Posts Tagged ‘earthquake’

Some Thoughts on Fukushima

April 5, 2011

A few days before I left Tokyo, Japan’s Self Defense Forces made their first attempts to douse a fire in one of the Fukushima reactors.  The drama was broadcast live on NHK. Helicopters carrying huge scoops of seawater one by one approached the damaged nuclear power plant stretched out below them like a wounded dragon belching white smoke.  Dangling on long lines from the helicopters, the scoops released the water while the wind dispersed it into a fine spray that seemed to settle everywhere but on the source of the fire.  The helicopters looked like mosquitos, the scoops their long proboscises that could not quite reach the outsized target.  Scenes from some old Godzilla film came to mind:  The angry monster stomping through the streets of Tokyo swatting aside airplanes like so many insignificant insects.  Although the Fukushima plant is not a living creature but a device created by man himself, there is something archetypal about this battle of men to bring under control a monster of their own making.

The battle is not yet over.  As of this writing, workers are attempting so far unsuccessfully to seal up a crack from which radiation is thought to be leaking.  The rest of Japan waits and watches.  They attempt to resume the “normality” of their daily lives and go about their business as before.  But the cracks are there and won’t be mended soon.

Some people are moved by these events to reconsider nuclear power as the answer to Japan’s energy needs.  A recent JANJAN article by citizen reporter Umigata Masashi [<>%5D tells of an anti-nuclear power demonstration held in Tokyo on March 27 with 1,000 people in attendance.  He reports that while he has participated in such demonstrations before, this time was different because the future of Japan is now truly hanging in the balance.  The demonstrators called for cessation and eventual closure of Japan’s nuclear power facilities, even if this means all Japan’s energy needs cannot be met.  According to the reporter, the safety of food, water, and health must take priority.  He ends the article with this prayer:  “Oh God and Buddha, we beg of you, please stabilize and cool the nuclear reactors, contain the radiation and stop things from getting any worse.  We cannot take this anymore.”

Other people are moved by these events to come out even more strongly in favor of nuclear power, which to the Tree‘s editorial staff seems a premature move.  The internet is jumping with articles and posts by self-styled “experts,” whose main purpose seems to be to allay fears and keep everyone from turning against this form of energy production.  The Tree notes with interest, however, that if there is one thing certain about nuclear power at this moment, it is its uncertainty.  No one yet knows the outcome, short- and long-term, of Fukushima.  Isn’t it therefore too soon to be reassuring anybody about the safety of nuclear power?

Something else we’ve noticed in this literature is a tendency by some of these “experts” to describe their own pro-nuclear views as “rational” or “realistic” as opposed to the anti-nuclear view, which is guided by “panic” or “perception.”  A case in point:  In a March 24 set of interviews with “experts” by Fortune [<>%5D, the following comments appear:

From David Crane:  “It’s simply not realistic” to solve America’s energy needs by developing solar and wind power.  And “it would be an overreaction” to shut down every nuclear plant while safety issues are studied.

From Nathan Myhrvold: “You know, with nuclear, you always have to make the distinction between the perceptual and the real….From a perceptual standpoint, there’s an enormous amount of concern…about the events unfolding in Japan: Could this affect us? Of course it could. But there is no logical reason that this particular incident has to change the way we as a society feel about nuclear power any more than it should change the way we feel about living near the seashore.”  And, “Lurching from one disaster to another, acting in fear and panic, is a stupid way to run a society.”  And therefore, “I am confident that a rational decision would say, ‘Nuclear power is a super-important part of our future.'”

Even the editor, Geoff Colvin, introducing the interviews, climbs aboard the “rationality” bandwagon:  “the danger is that the world’s response to the events at Fukushima may not be rational.”

But just who are these “experts” who claim the label of “rational” for themselves, and who have appointed themselves to decide for the rest of us what is “logical” and “real”?  Well, David Crane is the CEO of NRG Energy, which owns nuclear power facilities in Texas, while Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, which invented TerraPower, a company developing a new kind of whiz-bang nuclear reactor.  In other words, they both have a major financial interest in seeing to it that nuclear power remains a viable option in America’s energy future.  The Tree wonders if these men are truly capable of unbiased “rational” thinking under the circumstances.  Just who is it that has a clearer view of reality here?  Those whose vision is filled daily with scenes of a smoking and intractable Fukushima Daiichi, or those whose vision is partially blocked by dollar signs?

As Myhrvold says, “We can’t afford to allow panic from a particular situation, no matter how tragic, to close our eyes to what could be superior technical solutions.”  Indeed.  And especially, we would add, if you’ve got a whole lot of money invested in those very same solutions.




The Warmth of a Maine Winter

April 3, 2011


Here in Maine it is still winter, and I miss the flowers that bloom in Tokyo even in the coldest of weather.  I stay indoors a lot, sitting by the wood stove trying to get warm.  Ever since the earthquake, I easily feel cold, and sometimes wake in the middle of the night shaking even if it’s warm under the blankets.  I am reminded of my Tokyo neighbor’s toy poodle who now refuses to go back inside the house, and when made to do so starts to shiver all over.  I guess it’s a natural reaction to large unsettling earthquakes.

But even if the weather is cold and snowy, warmth comes from the fire and from people.  A woman from Fed Ex came to the door the other day with a parcel addressed to me from one of my workplaces in Japan.  Noticing the return address she asked me, “Oh, do you know these people?  Are they okay?”  I told her I did know them; that I worked with them, and they were indeed okay.  When she found out I had just come from there, she started to cry.  “I feel so sorry for all those people over there!” she said, giving me a hug.

Concern for Japan is widespread in Maine.  According to an article in the March 23 issue of the Portland Forecaster , several Japan-related organizations in the Portland area have joined together to raise funds to help earthquake and tsunami victims.  Maine’s sister state is Aomori Prefecture, a relationship which began, according to the article, in 1889 when Aomori residents helped to rescue American sailors shipwrecked off their coast.  Now Maine wants to return the favor by sending funds to Aomori.

Other recent fund-raising efforts in Maine included a donation of $250,000 from L.L. Bean, which operates outlets in Japan, and origami lessons at the Bangor Mall, where for a donation of $2.00 apiece you could learn to create a beautiful object and appreciate Japan at the same time.


A third-grade boy I know donated $6.00 and created these origami items at the Bangor Mall booth.

Stellated Icosahedron

Asked what the experience was like, he told the Tree, “I loved it.  It was just amazing how everything fitted together.”

Any thoughts about Japan?  “I thought a lot about Japan, about how it is kind of broke down and we are helping Japan,” he replied.


Thank you, Mainers!


Flight Record

April 1, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011. 6:30 AM:  Leave home, walk to Nishiogikubo Station.  6:55 AM:  Arrive station.  7:01 AM:  Catch Sobu line.  10 other passengers in car; 3 people in the driver’s compartment.  Train moves along without delays, but something feels different about its movement, like walking on thin ice if a train could do that, as if every forward motion were tentative, as if the tracks in front of us might suddenly not be there.

7:17 AM:  Arrive Shinjuku Station.  Lights are dim on the platform and especially on the upper level which I pass through to transfer to Yamanote Line.  No elevators, few people for normally crowded Shinjuku, but after all it is Sunday morning.  Yamanote Line has more people but I can sit down.  7:45 AM:  Arrive Nippori Station.  More people here, lugging heavy suitcases, restroom not crowded but other users are foreigners like me.  Only short lines at the ticket windows for Keisei Skyliner express train to Narita.  I expected crowds here because the other routes to Narita, limousine buses and JR Narita Express are not running.  I get a ticket on the next train, departing at 7:58, and for a brief moment a small amount of all the panic I’ve been making an effort to keep inside spills out as I grab my ticket, glance at the clock and think I have less time to catch the train than I actually do.  I drop my ticket on the floor as I struggle to put away my wallet, keep track of my bags, and run for the ticket gate.

Upstairs on the platform everyone is waiting in orderly lines for the Skyliner to arrive, and I pull myself together and join the mass exodus of gaijin fleeing the Tokyo area.  Some young people, perhaps students from Korea or China, look as if they had brought with them all their possessions thrown together in a hurry into enormous backpacks.

7:58 AM:  Depart Nippori Station for Narita Airport.  Empty seats on train.  Pass Tokyo Sky Tree.  It’s still standing; unlike Tokyo Tower’s spire, it is unbent.  On its upper platforms stand four giant cranes, looking from this distance like giraffes displaced from the savanna.

7:45 AM:  arrive Terminal 1, Narita after smooth, careful ride through Chiba.  The platform is no more crowded than usual.  In my rush to catch the train earlier, I used my Suica (train pass) card to enter the ticket gate, forgetting to check the balance to see if it would cover the trip out to Narita.  Now when I tap the card on the electronic eye of the ticket gate, I am refused exit.  A Keisei employee wearing a white mask is standing at the gate and he waves me through.  After passport control, I glance back at the JR entrance and see that the fare machines, where I could have refilled my Suica card, are all shut down.  I guess that explains why the Keisei man let me through.

I am the only person on the elevator going up to the departure lobby.  The North Wing is busy but not crowded.  There are plenty of luggage carts, currency exchanges are open, and shops with food available.  All around me I hear a variety of languages or heavily accented English.  Other travelers are Americans, Europeans, or other Asians.  Just about the only Japanese people are the airport employees, and later a group of young people heading off on what looks like a study tour.  The check-in line is not long; the agents at Delta are pleasant, efficient, helpful.  The people at the currency exchange window and the baggage delivery service and at security are all smiles and helpfulness.  I am momentarily overcome with self-contempt for running away and leaving them to their fate.

At the currency exchange window is a box where you can donate cash to the Red Cross.  I ask the woman behind the window if this money will go to help the people up north, and she says no, just to the Red Cross generally.  Then she goes off and asks someone where I can donate to earthquake/tsunami relief, and comes back all smiles with directions to the special box set up to collect donations.  I find it next to the information booth at the entrance to the departure lobby.  The young women sitting there smile and thank me.  I turn away to hide my eyes and find myself face to face with a young Japanese woman pulling a suitcase behind her.  She looks at me in tears and thanks me in English.  It is all I can do to voice my heartfelt “You’re welcome.”

Unable to eat very much for the past few days due to lack of appetite, suddenly I’m hungry.  I’ve plenty of time on my hands since my flight doesn’t leave till 2:50.  So before going through security I visit a bakery/cafe.  While the shelves are not piled high with offerings, there’s plenty to choose from, and for ¥636 ($8.00) I get both breakfast and lunch:  one coffee, two small cheese rolls, and a ham/vegie sandwich.  A family of four comes in and sits next to me.  Are they French? I hear Bon? Bon! a few times, and “Fukushima,” but then the father sings, “Three is a lonely number,” and when they leave he says, Vamos!  They are replaced by a young woman who spills her coffee all over her coat.  I’m not the only flustered person around here!

10:30 AM:  Long lines at security.  In front of me are the young people heading off somewhere in a group.  Their families stand behind the barrier waving them off, all smiles—do they cover anxiety or express relief?  After a ten-minute wait, I am through security in seconds.  Shorter than usual lines downstairs at Immigration: takes only 5 minutes.

As my gate has not been assigned yet, I wander around aimlessly.  Only gates where departures are imminent are crowded, and there are plenty of empty chairs elsewhere.  On the departure board, several flights have been cancelled:  KLM, Vienna, Taipei.  My Delta flight is still on course.  Behind the departure board, a row of empty massage chairs, ¥200 for 10 minutes.  I sit down and get my legs squeezed and back pummeled.

Still three hours till boarding time.  The boarding area feels emptier than usual.  I drop by Doutor for coffee and to eat my sandwich.  Noon:  sitting in Doutor, suddenly the atmosphere changes.  People trickle in, and then more and more.  Pretty soon the coffee shop is full and bustling.  I leave and check the departures board.  My flight has been assigned a gate.  By the time I get there, nearly all the chairs are full.  Lots of young women with little kids, American military wives going back to the States, leaving their husbands behind on duty.

We board on time; the plane is full.  All airline personnel behave efficiently and professionally.  As we race down the runway for take-off, I finally allow the tears to flow.


Nishiogi Shopping (2)

March 15, 2011

As of 12:45 PM, the Coop in Nishiogikita had fresh fruits and vegies.  Still no milk, bread or rice and the shelves are nearly empty of many other things.  As I left, a large delivery truck was unloading refrigerated goods, so perhaps the shelves will be replenished soon.

Many shops are closed, and those that are open, like convenience stores and the Coop, have turned off many of their lights.  The interior is dim yet perfectly adequate, which makes me realize how much electricity we use unnecessarily.  Do convenience stores and supermarkets really need to be so brightly lit even when conditions are normal?

A sign in front of the train station confirms that the areas in our neighborhood which will experience blackout are Shoan 3, Zenpukuji 1 to 4, and Nishiogikita 3 to 5.  The blackout will occur from 3:20 to 7 PM.  I saw a train go by on the Chuo Line heading toward Mitaka about 10:30 this morning, and it was nearly empty.  Buses are not so full either, and there seem to be plenty of taxis around.

I have not yet found milk, but bread of various kinds can be found in smaller bakeries, all of which have lines in front of them.  I waited 10 minutes in front of Lisdor Mitsu, just south of Nishiogi Station.  They have bagels and several fresh baked loaves of their popular brewer’s yeast bread.  There was a line at Dila’s Asanoya Bakery (in the station building), made to wait outside.  A young man at the door would let people in periodically.  This seemed a good arrangement to let people buy their bread  in comfort.  The shelves, seen through the windows, were piled high with their products.

Seiyu at Nishiogi Station has reopened.  I did not go in, so I don’t know what they have available.  The post office in Nishiogi 2-chome has a sign out front announcing that they will close early today, at 2:30 PM.  Various small eateries near the station were open and serving lunch.


Power Outage Update

March 14, 2011

It’s confusing out there!  Anyway, a visit to the home page of Suginami City Hall discovered this interesting bit:


“Areas scheduled for power outage:  Shoan 3-chome, Zenpukuji 1 through 4-chome, Nishiogikita 3 through 5- chome.  *Kami Igusa is out of the targeted areas.”

Does this mean other parts of Suginami-ku will not experience power outages?  No explanation is given.  To some extent—no, to a great extent—the confusion is understandable.  But a notice like this leaves questions unanswered that you can’t help but think they could have answered if they’d tried.   Or maybe the people down at City Hall are just as confused and exhausted as the rest of us…

In times like this, when voices of authority are not reliable, we have to rely on our own wits.  Even if you are not in one of the areas scheduled for an outage, it won’t hurt to stock up on water and batteries and candles just in case.

Suginami-ku home page: <;

Just now (1:10 PM) Tokyo Electric (Tepco) held a press conference to announce that Group 3 would also continue to have electricity for the time being.  About Group 4 (places like Shinagawa and Meguro) they will make an announcement later.  The Tepco spokesman looked peaked.  Everyone, in fact, who appears on TV to make announcements and updates is looking frazzled.   I want to send them all a loud THANK YOU for the intensive work they have to do without rest even though they all must be as worried and anxious and upset as everybody else.

Power Cuts in Tokyo

March 14, 2011

There seems to be little information available in English about the planned power outages in the Tokyo area.  This site has a list of the areas and neighborhoods, the group number they have been assigned to, and a schedule of the outages for each group:

The site is in Japanese, but there is a map with colored areas matched to times for scheduled outages which you should be able to understand even if you cannot read Japanese. [Update: The map has disappeared from the site.]  The only problem with it is that the 23 wards have no color, are left white.  Does this mean the 23 wards will not experience power cuts?  It is not clear.  Tokyo Tree‘s neighborhood is listed as being in Group 1, with outage scheduled for 6:20 AM to 10:00 AM, and 4:50 PM to 8:30 PM.  However, at 6:20 nothing happened.  According to NHK news, Tepco did not carry out the outage for group 1 at the scheduled time but are still apparently planning to carry it out at some point.  It is not clear to me why group 1 did not experience power cuts.

We have also been warned that loss of electricity will or most likely will mean loss of water supply, land phone line, and internet.  There is no mention of the effect on gas supply.  We are cautioned to unplug electrical appliances so that when the electricity comes back on, nothing has been left on.  Traffic lights may not be working.  People are requested to avoid driving, but if you are driving, you are requested to drive slowly especially when approaching an intersection without traffic lights working and no traffic cop around.   As of this writing, JR is operating the Chuo and Yamanote lines, but not others.  If you are planning to use the train or subway today, be prepared for delays or in some cases no train at all.  I just heard that the monorail is running on schedule.

Nishiogi Shopping

March 13, 2011

I just got back from another tour of the ‘hood.  Nishiogikubo’s Seiyu—proud member of the “WAL*MART Family”—is closed.  A sign on the shuttered entrance says they are closed till further notice due to the earthquake and refers shoppers to other Seiyu stores in Kichijoji and Ogikubo.  What do you suppose happened?  Possibly I was the last person to buy anything there before they closed.  At that time, while things had fallen off shelves, I saw no signs of damage to the building itself, which, after all, the recorded announcement kept assuring us was “safe.”  I would venture a guess that they were all sold out of everything, were it not for their referral of shoppers to nearby Seiyu stores.

If you hurry, maybe you can get that last set of tissue paper.

Moving on to Seijo Drugs to pick up some vitamins, I found the place crowded with shoppers and the line too long to stick around and wait in.  Out back the shelves normally full of tissue and toilet paper were nearly empty.  There’s a run on these items, and I passed people loaded down with them on the street.

Yesterday I had done a big shop at the Coop, but there had been no bread, bananas, strawberries or broccoli.  Today too no bread, and the fruit section was empty except for a few lonely kiwis and avocados.  Fresh vegies too were wiped out except a couple of bunches of celery, asparagus, and cucumbers.  Milk all gone, eggs all gone, rice all gone.  Shoppers were wandering around exclaiming, “But there’s nothing here!”  There is still some processed packaged food left, though, and for some reason lots of fresh flowers.  Signs above the empty compartments apologized for being sold out of just about everything due to the earthquake.

I then checked out Fuji Garden, right next door to the Coop, across the street from Daiso.  They’ve got lots of everything there, especially in the fresh foods department.  So if you want something besides kiwi and celery, pop next door for more variety.  What Fuji Garden is out of, though, is milk, bread, tofu, and fresh noodles. [The Coop (Seikyo) is located at Nishiogikita 1-2, next to the railroad tracks.]

Is this just a temporary glitch in the system?  Or are we really in for long-term shortages?  That remains to be seen.  I’ve got four and a half rolls of toilet paper at home and five box of tissues.  Let’s see what happens when I run out…


March 11, 2011

I had just come back from a dentist appointment in Kanda, taking the Tozai subway line to Nishiogikubo Station.  I dropped in at Seiyu to buy some underwear and was carrying it to the check out counter when I noticed that the clothing hanging up on the walls was swaying back and forth.  I froze in the middle of the large open clothing department.  A salesclerk came running through calling out to everyone to take shelter in a safe place.  Like where?  I wondered.  The standard drill is to take cover under a table or desk, or lacking that a doorframe.  But there was nothing like that around me.  Two other shoppers ran behind the counter and crouched down.  I dropped to the floor next to the outside of the counter and started praying loudly.  I felt exposed and vulnerable.

I’ve been in Tokyo during countless earthquakes, including being on the 38th floor of a skyscraper,  and in a swaying elevator,  and I’ve had a couple of photographs in glass frames fall shattering to the floor at midnight, but nothing was ever like this.  I don’t know how long it lasted.  I did not have the presence of mind to time it.  But it felt abnormally long.  An announcement came repeatedly from the store’s PA system telling us that the building was safe, so not to worry.  But it was a recording and failed to reassure me.

When the worst was over, I found myself standing up and actually paying for the undershirts at the cash register.  I think both I and the salesclerk were in a state of shock and weren’t sure how to proceed.  Was the store still open for business?  Maybe we just wanted to do something normal, carry on as usual.  I walked out of the store through the cosmetics department past aisles cluttered with fallen bottles of shampoo and deodorant.

Outside the store is a narrow alleyway lined with tiny drinking and eating facilities where the clientele are usually sitting on stools at a counter right out in the open.  Now the alleyway was crowded with people standing around talking to each other excitedly about the earthquake.  I passed many with cell phones pressed to their ears.  I arrived back at the train station where people were just standing around as if waiting to see what would happen next, looking lost as their plans for the late afternoon had suddenly fallen apart.  Where to go now?  What to do?  A man came along and asked two young women dressed in waitress uniforms if they were all right.

I turned right and went down another narrow alley to Dante coffee shop.  I had no idea if it would still be open for business, but I was shook up and wanted to be in a comforting place.  A customer was just leaving, and two more were standing at the counter, the cups at their seats sitting in saucers of spilled brown liquid.  I asked the master if he were still open, and he said yes, so I went in and sat down.  He explained that the gas had cut off so it would take a few minutes longer than usual to make the coffee.  I told him where I had been and we talked about the experience.  He said it was the strongest quake he had ever felt in his life, and he looks to be in his 50s.  I ordered the coffee featured for the day, Blue Mountain, and he laughed and apologized.  The sign for the coffee of the day had fallen to the floor, and the Blue Mountain under it was for another day.

I figured out that more than the sign had fallen as the master walked about behind his counter, crunching broken glass underfoot.  The two people at the counter left after paying the master the half price he charged them for the coffee that had spilled.  A woman came in, saying she had intended to go shopping at Seiyu  but they weren’t letting anybody in.  Since I was starting to calm down, I felt foolish for having gone through with my shopping.

Dante is illuminated by pendant lamps, and has a small bell attached to the front door which rings whenever someone opens or closes it.  The bell began to “ting ting ting” though no one had opened the door and the pendant lamps began to swing back and forth.  “After shocks,” the master announced, but these after shocks felt as strong as the usual earthquake, and if you’ve just experienced one much stronger, these after shocks can be terrifying.

He brought me my coffee.  I savored it, and savored the vase of yellow tulips on the counter in a glass vase that had not been thrown to the floor.  Bach played softly in the background.  The master swept up spilled coffee beans from the floor.  If this was the end, then Dante seemed a good place to be, a place of mental if not physical safety.

There was no news of where the earthquake had been centered or what was happening elsewhere.  The other customer said that no one could get through on their cell phones.  About 4 o’clock I decided I’d better get on home and inspect the damage.  I opened my door to broken dishes, broken glass scattered everywhere, windows wide open, refrigerator and bookshelves shoved away from the walls.  I haven’t even begun to make a dent in the mess.

And now, four hours after the quake first hit, I am sitting here at my desk, and as I have been typing this post, and even now the room is shaking back and forth.  As computer and TV are fine, I now know that the quake was centered off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan, and the tsunami warnings are uppermost on everyone’s mind.  I do not yet know what the magnitude was of Tokyo’s share.   I’ve dug my earthquake kit out of the back of the closet, and now must begin cleaning up the mess.