Today is the 30th anniversary of the Hotel New Japan fire, which killed 33 people. It is also my 30th wedding anniversary. Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend some years ago describing that day.
“We woke up that morning to news that made M wonder if it might not be the most inauspicious day to get hitched. The Hotel New Japan, which happened to be in Akasaka, right down the street from the embassy, was on fire. It was one of the biggest hotels in Tokyo and all the TV stations were covering the blaze closely, since something like four floors were engulfed in flames and firemen were having trouble getting to the people stranded there. In the end, more than 30 people would die in the fire, at least half of them non-Japanese, but at the moment we had to decide on what we were going to do. Years later, it would always be easy to remember our wedding anniversary because the incident remains the biggest hotel fire in Japanese history and a contentious lawsuit against the owner dragged on for more than 20 years; always on the anniversay, there was some news report to remind everyone. It was, in fact, the first of two big disasters that week. The second was a plane crash at Haneda airport caused by a pilot who suffered from severe depression and almost dunked his 747 in the bay. A bunch of people died in that accident, too.
Perhaps I saw it as a challenge, but I convinced M to go through with it, so we did. We met Norie and Morimura in front of the embassy and went through the security, which even in 1982 was pretty tight. The visa section was crowded as usual but we used the notary windows. We had to wait longer than we expected because the place was temporarily understaffed. Some of the employees were down at the Hotel New Japan helping U.S. citizens who had lost possessions (or maybe even their lives) in the fire. We waited almost an hour for our turn.
There wasn’t much to it. Basically, I filled out a form and raised my right hand and swore that the information contained in it was true. Then M and our two witnesses signed on the proper lines. There were no “I dos,” no “I now pronounce you…” The woman who took my information did, however, congratulate both of us “on behalf of the United States government.” We went outside and had somebody take our picture in front of the embassy gates, and then we walked down to the Hotel New Japan and watched the excitement. It was sort of thrilling.
We registered our union at the Minato Ward office. For all intents and purposes I didn’t even have to be there. Since I’m not Japanese, I can’t be listed in the “spouse” column of M’s family register–the basic document that certifies Japanese nationality. I can only be written in as a footnote. At the time, I didn’t give a thought to this, though a month or so later I would learn what it really meant. Then, the four of us went to a restaurant and celebrated with pie. M’s idea.”