May 2011

Mickey Mouse to the Rescue?   May 14, 2011

Much has been written about the lack of vision and leadership in Japan since the March 11 megaquake and Fukushima disaster.  So in an attempt to keep this blog positive, I went in search of examples of inspiring leadership and found them in Masayoshi Son, Japan’s richest man, and Mickey Mouse.

But first, the best piece of news out of Japan this week was the announcement that Chubu Electric Power Company, after some initial grumbling, would begin shutting down (for at least two years) all the reactors at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant this weekend. Although the decision came at the request of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has also announced he now wants to steer Japan toward greener energy alternatives, TV commentator Shigeharu Aoyama has been appearing on various programs this week claiming the United States made Kan shutdown the Hamaoka plant because of its proximity to the American bases at Yokosuka, Atsugi and Yokota.

Who knows and who cares who took the initiative. It is a decision to be commended. The plant in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Pref. is built on a fault line near two tectonic plates that have regularly produced a magnitude eight earthquake every hundred years or so since the seventh century. The next big quake is already overdue and there’s an 87 percent chance of it occurring in the next 30 years.   Should a Fukushima style meltdown occur at Hamaoka, it would be the metropolises of Nagoya and Tokyo feeling the brunt of it and the main rail and highway lines between Tokyo and Osaka would be cut off leaving the main island of Honshu in chaos.  The only thing worse than the current Fukushima disaster would be to allow another one to happen. The governor of Shizuoka Prefecture welcomed the move as a brave decision on Kan’s part but the mayor of Omaezaki and some residents of the town have appeared on TV news shows still professing that they needed the plant for jobs and prosperity. After March 11, that’s an argument that’s hard to understand.

On May 10, the latest images coming out of the Fukushima evacuation centers, where people who have lost everything are still sleeping on gym floors, were of arthritic grannies in their 70s donning protective antiradiation suits and goggles for visits home and being told they could not eat or go to the toilet again until safely back in the decontamination center. Then they boarded buses for their first visit home since the March evacuations. As they disembarked, they were each given one 70 cm plastic bag and told they had two hours to collect their belongings. They faced the challenge of compressing all the most cherished possessions of their lives into one plastic garbage bag. Everything else had to be left behind. How could anyone watch that and still think Japan needs nuclear power?

Actually there are not nearly as many proponents of nuclear power on Japanese TV in May as there were in March. The anti-nuclear movement seems to be gaining ground although anti-nuclear demonstrations still don’t get much, if any, TV news time. Shareholders of many Japanese power companies have begun to demand the companies move away from nuclear power including over 200 shareholders of the Tohoku Electric Power Company who have submitted a motion to close the company’s nuclear plants. This is the company that serves Fukushima and the rest of the Tohoku region. Ironically, all the electricity from TEPCO’s Fukushima plant went to Tokyo. Fukushima was sacrificed to fulfill Tokyo’s energy needs.

Of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors, 42 will be out of operation by this summer. Some have been shutdown for routine inspections and maintenance. Regular inspections on others have been completed but wary local governors are balking at letting them start up again. The tide, ever so slowly, seems to be turning but it’s not turning quick enough to prevent the children of Fukushima from being put at unnecessary risk. However, an impressive act of conscience by Tokyo University professor Toshisho Kosako, an expert on radiation who was appointed by PM Kan on March 16 to advise on the crisis, has helped mobilize Fukushima parents to speak out more on the risks to which their children are being exposed.  At a the press conference on April 29,  Kosako resigned his position to protest the inconsistencies of the policies being implemented, especially the government’s decision that it is alright to let children use contaminated school playgrounds as long as the children are not exposed to radiation dosages exceeding 20 millisieverts a year. He broke down in tears as he announced he couldn’t in good conscience go along with this and certainly would not think dosages of that level were alright for his own children. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXwpU78h93Y

As the national holiday known as Kodomo no hi (Children’s Day) in Japan arrived May 5, the education ministry was still holding firm on its decision that it was alright to let Fukushima school children absorb adult size doses of radiation. The Fuji TV morning show Tokudane last week did a very good report on the threat children face by going to a park in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Pref., a town with a population of 60,000 located 56 km northwest of the Fukushima plant and well away from the 20 km exclusionary zone. The Tokudane reporter’s geiger counter registered seven microsieverts on the ground at the bottom of a sliding board in the park. The government is minimizing the risks and people, who don’t want to uproot their lives, want to believe.

I found one of the best descriptions of how this mentality can continue to exist in an inspiring interview with Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of Softbank, in the May 6-13 issue of Shukan Post magazine. It’s a must-read article that addresses all the main social issues the quake has created. It was written by Shinichi Sano who did a series profiling Son’s life in Shukan Post just before the quake. Son’s story reads like a novel. A poor, third-generation Korean resident of Japan born in Saga Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in 1957, he went to live with relatives in the United States for an education at age 16. He returned to make a fortune in the computer, Internet and mobile phone industries and became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1990. Today, he’s Japan’s richest man with a net worth, according to Forbes magazine, of 8.1 billion dollars. Since March 11, he has donated 120 million dollars to disaster relief and pledged his own future salary to help children orphaned by the quake.

In the interview, Son described his trip to Fukushima. He wore protective clothing and a mask and took the geiger counter he now carries. It registered 0.12 microsieverts when he left his home in Tokyo. Thirty minutes on the highway and it reached 0.3. The alarm started beeping so he reset it to 1 microsievert and 30 minutes later it rang out again. Next, he set it to 3 microsieverts but it still rang and his heartbeat quickened. But when he got to the evacuation center, noone was wearing a mask. Kids were playing outside and, beginning to feel embarassed and uncomfortable, he took off his mask and turned off his alarm. Five minutes later he began to think…wait a minute. Just because the radiation couldn’t be seen or felt didn’t mean it was not still there. It doesn’t mean we can let down our guard. It’s just that inability to see it that makes it all the more dangerous. He got goosebumps realizing how easy it is to begin to forget it’s still there.

Son traveled to Fukushima Prefecture to urge mandatory evacuations. He even organized some intiatives with governors in western Japan to offer refuge to some 300,000 people. The governor of Saga Prefecture alone was ready to welcome 30,000. It would mean free housing and access to baths, proper food, hospitals and schools. But surprisingly, he found people were not jumping at the offers. Out of concern for the people, especially children, Son says he felt powerless and ended up crying and hammering on desks in his talks with officials. Local leaders felt hampered by rules, compensation concerns and the wait for national leadership and instead of showing leadership and forcing people to leave for their own good, goodhearted people were being allowed to worry about feeding their cows or watering their fields. Thus, many of the people who provided the towns’ lifeline services felt compelled to stay too weighed down by age-old values of ninjo (emotional and moral obligations) and giri (debts of gratitude) and shigarami (the intricate web of bonds and customs that entangle tightknit communities). And so it ends up, says Son, that those who don’t leave are the weak and the nice guys. Noting Son was discriminated against as a child because of his Korean ethnicity, Sano asked him what he thought about the discrimination some Fukushima evacuees were now facing from other Japanese. He replied that if everyone had been quickly moved out at the first signs of trouble at Fukushima, the risk they would have to face this kind of discrimination would definitely have been minimized.

Although he says he was neutral on the topic before March 11, Son now thinks Japan no longer needs nuclear power. Like many he’s been critical of the government and TEPCO but he has put his feelings into action. Now believing its time to shift to solar and other cleaner energy technologies, he  recently announced plans to donate 10 billion yen (120 million dollars) of his own money and another 1 billion yen (12 million dollars) from his foundation to set up a research and development center for alternative energy options within the next few months. While lamenting the lack of leadership, he added though that the crisis had also shown a lot of good things. He praised  the way so many young people had volunteered to help in the disaster zones and said it was now time for knowledgeable people to stand up and change things.

Perhaps Son should also enlist Mickey Mouse in the effort for change. Mickey could certainly teach the Tokyo government a thing or two about emergency planning.  On March 11, some 70,000 people were at Tokyo Disneyland when the megaquake struck and commuter train shutdowns left 20,000 of them stuck at Mickey’s place overnight. While most Tokyoites huddled in any available space to rest or spent hours trying to walk home,  I remember reading somewhere about a man who said he enjoyed a good night’s sleep in a comfy Disneyland theater seat that night.  I’ve been wondering ever since what it was like to be at Disneyland as disaster struck and finally on May 8, Fuji TV’s Mr. Sunday show answered that question. They interviewed families who were there and had taken videos to prove it.  Lucky them.

Although 90 percent of the employees at Tokyo Disneyland are part-timers, training sessions on what to do in emergencies are held every two days so the staff were prepared. They also had been instructed to think for themselves and use any of the company property to aid guests in a disaster. So on that day, shop staff handed out their huge cache of plush stuffed animals to be used as head covers in case of falling debris during the six minute-long quake. The colorful Disneyland plastic bags were turned into children’s rainwear and all the tinned cookies and candies in the place were passed out to the hungry guests. Sleeping accommodation for the night were provided in the sturdiest buildings. In the morning,  staff mixed pre-cooked emergency rice rations with hot water and passed out packets of hot rice to the guests. Disneyland makes it a point to have enough rations on hand to feed 50,000 people for 3 or 4 days. No wonder people were lined up to get back in the day Tokyo Disneyland reopened.

Now that’s emergency planning prowess. Now there’s a guy you can trust. Mickey Mouse to the rescue! I wish he would come up north and help figure out how to close down Hokkaido’s Tomari Nuclear Power Plant for me. At just 80 km from the outskirts of Sapporo, it is way too close for comfort. Or, at least, maybe Mickey could help work out an evacuation plan for residents near the Tomari plant who, in an emergency, would have to leave over the area’s limited, narrow and treacherous-in-winter roads. Although to accomplish that feat, Mickey would need something far more magical and fantastic than the Electrical Parade.

The New Normal – Part II   May 28, 2011

Rental geiger counter, anyone? Get in line. It’s a booming business in Tokyo now with one company charging a rental fee of 7,500 yen a day. The devices are becoming particularly popular with young mothers who are wondering whether it’s safe to let their children play in the park. Most people would prefer to buy rather than rent, if they could find one. At many outlets, supplies have been sold out since March. Viewers learned all about geiger counters May 27 on Tokudane, the Fuji network’s weekday morning talk show. The program displayed examples of the numerous types currently on the market including Chinese and Russian imports and some watches with a built-in dosimeter function.Prices range from around 50,000 to 90,000 yen or more.

Tokudane reporter accompanied a mother and her two young children to a park over 200 km from Fukushima. She had decided to let them play there if the radiation level did not go over 0.2 microSv. What to do? It was 0.2 at the picnic table. The reporter then went to a park in Matsudo, Chiba Pref., also about 200 km south of Fukushima, with a college professor to measure varying levels of radiation at one location. The wooden park bench, which absorbs rain easily, registered 0.20 microSV, while the metal sliding board was just 0.08, the sandbox 0.15 and the grass 0.33.

A TV Asahi daytime program on May 25 showed a private kindergarten 60 km from Fukushima which registered  3.0 microSv per hour until local people removed the topsoil on the grounds themselves. It’s now 0.39. Daytime TV is the best place to keep up with how the 3/11 disasters have affected the average person. Nighttime TV news programs are preoccupied with the technical aspects of the battle to control the Fukushima plant and the jousting parliamentarians who seem to be glued to their Diet chairs. It’s daytime TV that looks at how the disasters are affecting everyday people in a world where the once unthinkable is quickly becoming the new normal.

Eleven weeks after March 11, Fukushima is as stable as any nuclear power plant, with three reactors in meltdown and a precarious spent fuel pool beside them, can be. Aftershocks finally have decreased to less than a half dozen a day. People are at last beginning to have time to sit, think and search for answers–answers to the questions of how we got here, where we go from here and just what radiation expert do we follow along the way. The big elephant in the room is the still unresolved puzzle of just how much radiation people are absorbing and how much is too much?

Do you think the radiation levels are a. relatively safe, b. dangerous, c. safe for the moment, d. bearable, e. intolerable, or f. unconscionable? Whatever your choice, there’s an expert out there somewhere to agree with you. In the new normal, one can pick the expert closest to one’s own views and try to ignore the rest. My current favorite is 84-year old Masaharu Okano, inventor of an ingenious radiation measuring device that when linked to computer and GPS creates colorful maps of radiation levels and hot spots. He was featured in the June 4 issue of Shukan Gendai and also appeared on a recent NHK documentary with Shinzo Kimura, 43, a radiation expert who used to work for the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. He quit after being ordered not to go to Fukushima to investigate. The pair took Okano’s equipment on a drive through Fukushima to produce some independent measurements. At Fukushima’s Watari Junior High, 60 km north of the plant, they measured 4.25 microSV on the playing field. This is close to the level in the still restricted exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Okano bemoans how few in the industry today have been trained to remember just how scarey radiation is.

When Prime Minister Naoto Kan arrived in France this week on the eve of the G-8 Summit, he found he was welcomed by newspaper reports that the French Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute (IRSN) were urging another 70,000 Fukushima Pref. residents living to the northwest of the plant be evacuated, including almost 9,500 children. I haven’t seen that reported in any Japanese news sources yet but the government has announced plans to do health checks on all 2 million Fukushima Pref. residents. And so, while government officials, nuclear experts and the increasingly apprehensive public continue to debate the issue, more young mothers turn to geiger counters for  peace of mind and a definitive real time count.  Without one, people are only guessing at their intake. The government measurements are mostly taken at heights of 3.5 to 18 meters above ground. This was quite appropriate back in the 1950s-1960s era of nuclear weapons testing but not now when ground level radiation can sometimes be as much as double the official measurement.

On the positive side, finally we are seeing some national outrage at the predicament of Fukushima children who, the Education Ministry first declared, could be allowed to absorb up to 20 millisieverts of radiation a year, a level that many experts both in Japan and  overseas have said is unconscionable. The daytime TV shows are devoting more time and energy to the topic and several hundred Fukushima parents descended on the Education Ministry to protest. On May 27, under pressure from the public and a group of Diet members who are also doctors, the ministry announced it would strive to aim for just 1 microSv exposure while at school and fork over money to remove top soil at schools that exceeded that amount.

The post 3/11 economy is struggling but some businesses are booming. One matchmaking service reports their business is up 30 percent since the quake. Fewer people want to be alone now. Mitsubishi Electric is creating a model housing project in Ofuna with smart grid technology. Meanwhile, real estate prices on luxury skyscraper apartments built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay are falling. There are bargains to be had for the fearless unconcerned about liquefication, dizzying, quake-induced swaying and blackouts that could leave one walking up to the 30th floor.  Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank, this week announced his company was taking the lead in a 19-prefecture solar power plant project extending from Hokkaido to Nagasaki with Softbank putting up 80 billion to cover most of the project’s cost. The May 28 issue of Shukan Gendai complained that Son has not yet handed over the 10 billion yen donation he pledged for Tohoku Earthquake disaster relief. The magazine speculated this could be because stocks dipped after he announced the pledge and he is waiting for them to pop back, or that perhaps it was just a grand PR gesture. Who knows the answer to that puzzle? But, okay, if we all get to speculate…my guess is that he is skeptical about where all the donations already collected have gone and is waiting to see what might be the best use for his cash.

The Japan Red Cross website reports that as of May 26 they have received 208.8 billion yen in donations and handed out just about a third of it. They have given almost 72.5 billion yen to 15 different prefectures. Fukushima Prefecture has received just 27.7 billion of this. The local authorities are supposed to pass the money out to those in need. Despite the obvious need everywhere, news reports claim various bureaucratic snags have kept many people from receiving any at all yet.  If I had 10 billion to donate, I think I might just go and hand it out myself rather than let it be sifted through several layers of bureaucracy.

The June 5 edition of Sunday Mainichi magazine has an article titled “Post 3/11: The New Common Sense on Money.” Among their discoveries:  more parents in Eastern Japan are considering cancer insurance policies for their children. A policy that would pay a million yen on diagnosis of the disease and 10,000 yen a day for in and out-patient care would cost only 800 yen a month for a newborn. It is not only radiation that is of concern but asbestos exposure in the tsunami zones. As for finances, the magazine quotes an anonymous banker who no longer recommends fixed deposits. He suggests people keep their cash readily available but not in the old “stash some cash in the dresser drawer” style. This proved highly unreliable on March 11. The Bank of Japan has collected 1,300,000,000 yen in muddied cash bills since then and it is estimated that several times that amount floated away. The magazine’s strongest advice was to minimize one’s loan exposure. Some working couples are facing the prospect of six loans–three for their lost home and cars and three more to replace them. The magazine warns especially against high interest/no collateral loans stressing the new iron rule of post-disaster common sense is to drastically minimize one’s loan burden. Every yen counts.

Magazines are full of hints on how people can conserve energy in the face of potential electricity shortages in what is expected to be a hotter than usual summer. And it will be hotter even if it is a “normal” summer because the Meteorological Agency has changed its forecasting system this year. Previously, according to the weather advisor on the TBS afternoon show Hiruobi, the agency had classified summers as cool, normal, hot or very hot using a set temperature criteria. This year, what was previously designated “normal” now will be classified as “cool” and what was classified “hot” will now be considered the new “normal.”

There is not a whole lot of emotional counseling available for the disaster evacuees or the general public but one clever official in the tsunami-devastated town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi Pref. has come up with a traditional form of therapy—senryu poetry. Senryu, a 17-syllable verse form similar to haiku, also emphasizes the present moment and shuns excessive detail. But instead of references to nature and/or seasonal events, the power of senryu comes from its ability to encapsulate the pathos, irony and inanity of human nature in everyday situations.  An oft-quoted example is a classic from the genre’s 18th century founder Senryu Karai:    Nabbing the thief/ I discover/ it’s my son. No topic is too great or too banal for senryu. The public is regularly invited to contribute to senryu collections on topics as varied as marriage, politics, and ramen.  Each year, a major plumbing fixtures company holds a Toilet Senryu competition and prints the best entries on rolls of toilet paper. Senryu is therapeutic poetry by and for the average person.

The June 3 issue of Shukan Post reports that since April 10, weekly senryu contests have been held in Minami Sanriku. The poems are read when people come to collect their twice daily rations. The best poems earn a prize and people smile and clap for the winners. They are determined not to be defeated by the devastation around them, laughing off their woes and increasing their sense of community at these gatherings.  This week’s blog ends with a few attempts at translation.

Who would have thought the day would ever come/when I’d step outside without make-up. 

The great tsunami washed away/even Kan’s manifesto.

All my dreams are buried/beneath that pile of rubble.

It tasted like a gourmet treat/that salted rice ball. 

My husband got a shock when the electricity came back on/me without make-up. 

I always keep her by my side/not my wife, my crash helmet. 

Our marital spats are interrupted constantly/by short intermissions called aftershocks.

Copyright 2011