Thursday, March 31, 2011

2 days in

The boys seem to like their new/substitute/temporary school (it's really hard to categorize anything these days) and are making friends and generally enjoying the enormous playground and all the space and freedom of movement that suburban living provides. I am finding it sorta nice myself. It's easy going. A bagel and cup of coffee at the Pelham Bakery on Fifth Ave. costs $1.80. I can find my favorite Burt's Bees lip balm at the local CVS for about a third of what I paid for one at the fancy international supermarket in Tokyo. And of course my parents and grandparents and brothers and a whole herd of nieces and nephews live in the area, so I am getting a major much-needed dose of extended family time. I am a rather lonely pedestrian on my walks through town and even to school, but that's ok.

Just received an email with the latest U.S. Department of State Travel Warning for Japan, dated March 31, 2011, which says that American citizens should "defer non-essential travel" to Tokyo and Yokohama (and surrounding regions) plus 15 of the country's prefectures. I guess it's not essential for me to go to Tokyo right now, even though BST is supposed to reopen on Monday (it will close again five days later for a previously scheduled two-week Easter break). But it is essential that I get back there eventually. Or is it? Today, the answer to that is yes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Japanese Exchange Students

Within hours of getting the boys into the local elementary school here, in this lovely suburb some 20 miles northeast of Manhattan where I grew up, and where we've been spending most of our days since the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear clusterf**k, I received a call from the the school's chief photog -- she wanted a picture of the new kids for an announcement she would hang in the hallway.

This is that shot.

Monday, March 28, 2011

17 days later

Boys start school tomorrow at Prospect Hill elementary, the same school I attended back when Lindsay Wagner was starring in a popular prime time TV show called The Bionic Woman. I am happy for them, because there are only so many unstructured days these kids can take before they turn feral. And as for home schooling, let's just say I have profound respect and admiration for those who can do it. (I can not.)

Meanwhile, I am trying to keep tabs on the situation back home. (Funny how "back home" now means Japan; technically, I am already "back home" living in the town where I grew up. Strange times.)

International Atomic Energy Agency
Director General's briefing: Fukushima Nuclear Accident
March 28, 2011, 14:30 UTC

"The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has still not been overcome and it will take some time to stabilize the reactors. For now, radioactivity in the environment, foodstuffs and water - including the sea - is a matter of concern in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant and beyond. Current levels indicate a need for further comprehensive monitoring."

Click here to read more of what the IAEA is saying this week, or go to the agency's website.

U.S. Embassy in Tokyo
Warden Message to U.S. Citizens
March 26, 2011

Availability of Potassium Iodide Tablets
"As a precautionary measure, the U.S. Embassy is continuing to make potassium iodide (KI) tablets available to private U.S. citizens who have not been able to obtain it from their physician, employer, or other sources. We do not a recommend that anyone should take KI at this time. There are risks associated with taking KI. It should only be taken on the advice of emergency management officials, public health officials or your doctor. For more information about KI, see this fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control, or contact your doctor."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

'Nightmare and Defiance'

Here's a beautifully written essay I read earlier today...

From Newsweek/The Daily Beast
March 28 and April 4, 2011 issue

Vulnerable, shaken Japan has attracted the sympathy of the world.
By Paul Theroux

All of it—the towns and cities tumbled flat in a torrent of mud and death—is appalling, and almost ungraspable. But, looking for a coherent image, anything to understand it better, I found an echo in the sight of besieged and brave figures, wearing white full-body jumpsuits and respirators among the sizzling reactors in the Fukushima nuclear plant at the devastated town of Okuma.

Called the “Fukushima 50,” they are standing fast and directing seawater onto the fuel in the process of meltdown, risking death. The New York Times reported, “That kind of response is not out of the normal for some workers in the nuclear energy sector.” Perhaps. But it is also a classic stance in Japanese iconography. The Last Stand of the Kusunoki Clan, a battle fought at Shijo Nawate in 1348, is one of the enduring images in Japanese iconography, occurring in many woodblock prints (by, among others, Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the 19th century and Ogata Gekko in the early 20th), the doomed warriors defying an immense shower of arrows.

These samurai who were defeated—their wounded leader committed suicide rather than be captured—are inspirational to the Japanese, representing courage and defiance, and the samurai spirit. So the Fukushima 50 are braving 250 millisieverts of radioactivity, five times the permissible dose, in the way the Kusunoki defied enemy arrows.

The popular notion of Japanese life is one of order, where tranquility is the ideal made into an aesthetic, whether in poetry, gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, or titupping geishas. Yet Japanese history, a chronicle of disasters both natural and man-made, helps us understand why it is also a culture of defiance. The Japanese know that they live precariously on these steep volcanic islands. Their iconic mountain, Fuji, is a volcano. Mount Asama in central Honshu has been erupting regularly for 1,500 years—the last time in 2009. Vulcanism, an aspect of their uniqueness, is celebrated; their sense of being offshore, apart, at risk—fires, earthquakes, floods, storms, as well as catastrophic bombings—is part of their culture, not as survivors but prevailing and making themselves better.

“We will rebuild,” Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said after the recent tragedy, and promised that the country would be stronger, improved in its preparedness against this sort of disaster. You might say he could hardly have promised anything else. Japan is almost without hinterland. Its population lives mainly on its coast. The mountains are for tunneling through, not residing on. And where there is open landscape, as in the low rolling hills of Hokkaido, it is thinly settled. From the carriage window, as the train travels north from Tokyo, through Sendai and the coastal towns of Minamisanriku, Kesennuma, Okuma, and others—the ones now swept away—the Japanese can be seen living in unusual urban density, the low, snug houses cheek by jowl, traversed by narrow lanes, as they have been throughout history. My sense is that they have been able to live closely together because of their elaborate good manners, mutual respect, self-sufficiency, and work ethic. A less polite society would require more space or higher fences or guard dogs.

More than most countries, Japan is one family, one language, one set of rules, believing in the greatness of its destiny and overcoming any obstacle to achieve it. This unifying metaphor encourages envy that is voiced in facile mockery (look no further than the belittling film Lost in Translation) depicting Japan as a farce of funny accents, where Western culture is mimicked as though in a funhouse mirror; or else robotic, unsmiling, a sniffy, xenophobic society of salarymen and whale slaughterers. “I thought that was the whole point of them,” a woman says in an Alan Bennett play, seeing a weepy Japanese man in an English cafĂ©, “that they didn’t cry.”

Drudges, overachievers in a well-oiled machine—that is the superficial first impression of the traveler. Certainly the surface reveals something of the inner state, but after a while one sees more similarities than differences, and a great deal to admire. Their national pride is so strong, it’s possible to go overboard in seeing Japan as a bastion of rituals. The fact is that it has an aging population and a low birthrate, and labor costs are so high that most of the traditional brands of electronics and cameras are outsourced to China. Far from feeling superior, the Japanese feel somewhat jinxed and vulnerable, hemmed in by social pressures and the high cost of living (for someone in Tokyo, it’s cheaper to go to Honolulu than Sapporo), and consequently always seeming to be living as though squinting against a high wind.

With this acute sense of limited land and few natural resources, and the hostility of nature, they have taken pains to put off the evil day by manipulating their weird geography, even if it means a disfigurement. The result makes the strange Japanese landscape even weirder: it is the most possessed-looking place imaginable, its awkward-seeming features ordered and buttressed, the human hand visible everywhere. The notion of control and containment, which dominates Japanese life, dominates the landscape. Rivers are cemented into place, embankments are tiers of concrete blocks; sidewalks and bridges exist in the most unlikely places. The 33-mile Seikan Tunnel that links Honshu to Hokkaido under the Tsugaru Strait is the world’s longest railway tunnel. The watchtowers and sea walls all over the coast reinforce the look of Japan as a fortress in the sea. It is, of course, an illusion.

“We’re in a state of defeat now,” the writer Haruki Murakami told me four years ago, long before this present crisis. He described how the bursting of the baburu keizei, the economic bubble, in 1991 and 1992 had left people dazed and, in many cases, bankrupt. As I wrote in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, this period of uncertainty was followed by two events in 1995 that shattered Japan’s notion of itself as solid and immutable: the earthquake in Kobe and the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway.

These events, Murakami said, were traumatic, as he described in his book Underground: “Before ’95, to get rich was everything. But hard work didn’t bring us to a better place. We found that money is not the answer. We had our goals. We achieved them, but the achievement didn’t bring us happiness.” It was Murakami’s view that the Japanese had lost their way. When I asked him what Japan’s goals were now, he answered, “Our goal is to be happy and proud. And we’re looking for a new goal.” He was optimistic that it would be found, because the Japanese wanted it. He said, “Japan’s people are its treasure.”

The Kobe earthquake accounted for about 6,500 lives, and the subway outrage by the Aum Shinrikyo cult killed 13 people. “Both were nightmarish eruptions beneath our feet—from underground,” Murakami wrote in his account of it. “Nightmarish” in this context is relative, because the world of horror that Murakami discussed with me one winter day in Tokyo four years ago seems trifling compared with the catastrophe that may have killed more than 25,000 people, wiped away whole towns, and, because of the damaged nuclear reactors, has poisoned and demoralized not just Japan but the wider world.

Japan was hammered by nuclear bombs, but you could argue—many have—that it was retribution for waging a war that no one else wanted. And many Japanese are realistic about that final curtain. Seeing me tearful in Nagasaki 30 years ago, my Japanese translator, Hiroyuki Agawa, a distinguished war historian, chuckled and said, “But if we’d had the H-bomb, we would have dropped it on you!”

The questions Murakami asked—what role? what goal?—have perhaps been answered. Vulnerable, shaken by the earthquake, flooded and massacred by the tsunami, poisoned by the damaged reactors, Japan is universally—and rightly—perceived as a victim and has attracted the sympathy of the world. Until now, Japan has never been pitied. To the outside world it seemed unknowable, smug in its secrecies, its cult of the samurai. Even after the Kobe earthquake it remained itself, not asking for help.

But now, in its reaching out, and in the generous way the world has responded, Japan has a human face—a wounded one, much like the rest of humanity in times of crisis. We are never more human than when we are afraid. But Elias Canetti wrote, “Once [fear] has been overcome, it turns into hope.” History has shown that Japan has a long memory, and that the kindness to it now will never be forgotten.

Theroux is the author, most recently, of The Tao of Travel to be published in May.

Click here to read this article online

Radiation - no biggie?

Below is an interesting article by Wade Allison, a nuclear and medical physicist at the University of Oxford, and author of Radiation and Reason (2009) and Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging (2006). It's posted on the BBC News website here.

Viewpoint: We Should Stop Running Away from Radiation
March 26, 2011

More than 10,000 people have died in the Japanese tsunami and the survivors are cold and hungry. But the media concentrate on nuclear radiation from which no-one has died - and is unlikely to.

Nuclear radiation at very high levels is dangerous, but the scale of concern that it evokes is misplaced. Nuclear technology cures countless cancer patients every day - and a radiation dose given for radiotherapy in hospital is no different in principle to a similar dose received in the environment.

What of Three Mile Island? There were no known deaths there.

And Chernobyl? The latest UN report published on 28 February confirms the known death toll - 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of child thyroid cancer - which would have been avoided if iodine tablets had been taken (as they have now in Japan). And in each case the numbers are minute compared with the 3,800 at Bhopal in 1984, who died as a result of a leak of chemicals from the Union Carbide pesticide.

So what of the radioactivity released at Fukushima? How does it compare with that at Chernobyl? Let's look at the measured count rates. The highest rate reported, at 1900 on 22 March, for any Japanese prefecture was 12 kBq per sq m (for the radioactive isotope of caesium, caesium-137). A map of Chernobyl in the UN report shows regions shaded according to rate, up to 3,700 kBq per sq m - areas with less than 37 kBq per sq m are not shaded at all. In round terms, this suggests that the radioactive fallout at Fukushima is less than 1% of that at Chernobyl.

The other important radioisotope in fallout is iodine, which can cause child thyroid cancer. This is only produced when the reactor is on and quickly decays once the reactor shuts down (it has a half life of eight days). The old fuel rods in storage at Fukushima, though radioactive, contain no iodine.

But at Chernobyl the full inventory of iodine and caesium was released in the initial explosion, so that at Fukushima any release of iodine should be much less than 1% of that at Chernobyl - with an effect reduced still further by iodine tablets.

Unfortunately, public authorities react by providing over-cautious guidance - and this simply escalates public concern.


On the 16th anniversary of Chernobyl, the Swedish radiation authorities, writing in the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, admitted over-reacting by setting the safety level too low and condemning 78% of all reindeer meat unnecessarily, and at great cost.

Unfortunately, the Japanese seem to be repeating the mistake. On 23 March they advised that children should not drink tap water in Tokyo, where an activity of 200 Bq per litre had been measured the day before. Let's put this in perspective. The natural radioactivity in every human body is 50 Bq per litre - 200 Bq per litre is really not going to do much harm.

In the Cold War era most people were led to believe that nuclear radiation presents a quite exceptional danger understood only by "eggheads" working in secret military establishments.

To cope with the friendly fire of such nuclear propaganda on the home front, ever tighter radiation regulations were enacted in order to keep all contact with radiation As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), as the principle became known.

This attempt at reassurance is the basis of international radiation safety regulations today, which suggest an upper limit for the general public of 1 mSv per year above natural levels.

This very low figure is not a danger level, rather it's a small addition to the levels found in nature - a British person is exposed to 2.7 mSv per year, on average. My book Radiation and Reason argues that a responsible danger level based on current science would be 100 mSv per month, with a lifelong limit of 5,000 mSv, not 1 mSv per year.

New attitude

People worry about radiation because they cannot feel it. However, nature has a solution - in recent years it has been found that living cells replace and mend themselves in various ways to recover from a dose of radiation.

These clever mechanisms kick in within hours and rarely fail, except when they are overloaded - as at Chernobyl, where most of the emergency workers who received a dose greater than 4,000 mSv over a few hours died within weeks.

However, patients receiving a course of radiotherapy usually get a dose of more than 20,000 mSv to vital healthy tissue close to the treated tumour. This tissue survives only because the treatment is spread over many days giving healthy cells time for repair or replacement.

In this way, many patients get to enjoy further rewarding years of life, even after many vital organs have received the equivalent of more than 20,000 years' dose at the above internationally recommended annual limit - which makes this limit unreasonable.

A sea-change is needed in our attitude to radiation, starting with education and public information.

Then fresh safety standards should be drawn up, based not on how radiation can be excluded from our lives, but on how much we can receive without harm - mindful of the other dangers that beset us, such as climate change and loss of electric power. Perhaps a new acronym is needed to guide radiation safety - how about As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS)?

Modern reactors are better designed than those at Fukushima - tomorrow's may be better still, but we should not wait. Radioactive waste is nasty but the quantity is small, especially if re-processed. Anyway, it is not the intractable problem that many suppose.

Some might ask whether I would accept it if it were buried 100 metres under my own house? My answer would be: "Yes, why not?" More generally, we should stop running away from radiation.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

on the stay-or-go conundrum

I left Tokyo for the U.S. 10 days ago, so the question for me is When do I go back??

After a week with us visiting family and friends in New York and Washington DC -- and, I hasten to add, working remotely and staying in touch with his colleagues in Tokyo -- my husband will be back in Japan on Monday. He is going back because he has a job there, whereas my job is with the kids, and their job is to go to school, and their school in Tokyo is still closed, due to "continuing problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the continuing number of large magnitude earthquakes and the uncertainty about what would happen in Tokyo if a major incident occurs at Fukushima, possibly combined with a large earthquake, during a time when we had the school full of students," according to the headmaster's March 25 letter to parents, posted on the BST website. Fair enough.

So am I being sensible? Yes. But I feel bad, maybe even a little bit ashamed. I want to show my support for a country that's been so good to us for the last three years. Staying away feels like the opposite.

My situation is further complicated by some family stuff going on at home, matters that are heartbreaking in completely unrelated ways, and for which I am glad to be around for, and that under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have been around for. So I am OK with our decision to be in New York for now.

That said, here's an essay I came across on Facebook (a friend posted a link to it). I don't know the writer personally, but I can totally relate...

Reflections on staying in Tokyo after 3/11
by Tito Poza on Friday, March 25, 2011 at 7:49pm

When disaster struck northern Japan two weeks ago, Tokyo suffered relatively little physical damage. Even so, the effect on life in Tokyo has been profound, and caused many foreign residents to decide to leave. I decided to stay; what follows are reflections on the circumstances and decision-making process that I and many others faced.

I've lived in Tokyo for twenty-two years, and I've never experienced an atmosphere quite like the current one. (Probably the closest was after the 1995 sarin gas attack.) There was the emotional shock of the earthquake, which though we were not at the epicenter was for most of us the strongest quake we'd ever felt. It wasn't enough to bring down buildings, but it was more than enough to make one nervous at the prospect of it happening again. Then, very soon, we were stunned again as we watched our TVs and saw the devastating tsunami hit, knowing that many lives had to have been lost. This would have been more than enough of an emotional blow, but then we soon found that there was severe damage at a nuclear power plant, and with it a serious threat of the spread of radiation. That's a lot to absorb in twenty-four hours.

We (non-Japanese living in Tokyo) then began to receive frightened e-mails from our friends and relatives back home, inquiring after our safety and urging us to consider returning. For some of us, these messages were concerned suggestions; for others, emotion-laden pressure. With all this happening, it doesn't surprise me at all that many people would seriously entertain the idea of leaving. In a sense, I feel that at that point the degree of actual danger to Tokyo was not what was driving many people to go, or consider going: as much or more, it was the emotional impact of what had happened. The death toll mounting, TEPCO crews scrambling to avert disaster... even though it hadn't happened in Tokyo, it hadn't been that far away. Tokyo didn't feel like the safe place it had been a few days ago, and the sudden inability to buy bottled water, toilet paper, and other basics of life only emphasized how many were feeling that way. Most of us had never seen so many empty store shelves in our lives. Another jarring change, another feeling of the rug being pulled out from under our secure lives.

If for no other reason, the e-mails and Facebook messages from our loved ones forced us to at least consider the possibility of leaving, even if it was a thought we quickly discarded. Those of us who stayed had various reasons for doing so. Jobs, friends, and loved ones who are here. Feelings of debt and connection to Japan. Not wanting to leave when things got tough. Tasks not yet finished. A rational feeling that the level of danger didn't warrant leaving. Many others, no doubt. But it can be tough to fly in the face of winds blowing so hard in the other direction. More than one person expressed to me that despite having made a well-considered, rational decision not to leave, they later had doubts, mostly inspired by the sheer number of people clogging the Narita and Haneda departure lounges; a feeling of, what makes them wrong and me right? It's a very natural feeling, especially since even though expert opinion is that Tokyo is in no real danger, we cannot prove this. Also, in many cases the people leaving are ones we like, respect, and care about; we don't want to think ill of them, so it isn't so easy to dismiss their actions casually.

So, even though most all of us are confident that we made the right decision, we are in the middle of what can feel like a whirlwind, what with all that has happened and still is happening. We've been buffeted by these events and the atmosphere; even though we're trying to keep it at bay, fear is contagious, and fighting it takes effort. We do research, to convince others (and ourselves) that we've made the right choice. We reach out to each other for support. We think seriously about what's important to us, which is something we don't usually have to do. We avoid sensational news sources and gossip-mongers. We try to approach the always uncertain future with confidence. A friend said that he felt that the decision to stay was a defining moment in his life, which makes perfect sense to me. Making the decision to stay in the face of the enormous pressure of this situation isn't easy, and the harder something is to do, the more impact it has. And one feels bad saying that we have it hard, because those up north have it so much harder; I've talked to more than a few who've had that thought. It's true; we are quite lucky to have what we have, and we know that. But I've talked to enough of us in the past two weeks to know that a lot of us are feeling this stress; this is our reality, we feel the way we feel. So it feels like a good time to take inventory, to reflect on what brought us to the decision we made.

As I write this, two weeks after the disaster, we know that life in Tokyo may not be like it was for quite some time. No one can say when supermarkets will be fully stocked again. Scheduled blackouts in the Tokyo suburbs continue, and may for the foreseeable future. With a significant portion of Japan's electricity production gone, large shortfalls are forecast for the hot and humid summer months. And of course the Fukushima nuclear plants still have not been brought under control, and even if one discounts the radiation threat to Tokyo, this fact will certainly unnerve many. More foreign residents may leave, for no other reason than that they may feel the stress of these circumstances makes Tokyo an unpleasant place to live right now. Or those who had entertained vague thoughts of leaving for unrelated reasons but had not done so may now look at leaving in a new light. Even though I still have no intention of leaving, this feels very understandable: if something important to us changes, we react to that change. A 25% salary cut will cause us to re-evaluate remaining in our job. There is a 'new normal' settling over Tokyo, and inertia will keep many people here, but as with the decision not to leave in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, we will be asking ourselves why we want to stay, and as with everything we do, that will say something about who we are. Every moment, I feel, is a defining moment.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I love this country

Residents in Yamamoto in Miyagi Prefecture, relaxed in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter for tsunami and earthquake victims.
Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press

The New York Times
March 25, 2011
Newly Homeless in Japan Re-Establish Order Amid Chaos
By Michael Wines

KIKUZENTAKATA, Japan — Koji Yamaguchi, a 76-year-old survivor of the tsunami that all but eradicated this town on March 11, was unavailable for interviews. He was out walking his dog.

Which would be unsurprising, were Mr. Yamaguchi not an evacuee himself, living on a 9-by-9-foot grass mat in a junior high school gymnasium here with 1,000 other people.

To an outsider, much is striking about Japan’s response to two weeks of serial disasters: the stoicism and self-sacrifice; the quiet bravery in the face of tragedy that seems almost woven into the national character. Just as striking, however, is that evacuees here live in a place that can kennel your dog, charge your cellphone, fix your dentures and even provide that nonnegotiable necessity of Japanese life, a steamy soak in a hot tub of water.

There is a free laundry service, too, although they are still working out clothes-drying kinks.

Just two weeks after this nation’s greatest catastrophe in decades, the citizens at Takada Junior High School No. 1, this town’s largest evacuee center, have managed to fashion a microcosm of the spotlessly organized and efficient Japan they so recently knew.

Theirs is a city where a hand sanitizer sits on every table; where face masks, which Japanese wear the way other people wear sunglasses, are dispensed by the box. It is a place where you do not just trade your muddy shoes for slippers at the front door, but also shed the slippers at the gymnasium door lest you carry a mote of dust from the hallways into the living areas.

“It’s hard to gather these people to live together here,” Tsutomu Nakai, the soft-spoken 61-year-old retiree who manages the center, said on Thursday. “They all have different lifestyles and different personalities. But so far, people have volunteered to help each other, and it works very well.”

None of this is to suggest that Takada Junior High is the Waldorf. There is immense suffering and personal misery here: grieving survivors, financial ruin, smelly bodies, no running water, frigid outdoor toilets, endless boredom and the prospect of sleeping on a hard floor with complete strangers for weeks — even months — to come.

But this, too, seems to be part of the national character: a passion for order and civility so deep-rooted that the chaos and despair of 1,000 strangers somehow is subdued to the level of disarray expected at the monthly meeting of a book-lovers’ club.

The spirit is captured by the hand-drawn signs that adorn the gym: “Let’s be grateful that we are alive”; “Cheer up, Takata”; “Let’s communicate and bond our hearts.”

The messages are lived in simple ways. One expects that 1,000 evacuees would have access to a doctor, and the Japan Red Cross has opened a well-staffed clinic on the first floor. But one might not expect the two dentists next door, who decided on March 17 to volunteer their services and opened shop the next day, treating about 15 patients daily with the help of staff members whose own homes were lost in the tsunami.

“I don’t have any other place to work, because my office washed away,” said Masanori Yoshiday, 60. “We can rebuild the office later.”

The dentists were followed by Shoichi Yanashita, a 66-year-old barber and a fellow evacuee, who was giving free haircuts on Thursday with scissors and a razor borrowed from a friend in a nearby town. “We have to support each other,” he said, “and this is what I know how to do.”

Hair cutting and dentistry joined a long list of services, donated and otherwise: volunteer bicycle-repairing, a shuttle bus ferrying evacuees from center to center, pet cages donated by local veterinarians, free laundering of refugees’ clothes by local high-school students.

Drying remains a problem. “We have to dry the ladies’ underwear where people can’t see it. So we put it in two classrooms on the second floor, and then we lock the doors,” said Mr. Nakai, the evacuee center manager. Classes at the school have been suspended since the disaster.

Asked whether he has had to deal with petty thievery, personality conflicts or any other social ills that beset strangers unwillingly thrown together, Mr. Nakai replied: “Nothing at all. They don’t even argue.”

Not quite true, said Hiroe Sasaki, a 42-year-old evacuee. “We had only one blanket for each person on the first day,” she said. “People did get stressed. Some shouted at each other.”

And now? “They wouldn’t tell me,” she said, “but I know some people aren’t happy that other families have more blankets than they do.”

Ms. Sasaki staffs the help desk in the gymnasium, the urban center of this makeshift town. To the right is the lending library. To the left is a cardboard mailbox where evacuees can deposit postcards — also available at the desk — that are delivered to other centers around town.

Opposite her desk are recycling bins for burnable trash, plastic, glass and metal (subdivided into aluminum and steel). On the desk and adjacent shelves, free for the asking, are batteries, hand and foot warmers, cotton gloves, pens and paper, plastic trash bags and eye drops for the tree pollen that is spreading with the arrival of spring. A small box holds cellphones that have been charged at the power strip behind her chair. Beside the chair is a wireless microphone used to deliver the news through the gymnasium’s sound system, heralded by the four-chime alert often heard in train stations and airports.

This week, Japan’s Self Defense Force soldiers offered a much-coveted new service: two hot tubs for men and women, holding 25 bathers at a time, at a nearly elementary school that also houses evacuees. Now the Takada center offers daily shuttle buses to the tubs, which sit side by side in steam-saturated tents outside the school entrance.

The orderliness extends to the residents, who have assembled the detritus of two weeks on a gym floor — donated clothes, blankets, folding chairs — into neat barriers that provide a modicum of privacy from the neighbors. The gym floor is carved into neighborhoods, each with a representative who carries grievances to higher-ups.

Not that there are any grievances, of course — at least those that people are willing to admit publicly in a culture that prizes the capacity for endurance.

“Some people gather around the space heater at nights because they can’t sleep. The young people, especially, snore really loudly,” said Yukiko Yamaguchi, 73, who lost her home in the tsunami.

“But it’s unconscious,” she added quickly. “You can’t complain about that.”

Moshe Komata contributed reporting.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

'caring for its own'

Children whose parents died in the tsunami "will likely be absorbed into extended families," according to experts interviewed for this article. What if they're not? Will Japan allow more foreign adoptions?

Never thought I'd post something I read on Fox News but here are some excerpts of an article posted March 22 (comparing the situation in Japan to what happened after the January 2010 quake in Haiti, when foreign adoptions were fast-tracked):

Martha Osborne, spokeswoman for the adoption advocacy website, said Japan and Haiti couldn’t be more different when it comes to adoption.

“You see that in developing nations, there’s no outlet for these children and the people left in the wake of the disaster are completely impoverished and unable to care for them, and in that case even extended relatives often say that the best case for the child is to be adopted because there are no resources,” Osborne told “But in Japan that’s just not the case, it’s a fully developed nation that’s capable of caring for its own children.”

Osborne said a dwindling population, as well as strong family ties in the country, makes adoption fairly unnecessary, because
children who can’t be cared for by their parents are usually taken in by other relatives.

“I don’t believe there’s going to be a true orphan situation in Japan in the wake of this disaster. I do not believe that there are going to be children without any ties to relatives…that extended family system is going to consider that child their child,” she said.

Tom Defilipo, president of Joint Council on International Children Services, said that stress on lineage also makes the Japanese society “very averse to adoptions.”

“Very few adoptions take place in Japan domestically and only about 30-34 last year internationally” despite having “about 400 children’s homes in the country and about 25,000 children approximately in those homes,” Defilipo told “Bloodlines are exceptionally important, so the whole idea of adopting or raising a child that’s not your own or isn’t part of your extended family is relatively unheard of.”

Still, Ogaway, Osborne, and Defilipo all agree that the
the children whose parents died in the earthquake will likely be absorbed into extended families. It is, they say, far too early for any of the children to be considered for adoption because Japanese authorities are still searching to find which children’s parents are just missing, which are confirmed dead and which of those children have other family to care for them...

Read the whole story here.

word from our street

Thursday, March 24

Our neighbor Nancy, who lives in a house across the road from our apartment building and teaches kids how to cook, writes:

Whatever your concerns may be about coming back to Tokyo, starving to death and not being able to go to the loo should not be on your list!! Shops are full but not overflowing but I bought loo roll, water, eggs, milk, butter, pineapple, strawberries, blueberries, pork, asparagus, beer, have to get to the shops when they open to get the water and it is limited to 3 bottles per person.

Will post on jamjnr a couple of classes for next week. Come home asap - I am the only gaijin left in Hiroo...

We had pan fried mackerel with rocket & potato salad for dinner. Hardly slumming it...Mind you the street is deathly dark - no one has their lights on. Tokyo Tower is not lit up and neither is Roppongi Hills -- it's quite surreal. We're sitting here with no lights on and candles. Makes me wonder why we don't do it more often!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From the New York Times

March 23, 2011

Tokyo Says Radiation in Water Puts Infants at Risk

TOKYO — Radioactive iodine detected in the capital’s water supply spurred a warning for infants on Wednesday and the government issued a stark new estimate about the costs of rebuilding from the earthquake and tsunami that slammed into the northeast of Japan this month.

Ei Yoshida, head of water purification for the Tokyo water department, said at a televised news conference that infants in Tokyo and surrounding areas should not drink tap water. He said iodine-131 had been detected in water samples at a level of 210 becquerels per liter, about a quart. The recommended limit for infants is 100 becquerels per liter. For adults, the recommended limit is 300 becquerels. (The measurement unit is named for Henri Becquerel, one of the discoverers of radioactivity.)

The announcement added to the growing anxiety about public safety posed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which was severely damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said earlier Wednesday that the public should avoid additional farm produce from areas near the power station because of contamination, according to the Japanese news media.

The Health Ministry said in a statement that it was unlikely that there would be negative consequences to infants who did drink the water, but that it should be avoided if possible and not be used to make infant formula. The warning applied to the 23 wards of Tokyo, as well as the towns of Mitaka, Tama, Musashino, Machida and Inagi to the west of the city.

“It’s unfortunate, but the radiation is clearly being carried on the air from the Fukushima plant,” said Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary. “Because it’s raining, it’s possible that a lot of places will be affected. Even if people consume the water a few times, there should be no long-term ill effects.” He said the government and Tokyo officials were discussing measures to help families with children.

But it was unclear why the levels of iodine were so high, said a senior Western nuclear executive, given that the prevailing breezes seem to be pushing radiation out to sea.

“The contamination levels are well beyond what you’d expect from what is in the public domain,” said the executive, who insisted on anonymity and has broad contacts in Japan. “There is no way that stored fuel did not burn in a very significant way.”

At the Lawson’s convenience store in the Tsukiji neighborhood of central Tokyo, the shelves were about half-stocked with water. But a clerk said he had just restocked them an hour before.

"People came in and cleared us out in the first hour after the announcement," he said, saying he didn’t want to be identified because he didn’t want to anger his boss. "They were taking 20 or 30 bottles at a time."

Outside the store a man struggling to load more than 30 half-liter bottles onto his bicycle said he had bought the water for his wife, who is seven months’ pregnant.

"Tap water is O.K. for me," he said, asking that he be identified only by his family name, Takahashi. "But all they said was that babies shouldn’t drink it. They haven’t said anything about what pregnant women should do."

"We’re going to stay in Tokyo for now," Mr. Takahashi, 31, said, "unless the reactor problem gets worse."

Around the corner at the AM/PM convenience store the bottled water section of the shelves was bare but for nine half-liter bottles of sparkling lemon-flavored water.

With water disappearing from the shelves the Tokyo city government acted to calm fears, saying it would begin distributing 240,000 bottles of water Thursday to families with children younger than 1 year, the broadcaster NHK reported. There are about 80,000 such children in the affected zone, NHK said.

Outside Tokyo the government said it had found radioactive materials at levels exceeding legal limits in 11 vegetables in Fukushima Prefecture, the Kyodo news agency reported. Shipments of the affected vegetables from there ended on Monday.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Kan also suspended shipment of raw milk and parsley from neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture, Kyodo reported.

The United States Food and Drug Administration said on Tuesday that it would prohibit imports of dairy goods and produce from the affected region. Hong Kong also banned food and milk imports from the area.

The spread of a small amount of radiation is inevitable, considering the steam that is generated as emergency workers spray water on damaged reactors and cooling pools at the Fukushima complex. Government and company officials were nonetheless expressing growing optimism that the crisis was closer to being brought under control.

But in a new problem at the plant the cooling system for the No. 5 reactor stopped working Wednesday afternoon, said Hiro Hasegawa, a spokesman for the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant.

"When we switched from the temporary pump, it automatically switched off," he said. "We’ll try again with a new pump in the morning."

Of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility only the No. 5 and No. 6 units were considered to be under control. They, along with No. 4, were offline before the quake and while they have pools of spent fuel rods, like the other reactors, they have been of less concern.

All of the facilities have electrical power, a crucial step toward getting cooling systems restarted.

Officials said earlier Wednesday that they hoped to have the cooling pumps at the No. 3 and No. 4 units operating by as early as Thursday. They had been planning to test Reactor No. 3’s cooling system later Wednesday. That reactor is considered one of the most dangerous because of its fuel — mixed oxides, or mox, which contains a mixture of uranium and plutonium and can produce a more dangerous radioactive plume if scattered by fire or explosions.

But the effort was set back when the No. 3 facility began belching black smoke late in the afternoon, leading Tokyo Electric to evacuate workers from the area. No flames were visible and the cause of the smoke was unknown, the company said. Later it said the smoke had stopped after about an hour.

Water also was sprayed on the No. 1 and No. 2 units on Wednesday.

Rebuilding after the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami, which ravaged the northeastern coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, will cost up to $309 billion, Mr. Kan’s office said Wednesday.

The economic cost of the disaster has hit the power company, also called Tepco, which is in negotiations with its bankers for loans of as much as about $24 billion, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified.

Japan’s three megabanks — Sumitomo Mitsui, Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ and Mizuho — and a number of second-tier banks were discussing the company’s needs, according to the person. There has been no talk of government guarantees for any such loans, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the issue.

Additional loans will raise new questions about Tepco’s long-term financial health. The disaster led Moody’s Japan to cut Tepco’s debt rating to A1 from Aa2 and warn that further downgrades were possible. The Fukushima Daiichi station, which only a few weeks ago was listed on the balance sheet as an asset worth billions of dollars, may have to be largely written off.

“Our concern right now is not about whether we’ll be paid back,” the person said. “The important thing is to support the company.”

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the official death toll from the disaster had been raised to more than 9,500 with more than 16,000 people missing, although officials said there could be overlap between the figures.

Meanwhile, strong earthquakes hit the northeast coast on Wednesday. A 6.0-magnitude quake shook Fukushima Prefecture in the morning, according to the Japanese Meteorological Agency. That was followed by a 5.8-magnitude tremor about 20 minutes later.

Scientists have warned of aftershocks from the March 11 quake continuing for weeks, possibly months. The meteorological agency said the frequency of the aftershocks was declining but warned of the possibility that tremors of magnitude 7.0 or higher could occur.

David Jolly reported from Tokyo, and Kevin Drew from Hong Kong.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Godzilla-where the hell is he?'

Lifted from (see News Blogs, Politics, or click here)

Japan: whatever happened to the nuclear meltdown?

By James Delingpole

Last updated: March 21st, 2011

Amazing, isn’t it, what a little light military intervention can do to a nuclear crisis?

One minute, the world is facing nuclear meltdown armageddon to rank with – ooh, Three Mile Island at the very least, and quite possibly Chernobyl. A few (shockingly expensive) missile strikes over Benghazi and Tripoli later, though, and the Japanese nuclear crisis has all but vanished from the face of the earth.

Maybe we should start small wars more often. Or maybe – even better – the MSM could learn to start reporting on nuclear incidents like journalists instead of activists from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

I’m with Lewis Page on this one. In the Register, he writes:

As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.

Page puts the Fukushima incident in its proper perspective:

The Fukushima reactors actually came through the quake with flying colours despite the fact that it was five times stronger than they had been built to withstand. Only with the following tsunami – again, bigger than the design allowed for – did problems develop, and these problems seem likely to end in insignificant consequences. The Nos 1, 2 and 3 reactors at Daiichi may never produce power again – though this is not certain – but the likelihood is that Nos 4, 5 and 6 will return to service behind a bigger tsunami barrier.

The lesson to learn here is that if your country is hit by a monster earthquake and tsunami, one of the safest places to be is at the local nuclear power plant. Other Japanese nuclear power plants in the quake-stricken area, in fact, are sheltering homeless refugees in their buildings – which are some of the few in the region left standing at all, let alone with heating, water and other amenities.

Nothing else in the quake-stricken area has come through anything like as well as the nuclear power stations, or with so little harm to the population. All other forms of infrastructure – transport, housing, industries – have failed the people in and around them comprehensively, leading to deaths most probably in the tens of thousands. Fires, explosions and tank/pipeline ruptures all across the region will have done incalculably more environmental damage, distributed hugely greater amounts of carcinogens than Fukushima Daiichi – which has so far emitted almost nothing but radioactive steam (which becomes non-radioactive within minutes of being generated).

And yet nobody will say after this: “don’t build roads; don’t build towns; don’t build ships or chemical plants or oil refineries or railways”. That would be ridiculous, of course, even though having all those things has actually led to terrible loss of life, destruction and pollution in the quake’s wake.

But far and away more ridiculously, a lot of people are already saying that Fukushima with its probable zero consequences means that no new nuclear power plants should ever be built again.

One of those ridiculous people is – inevitably – the noisome Energy Secretary Chris Huhne. In true Rahm Emanuel style he is using the perceived crisis as an excuse to push forward his anti-nuclear, eco-loon agenda. He claims:

“We can do the 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 without new nuclear, but it will require a big effort on carbon capture and storage and renewables.”

If implemented this will most assuredly cause brown-outs and tremendous economic damage by the time the energy gap begins to widen in 2020. But since Huhne will no longer be in office then and since he is wealthy enough not to have to face the consequences of his political stupidity this is unlikely to bother him.

Another of those people is the Hon Sir Jonathon Porritt, who could be heard on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions grandstanding about his opposition to nuclear and being given a free pass by Jonathan Dimbleby to spout his spurious eco-propaganda as if it were actually true. At one point, he actually claimed that wind farms did not cause noise disturbance. (Maybe, Sir Jonathan, I should give you the phone number of the poor Welsh chap who has been advised that he should now sleep with his windows shut at night to cut out the noise of the wind farm which has destroyed the value of his property and ruined his retirement).

One of the main objections raised about nuclear power is how incredibly expensive it is. There’s a reason for this: thanks to forty years of hysterical, dishonest propaganda from “Atomkraft Nein Danke” eco-activists like Porritt and Huhne, the bar for safety has been set to such impossibly high standards that it cannot compete economically with less heavily regulated industries such as oil, coal, gas – or indeed wind. I was pleased to hear Toby Young on Any Questions reiterating my point about the safety records of the nuclear and wind industries:

Nuclear fatalities in the last ten years: 7

Wind farm fatalities in the last ten years: 44.

In those ten years nuclear provided thirty times the energy of wind. This means in the last decade, nuclear has been around 200 times safer than wind on an energy produced/accidents basis.

And entirely unsurprised when the Hon Sir Jonathan Porritt, having pompously thanked Toby for raising the safety issue, chose to ignore the inconvenient truth of these statistics.

Let’s leave last word to this German astronomer and physicist, Dr Peter Heller, who has written a moving essay on how the scientific truth on nuclear power has been warped by political activism. (Hmm. Reminds me of another area of “science” which has been similarly distorted by scientists, politicians and activists with an agenda. Can anyone jog my memory?) (H/T Roddy Campbell)

So it fills me with sadness and anger on how the work of the above mentioned giants of physics is now being dragged through the mud, how the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century are being redefined and criminalized. The current debate in Germany is also a debate on freedom of research. The stigmatization and ostracism of nuclear energy, the demand for an immediate stop of its use, is also the demand for the end of its research and development. No job possibilities also means no students, which means no faculty, which then means the end of the growth of our knowledge. Stopping nuclear energy is nothing less than rejecting the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and all others. It is tantamount to scrapping it, labelling it as dangerous – all in a fit of ignorance. And just as creationists attempt to ban the theory of evolution from the school books, it almost seems as if every factual and neutral explanation in Germany is now in the process of being deleted.

The media suggests a nuclear catastrophe, a mega-meltdown, and that the apocalypse has already begun. It is almost as if the 10,000 deaths in Japan were actually victims of nuclear energy, and not the earthquake or the tsunami. Here again one has to remind us that Fukushima was first hit by an unimaginable 9.0 earthquake and then by a massive 10-meter wave of water just an hour later. As a result, the facility no longer found itself in a highly technological area, but surrounded by a desert of rubble. All around the power plant the infrastructure, residential areas, traffic routes, energy and communication networks are simply no longer there. They were wiped out. Yet, after an entire week, the apocalypse still has not come to pass. Only relatively small amounts of radioactive materials have leaked out and have had only a local impact. If one considers the pure facts exclusively, i.e. only the things we really know, then it exposes the unfounded interpretations of scientific illiterates in the media. One can only arrive to one conclusion: This sorrowful state will remain so.

Monday, March 21, 2011

to put things into perspective...

Another dispatch from our PTA Prez (and expert in matters nuclear) came through earlier today (thanks Conny and Tara for distributing):

BST Parents,

Two things that may be confusing in nuclear terminology are radiation and contamination. The definition of contamination is radioactive material outside of a controlled area, or somewhere that you don't want it. So image that we are all sitting around a campfire in the woods. The fuel is the stack of burning sticks. The radiation is the light given off by the campfire. No matter how hard the wind blows, or what direction the wind blows, you will still see the same amount of light (radiation). Thus, when we think of the reactors at Fukushima, the wind direction will have no effect on the amount of radiation that is emitted.

Now as were are sitting there roasting our marshmallows, we see burning embers drift up and float away from the fire ring/ fire pit. That would be our contamination. The ember leaves the controlled area (fire ring/ fire pit) and carry light away from us. The wind does effect where the contamination goes. The contamination consist of radioactive material but typically the amount of radiation emitted is much less than the source. That is, we still have much more light from the campfire than we do from the embers.

So as I am scanning through different news sources I see men in white suits holding a very sophisticated gadget over the head of an innocent little girl with headlines reading "XX number people diagnosed with radiation". What he is doing is looking for contamination. That is, he is looking to see if she has any embers from the campfire on her. This process (called frisking) is a standard procedure at every power plant for every person leaving the plant every time; during normal operations and shutdowns. Why? To make sure that you don't accidentally take radioactive material outside of the plant. What the headlines should read are "XX number of people found to have a radioactive particle on them and the particle was removed instantly and they were sent on their merry way". But I guess that most likely more accurate headline doesn't sell as many papers.

I do not want to minimize the seriousness of this situation. We do not want contamination (or radioactive materials outside of the reactor) and it is important that people are checked. But once the contamination is discovered and removed, the threat to human health is gone as well. I take the ember off of your shirt and you longer emit light.

Ingesting or inhaling contamination is more serious because it is more difficult to get it out of you. But, depending on what you ingest/ inhale and how much, there are a wide range of things to take into consideration. IF, and again a big IF, there is contamination in the food or water, the risk to human health depends on how much there is and what it is.

Below is a FB entry from a former nuclear colleague of mine:

The radiation levels in Tokyo are elevated. We are now hearing that elevated levels are also being found on the West Coast. Should we worry?

Well, it depends on how paranoid you are. If you live in a brick house, have granite counter tops or spend time in your basement, you might want to think about changing your lifestyle. These all give off elevated levels of radiation.

Lots of things give off natural radiation. It's a fact of life. The cumulative reading of it is known as "background radiation." What is being reported in the news is typically the increase above background. The increase is very small and barely detectable right now on the West Coast (the most sensitve equipment can barely detect it).

To put things into perspective, at the current elevated levels in Tokyo (assuming that they stay elevated for an entire year) a resident who lived there for that entire year would receive 474 microsieverts. In comparison, those fleeing the country and heading to New York will receive about 100 microsieverts in just 15 hours from the plane ride itself.

As a nuclear worker I strive to keep my exposure as low as possible. My limit is 50,000 microsieverts/year. However, in a busy year, I usually get less than 10,000. Much, much greater than what people are being exposed to in Tokyo.

I'm not implying that the levels should be ignored; they just need to be put into perspective. I fly over 100,000 miles per year. My exposure from flights each year is usually greater than what I pick up working in the plants.

Here are some questions that I got the other day:

I understood that at Chernobyl, one of the problems was that the core was kept cool with graphite instead of water which enabled the radioactive material to travel considerable distances when it exploded from the core. That can't happen at Fukushima, can it? because it is not the core that is causing explosions, and it is cooled with water?

Yes, the Chernobyl reactor core and systems were much different from Fukushima. I don't know enough about graphite cores to comment on how much more they would spread radioactive material if breached. Correct, at Fukushima it wasn't the core that caused the explosions, it was the hydrogen gas that was vented to the inside of the reactor building that exploded.

What can they do to get things under control at Fukushima? Will they get battery operated water cooling systems in until the electricity is back up and running? Dropping water from the air seems so desperate.

They have to keep the fuel in the core 'cool' no matter what. My understanding is that batteries last for 8 hours. I do not know if replacing the batteries before getting the electrical back up is/ was a viable option. Having consistent electrical supply is the better solution than batteries or diesel run pumps. Yes, dropping water from the air is desperate.

I am still looking forward to seeing you all back at school.




Still in Pelham, at my mom and dad's. Have announced there will be "school" this morning as the boys' teachers have distributed assignments via email and the website. This should work for the time being. But I am getting a sinking feeling every time I read on FB that somebody has enrolled their child in a school in the UK...because I want my children back at school in Tokyo! NOW! and am afraid that even if the school reopens and classes resume, and the official advisory is that it is safe to return, half the families will stay away anyway, too spooked by recent events and unwilling to take any chances. What will BST do then? I am afraid for the school. We find out Wednesday if school reopens on March 28.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

good on you, Richard

The British tabloid The Sun ran an outrageous story the other day, which I won't post here (though I will link to it below), and that you shouldn't read, because it's completely ridiculous, but a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, an expat still in Tokyo, wrote this brilliant response:

Dear The Sun,

I have just read with some concern your article 'Starving Brit Keely: My nightmare trapped in City of Ghosts – Tokyo'. First I wish to respond to your thoughtful question 'Do you know anyone stuck in Japan?'with the simple answer- No, because nobody is stuck in Japan. There are available flights both in and out of the country. Hope that helps.

I can assure you and any of your worried readers that the Tokyo described in the article is not very similar to the Tokyo outside my window. Perhaps Nerima-Ku suffered it's own unique nuclear catastrophe that somehow we have failed to hear about, but I think it's unlikely as it is just a five minute bicycle ride from here, and in the information age news travels fast.

For the most part life in Tokyo is continuing as normal, with minor concessions to the possible electricity shortage such as shops & restaurants not using all of their lights and not using exterior neon signs etc. Trains are running more or less normally, shops & businesses continue to operate, and there are lots of cars, buses, bicycles & people in the street.

Nobody is starving in Tokyo. For the last few days there have been shortages of bread & rice in the shops, but in my local supermarket there are lots of fresh fruit & vegetables, pasta, soup, cheese etc etc. Nobody even needs to be hungry, let alone starve. Having said that, I haven't been able to find any Twixes, my personal favourite chocolate bar, although sadly that situation has remained the same for much of the last decade.

The British Embassy, no doubt, has had its hands full dealing with concerned British citizens, but has regularly updated it's website with advice information & the television news coverage on Japanese television has been constant & is also available in English (online as well). There are also at least two radio stations that broadcast news and information in English.

If Mrs Fujiyama's water supply is a funny colour and smells of bleach I suggest it may be a plumbing problem particular to the building that she lives in. The water supply to my home and the homes of my friends and family in Tokyo, although someway short of what you would find in a Cotswold spring, is as clear and drinkable as ever. If the Fujiyama family are concerned, I suggest that they could drink bottled water (or any number of other bottled beverages) available from supermarkets, convenience stores & the vending machines that are on almost every street, even in 'Post-Tsunami Tokyo'.

As clearly explained by Sir John Beddington the UK's chief scientific advisor, even in a worst case scenario there is unequivocally no threat from radiation to people living in Tokyo. I believe that The Sun and other newspaper's use of photographs showing Japanese people wearing masks, could be misleading to people living in Britain who may not realise that Japanese people very often wear masks both as a measure against hay fever & as a (perhaps misguided) precaution against colds and influenza as well as a courtesy to others when they are suffering from a cold. It would be rare to not see lots of Japanese people wearing masks on any given day. However, people in Tokyo have not been advised to wear masks and I hope Mrs Fujiyama, will be relieved to hear that she has made a mistake in believing that this was the case. She may also be relieved to hear that radiation levels recorded in Tokyo on wednesday were three times lower than those typically recorded in Rome where again things seems to be running pretty much as normal, although I understand that dodging Vespa scooters can be traumatic.

On a sadder note, many people in more genuinely 'Post-Tsunami' Japan have lost everything including their family, friends, and houses. They are putting up with real cold & real food shortages, and they desperately need help.

I hope that The Sun can spend some column inches on encouraging their famously big hearted readers to send whatever they can to the relevant charities such as Oxfam Or Save The Children. Perhaps the Fujiyama family who seem to have funds enough to panic buy a 4X4 vehicle, could also manage to send a little something for people who are in even greater need. I hope this clears up a few things about the current situation in Tokyo, and that reassured a little, you won't need to print any more stories that may inadvertently cause unnecessary worry to your Readers.

Yours sincerely,

need to get learnin' again

Today's email from the BST headmaster talks about worst-case scenarios and how they are unlikely and how the school will get back to us re: a reopening on March 28. "Learning packs" for primary students are now available! Let the home schooling begin.

Oh, wait, it's Saturday morning here in New York, and we're at my brother's house (he has four kids), where we are spending the weekend. There is no way my boys will let me come near them if I breathe a word about schoolwork.

I should go tell them about it right now.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"The Fallout"

Interesting piece in The Economist:

Japan's hydra-headed disaster

The Fallout
Some natural disasters change history. Japan’s tsunami could be one

Mar 17th 2011 | from the print edition

That tsunami is one of the few Japanese words in global use points to the country’s familiarity with natural disaster. But even measured against Japan’s painful history, its plight today is miserable. The magnitude-9 earthquake—the largest ever in the country’s history, equivalent in power to 30,000 Hiroshimas—was followed by a wave which wiped out whole towns. With news dribbling out from stricken coastal communities, the scale of the horror is still sinking in. The surge of icy water shoved the debris of destroyed towns miles inland, killing most of those too old or too slow to scramble to higher ground (see article). The official death toll of 5,429 will certainly rise. In several towns over half the population has drowned or is missing.

In the face of calamity, a decent people has proved extremely resilient: no looting; very little complaining among the tsunami survivors. In Tokyo people queued patiently to meet their tax deadlines. Everywhere there was a calm determination to conjure a little order out of chaos. Volunteers have rushed to help. The country’s Self-Defence Forces, which dithered in response to the Kobe earthquake in 1995, have poured into the stricken area. Naoto Kan, the prime minister, who started the crisis with very low public support, has so far managed to keep a semblance of order in the country, despite a series of calamities that would challenge even the strongest of leaders. The government’s inept handling of the Kobe disaster did much to undermine Japan’s confidence in itself.

The wider concern

The immediate tragedy may be Japan’s; but it also throws up longer-term questions that will eventually affect people all the way round the globe. Stockmarkets stumbled on fears about the impact on the world’s third-biggest economy. Japan’s central bank seems to have stilled talk of financial panic with huge injections of liquidity. Early estimates of the total damage are somewhat higher than the $100 billion that Kobe cost, but not enough to wreck a rich country. Disruption to electricity supplies will damage growth, and some Asian supply chains are already facing problems; but new infrastructure spending will offset some of the earthquake’s drag on growth.

Those calculations could change dramatically if the nuclear crisis worsens. As The Economist went to press, helicopters were dropping water to douse overheating nuclear fuel stored at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, where there have been explosions, fires and releases of radiation greater, it seems, than the Japanese authorities had admitted. The country’s nuclear industry has a long history of cover-ups and incompetence, and—notwithstanding the heroism of individual workers—the handling of the crisis by TEPCO, the nuclear plant’s operator, is sadly in line with its past performance.

Even if the nuclear accident is brought under control swiftly, and the release of radiation turns out not to be large enough to damage public health, this accident will have a huge impact on the nuclear industry, both inside and outside Japan. Germany has already put on hold its politically tricky decision to extend the life of its nuclear plants. America’s faltering steps towards new reactors look sure to be set back, not least because new concerns will mean greater costs.

China has announced a pause in its ambitious plans for nuclear growth. With 27 reactors under construction, more than twice as many as any other country, China accounts for almost half the world’s current nuclear build-out—and it has plans for 50 more reactors. And in the long term the regime looks unlikely to be much deterred from these plans—and certainly not by its public’s opinion, whatever that might be. China has a huge thirst for energy that it will slake from as many wells as it can, with planned big increases in wind power and in gas as well as the nuclear build-out and ever more coal-fired plants.

Thus the great nuclear dilemma. For the best nuclear safety you need not just good planning and good engineering. You need the sort of society that can produce accountability and transparency, one that can build institutions that receive and deserve trust. No nuclear nation has done this as well as one might wish, and Japan’s failings may well become more evident. But democracies are better at building such institutions. At the same time, however, democracy makes it much easier for a substantial and implacable minority to make sure things don’t happen, and that seems likely to be the case with plans for more nuclear power. Thus nuclear power looks much more likely to spread in societies that are unlikely to ground it in the enduring culture of safety that it needs. China’s nearest competitor in the new-build stakes is Russia.

Yet democracies would be wrong to turn their back on nuclear power. It still has the advantages of offering reliable power, a degree of energy security, and no carbon dioxide emissions beyond those incurred in building and supplying the plants. In terms of lives lost it has also boasted, to date, a reasonably good record. Chernobyl’s death toll is highly uncertain, but may have reached a few thousand people. China’s coal mines certainly kill 2,000-3,000 workers a year, and coal-smogged air there and elsewhere kills many more. It remains a reasonable idea for most rich countries to keep some nuclear power in their portfolio, not least because by maintaining economic and technological stakes in nuclear they will have more standing to insist on high standards for safety and non-proliferation being applied throughout the world. But in the face of panic, of sinister towers of smoke, of invisible and implacable threats, the reasonable course is not an easy one.

Back to Tokyo

No country faces that choice more painfully than Japan, scarred by nuclear energy but also deprived of native alternatives. To abandon nuclear power is to commit the country to massive imports of gas and perhaps coal. To keep it is to face and overcome a national trauma and to accept a small but real risk of another disaster.

Japan’s all too frequent experience of calamity suggests that such events are often followed by great change. After the earthquake of 1923, it turned to militarism. After its defeat in the second world war, and the dropping of the atom bombs, it espoused peaceful growth. The Kobe earthquake reinforced Japan’s recent turning in on itself.

This new catastrophe seems likely to have a similarly huge impact on the nation’s psyche. It may be that the Japanese people’s impressive response to disaster, and the rest of the world’s awe in the face of their stoicism, restores the self-confidence the country so badly needs. It may be that the failings of its secretive system of governance, exemplified by the shoddy management of its nuclear plants, lead to more demands for political reform. As long as Mr Kan can convince the public that the government’s information on radiation is trustworthy, and that it can ease the cold and hunger of tsunami survivors, his hand may be strengthened to further liberalise Japan. Or it may be that things take a darker turn.

The stakes are high. Japan—a despondent country with a dysfunctional political system—badly needs change. It seems just possible that, looking back from a safe distance, Japan’s people will regard this dreadful moment not just as a time of death, grief and mourning, but also as a time of rebirth.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

why Alice is staying

This evening (New York time) I received an email from someone who decided to stay in Tokyo while so many other foreigners have fled. It wasn't just sent to me, but to dozens of others, all of whom are on a distribution list for Tokyo Netball, a great group of women, mainly from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, who like to meet on Wednesday nights in a school gym in Shibuya for a friendly game of what we Yanks would call hoops, Aussie style (no dribbling now).

Here it is:

Dear All,

I decided not to leave yesterday unless the UK government thinks the radiation and problem is enough to merit evacuation.

After a long discussion with the UK Embassy I have concluded it does not.

Right now Electricity, Food and Gasoline are more of a concern as of course are the continuing aftershocks but my company needs me so I am staying.

I knew about the risks when I first came here 10 years ago; they haven't changed. I still wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I must be crazy.

On the other hand the fact that the buildings in Tokyo are standing at all after last week's little roller-coaster ride has actually made me feel more confident about living in Japan. I always wondered what would happen if a massive earthquake happened. Now I know. For that reason alone, for anyone worried, don't be.

Back to the Nuclear Issue again:

Radiation Levels in Tokyo are 0.03to 0.08 micro sieverts compared to, until now, a two year average of 0.065 micro sieverts. They peaked at 0.809 on Tuesday am but after that the wind changed and blew everything out to the Pacific.

Tokyo has lovely blue skies and sunny weather, quiet and peaceful.

Its quite lovely, people more friendly than normal.

Keeping an eye on the winds and the geiger counter just in case but I have plenty of food and water stored if I need to stay indoors for a while.

BTW People staying have now started referring to their apartments in Tokyo as bunkers. Funny but accurate. Saving electricity is a priority so spent the night at my friends brand new super delux (latest earthquake technology installed) bunker in Shinjuku Yanagicho.

During the two level 4 aftershocks last night the apartment swayed like a baby's cradle and have to say I slept like I was in one.

At work early today, but to save electricity we get to finish as soon as the days jobs are jobbed which is great. Staying at the delux bunker again tonight to save electricity. Lucky me. Trying to decide which restaurant I am going to eat at tonight.

I hope that everything will settle down soon. I am looking forward to the possibility of working a volunteer in the earthquake area. I used to live very close to there for 4 years so would love the opportunity to give something back and help out. To start with being fluent in Tohoku Dialect as well as standard Japanese will be of help.

Hope everyone is ok and comes back soon


Soon after Alice's message went out to the group, Janine, another Tokyo Netball'er I know, replied to say that she too had decided to remain in Tokyo with her husband:

"Thank you Alice...It gives me so much strength to hear from the "stayers"...We have been having sleep-overs with my husband's parents to save electricity, and give each other moral support, and have also been supporting the few friends who also decided to stay by providing red wine and great meals... And We have been donating goods, money and blood for the people in the north who have suffered the greatest. We are trying really hard to get back to normal now to send the right message of solidarity, and to reduce the impact of the psychological stress from the media."

And then Tari chimed in (yes, I also met her on the netball court, and she is lovely too-- we shared the position of Wing Defense in the Japan national championships of 2009), noting that many multinational offices have employees working from home, or have closed their offices altogether for a few days. "If you have the time off and means to leave, do not be stressed out, please do go," she writes. "But there is really nothing wrong for sticking around either. To save energy, my office decided to switch off the lights and heater and we are all working in our coats and off the computer monitor's light. We leave the office as soon as the day's job done and when the sun sets. At home I decided that this is the best time than ever for exercising as much as I can. It's highly recommended! That way I am actually very warm (at some point, HOT!) with no need for heater and use only one light. The kickboxing gym that I frequent is also open, with only 2 lights on. So I go there for a couple of hours for 3 days already this week."

Tari also forwarded this message from an American friend who also happens to be a nuclear engineer:

I have not commented on what is happening in Fukushima because there is just so many conflicting reports and basically just bad information being sent out. So, as a friend I will offer you my personal advice on everything....I hope you will take it as the expert opinion of one friend talking to another and only that...I have spent my entire career studying Radiation and the biological effects...that being said this is my professional advice to you in Tokyo....stay out of the is simple as that. I am not saying that the rain is dangerous but to be safe stay out of it if you can.

I also hear that a lot of people are buying salt or salt substitutes...please do not take them....there is no reason for you in Tokyo to be trying to ablate your thyroid gland with potassium iodide where you live...that should only be used in emergency situations and being in Tokyo it is not needed and may do more harm than good to you. I will not kid you, what is happening there in Fukushma is serious, but living in Tokyo there is no reason to be scared right now.

Some Americans Vow to Stay ...

as U.S. Begins Evacuations From Japan
By Lauren Frayer, AOL News
March 17, 2011

Charter planes are heading to Japan to evacuate U.S. citizens, as Washington raises its warnings about possible nuclear fallout at quake-ravaged nuclear reactors there. But many Americans are vowing to stay and help relief operations in their adopted country.

"Unless the U.S. government orders all American citizens to get out of the country, I don't think I'm going anywhere," Jeff Fleishman, a 25-year-old English teacher from Ohio, told AOL News by telephone from Tokyo. "I want to help -- volunteer in the relief effort -- but I want things to calm down and be safe in my area first. It's a bit dangerous."

Fleishman was teaching at a small school less than 50 miles from the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant when the quake struck.

"My apartment has cracks in the walls, and my heating unit for my water fell off the wall. ... I didn't feel comfortable staying there alone with no food at night, plus I don't have a car," he said. So he evacuated to Tokyo, where he's staying with friends. "It's a bit crazy up there right now," he added.

"My parents, like everyone, just want me to come home," Fleishman said. "But I want to help, and there's all this conflicting information. It's very confusing."

The Japanese government has ordered a mandatory evacuation zone 12 miles around the troubled nuclear site and cautioned people within 20 miles to stay indoors. But a top U.S. State Department official, Patrick Kennedy, described the danger zone as extending 50 miles from the plant -- including where Fleishman was living.

Fleishman was one of several Americans who spoke to AOL News by phone from the Dubliner Irish Pub in downtown Tokyo, where they were celebrating St. Patrick's Day -- as well as their luck as quake survivors.

"My fiance is Japanese, and many of my friends are Japanese. To sort of leave them in lurch seems a bit cruel or unfair," another American reveler, Jessica Ocheltret, told AOL.

"I live here, my life is here, and to just up and leave when things get tough? It would have to be a pretty bad situation to get to that," the 30-year-old Arizona native said, adding that she has been receiving daily e-mail updates from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. "If there's one thing I could communicate to the public back home, I'd like to tell them, Please, not to worry."

Voluntary evacuations are being arranged for the families of U.S. Embassy staff and military personnel in Tokyo and other cities, and the State Department urged Americans to avoid visiting Japan and to consider leaving if they're already there. Changing wind and weather could put the capital within range of radioactive contamination in the coming days.

Emergency crews are using water cannons, fire trucks and helicopters to try to douse Fukushima's overheated reactors, destabilized by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Fires, explosions and radioactive emissions have ensued.

"We believe radiation levels are extremely high," Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told lawmakers Wednesday on Capitol Hill. He was referring to contamination at the Fukushima site.

But several Americans living in Tokyo, about 170 miles from Fukushima, told AOL News by phone today that they're not terribly concerned. Tokyo has reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but Japanese officials have said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in or near the capital, according to The Associated Press.

"They have a live Geiger counter on the Internet for Tokyo radiation levels, and quite honestly, there's nothing out of the ordinary radiation-wise -- it's at the same level it was at least year," Jeff Allan, a technology writer originally from Boston, told AOL over a Skype call from his Tokyo apartment.

"So it doesn't really seem to me something to be overly concerned about," he said, explaining his decision to stay put for now.

Allan said he thinks the mood has actually improved in the Japanese capital, with people getting back to regular schedules and grocery store shelves now stocked, compared with a few days ago.

"Of course, people are concerned about the threat they possibly face from the nuclear power plant, but you can't live under that shadow every day. You have to keep going," he said.

He said he worries more about the possible long-term effect this nuclear crisis could have on tourism and expatriates moving to Japan. The college graduation and employment cycle begins in Japan in April, and there's usually a huge influx of new graduates and new job recruits at that time of year, Allan said.

"Now, a lot of these people are postponing their plans. ... Plus tourism -- you don't want to show up in the middle of these 6.0 to 7.0 aftershocks, and people who were planning to visit up north -- well, that's an entirely different problem. And then you have the nuclear power plant situation," Allan said. "Definitely, it's not the vacation spot right now."