July 2011

Score Two for Twitter (and one for Pet Sweat)   July 1, 2011

As Fukushima residents battle a multitude of problems, some are finding an able ally in the power of tweeting. The June 28 issue of AERA magazine reported on two examples of Twitter at work in the disaster zone.

The first concerned a 29-year old Iitate Village man who made the four-hour drive from Fukushima Prefecture to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) in Chiba Prefecture for a Whole Body Counter (WBC) exam to see how much radiation he had absorbed internally. Iitate Village was a very late addition to the government’s evacuation zone and the young man had stayed behind even longer to help his father take care of the family business. So, he drove to Chiba at the end of May to find out how much those decisions had affected his health. The institute is a research center that does not usually provide such testing to the public but it has made an exception in response to the post-March 11 demand from Fukushima residents. (The Institute also provides a telephone consultation service at Tel. 043-290-4003, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

After the test, the doctor told the young man not to worry as his exposure was under the limit set by the government.  The man had no idea what that limit was and  pressed the doctor for his actual count. The physician refused to give it to him saying it was NIRS policy.  Shocked and disgusted, the man went home and turned to Twitter. He tweeted that the Institute’s refusal to give him access to his own personal health data made him feel like a marmot.  That tweet set off a storm of protest calls to NIRS and now they have revised their policy. And so, one small victory is born. Still, the original tweeter has been told it will be necessary for him to make that 4-hour drive south to Chiba again if he wants to receive his own test results.

The second example of Twitter in action concerned a Fukushima City mother. Her children’s school was keeping all the windows closed even on sultry days to cut down on radiation exposure. When she came to pick the kids up after school, they were often drenched in sweat. She inquired why the classrooms didn’t at least have some fans installed and was told the school was still deciding which type to get.  She and another mother went home and tweeted their concerns. They soon heard from an Ibaraki Prefecture man who collected money from his coworkers, bought 36 fans and drove them up to Fukushima himself after work. Within a few days, 48 fans had been delivered. When all else fails, there’s always Twitter.

It also pays to think ahead and be prepared. With aftershocks still occurring and urban summer blackouts a possibility, all sorts of emergency evacuation gear and summer heat survival goods are hitting the market for those who want to be ready for anything.  A recent daytime TV show made a good case for using a fishing vest when fleeing instead of the usual emergency backpack, which could unnecessarily weigh one down especially if evacuating with children and old people. Fishing vests have lots of pockets that could be filled with a radio, batteries, light, leather gloves, extra medicines, rain parka and other useful items and they can be hung by the door and quickly grabbed on the way out.

The July 8 issue of Shukan Asahi magazine reported on the gear petowners might want to have on hand for evacuating with four-legged friends although they were warned the most important thing is that the pet has been trained to interact calmly with other people and animals and not bark so incessantly they will be thrown out of an evacuation center. The magazine advises pet owners to make sure to prepare  a collar and any special foods or medicines their pet needs. One might want to buy carrying cases for smaller dogs and cats, protective rainwear and cool mats and neck bandanas to protect pets from heat stroke. The maker of the energy drink Pocari Sweat has also put a canine version of the health drink on the market. It’s called Pet Sweat.

As of July 1, Tokyo residents have been asked to cut back on their electricity use by 15 per cent this summer to avoid power shortages and this is producing some surprising changes. If you live long enough, you’re liable to see just about anything,” my Uncle Walter used to say and Japan is proving that adage true this year. Things are changing.  Some for the worse, some too slowly, but a few things are changing for the better. It is clear this sultry summer of 2011 that the March 11 quake knocked many old institutions, customs and ironclad rules of behavior off their axis too.

Who would have thought the day would come when it was acceptable for bureaucrats to go to the office in an Aloha shirt and many workers would get 22-day vacations? Why, we’ll be passing up France soon.  Some major companies are even introducing Daylight Savings Time (known in Japan as “summer time”) although the government has yet to make the change nationwide. Companies are also pushing their workers out the door as soon as regular working hours are over. Salarymen, who once regularly strolled in expecting dinner at ten p.m. or later, are now heading straight home to eat and spend time with their families, all in the name of energy-saving. I even heard one TV talk show the other night stressing what a waste of electricity it was for wives to be cooking dinner twice. Now that’s revolutionary thinking!

Yesterday, it was reported Tokyo University is contemplating shifting to an academic calendar that begins in September instead of the traditional April cherry blossom-viewing season. If Todai does it,  other universities will soon follow. It makes quite a lot of sense on many levels, especially cutting down on energy use in the hot summer months. Things that make sense are suddenly under consideration everywhere. The often-heard refrain: “This is Japan and this is how things have always been done” is no longer the stock right answer. People are getting used to adapting to the unimaginable and clever ideas are popping up everywhere.

Even vending machines are changing.  Coca Cola has introduced some where you can include a 10 yen or 100 yen donation to the Japan Red Cross while you’re buying that carbonated drink or canned green tea.  And if your drink doesn’t seem quite as icy cold as usual, it’s probably not. From July 1, their drink vending machines were reprogrammed to use less energy during peak hours. In other vending machine innovations, some now have little grass plots on top to keep them from getting so hot they eat up even more energy, while others have solar panels on top that can power them for up to two days.   The TV shopping shows are also hopping on the energy-saving bandwagon. Their latest offering is an easy-to-assemble mosquito net tent that can accommodate two futon mattresses comfortably. This way, one can turn off the air conditioner and open the windows at night.

Yes, things are changing everywhere. Why two nights ago, NHK’s chief newscaster even did an English interview with Lady Gaga on the usually sedate 9 p.m. news.  It all just boggles the brain it does, boggles the brain.

What If and What Next?   July 15, 2011

The finale of the popular TBS medical drama “Jin,” about a modernday brain surgeon hurled back in time to mid-19th century Japan, aired June 26, 2011 in Japan. The explanation for some of the more implausible aspects of this sci-fi script was that some events had taken place in parallel universes. This got me thinking about post-March 11 Japan and what might have happened had the events of that horrible month taken place in a parallel universe where the media was not on such amicable terms with the powers-that-be.

What if the networks had been more aggressive in researching and reporting the Fukushima story? What if they had given more time to antinuclear commentators and less time to academic and nuclear industry specialists? Most of these “experts” have conveniently disappeared back into the woodwork but in March they convincingly played down the direr scenarios to a public who really wanted to believe in the myths of nuclear safety, food safety and the idea that radiation fears could be combatted with gaman (perseverance) and super human amounts of the tenacious ganbari spirit.

As President Obama urged Americans to clear out of an 80 km area around Fukushima, what if the local networks had joined in urging a massive evacuation of Japanese too?  What if television had emphasized the similarities with Chernobyl and the dangers of cesium and plutonium rather than focusing on iodine 131 measurements? What if the networks had stressed there was not enough equipment and facilities to test all foodstuffs instead of encouraging people to think it was patriotic to show one’s concern by eating food from the Fukushima region (food people thought was pronounced safe)?

If the media had done this, would children still be attending schools in highly irradiated areas and playing baseball and soccer on fields whose radiation levels have to be measured before the game? Would people in other prefectures still be worrying whether they had been exposed to cesium-tainted meat from Fukushima?  Had people been impressed with the urgency of the situation then, would they be better off now?

Of course, it’s useless to second guess what things might have been like in a better, parallel universe. All we can do is cope with the one we have and it is impressive to see so many people trying so hard to do just that. This week 36 prefectures signed on to the megasolar plan being promoted by Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son. The first experimental facility will be built right here in Hokkaido. Also, this week, over twenty smaller groups came together to form the National Network of Parents to Protect Children from Radiation. People are uniting in unusual ways to help each other in this strange new world. At the website, http://hakatte.jp/ those without geiger counters can request radiation readings for specific locations. Then, those who do have them will go out, take the measurements for you and report back on-line. With one startling revelation after another, public opinion across a wide spectrum has definitely turned against nuclear energy in the last month. The July 17 issue of Sunday Mainichi even had an interesting article on how datsu genpatsu (the desire to abandon nuclear power) was becoming an issue on which many on both Japan’s far left and far right are now in agreement.

Four months after March 11, people persevere on and television in Japan continues to be a mishmash of mixed messages. There’s a distinct feeling that all the really interesting dramas are going on behind-the-scenes in the parallel universes of Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki, where the politicians and bureaucrats hang out, and it is hard to know what to believe and what to doubt.  So when a show comes along that seems to make sense of things, it’s a rare treat. The July 14 edition of TV Asahi’s 8 a.m. “Morning Bird” was such a program. Their special guest was Shigeaki Koga, 55, a high-ranking METI (Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry) official who was on a career fast track until he decided to break ranks and write a book. Nihon Chusu no Hokai(Japan: Collapse at the Core of Power) is a bestseller on amazon.co.jp but Koga has hardly had time to celebrate his literary success. He is now being pushed out the METI door and has been asked by his superiors to resign, preferably immediately.

Koga gave “Morning Bird” an excellent explanation of how Japan’s confusing electricity system works, and people are rightly confused. Heatstroke emergencies have skyrocketed in the Kanto region where residents have been asked by Toden (Tokyo Electric Co.) to turn down their air conditioners and cut back their electricity use by 15 percent this summer.  Yet in a July 13 TV Asahi interview, the new Toden president said he was considering taking Tokyo’s excess electricity and sending it to western Japan to help deal with shortages there. Viewers were left to wonder what excess he was talking about?

Koga explained how Japan’s big electric companies monopolize power generation and transmission unlike the U.S. where more transmission companies are involved, spurring competition and lower prices. Japan’s big electric companies also can use their considerable power to make life difficult for small solar and wind energy producers and to influence the business world and local and national politicians.   Right after the Fukushima disaster, there was a moment when Koga thought the nuclear industry was finished in Japan. But in the four months since, the industry has proven so powerful it has been able to turn things around and he feels things are again moving in the industry’s favor.  To emphasize this point, “Morning Bird” presenter Toru Tamakawa related a story about Prime Minister Kan’s surprise announcement of the closure of Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant on a Friday night. According to Tamakawa, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano supposedly commented at the time: if you wait until Monday morning to announce it, the pronuclear forces would have two days to try to get the policy turned around again.

Koga was asked about the thinking inside METI on reform of the electric power industry. He said that the bureaucrats were not prepared with plans for a major policy change and that such a change would have a negative impact on their own personal plans. He claims many top bureaucrats have their future amakudari (post-retirement career) plans plotted out and breaking up the electric industry monopoly would mess with those plans. Koga felt the view inside METI was that their future is tied to Toden. Since the prime minister is the one strongly pushing for change and he will eventually have to resign, he felt the view was that if they wait Kan out, things would go back to the old normal.  Asked about the argument that without nuclear power constant levels of electricity could not be guaranteed and blackouts could occur, Koga countered that  if the electric companies can’t manage this, how can they be trusted to manage nuclear power? Koga also pointed to the nuclear industry’s support from academia and some segments of the mass media, who depend on advertising revenues from the industry.

By trying to move Japan away from nuclear power, Koga thought PM Kan was moving in the right direction but that he will have a tough fight on his hands as he does not have enough support or a strong enough staff to overcome those holding him back. Despite the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nightmare, it seems the nuclear power industry is still amazingly powerful. Anyone know a good parallel universe they can recommend?

Copyright 2011