April 2011


Language of the times   April 7, 2011

Japan has always been a delicate balancing act. It’s a land of 127 million people, 108 active volcanoes (over half of which have erupted in the last 150 years), innumerable faultlines and 54 nuclear power plants. For decades, they have all tried to coexist in a space about the size of Germany while precariously balancing on the juncture of four tectonic plates. It’s a tight fit and a tough balancing act even under the best of circumstances. Did the overconfident TEPCO really think it could outmanuever Mother Nature forever?

It gets harder and harder to write about post 3/11 Japan, harder to keep track of things, harder to make sense of anything. It’s a dizzying emotional roller coaster with dizzy being the operative word. People are flocking to ear, nose and throat clinics complaining of dizziness and the feeling of experiencing an earthquake even when there is none. Doctors claim it is a short-term condition similar to motion sickness brought on by the quakes and probably exacerbated by stress. There have been over 900 aftershocks since March 11. They’re all neatly chronicled at http://www.japanquakemap.com/. On the emotional roller coaster this week, the prevailing emotion is anger and a little irritation that  baby boomers like myself, who never got past biology in high school, now have to challenge our ageing, fast-waning brain cells with continually evolving TV crash courses on nuclear physics. The anger comes from the lack of speedy detailed information, leadership and direction being provided to the persevering public. There are also increasing revelations of TEPCO’s and the government’s performance before and throughout this catastrophe. The weekly magazines have started coming out with behind-the-scenes stories now, the stuff the regular media won’t touch.

The over 300 workers at the plant site are making superhuman efforts against the unpredictable monster unleashed at Fukushima. It’s said 21 of them have already been exposed to over 100 millisieverts of radiation, although for this special occasion the maximum allowable has been raised to a frightening 250 millisieverts. Some workers probably don’t know how much radiation they have absorbed since, at times, there have not been enough dosimeters for everyone. The media has been using the terminology of war to characterize “the battle” to regain control of the plant and it’s hard not to feel these poor men are being asked to be modernday kamikaze pilots for the cause. There was one bit of good news this past weekend–the influx of international help including a team from the French company Areva and 155 members of the United States’ 450-member CBIRF (Chemical, Biological Incident Response Force). It is only a tinge of hope. With thousands of tons of irradiated water  discharged into the ocean, an option that was deemed the best of an array of bad options, it’s hard to be too optimistic; but one’s gotta hope.

The chaos of the last month has given birth to a new language of the times. Three phrases have monopolized the conversation: jishu handan, tadachi ni and soteigai. The first, jishu handan (personal choice, individual judgement), came to the fore when it was announced early on that those living in the zone between 20 and 30 km from the plant could make their own decisions about evacuation. Now, people all over Japan face their own daily decisions about how far away is safe and what to eat and drink, although the government has instructed some foods be removed from the market. The second word that keeps creeping into every TV conversation on radiation is tadachi ni. This means “immediately, right away” but is used in its negative form as in negligible levels of radiation that pose “no immediate danger or health threat.”  There may be no immediate danger but what about the cumulative effect should the crisis drag on for months as it probably will, although specifics on the expected duration are also scarce. How much risk does the public face in the weeks and months to come? I’ve read studies that predict as many as 100,000 new cancers in the region 100 to 200 km from the plant in the next ten years. Whether one cares to believe such studies or not, of course, is a matter of jishu handan. Even if the report is true, how many people will be able to attribute their illness directly to Fukushima? Radiation is an insidious, invisible foe who may wait 20 or 30 years before taking its revenge. Cancer happens. How could one unequivocably prove TEPCO the source?

Watching the TV news, it’s hard not to feel the Japanese public is being spoonfed this disaster slowly in small bites. While international warnings have been clear for quite awhile, the language barrier and domestic news coverage has insulated the average Japanese from outside opinion. Some  Japanese nuclear experts have become almost cavalier about the radiation, like the professor on the TV Asahi “Sunday Scramble” show last week who made an analogy between the dangers of plutonium and food poisoning. One has to listen carefully to catch pertinent fleeting remarks: a reporter noting the evacuation area eventually might have to be widened, a doctor offering his opinion, almost as an aside,  that it might be best for all children up to age 15, not just babies, to avoid the slightly contaminated water. Tuesday, for the first time, a concerned TV Asahi announcer showed a graphic of the dispersion of contaminants over Tokyo, but not in color as the Internet sites do,  in black and white. Having seen the color projections and done some English language reading, I’ve changed my shopping patterns to give a very wide berth to foods from certain regions in the wind paths from Fukushima. Many Japanese, in part encouraged by heartfelt TV celebrity pleas to support the Fukushima farmers and bargain basement prices, have not. Goodhearted consumers have been  shown on TV  buying up Fukushima products still on the market. Whether this is wise or not is a matter of jishu handan; although, just this morning, TV news is finally reporting significant levels of cesium in various Fukushima locations. When faced with such an ecological and health threat, it is easy to see why the public has wanted to believe the rosier, comforting “no immediate threat” view. That view has been so widely disseminated that there seems to be real surprise among many people that the nation’s tourism industry (even in faroff spots like Hokkaido and western Japan) has dried up overnight. It will take time for the public to process just was has happened to them and absorb the social and economic implications of the disaster beyond the obvious blackouts and shortages. But then, what happens?

The third phrase is soteigai (beyond expectations, unforeseeable). One hears it on TV all the time, usually coming from the mouths of TEPCO officials and nuclear experts who echo the refrain that it was unforeseeable that a disaster of this magnitude could occur. Was it really? TEPCO might have been wearing blinders but Japan has had an active Citizens Nuclear Information Center watching and chronicling the problems of the nuclear industry since 1975. There have been warnings and voices of concern for years but they’ve been unable to get the public’s full attention. The nuclear power industry has been enabled by segments of academia, the media (keen for their advertising dollars), and a public willing  to believe  the myths of the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Quite a few still believe. On April 10, there will be local and gubenatorial elections around Japan. In Hokkaido and Tokyo, some candidates have proposed curbing nuclear power but they are not leading in the pre-election polls. CNN reported on a small demonstration at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo recently but I did not see that on local television. Nor did I see the news TEPCO execs were entertaining media folks when the quake occurred. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U16DMRUpiOA&NR=1. I do remember seeing some rare TV film footage of a TEPCO vice president at a Fukushima evacuees center giving those huddled on the floor a little halfhearted bow. He was definitely in need of a refresher course in proper bowing. After ruining the lives and livelihoods of so many people, it would have been more appropriate for the company top brass to all offer the ultimate dogeza apology bow (down on their hands and knees, head to the ground).

Japan is used to living with  natural disasters. Japanese is the language  that gave the world the words typhoon and tsunami. People are used to dealing with their losses–no matter how horrible–by picking up the pieces, rebuilding and getting on with life on this precarious balance beam called Japan. But this time, the man-made TEPCO disaster is rewriting all the old rules and presenting unimaginable new dilemmas. For solace, people are turning to celebrities and to the animal world. Over the weekend, 70,000 people visited Ueno Zoo to see the new giant pandas and the pop idol factory Johnny’s Jimusho gathered 390,000 people in three days for their “Marching J” fundraising activities. Young golfing superstar Ryo Ishikawa tees off in the Masters tournament today and has promised to donate his entire year’s earnings to tsunami relief. Some entertainers have been making unpublicized supply runs into the 20 and 30 km evacuation zones around Fukushima. Ironically, many in the sports and entertainment world have been showing the kind of inspiring leadership, action, concern and direction that has been so lacking from the government.

And so goes another week in this modernday version of Alice in Wonderland. Amazon has just delivered copies of Professional Blogging for Dummies and WordPress for Dummies to the rabbit hole.  Time to turn off the TV. I’ve got a whole lot of reading to do.

The Dormouse Awakens  April 14, 2011

In this week’s episode of Alice in Nuclear Wonderland, the Hatter (TEPCO) and the March Hare (the government) continue dithering. Alice (the public) frets and worries, but with the utmost decorum. Meanwhile, the dormouse (the Japanese media), which the Hatter and the Hare had been using for a pillow, has finally awakened from its long slumber and is scurrying about like a prairie dog, popping its head out of the hole at unexpected moments. We can only hope our Hatter and March Hare don’t take a page from the Lewis Carroll original and stick the dormouse’s head in a teapot because we very much need him now.

The emotional roller coaster this week has moved along to “spooked” and “awed.”

*SPOOKED by the results of a study by Kyoto and Hiroshima University professors that has detected radiation 400 times normal in some areas outside the 30 km perimeter of the Fukushima plant. The professors have been testing for eight radioactive elements, the government has released data on only two.

*SPOOKED too that Mother Nature, who is starting to act as erratically as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, took it upon herself to spoil the solemn one month commemoration of the March 11 quake on Monday by vindictively tossing another magnitude 7 quake Fukushima’s way. It caused damage, raised tsunami alerts and cut off electricity to the Fukushima plant, interrupting the cooling process for fifty tense minutes. That quake was the kickoff to a new spate of increasingly shallower quakes which carried over into Tuesday. The overall aftershock count has passed the 1,000 mark with 411 of them over magnitude five as of Wednesday. That evening the TBS early evening news also reported if Japan were to follow the Sumatra model we might even expect another magnitude eight within a few months. All of this does not make for relaxed TV viewing.  Couldn’t even watch a full 15 minutes of the new NHK morning soap opera “Ohi-sama” on Tuesday as they had to cut it off midway for a live report on an exceptionally big aftershock in Chiba, soon followed by a five plus quake in Nagano too. Some days it’s like having a constant front row seat at a horrifying scifi movie.

Maybe Mother Nature didn’t like the commemorative program shown on the April 11 edition of the afternoon talk show Information Live Miyaneya. To encourage the tsunami victims, a long parade of before and after shots of other regions of Japan that had suffered severe earthquake and tsunami damage were shown, emphasizing how they had endured, survived and rebuilt.  That’s all very inspiring but it may also inspire false hope in some Fukushima victims. Those cases were Mother Nature’s work. The current man-made Level 7 nuclear disaster is not going away anytime soon.  In a recent media survey, disaster victims were asked what they now need. The majority of Fukushima Prefecture respondents wanted more information. It is ironic that the message of minimal danger that was so well propagated during March is now backfiring on the government. Many of those in the newly proposed mandatory evacuation areas, who have been given one month to move, are balking at the prospect. Thus far denied straightforward information and without clear guidance from the government, they have been allowed to deny reality and harbor dreams of returning home to their pre-3/11 world.

*AWED at how the media dormouse has finally awakened, found its voice and is exercising it vocal chords rather loudly at times despite the chiding of the Hare and Hatter.  Beyond the mere chronicling of events, the media has a job to do and the networks are finally beginning to do it with the aid of some outspoken commentators.  Their performance is not yet consistent and it can sometimes be downright cringe-inducing but overall they are trying and gradually improving within the constraints of their situation. The prime minister and the government have yet to sit the nation down for a fireside chat or heartfelt national address that spells out all the challenges the nation faces and a clear vision of how to meet them. Nor has the government given the public a clear timetable or prognosis on what they can expect the best or worst outcomes to be.  The news this morning that a large Chiba Prefecture agricultural concern, that has been withholding vegetables from the market voluntarily, has now pronounced its produce safe and put it back on the market underscores how much Japan now needs clearly enforceable rules, direction and vision from the highest levels of government.

Like much of Japan, the media has been pretty much proceeding at its own discretion.  Noone in the media wants to be the one to incite panic or dash hopes and so they tread slowly and carefully as they try to lead the public towards a clearer understanding of the new realities. It’s a tricky underground tunnel to traverse in these confusing times when time itself, as it was at the Hatter’s tea party, feels like it’s standing still. March 10 was a decade ago and March 11 still seems like only yesterday. Yet time is passing very quickly nonetheless, weeks swirling past in what feels like seconds. Among the revelations the dormouse has popped up with this past week:

*For the last two weeks, the two best documentary shows Hodo Tokushu (Saturdays) from TBS and Ban Kisha from NTV (Sundays)  have been probing deeper and airing the work of brave freelance journalists who have gone into the exclusion zone around Fukushima. They’ve come out with chilling geiger counter readings and film of the poor animals left behind, the dogs, cows and horses wandering the streets. Really heartbreaking stuff.

In the “stick his head in the teapot” department, the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai reports in its April 23 issue that Noriyuki Mizuno, an in-house commentator for the national broadcaster NHK, came under pressure and criticism from nuclear and electrical power interests after stating on air that the March 12 hydrogen explosion at Fukushima was  “a very grave situation” (kore wa hijoni shinkoku na jitai de aru.)  The article claims he was not seen on air for a while after that although he did reappear in a March 27 NHK special noting “both good and bad things have to be reported.” And yet, we still have not heard any clear discussion on the mainstream TV networks of  the possible worst “worst case” scenarios that are readily available in English publications. The Japanese weekly magazines such as Shukan Gendai did begin to translate some of those scenarios last week but the weeklies have a reputation for being sensationalist and gossipy. It is easy for the general public to ignore their headlines and not take them seriously. But, in reality, the weeklies bridge the gap between trashy tabloid fare and well researched stories. It is to the weeklies that mainstream reporters often go when they can’t get their reports into their own publications. If one learns how to read them, the weeklies can be a very good source of information. Other interesting sources of information include  the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan special No. 1 Shimbun report; and for nuclear explanations, Arnie Gundersen at http://fairewinds.com/updates at least presents the bad news in a calm, grandfatherly voice.

The week’s real media eyeopener for me came on the three-hour TV Tackle special hosted by Beat Takeshi on TV Asahi on April 11. Beat is the dean of Japanese comedians and host of numerous variety shows. His real name is Takeshi Kitano and he is best known abroad as a movie director . TV Tackle discusses politics and current social issues each week with a panel of politicians and TV professors, academics who seem to divide their time between their classrooms and the worlds of entertainment and politics. They started out with a demand for government vision and a New Deal type plan. Then they moved to diagrams showing how many committees are tasked with overseeing nuclear power but, in fact, how it was all a maze of malfunctioning bureaucracy. Kazuhiro Haraguchi, former Minister of Internal Affairs in the Kan government, called TEPCO a very highly guarded  (kimitsu) organization with which it was even hard for him to try to set up channels of communication.

The main topics were the Fukushima problem and revitalization of the tsunami-damaged regional economies. Noone came out and said it directly but, of course, the two topics are intricately interrelated. How can the government invest huge sums in jumpstarting the economy while Fukushima is spewing radiation in whatever direction the wind takes it. Indirectly, of course, the message got through. One of the guests was an elderly, warmhearted  innkeeper tearfully urging guests to return to her inn as it was safe and a good 100 km from the Fukushima plant. One of the program’s emcees  did gently mention to her that tourism all over Japan has felt the crunch since March 11, even places 600 or 1000 miles from the scene. In Hokkaido, Otaru and Niseko and other tourist spots have faced massive hotel cancellations and flights between Japan and South Korea and China have been temporarily cancelled for lack of business. Yesterday Sapporo Station, which is usually clogged with tourists pulling their suitcases along, was virtually deserted. Clearly, the whole country is feeling the effects of the man-made Fukushima disaster.

The most outspoken TV Tackle guest was Masayuki Fukuoka, a balding and usually quite jolly political science professor. He was just back from a trip to the disaster area, bearded, incensed and making an impassioned plea for Prime Minister Kan to be replaced so that things can be done to save the situation. Kan has been criticized for forming too many committees and taking too few direct actions. The discussion got so heated Beat quipped we’ll be back next week if they let us back on the air.

*AWED too this week by the power of music. Lady Gaga is coming to Japan to appear in the MTV Video Music Aid Japan concert, live from Makuhari Messe on June 25.  A special one-hour version will air on the network’s worldwide “MTV World Stage” program and be seen by millions around the world. Suntory has also been running some very soothing TV commercials with familiar celebrities combining to sing the Japanese version of the famous Kyu Sakamoto anthem Sukiyaki. (Sakamoto died in the 1985 crash of JAL flight 123, the deadliest crash in aviation history.) The original Japanese title is Ue o Muite Aruko which means “look to the heavens as you walk,” and the next line goes: “so your tears don’t fall to earth…”

Acceptance   April 21, 2011

The big news this week is that Tokyo Disneyland reopened April 15.  Ten thousand people lined up to get inside and who can blame them. After living six weeks of the Alice in Nuclear Wonderland nightmare, who wouldn’t want to make a beeline for Fantasyland and Tomorrowland?

This week, the emotional roller coaster jerks to a stop at a grudging “acceptance.”  It’s an acceptance that things have changed. They will continue to change in both predictable and unpredictable ways and we have to change with them. Maybe this newfound desire to embrace acceptance comes from reading the obituary of Walter Breuning of Montana who, at 114, was the world’s oldest man until he passed away on April 14. The article cited his 5-point secret for living a long life. Among the usual admonitions to eat little, work as long as you can and help others, his two key points were to: “embrace change even when the change slaps you in the face” and “accept death” as a part of life. Wise advice indeed.

Still, my newfound desire to be more accepting of change does not carry over into accepting the behavior of the Hatter (TEPCO) and the March Hare (government officialdom). They both have much to answer for past, present and future, and the dormouse (the media) needs to keep jolting them to attention. Their arrogant behavior still has the power to leave me seething especially after reading a Daily Yomiuri article explaining how pregnant women and young children are still trapped in the highly contaminated Iitate Village–not by lack of gasoline or places to go but by bureaucratic penny pinching and ridiculous rules that would split up evacuating families. The Hatter is fighting a wily radiation foe it has only minimal control over but the March Hare has created a second more sickening tragedy with its evacuation plan ineptitude. And now, we even have the Hare saying it is okay for  children to play in Fukushima Prefecture schoolyards as long as the radiation level in the air does not surpass 3.8 microsieverts per hour.  Most of the nuclear experts who spent so much time claiming things were at manageable levels have pretty much disappeared from our TV screens since the upgrading of Fukushima to a Level 7 nuclear disaster. One former nuclear industry expert who is still seen now and then has apologized and revealed that no one believed the myth of safety more than the nuclear industry itself. Being true believers, they did not spend much time contemplating what to do in a real disaster and it certainly shows in the evacuation/exclusion area mess.

There’s also the knowledge I’m not the only one having trouble with acceptance. The April 18 issue of the Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA had a very interesting article about  writer Kohei Muramatsu, whose blog (in Japanese) shot up from a few hundred clicks a day to 10,000 a day after he wrote a post pointing out it’s okay and only natural to be apprehensive, afraid and worried now. Rather, he noted, the over-optimism of those downplaying the danger is more unnatural such as the use of phrases like  genpatsu kowai kowai byo (nuclear fear syndrome) to taunt those willing to express their fear and apprehension. In a society where perseverance and doing one’s best (gaman and gambaru) are everything, behavior is constrained by fear of what others will think if one is perceived to be deserting the cause or unloyal for following one’s own natural inclination to be fearful. While people appear calm on the surface, there is concern but conformity keeps things orderly and keeps opinions that defy  generally accepted views from emerging.

Fear has caused tourists to desert Japan just as the country clearly realizes how much it needs the outside world.  Tourism is down 95 percent in some areas. Hotels are closing. Academic and medical conferences scheduled for distant locales like Kobe and the southern island of Kyushu, far from the disaster areas and where life goes on as usual,  have been cancelled. International art museums are hesitating to send their treasures to Japan for exhibitions.  Never have foreign visitors been so much in demand nor so scarce.

Muramatsu’s blog also mentioned  his concern for how people were being guided to think in certain approved ways. He couldn’t understand why AERA had been criticized for (and later apologized for) a March 21 magazine cover that showed a worker in a gas mask below the headine “Radiation is Coming.” The cover was considered provocative and fear-inducing but, Muramatsu noted, it was the nuclear disaster, not a magazine cover, that was increasing his anxiety.  This week’s AERA cover features a figure skater in a frilly pink outfit next to the headline “Nuclear Power and the Japanese.”

There’s acceptance this week too that I’ve lost interest in the technical side of the disaster. It’s spring. Even here in Hokkaido, we should have forsythia and cherry blossoms by next week. I’m eager to start new writing projects that do not include mention of milli and micro sieverts. I’ve gone as far as I can with the TV crash course in nuclear physics. Knowing the basics and most of the possible “worst case” scenarios, I don’t care to contemplate them anymore. There is not much else to do but pray Mother Nature does not try to upend the Hatter and the Hare’s sorry tea party again as they get on with the long process of containing the contamination.

I’ve also come to accept that we are most probably being “optimistically misled” (if not outright lied to) about many things including the radiation dangers, the length of time necessary for containment, and future prospects. So I change the channel or turn off the news when the publicists and experts come peddling their wares. “What a bunch of banana oil” as my own Uncle Walter would say.

The Ostriches of Fukushima  April 28, 2011

Almost every TV viewer in Japan has visited the Dash Mura farm. They just didn’t know where it was until April 24. That night, viewers discovered Dash Mura is in Namie Town, which sits in the Fukushima 20 km exclusion zone, and all its inhabitants had been evacuated. Dash Mura is the pet project of TOKIO, a five-man pop music group from the powerful Johnny’s Jimusho conglomerate. Filming life at the little farm has been an integral segment of TOKIO’s weekly variety show Za Tetsuwan Dash (Sundays, NTV, 7 p.m.) since the year 2000. Previously, viewers were told Dash Mura was somewhere in the Tohoku region but the exact location was not made public.  The idea was to create a farm not a tourist spot for pop idol fans and so it stayed anonymous until the TV program’s April 24 announcement.

The original premise of the show was for TOKIO to take an abandoned farmhouse, renovate it, grow crops, raise animals and learn the survival skills that had kept their Japanese ancestors going for centuries. The group’s members have visited Dash Mura on a regular basis for the last decade and the nation’s TV viewers have tagged along as TOKIO learned how to grow rice, make miso, pickles and pottery, dig a well and even thatch the roof, with the help of residents from neighboring towns and villages, most of whom are now Fukushima evacuees. The TV program produced a book, a website, and a working farm. For the nation at large, most of the small towns and villages of the Fukushima countryside are just names on a map but the acknowledgement that Dash Mura, a rustic, idyllic oasis for the nation’s TV viewers too, is one of them will bring it all closer to home.

The good news is that the animals on the Dash Mura farm were evacuated. The goats and sheep are now in Gunma Pref. and the dog has been taken in by a staff member. They have fared much better than most of the exclusion area farm animals who were left behind in the rush to evacuate. Some animal welfare groups did brave the radiation to try to save dogs and cats but, this week, the killing of the larger animals began. Nothing has me switching the TV dial quicker than film of those poor emaciated farm animals–the horses, cows, and, oh yes, let’s not forget the ostriches.

In the “they just don’t make irony better than this” department, the Yomiuri Shimbun on April 26 reported on the fate of 30 ostriches at a ranch in Okuma Town.  The rancher, a former Futaba town council member, got the idea to raise ostriches from a Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant PR campaign. In 2000, some ostriches were kept on the plant premises as mascots for a publicity campaign that compared the birds, which grow big although they need little feed, with nuclear power, which can generate a great deal of energy with just a little uranium. The rancher used his ostrich eggs to create cakes and cookies to sell as souvenirs. The  business was going well until the megaquake forced him to hastily evacuate with little more than the clothes on his back. When a relative was able to return for a quick visit on April 21, he found 15 ostriches already dead. The rancher is overwhelmed by the irony of it all.

The ostrich is an appropriate mascot symbol for TEPCO, which has long kept its head in the sand about the possibility of unimagineable disasters. On second thought,  on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl this week, perhaps the ostrich is an appropriate symbol for the whole world, which adapted to that disaster and then looked the other way and continued down the nuclear yellow brick road to Fukushima.  It does seem people in Japan are starting to wake up to the possibilities of other energy options now. Ironically, as some TV commentators have been pointing out, developing new and exportable energy technologies just might be one of the best ways to get the Japanese economy on track again.

This week, my  own exhausting emotional roller coaster ride has come to an end and I’m focused on watching Japan adapt, for better or worse, to the new normal. The current edition of Shukan Shincho magazine is offering tips on purchasing a geiger counter as well as detailed instructions for those who prefer to make their own geiger counter for household use. The other night I saw a TV report on one Fukushima Pref. park that has a sign out front detailing how much radiation one would absorb playing there for an hour.

According to Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency there were 174,343 evacuees as of April 21. Seven weeks into the crisis, many of them are still living on the cold floors of gyms, community halls, and schools throughout the region, with only simple cardboard box partitions for privacy. There are even 154 local residents still living on the floor of the gymnasium at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant in Miyagi Pref. It’s hard to imagine how people are coping, hard to fathom the extent of their loss and emotional distress, and the health threats they face. Radiation issues are getting the most attention but, in tsunami-devastated communities, there is also the danger of mold and asbestos-laden dust from the vast fields of debris. Many people have lost everything, but not quite everything. While their property was swallowed by the sea, their mortgages and car loans were not. They still owe money on property that no longer exists and will struggle to restart new lives burdened with the debts of their old lives. Just thinking about it all is daunting but, in a seismically-active land of 54 nuclear power plants, everyone could be just one earthquake away from finding themselves in a similar situation.

The public has been sympathetic and very generous. Over 171 billion yen in donations has been collected and there are so many volunteers, many are being turned away. Some entertainers and entrepreneurs have given over 1.2 million dollars each.  SMAP, another five guy pop group from Johnny’s Jimusho, alone gave almost 5 million dollars. Distribution of some of this money is set to begin this week but there are so many victims, initial payouts may be small. Those who lost a family member or whose homes were completely destroyed are expected to get only a little over 4,000 dollars to start. That doesn’t go very far in Japan where it can easily cost more than that to pay the upfront deposits to rent an apartment in Tokyo. TV has shown many evacuees who don’t want to leave their communities and others who are desperate to get out but can’t.

Many celebrities have given generously of their time. Tetsuya Watari and the actors from the Ishihara production company spent a week serving hot meals in one community, living like the evacuees and going without a bath for a week. Other visitors to the various evacuations sites have included: musicians and pop stars, actors and comedians, soccer players and the Sendai professional baseball team, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Australian prime minister bearing stuffed koala toys. They sing, sign autographs,  serve hot meals and cheer up the evacuees. It must be surreal for survivors to deal with the disaster one moment and then find themselves shaking hands with their favorite pop star or baseball player the next. So many celebrities and everyday people have made their way north to do what they could. And yet… if I were an evacuee…I would feel grateful to those who have come in, yet I wonder if I wouldn’t also feel: but couldn’t someone help get me out of here and into some housing instead?

It’s cherry blossom season in the Tohoku region and the TV news shows are filming the disaster regions’ most famous cherry blossom viewing spots for us since the locales are getting few visitors this year. It’s almost cherry blossom season in Sapporo too and the Golden Week of May holidays begins Friday. It’s time to put the computer, the magazines and the TV away and just enjoy. I feel like being an ostrich for a while too.

Copyright 2011