Japanese unite in show of self-restraint

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People spread blue sheets on the ground under cherry trees at Tokyo's Ueno Park
Image caption,
Far fewer people gather under the cherry blossom in Tokyo's Ueno Park

It is cherry blossom season in Japan and the parks are filled with pink clouds of flowers, held up on the dark, dark trunks.

In a normal year the open space under the trees would be covered with blue tarpaulin sheets, every square inch taken up with people eating and drinking.

But in the face of calamity the Japanese have adopted a mood of self-restraint.

This is not the year for partying.

Just a handful of people were sitting under the cherry blossom in Tokyo's Ueno Park, and most were sombre.

"Before, the picnic blankets would entirely cover the ground," said one man. "And you'd hear people singing karaoke, even this early in the day."

"I think a lot of people would feel guilty about those affected by the disaster if they had fun and partied," added a woman.

'Normal' life

A month after Japan's earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear crisis, the country has entered a period of what is known as jishuku, or voluntary self-restraint.

Out of solidarity with those in disaster-hit areas people across the country are making cut-backs.

Visit the north-east coast and it is easy to see why the national mood has darkened.

A few short weeks is not enough to make much impact on the devastation.

The town of Taro was trapped between its inadequate sea wall and the mountains just beyond when the tsunami hit and was churned into pieces.

Mechanical diggers are being used to clear away the wreckage.

Osamu Takayashiki comes down to the ruins some days from the evacuation centre on the hill.

He is still looking for scraps of his old life. This time he was lucky and found two photographs 300m from where his home once stood.

One is of his wife just after they met, the other of his son as a baby. Both are still alive.

Like many survivors he is grateful for the support of the Japanese people, but he thinks jishuku has gone too far.

"Personally I think it's a bit annoying," he says.

"We've lost everything here. We want other people to remind us what normal life is like. I even saw on TV they'd cancelled the brass bands at high school baseball games. That's not the way to do it."

Appetite for life

For business Japan's gloom is bad news.

Image caption,
The 200-year-old wooden sake brewery building survived the tsunami

Stirring the vats in his sake brewery just inland, Kosuke Kuji is trying to remain cheerful.

They remained standing during the earthquake.

So too, miraculously he says, did the 200-year-old wooden building his family has been working in for five generations.

But the sympathy of his fellow Japanese now threatens to do what nature could not, and bankrupt him.

Sales have fallen more steeply than at any time since his great-great-grandfather started the family firm.

"The people of the Tohoku, the north, who were hit by the tsunami and earthquake, are in no position to drink sake," he says.

"I'm not saying to people here to drink sake and have parties under the cherry blossom. What I am asking is for people outside of the north to have a normal life and spend money on Tohoku products."

Clearing up the wreckage of the ruined towns along the coast is going to take years.

It will be a reminder well into the future that there is reason to mourn.

Amid so much death and destruction Japan may find it difficult to recover an appetite for life.

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