I’m from Australia so dry fountains shouldn’t even stand out to me. There was a drought that lasted over ten years there, electronic billboards said water reserves were less than 30% and whole rivers and lakes disappeared. Household use was restricted and ornamental water features were  switched off. Grand public buildings became less grand and park centerpieces turned into silent, weird looking stone bowls with bits of shower hosing protruding from them.

Coles Fountain, Melbourne: imagine how ugly without water (photo by Flickr user ngmorieson)

They said it was a permanent thing; wondered if we should tear down the structures and put something else instead, since climate change would guarantee we’d never have enough water for things as superfluous as decoration and the fountains and waterfalls would never run again. The state government produced incentives for new houses to be built with rainwater tanks to catch the non-existent rainwater, and I caught my Dad filling his with the garden hose so he could continue flushing his half-flush toilet. Dry was chic. We were staring down the barrel of a Tank Girl future and we’d have to adjust. It made the place look stricken and cheap, as though the very idea of using water for decoration belonged to a less enlightened era but we were stuck with the embarrassing evidence.

(It all ended with storms and massive flooding, but that’s another story.)

Back to Tokyo 2011. The lights are still gone, and like the Aussie water they’re saying it won’t be back. Buildings that once glittered with LEDs and more old-school neon have been revealed as ugly and boring. But ugly and boring don’t have that same impending-apocalypse feel of dry fountains, which seem to scream out that something is wrong. You don’t look at any building and think it it’s missing something if it isn’t covered in pretty lights. But an empty fountain is just that: empty. Its pipes and inner workings are naked and look like the carcass of some prey animal after the cheetahs and vultures have done their thing.

Yeah, this one is long gone

OK, but don’t fountains run on electricity too? Not just lights to make them pretty at night, but what about the pumps and filters that keep them going? Good point. And by now you’ve figured out what the next casualties of East Japan’s energy crisis are: the fountains here are gone too.

You can tell the ones that were switched off due to setsuden (power-saving measures), because they’ve been deemed ‘dangerous’ and marked as so with fluorescent safety barriers to prevent people going in (apparently they’re much safer with water). Like everything else connected to the setsuden, it’s done with great flourish and drama to indicate that we here in Tokyo are doing our bit as part of the national sacrifice. Like the escalators and moving walkways that no longer run, even though they’d still be quite useful without motion, they’re locked and barricaded to remind everyone this is all for a reason.

motionless travelator may not be walked on

(When we were in Nagasaki recently I still saw signs saying lights were dimmed to save power, despite Nagasaki being on a separate and incompatible power grid to the one experiencing hardship. You see the kind of thinking we’re dealing with here.)

That’s all another story too—this one is supposed to be about fountains. Water equals wellbeing. People will always pay extra for land and housing near a body of water whether it’s the ocean, a river or an artificial lake. Every major city in the world except Johannesburg is situated near some large volume of water. That’s why we build fountains, of course, they appeal to our bodies which are over 50% water and just looking at one is instantly refreshing. Looking at an empty one has the exact opposite effect. Right outside the tower in J.G. Ballard’s story of opulence-turned-savage, High Rise, there’s an empty ornamental lake on the first page.

Danger: economic decline past this point

I’ve started to notice other abandoned fountains around, too. That is, ones that weren’t running even before the Fukushima mess. Some of them were so out of use I didn’t even realize they’d been fountains until I brushed away some sticks to reveal the dusty old pipes and nozzles. When were they deactivated? One of them was in a park that had just undergone extensive renovation, so the human traffic was still there. Are fountains so expensive to run that they can only operate when society is at its zenith?

Many of the old fountains have a distinctive 80s look and feel; around the time the Western media gushed over Japan the way they gush over China now. The tiles, polished granite and tacky penguins all look like they belong in that bubble-era. For all I know they ran for years after the bubble burst. No-one I ask can remember. But at some stage, the water just quietly stopped flowing and Japan moved into its next economic phase: either a recession or less-flashy steadiness, depending on who you believe. But with all the remaining fountains gone things look pretty screwed at the moment, for sure.

Most people probably don't even know this was a fountain

Perhaps when the next boom arrives (those Aussie floods made me an optimist) they can turn all those 80s fountains back on with gusto, saying it was just part of setsuden all along and now everything’s OK again. Water will spring from the most unexpected places and so too will capital (damn, that’s why they call it liquidity). Escalators will zoom at double speed, neon will shine and buildings can hide behind LED screens once again. Truth be told, I’d probably be willing to give up my air conditioner altogether if we could get some fountains going again. I’d be more willing to walk around outside, anyway.

Don't get excited... the water is from a rainstorm