March 2011

Wishing Japan a Little Bit of the Luck of the Irish     March 17, 2011

There are no words to describe the events of the last week. Catastrophic, devastating, terrifying, unbelievable–none of them do justice to the horror and the tragedy that has befallen eastern Japan. The story began on the afternoon of Friday, March 11, 2011. Sitting before my computer, my swivel chair suddenly seemed to be swaying on its own. The initial shaking here in Sapporo was very subdued.

Could it be a quake? I ran downstairs, grabbed the earthquake emergency bag by the entrance, opened the door to make sure exit was possible, and then watched the electric lines outside sway for a very long time. Once it was over and everything seemed secure, I did what everyone in Japan does next: turn on the TV to check the magnitude and the location. This information is always immediately superimposed on the screen and if an earthquake is of magnitude six or more, regular TV programming is immediately suspended for a special report.

This one was a magnitude 8.8 (later upgraded to 9) megaquake located off the coast of Sendai and the tsunami alert (a map of Japan bearing color-coded danger levels for all the coastlines) was already up on the screen and flashing furiously. From that moment on, everything would be pre- or post-3/11.

On March 11, 2011, Japanese TV as we know it–the raucous variety shows, humdrum dramas and endless commercials–disappeared. Within seconds of the quake, the network anchors were at their desks. Remaining calm as huge aftershocks left lighting fixtures swinging and furniture crashing about them, they just donned their crash helmets and got on with the job of informing and calming the rest of us. They have continued to do so non-stop through almost 500 aftershocks and a nuclear power plant crisis of a scale the world has never seen before.

Japan’s TV reporters and newscasters deserve our thanks and appreciation for a job well done under the most trying of conditions, reporting tirelessly and valiantly from this surreal new world. Although by today, as the announcers nod at experts who attempt to reassure the public the radiation has not yet reached dangerous levels, they are getting more difficult to watch. The Japanese media’s consideration for those searching for family and friends and those trapped in the 30km restricted area around Fukushima has kept them conservative about death toll figures and low-key on radiation fears. The coverage of overseas media such as the BBC has often offered a franker perspective and clearer overview.

All of the networks, foreign and domestic, have been sorely challenged to present a full picture of the devastation so widespread and profound that they (and we) can barely comprehend the dimensions of it, let alone absorb it all. At one point on Sunday afternoon, a flip of the channels showed NHK in Aomori, TBS in Fukushima, NTV talking about radiation exposure, TV Asahi reporting from Miyagi and the Fuji network on the scene in Iwate.  It was hard to keep track of just where they were as all the pictures seemed like almost identical scenes of total destruction. Any one of those locations could have kept the networks busy for weeks. Now all the disaster sites have to compete with the on-going aftershocks and imminent earthquake warning alerts for a few minutes of air time.  It was Sunday before reporters got to many tsunami sites to highlight the human side of the disaster and by Monday the logistics of Kanto’s rolling blackouts and train stoppages moved centerstage.

All of this is further complicated by the intermittent bleeps sounded when aftershock announcements are superimposed on the screen and the more urgent BEEPS and red letter logos of the “imminent earthquake warning” alerts. This adds a whole new layer of anxiety to the viewing experience. The latter bulletins are part of a high tech system introduced in 2007 (and now occasionally malfunctioning with false alarms) that pinpoints on our TV screens regions where a big quake is expected to hit within the next minute. As the warning beeps, the anchors urge us to turn off the gas and take shelter under the nearest table. So unnerving are these alerts that when one was announced for the Nagano and Tokai region Monday afternoon, I too dived under the table although I was a 1,000 km away and would not have felt a thing. It was at about this point that I realized I might need to do some therapeutic blogging or at least turn off the TV now and then.

One aspect of the TV coverage in this surreal post 3/11 world was depressingly similar to previous disaster coverage from the old pre-3/11 world. This was the frustration and despair shown by anchors trying to pick through the government and nuclear power industry’s often confusing and conflicting pronouncements. It left viewers and reporters alike unsure of what to believe and what to question and it was all eerily reminiscent of the September 30, 1999 JCO criticality incident at Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Anyone who remembered how that event unfolded might have been wise to temporarily self-evacuate on March 11. The JCO case had left the networks in a similar situation pleading for information, clarity and instructions to pass on to the public with none forthcoming. On September 30, 1999, the national broadcaster NHK first flashed news of a nuclear incident at Tokai-mura across our screens at 12:50 p.m. At 3 p.m., they cancelled the bilingual broadcast of “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman” to air a JCO press conference. But as the company spokespersons faltered, NHK inexplicably whisked viewers away to a travelogue on the beauty of the northern Nagano mountains. It was almost midnight before the dean of news anchor, the late Tetsuya Chikushi, interviewed an outspoken expert willing to talk about the ominous implications of criticality. By that time, it appeared a number of people might already have been exposed to radiation and many more were getting ready to line up for a geiger counter test. The lack of clear answers made this past weekend feel like 1999 all over again—on a far more profound and unnerving scale. And this time, instead of a cheery travelogue from Nagano, a series of damaging separate inland earthquakes had put northern Nagano too on the disaster list.

Continuous 24-hour TV coverage continued through Sunday evening. NHK even cancelled their premiere Sunday night taiga samurai drama for the first time since the death of Emperor Showa in 1989.  By Monday morning, commercials began slipping back into the lineup. Monta Mino, who holds a Guinness World Record for hosting the most hours of live TV in a week (22 hours and 15 seconds), was back in his usual TBS morning spot and inspiring messages from the nation’s sports favorites were being aired to console the evacuees and a nation who suddenly found the baseball, soccer and figure skating seasons delayed.

Of all the evacuee scenes we’ve seen this past week one sticks out in my mind most clearly. It was of a debris-strewn coastal area where a line of shellshocked evacuees walking through the destruction were passed by a disoriented, mudcaked Labrador retriever. Each evacuee almost unconsciously paused to pat him on the head as he sniffed past.  The Lab was providing a fleeting moment of consolation. Perhaps it was at that moment that the earthquake threw me off my axis too and, after years of resistance, I finally agreed to my husband’s pleas to get a family dog–but only a middle-aged one willing to lead a canine couch potato life.

From Saturday night, TV Tokyo, the little network that gave the world Pokemon and which lacks the news-gathering resources of its larger competitors, moved back to regular programming. It was perhaps a blessing for those with young children to distract or those whose heads just could not absorb any more of the shocking coverage of what was fast becoming an epic drama.

TBS made a very wise choice in running a special elongated edition of their regular “Sunday Morning” news magazine show on March 13. Hosted for decades by the affable and trusted emcee Hiroshi Sekiguchi, the program’s roundtable format and commentators’ franker coverage was respite from the endless flow of news bulletins. It was “Sunday Morning” with Sekiguchi. Reassuringly, it gave some semblance of order to a world that had changed beyond imagining overnight. But as the new week began, reassurance was in short supply.

As the evacuation centers filled and the nuclear crisis grew, so did the AC (Advertising Council of Japan) public service announcements. These quiet, calming ads have been running, often one right after another, on most of the networks marketing the values of mutual assistance, patience and compassion for others. In one ad, the narrator says: “Noone can see your thoughts (omoi) but anyone can see and understand omiyari (thoughtfulness)” as a young student is shown helping an elderly lady up a flight of stairs.

As the overseas media has remarked repeatedly, the stoic reserve of the Japanese (perhaps mixed with a little disbelief and shellshock) has been impressive to watch this week as they stand calmly in long lines and quietly make the best of things. All of these qualities of endurance are especially strong in the Tohoku region, long known to be a particularly gaman-zuyoi (patient and perserverant) region in a country known for being pretty gaman-zuyoi. For TV viewers who want to better understand the origins of this, one word comes to mind “Oshin,” a serialized NHK television drama about the difficult but persevering life of one tough, determined woman from Yamagata Prefecture in the Tohoku region. Wildly popular when it aired back in 1983 (ratings over 50%) and broadcast in over 50 countries since then, it just doesn’t get stale even after a quarter of a century.

It’s one of the best Japanese TV series of all time in terms of content, acting and contribution to the general public’s understanding of 20th century people’s history. The story, based on a composite of many real-life stories, followed heroine Oshin as she lived through every major event in 20th century Japanese history, from the peasant rebellions of the north to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and WWII, with perseverence, hard work and survival skills. There is no doubt her descendants will now do the same if a nuclear disaster created by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tokyo officialdom can be averted.

As the week wore on and the nuclear crisis escalated, TV was filled with endless evacuation center breadlines and explanations on how to avoid ingesting radiation.

Meanwhile, the nuclear situation flipflopped from hour to hour, randomly getting one’s hopes up one moment and squashing them again the next. It was getting increasingly difficult to watch TV, even moreso after a strong magnitude 6 quake hit near Mt. Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture on March 15. Overseas media tended to treat this as just another aftershock but for locals it stirred unsettling fears of the great earthquake long-predicted for that region and long-overdue.

Despite my relatively safer distance from the danger zone and the endless AC commercials, watching the pain and torment of others was starting to bring on a constant TV-induced state of anxiety. It was time to cut back on the television but one can’t just turn it off and possibly miss something urgent.  TV has been the only constant for most of the nation throughout this disaster.  And so, I headed for the satellite TV weather channel (Ch. 254 on SkyPerfecTV) which plays easy-listening background music all day and allows one to keep track of the way the wind is blowing. It will also provide the red warning alert if a new quake is imminent.

By Wednesday, March 16, quite a few regular programs were back on Japanese terrestrial TV. This is probably to help distract people and keep them calm and to give the newsreaders a short break from their tireless efforts. However, one of the ubiquitous pre-recorded cooking programs showing a woman gushing oishii (yummy, yummy) over a tasty steak did seem in poor taste. The private networks will need to be more discerning about what they air for a while. NHK’s morning show was more realistically showing clever survival skills like how to fashion a simple cooking tripod out of three empty cans. (Just cut off the top thirds, line them with aluminum foil and fill them with salad oil, then balance these little makeshift heating units on top of the bottom two-thirds of each can and light them).

Make no mistake, if Japan can just get this nuclear threat under control, this nation of Oshins will quickly pick itself up, dust itself off and get back to the work of being Japan. And for now, turning off the TV and blogging is proving to be much more therapeutic than I thought it would be.

The Little Guys   March 20, 2011

Much has been written about the patience and stoic calm residents of Japan have been showing during this triple disaster. I’ve chosen to use “residents” here to include the two million foreign residents of Japan (or about 1.5 percent of the total population), most of whom are still here. The mass exodus from Japan has been chiefly centered on the business and diplomatic community in Tokyo and those living near the site.  Even those who are leaving have not given up on Japan, thousands have stood in line at the Immigration Office to obtain a reentry permit that will allow them back in when things calm down. Bili and Xiannu, the recently arrived giant pandas from China, are staying too, although their Ueno Zoo public debut has been postponed indefinitely.

Yes, residents of Japan have been amazingly patient but we are only human and there is one thing TV viewers just can’t take anymore–the AC (Advertising Council) public service announcements. AC Japan and the private TV networks have been inundated with complaints that the ads are “shitsukoi” (annoying, troublesome, too persistent) and their broadcast time should be cut back drastically.

They used to appear as fillers just a few times a day, lost amid the myriad commercials that are broadcast on any normal day. After March 11, most major advertisers temporarily withdrew their ads to show deference to the victims and the non-stop disaster coverage was occasionally interspersed with a collection of about ten AC public service announcements (promoting cancer and stroke screening and encouraging mutual respect, consideration and communication). They were rather calming for a day or so, but, as regular programming has gradually returned, the networks are now running swarms of them to fill the commercial gaps, sometimes repeating the same one over two or three times in 5 minutes, 15 times in an hour. Having already served their purpose, they’ve become downright irritating and counterproductive, especially for a population who already have their patience and mutual respect skills operating in overdrive.  Reports have it the ads will be replaced soon and it won’t be one moment too soon for most of us. Ah, for the normalcy of a good old-fashioned junk food or toilet bowl cleanser commercial!

Most of the TV networks have returned to regular programming at night but daytime TV is still the preserve of the talk shows which are devoting themselves to the kaleidescope of disasters–aftershocks, tsunami, radiation, evacuation center desperation. Take your pick. Pediatricians and psychologists are now recommending small children be kept away from the TV for a while as newspapers report doctors have begun seeing children acting out and fearful of being away from their parents’ side. It’s not just TV. The widespread aftershocks have been hard on everyone’s nerves too.

Sometimes the shows are sending mixed messages: Have supplies on hand but don’t hoard, be cautious about potential radioactivity but don’t panic. Where does one draw the line between stocking up and hoarding, caution and panic? One guest commentator on a Tokyo talk show was downplaying the physical health threat to those in the outer evacuation area but what about the threat to one’s mental health? This was juxtaposed with an interview with a woman in the 30 km evacuation zone area who said she would leave in a minute if she had any gas in her car. If all this were not enough, on Friday the popular NTV afternoon show “Information Live Miyaneya” was reminding viewers there is an over 80% chance of a damaging big Tokai area quake sometime in the next 30 years. “Let us deal with one disaster at a time, please” I muttered at the screen but, of course, that luxury no longer exists in Japan.   On Friday at 2:46 p.m., TV showed the one-week commemoration of the quake being observed as workers at various disaster sites paused to remember the event. Was it just one week ago? It feels we have been living in a time warp. Each day passes in no time and yet a week ago already seems like a year ago.


March is graduation season in Japan. The new school year starts with the coming of the  cherry blossoms in April. Many colleges in the Tokyo region have cancelled their graduation ceremonies this year while some elementary schools in the quake-devastated regions have made efforts to provide makeshift graduation events to help give the kids a sense of normalcy.   Friday, I took time off from the TV to attend my daughter’s college graduation here in Hokkaido, a rather somber affair that began and ended with prayers and pleas for the Tohoku earthquake victims. It was announced the college had confirmed the whereabouts of all 18 of its students from the Tohoku region and would soon be offering them tuition assistance if they need it. Other colleges here are doing the same while the Hokkaido government is allocating land for temporary housing and opening almost 2,000 public housing units to evacuees from the Tohoku region.

As the graduates gathered for group photos, it was hard not to wonder what this new post-3/11 world held in store for the class of 2011. Would the Fukushima disaster spur a move towards a future of younger, more progressive leadership and alternative energy options or would things fall back into the pre-3/11 mode? Would the government be able to wean itself from dependence on nuclear power?

Those questioning the use of nuclear power will have to grow much more vocal and assertive if they want change. The nation’s nuclear energy industry is demonstrating it still hasn’t completely fathomed the lessons of Fukushima. After the March 15, magnitude 6 quake near Mt. Fuji in the Shizuoka region, which sent chills down the spines of those worrying about that long-predicted Tokai area mega-quake, the Chubu Electric Power Company didn’t even bother to shut down its nearby Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant reactors, although by March 16, the mayor of nearby Ise City too was calling for a shutdown. Hamaoka has long been considered the nation’s most dangerous plant by antinuclear activists since it’s build on the juncture of two tectonic plates.  The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata, the world’s largest, was built on what was thought to have been an inactive faultline. It had to close for almost two years after a 2007 earthquake there, although several reactors were restarted in 2009. Now the Fukushima plant is destroyed. It is beginning to look like Mother Nature has decided to shut them all down herself.

Japan has long had an antinuclear power movement but up to now the power industry has been successful at marginalizing them as worrywarts and prophets of doom and gloom. They have had little access to the media while the nuclear power companies are large, powerful and lavish TV advertisers. Japan has 55 nuclear power plants, or over 10 percent of the world total, and it also averages 1,500 measurable earthquakes a year. 55 x 1500 is not a very reassuring equation. As we have seen this week in Japan, it is a recipe for disaster.

One of the more poignant images on our screens this week were Tokyo fire department officials. One, who had to issue the order to send his crews into the danger zone, spoke with tears in his eyes as he discussed the amount of radiation these brave firefighters were exposed to. But how about a non-nuclear future where we don’t have to ask people to be heroes?  For now, the debate on how TEPCO and Tokyo officialdom got the nation into this disaster has been put on hold as everyone gazes in awe at the brave heroes in the 10 km evacuation zone fighting to regain control of the plant.

On Friday, March 18, another Tokyo fire department spokesperson in charge of the operation gave a press conference that was much clearer and inspired more confidence than TEPCO’s tepid briefings have.  He explained: the firefighters had been busy fighting over 50 fires in Tokyo on 3/11 and then on 3/12… It looked like he was about to say something else of note but NHK suddenly cut the transmission off there and went back to the same old studio commentators. It will take months for the full story to be told.

One interesting aside to this drama is that except for the hardworking Kan cabinet members, Japan’s over 700 national Diet members (the local equivalent of senators and representatives) have been pretty much absent from our TV screens since 3/11. Nor have I seen many of the TEPCO top brass on television.

It is the little guys—the firefighters and on-site power plant crews, the construction workers, truckers and others—who are pulling together to get Japan through this disaster. Some things are similar all over the world.

The New Normal      March 31, 2011

Twenty days after Japan’s magnitude 9 megaquake, it’s hard not to feel like Alice in Wonderland toppling down a nuclear rabbit hole. In this new updated version of the classic story, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has the role of the Hatter inviting us to his strange tea party where time has pretty much frozen and he finds himself often admitting he has no answers to his own riddles. We’ve arrived in a surreal new world where information and explanations are unclear, events seem to change quicker than the wind direction and where the Hatter and the March Hare, played by the government, offer no clear way out of the hole. Then comes the nagging realization that the public is not just Alice but also the dormouse who has been asleep in the corner during the prelude to this frightening affair.

Is it three weeks already since this nightmare began? Occasionally memory takes me back to that afternoon. What stands out is how long the swaying continued, as if to clearly delineate the point where the old world changed into this strange new world. (Those who want to experience what that moment was like can find NHK’s March 11, 2:46 p.m. broadcast here (Not recommended for those prone to motion sickness.) It took over two weeks for the initial shock to fade. It has been replaced by exhaustion and a profound sense of sadness that deepens every time a new tragic story is told. There’s the 24-year old bride-to-be at a city office in Tohoku who lost her own life as she read out the tsunami warning announcement over and over again on the public address system for the benefit of others. There are the heartbreaking stories of people stuck in the Fukushima evacuation zones and the heroic workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant who are sleeping on the floor and getting only two sparse meals a day. TEPCO will face many questions on its handling of this disaster but the government too will need to answer for the indecisive way in which the 20 and 30 km evacuation areas around the plant have been managed. Ah, poor Fukushima. Ironically, in Japanese, “fuku” means luck, good fortune, wealth and “shima” (island).

After a while, empathy evolves into emotional exhaustion that encourages forgetfulness and makes it hard to concentrate. And that’s way up here in Sapporo (800 km north of Tokyo, 600 km north of Fukushima) on the island of Hokkaido, where there have been very few aftershocks and the jet stream usually carries winds east before they can reach Hokkaido). It’s hard to even imagine the stress people are now under in eastern Japan. In Sapporo, except for a decrease in tourists, life is pretty much back to normal—the new normal. Perhaps part of the exhaustion stems from the fact we are all involuntarily enrolled in a TV crash course in nuclear physics. We’re forced to learn the difference between milli and micro sieverts, cesium and plutonium, meltdowns and criticality. We’re tasked with doing our own calculations on how much radiation is too much and our own personal assessments of what to eat and drink, what to worry about and when just to turn off the TV and get on with life. Every TV channel has nuclear experts and professors on hand to help us with the course but they qualify their statements carefully (“from what we can tell at present,” “not dangerous at current levels,” “no immediate threat,” blahblahblah). It is hard to know who to believe or whose opinion to trust, especially since noone seems willing to spell out just what a worst case scenario (or a best case scenario, for that matter) would be.

Japanese is a language in which much is inferred and much is left unsaid. But as a nation of budding amateur physicists, how are we supposed to know what to read between the lines of all of this? We are left to our own imaginations and self-styled Internet “experts” whose opinions range from serious to sensational. Every once in a while, I catch myself taking seriously the postings of far off pundits with little knowledge of Japan. Perhaps it’s time to turn off the Internet too. But then I would miss the worldwide cesium and radioactive iodine measurements at and the English-language domestic air and water measurements from MEXT (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology-Japan) at I would trust this latter source more if they knew how to spell “detectable.” “Not ditectable” just does not inspire confidence. When everything settles down, MEXT really should split into MECS and MST. After this disaster, Science and Technology definitely deserves its own Ministry.

The new TV normal is a surreal mish mash of regular programming (animation, high school baseball, detective dramas and variety) interspersed with tsunami survivor reports and nuclear disaster updates. Every newscast seems to be repetition of the same vague bad news on Fukushima. After a while, it becomes like background noise droning on in the distance and one yearns for an alternative. Usually switching to an engrossing Korean drama works for a little while. Last night, even that form of escape was interrupted by a little yellow shaking house logo in the upper lefthand corner of the screen, indicating an earthquake was in progress somewhere. It turned out to be a magnitude three in Iwate. There have been more than 600 aftershocks since March 11. A Tokyo friend tells me she doesn’t even bother to stand up anymore unless it feels like a five.

The new normal also means constantly witnessing things one could never have imagined a month ago like the rolling blackouts in Tokyo that have left Japan’s impeccably punctual trains limping along, running erratically at best. Or the news the Emperor has ordered the bath at the staff quarters of his summer villa in Nasu, Tochigi Pref. opened for the use of quake victims. Then, there’s the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka which closes its doors today. In its post-hotel reincarnation, it will serve as temporary housing for Fukushima evacuees. And who could have imagined that Osaka would become Japan’s new birthing center? It’s been reported atleast 150 women from Tokyo and other points in eastern Japan have already arrived in Osaka to have their babies there due to radiation fears and the news Tokyo parents have been advised not to give babies under one year old tap water. Some TV commentators are even beginning to suggest maybe the IAEA not TEPCO should be in charge of the Fukushima plant.

In other “new normal” news, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo is buzzing again. For awhile, they were keeping facilities open all night for overworked journalists from around the world. Previously, many major news organizations had moved their correspondents out of Japan to China because nothing much ever happens in Japan anymore. Hah! to that one. And in one of the stranger ironies, there is the case of the nuclear powered supercarrier the USS George Washington based at Yokosuka Naval Air Base near Tokyo. After a fire on the ship in 2008, there was a demonstration by 13,000 antinuclear activists demanding the ship not be stationed there. Their efforts failed to move it but, on March 21, the nuclear powered ship sailed away itself as a precautionary measure to make sure it was out of range of any potential radiation contamination from Fukushima.

Even Mickey Mouse has been inconvenienced by all this. Tokyo Disneyland in Chiba Pref. is closed until further notice because of power shortages and the train situation. The mouse’s house appears to be okay but people in nearby residential districts built on reclaimed land watched the ground crack, sink and ooze sand as the earth beneath them liquified. It would have been a big quake story were it not for the tsunami and Fukushima and the blackouts and….And still life goes on and an incredible amount of energy is stirring not just in the earth but among the residents of Japan. A week after the earthquake and tsunami, magazines were already filled with articles on how the disaster may also provide opportunities to make long-needed changes such as overcoming bureaucratic inertia and old style politics and exploring alternative energy sources. Could the megaquake become almost a “Black Ships” moment? (This term refers to the arrival of the “black ships” of U.S. Admiral Matthew Perry in 1853 and the subsequent opening of Japan after 200 years of Edo Period isolation). It was a time that saw the rise of visionaries like Sakamoto Ryoma, who helped overthrow the shogunate and bring about the Meiji Restoration (before his assassination at the age of 33). Could this tumultous 2011 event energize a new generation too? Yes, we’re in the rabbit hole now but will some innovative 21st century visionaries arise to find a way out of the hole and lead the country on to better things and a more promising new normal?  Let’s hope so.

Copyright 2011