Yesterday (2:46pm) one week elapsed since the earthquake of north eastern Japan wiped out a large portion of the eastern seaboard and threw half of Japan into (orderly) chaos. This post is a roundup of some of the things that have happened in that time, as seen from inside Japan. As foreign media become increasingly detached from reality, and information about events here goes through more and more permutations across news services, I thought it might be a good idea to give a perspective based on what the media within Japan, and those Japanese people I know, are seeing and saying about the disaster. This is all being digested safely from my armchair in my partner’s house in steamy Beppu, but I’m returning to the thick of it (well, to Tokyo) tomorrow. As always, some of this information is based on my understanding of Japanese newscasts so needs to be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of it is from TV reports so unreferenced.
Workplaces and institutions across Japan paused yesterday at the moment of the quake to commemorate the destruction. In some cities in the affected areas sirens rang out for the duration of the pause. These moments were in some instances filmed and broadcast, and afterward visibly moved participants were interviewed. Everyone is well aware of how momentous this moment of destruction was.
Schools around Japan are holding their graduation ceremonies this week, and in a much more somber tone than is usual. In the earthquake-affected region the students are unable to attend proper ceremonies because the halls have been destroyed or pressed into use for evacuees; they can’t wear kimonos or suits because they have no possessions, and no kimono shops are open. So we have seen footage of students receiving their graduation certificates wearing tracksuits, in their classrooms rather than in front of their peers in a big hall. These have been very emotional and somber events, with even the school principal crying in his speech in one televised event (I cannot imagine an event serious enough to make my school principal show any emotion, let alone tears). Graduation ceremonies always involve some star student making a speech about the future, but this year’s have a grim cloud hanging over them that gives those speeches new meaning. Some universities in Tokyo have postponed or rescheduled graduation ceremonies, especially if they involve many foreign students who are delaying their return to the country.
Tokyo and other parts of Eastern Japan have been subject to rolling blackouts and requests for reduction in energy use to allow the power system to cope with the simultaneous loss of six reactors. Mostly these blackouts have been cancelled at the last minute, because energy conservation has been sufficient, but it has led to reduced opening hours for shops, and the energy conservation has disrupted the transport system, so many people are staying home. This is why I am in Beppu; given 4 days’ leave to work from home, I figured I could do it from somewhere a little more geologically reliable – right now it’s better to be in the neighbourhood of a dormant volcano than an active fault [aren’t the geographical choices facing Japanese people just great?]
The foreign media being somewhat overhyped about the whole thing, and some governments rather overly panicky – especially about radiation – there has been a lot of panic amongst foreign residents of Japan and their families overseas. Beyond the messages of concern [thanks everyone, much appreciated!] many foreigners have been receiving desperate pleas from family to leave. Americans, particularly, seem to be vulnerable to this (what is CNN showing over there?) I know of one American living in Beppu who has fled the country even though she is 1000 kms from the danger zone, and several others who are being bombarded with panicky pleas from their family in the US. Britain has laid on charter flights to evacuate Brits from Tokyo, and the US has suggested an 80km exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plants (which, wisely, the Japanese have not bothered to implement). The Australian government has been more measured, suggesting merely that Australians avoid visiting Tokyo due to disruptions in essential services, the threat of aftershocks, and possible radiation hazards. The WHO on the other hand says that there is no reason to avoid visiting Tokyo or to leave.
Many foreigners are desperately scrambling to leave the country, so there is a 6 hour wait at the immigration department in Tokyo for re-entry permits, the airports are clogged and tickets are hard to find. Even in Osaka… Others are just popping out to Korea for a few days, though how this will help protect them from a radiation menace they think will stretch as far as Beppu I don’t know…
Social media have come to the fore as agents for the dissemination of clear and useful information in this disaster, and for helping people remain in contact. Facebook posts an information header on the pages of all Japanese users, in 4 possible languages, giving up to date information on blackouts, train schedules, and other information. It also actively combats rumour and panic, putting up advisories on inaccurate chain emails and panic shopping. They also put up a very informative report on a meeting between the British ambassador in Tokyo and the UK Chief Scientist, dispelling many myths about radiation. Sadly, the British Foreign Office isn’t reading a Japanese facebook.
Facebook has also been useful for keeping in contact with each other and overseas contacts. My friend in Iwaki was able to tell everyone about his survival in one sentence through facebook, after his phone charge died; another friend changed his profile picture to a map of Japan, showing clearly how far he was from the Fukushima power plant, so his US friends and relatives could get some context.
Skype has offered every Japanese account holder 25 free minutes to contact relatives, and the Japanese social networking site Mixi is offering both an information page and organizing fundraising for the disaster victims. Social media have been excellent in their handling of this crisis.
Work and Social Disruption Outside the Disaster Zone
Because it’s so hard to move around Tokyo at the moment, many shops are closed or running on reduced electricity, and the town has a very different feeling to three weeks ago when I arrived. The usual frantic pace of partying and shopping has died down. Many people are working from home, and my colleagues are treating the workplace as a dangerous excursion, with only two staff members going in once a day. No one wants to be far from home when the aftershock comes. Many large businesses have shut down for the week, and/or have rejigged their activities to send support to the North. The whole country has been submerged into a sombre mood, in which the frivolous ordinary lifestyle of a week ago has been, at least partly, suspended.
Big companies make up the backbone of Japanese economic life, and they have responded rapidly to the disaster. Yamaha alone is sending 500 diesel generators into the disaster zone, and another company 1000; NEOS Gasoline have sent a fleet of tankers to carry petroleum, and many agricultural coops and smaller supermarkets have scrambled to reopen shops in disaster-struck towns. Throughout the tsunami zone since Tuesday, shops have been slowly reopening to try and resupply the locals. Nonetheless, the shattered infrastructure and blocked roads have made it hard to get any help into the area quickly. The government has even released stocks of salt from its strategic salt reserve [who knew countries had such things?] to help with the production of food. Many smaller companies are donating stocks to disaster coordination agencies and prefectural governments (individuals have been told not to do this), or sending skilled workers. Particularly, prefectural government staff have been sent from across the country to help with coordinating disaster efforts.
Cold Weather and Floods
After the tsunami came a cold snap that drove temperatures across Japan below zero. Here in steamy Beppu night-time temperatures were forecast to hit -2, and in the affected area -4. This came with heavy snow in the North. On top of this, the Spring Tide season started yesterday, leading to 8 days of above-average tide levels. The earthquake apparently lowered the coastal land by 40cm in the affected area, so tides are going to be particularly high this year and will probably inundate inland areas that would otherwise be safe. In some places the tsunami actually destroyed cities’ typhoon wave barriers – huge constructions of reinforced concrete that were smashed into pieces like lego blocks, further weakening coastal resistance to high tides and heavy weather. This is going to be a huge reconstruction task.
Evacuation, starvation and nuclear panic
Some tens of people have died in or during movement to evacuation centres, largely through the cold or lack of access to proper medicines. The self defence forces found one hospital in the exclusion zone of the power plant that had been abandoned by staff, with some 6 patients already dead. With no power supplies and limited transport in or out, some hastily-established evacuation centres have received no medicine before Friday. On Friday I saw an interview with a nurse who was the only medical professional in an ad hoc evacuation centre in a school, that had been formed by the local city office. They had no power, no lights, and only the medicine they could scrounge up from the immediate vicinity; and no way to get in or out for more. This nurse had spent 6 days managing the health complaints of 200 or so evacuees – including injuries – while waiting for some kind of help to get through. She had organized medical charts, lists of needed medicines, and treatment regimens as best she could, but had obviously run out of everything she needed by Friday, when the first self defence force supplies reached her. In the interview she was composed but clearly at the end of her tether. Can you imagine being forced to take responsibility for such a task, with nothing more at your disposal than your own ingenuity?
I think that the evacuation and resupply task has been made much harder by the nuclear panic, because people leaving the areas are clogging roads, and people unable to leave are scared to go outside to find the support material they need. Not to mention the occasional moments of callous terror evidenced in people abandoning their patients during evacuation. A more reasonable approach to nuclear terror is needed, I think. Which brings us to…
The Fukushima Power Plant
I have left this to last because of the controversy surrounding it in the international press. Eight days on, it still hasn’t entered a meltdown, and according to the WHO radiation levels outside the 30km exclusion zone are not harmful to health. On Thursday the self defence forces started water bombing it, and on Friday the fire department and defence forces started spraying it with water, including using special appliances from Tokyo that can spraydown into the containment vessel. Radiation inside the plant is high and there are concerns for the workers there, but it’s not out of control yet, and workers are not sent back to the reactor after they exceed 150 milliseiverts.
A professor interviewed on NHK this morning revealed that the design plans for Japanese reactors don’t cover an event of this magnitude, and no one had envisaged such a catastrophic failure, which basically consists of the complete destruction of all infrastructure within 50km, that is a collapse of the external electricity grid as well as all functioning roads and support services. I have heard that the reactor was built to withstand 8m waves, but the waves that hit it were well above that, and delivered with considerably more force than the reactor was designed for. Nonetheless all 6 plants are still standing, and 2 are in relatively good condition. And although they hadn’t planned for damage of this magnitude, the reactor team did a drill in November last year that involved patching in power from an external grid; they’re using this drill to set up the current external power supply, only they have to run power cables from high tension lines some distance from the plant (the only lines intact after the event). This isn’t a trivial task, since presumably they will have to find a transformer in the wreckage.
The description of the repair task being undertaken, given on TV this morning, was terrifying. All the pumps and electrical gear in the plants were submerged by the wave, and destroyed, so they need to repatch the electrical systems and then repair pumps; but repairing pumps requires getting power into them to diagnose problems. So they have 20 staff working in the least damaged reactors (1 and 2, I think), in the dark, wearing heavy protective gear, frantically trying to restore electrical function in heavily damaged equipment. This has to be done at a fast pace because they can only work there for 8 or 10 hours before they reach their radiation limit and have to be taken out. They also have to pause when the spraying of damaged plants would interfere with cable laying or cleanup.
It’s worth bearing in mind that before repairs could begin, cleanup had to happen. Before equipment could reach them, roads had to be cleared; before cables could be laid, places to lay them to had to be found and water had to drain away.
A lot of the foreign media have panicked over this situation and made a lot of accusations of poor planning, incompetence and confusion on the part of the company, as well as unclear communication by the authorities. The unclear communication is primarily coming from overseas (especially the Americans and the French, including some melodramatic poet in charge of EU energy policy who described it as an “apocalypse” – a phrase I think would be particularly insulting to a country that has seen more clearly than any other what nuclear apocalypse could actually look like). If one listens to Edano san, the PM’s spokesperson, he is being very clear and direct about the situation, which remains – despite the angstridden claims of the foreign press – largely under control, though not yet fixed, 8 days after it started.
As for poor planning – this plant was built 40 years ago, when the biggest quake ever to happen in the area was a 7.3 magnitude. It was designed to withstand 8m tsunami waves, but has survived much larger waves capable of throwing boats on top of schools. I don’t think that there would be a chemical plant or nuclear reactor on earth whose disaster plan includes a section on how to handle the complete destruction of infrastructure surrounding the plant, loss of all road transport facilities, swamping of all repair and support facilities onsite, and inability to bring in new staff for several days (or even food!) Under the circumstances, the staff on that site have done well, and we should all be very impressed by them. Plus, we should remember that radiation leaks from a plant like this aren’t that dangerous, even if it melts down, and focus on the real dangers in this situation – the huge numbers of people who are at risk of illness, hunger and exposure because a massive wave wiped out whole towns and cities.
And we should ask ourselves just how ghoulish the press are being in this situation, with their fixation on a disaster that hasn’t happened, in hopes (?) of having a compound tragedy to report on. Panic merchants and liars, in the circumstances, is my judgment.