo our festival," said Kouji Yano, a Shinto priest at Asakusa's main shrine. "We just wouldn't be in the mood."

There are two schools of thought, though, as to whether pushing ahead with public events is an unseemly act at a time of immense national tragedy, or an emblem of the collective will to persevere in the face of upheaval, an often-expressed theme in Japan's traditional arts, such as Kabuki dance-drama.

The magnitude 9 earthquake jolted elaborately costumed actors and audience members alike at the daily spring-season Kabuki matinee on March 11 at Tokyo's Shimbashi Enbujo Theater. But after a one-day hiatus, the show went on, albeit playing to smaller-than-usual audiences. (Japan's principal Kabuki playhouse, the venerable Kabuki-za, was closed last year — presciently, it seems — because of fears about earthquake safety.)

Perhaps Japan's most indelible springtime ritual is cherry-blossom viewing, and that too is likely to be curtailed. The delicate pink flowers, regarded here as a poetically melancholy symbol of life's evanescence, have not yet bloomed in Tokyo, or in the country's ravaged northeast.

Normally at this time of year, the public avidly tracks the sakura zensen, or cherry-blossom front, as it moves steadily northward with warming temperatures. Those updates are issued by Japan's Meteorological Agency, which is preoccupied these days with measuring near-constant aftershocks and forecasting the direction of potentially radiation-bearing winds.

Near Tokyo's rain-soaked Ueno Park on Monday, Shin Takashi recalled a riotous party there a year earlier with co-workers, drinking sake on a big blue tarpaulin spread out beneath the drifting blooms. They sang songs into the night, he said, and gazed at the bright spring moon above.

"This year?" he said, shaking his head. "I don't think so. It wouldn't feel right."

laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Yuri Nagano contributed to this report.

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