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Art and the Earthquake

March 15, 2015

By Liane Wakabayashi

It’s  Friday March 11th at 2 pm. I’m at the in-law’s apartment in Okachimachi, sitting at their solid maple dining table, digging chopsticks into plates of Grandma’s homemade yaki-soba at a time of day when both my kids were usually in school. But both kids had off because of flu epidemics and since they were fine and healthy, thank God, I had suggested an outing to Okachimachi, where the grandparents lived, and where my favourite form of entertainment — seeing art exhibitions — was within a few minutes walk.

Grandpa, grandma, my husband Aki, and my son opted out of the exhibition plan. After I’d  washed the plates with Aki drying them, he returned to his office  on the second floor of the family building. Grandpa once again spread out the pile of papers on the dining room table. Grandma took her turn stretching out in the reclining chair by the window. Seiji sprawled out on the carpet building a new Lego airplane from a kit Grandpa had bought him. So it was just Mirai and her school friend Kanoko who accompanied me to meet Nancy, my gallery hopping companion here in Tokyo for more than twenty years.

Today’s agenda was to visit  Aki-Oka Artisan, the newly opened stylish arts and crafts  center nestled under the huge cylindrical pillars of the train tracks connecting Akihabara to Okachimachi stations.  Stepping into Aki-Oki Artisan, noting the very odd prefix to it’s name 2K540 Aki-Oka that recalls a very old downtown tradition of marking distances from the starting point of Tokyo station. Here we were, 2 kilometers and 540 meters from the epicenter of Tokyo. I remarked to Nancy how that spoke heaps about Okachimachi, an area once designated for low-level samurai retainers who were too lowly to possess even their own horses.

Having my in-laws in Okachimachi in a relationship that began in 1989, I had never been able to reconcile myself with its ugliness, its charmlessness, its functionality as an community of medium size office buildings and not a single tree.  Okachimachi suffered from a lack of beauty, creativity, nature, and innovation — those feminine qualities, to my mind, that make places liveable.

But then, I’m not being quite fair enough. Okachimachi is a hugely popular neighbourhood famous for its seafood and rare to find imported foods. After World War II, Okachimachi was a black market for the trade of dollars, cigarettes, whisky and chocolates. A green grocer’s wholesale market in Akihabara was the largest in all of Tokyo. And while it’s no longer the watch-making center of Tokyo, it remains the center of Japan’s diamond and fine jewellery exchange.

With such strong impressions about Okachimachi, when I set foot inside 2K540 Aki-Oki, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stood there wondering how this conservative community could have possibly allowed for a  fresh and modern reinterpretation of the uses of above-ground train supports. The space was bright with track lights, spot lights, white walls and wood-planked floors.  I felt an emotion I’d never felt before in my in-laws community — a mix of awe, elation and mystery.  If Okachimachi could throw off it’s geriatric image as a dying merchant’s town and reform itself into a young hip center for the arts, then anything was possible  It was a dream come true for me, an artist,  to have this beautiful Aki-Oki art space manifest just four short blocks from my in-law’s home.

At 2:43 I was standing in Aki-Oki with a lacquer bowl in my  hands. The pillars began to shake so I instantly put the vase down– as if it had caught on fire between my fingers.  A massive pillar was vibrating like a metronome, out of control.  I grabbed Mirai.  Nancy grabbed my daughter’s friend Kanoko and we all ran for our lives, bolting along the passageway until we were safely outdoors. I was sure that this was the dreaded Kanto plain earthquake that threatens to turn Tokyo into an ash heap graveyard about every 60 years or so—or at least that’s what happened the last time around in 1923.

While standing in a vacant parking lot, the intensity of this earthquake grew, and as it did my mind flashed back to the carefully thought-out earthquake prevention schemes I’d worked out over more than two decades of living in Tokyo—where you can either live your life as if its at risk every single day, knowing that a big one is imminent, or you can go into geological denial.  I had taken the middle way, preparing in my mind for where I didn’t want to be when the Big One happened.

When the big one hit, I didn’t want to be lying on a narrow bed at my acupuncturist’s with dozens of needles piercing me. I didn’t want to be in a car either, or on a bridge, or even worse, on one of those rickety pedestrian bridges that criss-cross the big intersections of Tokyo. Other high priority avoidance zones for me were high floors of tall buildings or their elevator shafts.

Despite having many worst-case scenarios, it hadn’t occurred to me to visualize the opposite–where I actually did want to be when the Big One happened. So when this earthquake hit, a soul-chilling five on the Richter scale, I almost laughed at the thought of gasping my last breath minutes from my in-laws home in a brand new art space. If God works through coincidences, as I tend to think the great universal intelligence does, then this had to be outstanding proof that God exists. For who else could have read my mind and given me the chance to experience an earthquake in a place that I instantly loved, rather than feared?

From outside 2K540 Aki-Oka, what happened over the next few seconds stretches in my mind into an eternity. We watched a brand new green glass high rise apartment tower in Akihabara, just blocks away. It moved forwards and backwards on rollers—a state of the art engineering method designed to reduce structural damage to high rises during strong earthquakes, but sure to give occupants the ride of a lifetime as it manically swayed back and forth. I’d never seen a building glide forward and backward as if it had no foundation, just wheels.

I flashed onto my  in-law’s apartment, inside a building in Okachimachi they had built 25 years ago. It was not new, but it had been built under fairly advanced earthquake construction codes. I psyched myself to believe that t my family were okay, my in-laws and husband Aki would be watching news of the earthquake on television and my son’s Lego playing would resume shortly.  I couldn’t help wondering as I stood just blocks away from them that this arty way of experiencing an earthquake was a form of cosmic reassurance that the years I’d spent developing myself as a painter and member of this downtown Okachimachi family were not in vain.

Wakabayashi Heim—the in-law’s building, was constructed on an unusual T-shaped piece of land bought by Aki’s grandfather, a Shizuoka boy who had come to Tokyo at age 13 to apprentice as a draftsman.  Aki’s grandmother, the daughter of an Okachimachi hatmaker, had survived the 1923 Great Earthquake, the fire bombings of World War II, the death of three of their eight children—their only daughters, and the decimation of her neighbourhood twice in one lifetime. Their apartment building was a gold mine of memories now that they were both long gone—having passed within three weeks of each other a year after they had moved to an apartment that required an elevator to get to, on the land where their rambling two story wooden house with spacious rooms and narrow verandas was probably much more to their liking.

I visualised  them all seated at the table where we had finished our yakisoba minutes ago and were now watching earthquake update reports on NHK of the horrors unfolding along the coast of Tohoku and at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.  I didn’t know it at the time. I kept saying to myself like a mantra: wherever we are is exactly where we’re supposed to be—in Okachimachi.

The shakes didn’t stop though. The vibrations from below the earth went right through me. Nancy  was anxious to get home, so she bid farewell to me and the girls, determined — shakes or not — to walk 14 kilometers on foot across umpteen bridges to reach her husband in Katsushika ward. The earthquakes continued with terrifying and unpredictable force, raising up from the ground an electrical charge that went right through my shoes, up my legs, and again into my bowels. To say I was “shared shitless” is an understatement. I had to find a bathroom quick.

I tried phoning intermittently to check on my family. The cell phone lines were down or jammed, so I couldn’t get through. The ground continued to shake violently, in spurts, like contractions that came and went every few minutes. But every single building was marvellously preserved. Then an eery thought occurred to me. Perhaps this wasn’t the great earthquake we’d  all been waiting for. Or perhaps the epicenter was even stronger, and somewhere else?

When the shakes died down for an intermission, I made a snap decision to leave 2K540 Aki-0ki arts center and lead my girls toward an officially  designated evacuation zone a few blocks away.  We landed on a grassy lawn—the only unpaved swath of green in all of Okachimachi. We were, to my surprise, at renovated Rensei Junior High 3331, yet another  newly opened art space in Okachimachi!

On the lawn I read the sign: “The meaning of 3331 is to share happiness, to encourage each other. In Edo times, this was expressed as a  series of hand claps. Three sets of three hand claps add to nine, an esoteric number that stands for stress and labor—but is then followed by a single handclap, to expel that stress, and  translates into achievement.”

We had taken refuge on the lawn of not only a revamped junior high school, renovated as art studios in a style that had been copied from my hometown of New York City’s P.S.1, the first public school in America to be closed and recommissioned as an art gallery.  The kabbalistic thrust of 3331 wasn’t lost on me.  I offered one great big gratuitous prayer in silence and three claps followed by a single one.

The walk to the in-law’s home from Chiyoda 1333 is usually less than five minutes across Showa dori, with it’s double decker highway.  This main Tokyo artery splits the neighbourhood into two grids of treeless streets, punctuated by vending machines, traffic lights and neon signboards that electrify drab building facades.  The earth was still shaking in fits and starts when we saw the in-laws apartment house come into view, wide at the base, narrow at the top, the next best thing to a  pyramid,  a tower light and love, of family togetherness and creative possibilities.


About the author: Liane Wakabayashi is a Tokyo-based writer, artist and pioneering teacher of a playful intuitive art approach she calls the Genesis Way. Find out more at: www. and

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