15 March 2011

Japan Mayhem

Sendai Tanabata credit
I'm normally sort of a mess addressing Topical Tuesday. I'm extremely opinionated, but don't want to make THIS a political place (though I am aware on a world front, I am far more moderate than I am on a US only evaluation, where I fall somewhere between Progressive and Bleeding Heart). This week however, there is a lot of BIGGER THAN POLITICS stuff going on.

I will say first, I am not the most informative Burrower to read on this... Cruella is actually living in Tokyo, Japan and much of what I know or can surmise is ONLY because she has been so articulate about her experience. I recommend checking out her blog for her first hand account.

I do however, have a handful of friends over there, and think I can put together some thoughts that aren't my normal riduculum.

In Praise of Modern Technology

I have four friends living in Japan at the moment—three I went to high school with, including one of my closest friends through high school--my original friend of the mind-meld--we could see something, look at each other and FALL OVER laughing because we shared the same (typically dirty) reaction. (all these three are married to Japanese citizens, and so are there permanently), and then there is Cruella, who I normally talk to (almost) daily—you know her too... and she will return to Norway in May or June, though knowing her love of Japan, I expect she will end up back there at some later date.

I knew there'd been a small earthquake several days before this, as Cruella had posted about it making her seasick. I'd thought (based on my minimal personal experience), that it was one of those things that was sort of spooky, sort of cool... (you can thunk me in the head in a minute)

[Digression #1: when I was a senior in high school, I had an 'early bird' Calculus class. It began at 7am. I drove to school and on the street ran into my friend Kim, also parking for the same class (yes, in Moscow Idaho, most high school seniors had access to a vehicle to get to school), and we walked into the building together. There was a pervasive clicking... horror film stuff... closer inspection showed us the locks were tapping against their lockers--all of them... in unison... we only had to walk 15 feet before we rounded a corner and a teacher met us saying, “there's been an earthquake, we need everyone to leave the building until they're sure it's safe”. Well WE didn't need telling twice. Kim spooks easier than most anyway, and I honestly LIKED being a little freaked out (being me)... we waited and were finally let in... went to Calculus, and as Mrs. Ringo spoke... a CRACK ran through the paint, first at the front, then at the back of the classroom... I swear it looked like half the classroom was going to fall off the building... it didn't, but several people changed chairs with no objection from Mrs. Ringo... after the fact... it was COOL--one of those stories to tell... so that makes up exactly half of my earthquake experience...]

My first knowledge of THIS BIG ONE though (biggest one ever, if I am reading reliable sources), was the notice “I'm okay,” from Cruella. It was posted on Facebook, and exploration of mutual friends displayed a lot of worry over several hours, but being in my time zone... I'd slept through the excitement. Once I knew Cruella was fine, I proceeded to check Facebook for two of my old friends... the third isn't on Facebook. It turned out one was in Hawaii at the time (she and her husband met when she was a flight attendant on the Honolulu/Tokyo route and they have interests in both places—though she WAS worried about her husband--more in a bit)... My friend NOT on Facebook though, was the one I had to wait on, as I needed to wait for her to respond to my one-on-one email.

Success... all four friends safe... But I learned some interesting things I hadn't known.

Tokyo Credit
Tokyo is DARNED Resilient

This is from the things Cruella has posted. It sounds an awful lot like once the rail system got moving again, businesses got back to normal. She stayed at the Embassy, as the house where she rents a room 'felt like paper' and the Embassy seemed much more stable (and aftershocks are still in effect). It sounded like any shortages (as of this weekend) WERE there were due to Westerners panicking and stocking up.

Now I have no idea WHY the Japanese are so calm and efficient, but it certainly sounds like those are the predominant traits coming through. Maybe, as an island far from most everything, it just takes a lot longer to run OUT because they already had products in transit before things hit? It makes sense that imported goods would have been disrupted since Friday and may NOW be coming up short, where over the weekend, the things that had already made land were still easy enough to get where they had to go...

I don't know what portion of Japan's imports come by air and what by sea... I DO know the sea warnings are still in effect...

Transportation Problems

My friend who was in Honolulu at the time had a return flight to catch. I take it she lives north of Tokyo... What she found off the plane was a 5 hour wait for getting on the 'next bus' to home (I got the impression still no train?  I am working with FB updates, so I hope I understood that)... she and a few others decided instead to split cab fare... On their ride (4000 yen each), they sat in silence as the 3rd nuclear reactor exploded.  She is gathering things and headed BACK to Honolulu, though her husband can't go. He has a new business he just can't leave. I can't imagine being separated, but I also can't imagine HIM wanting his wife there in the danger if she doesn't need to be when they have other options.

A Detour

My close high school friend... the one it took me a while to reach... lives in Okinawa. Yes, Okinawa that had to come back after one of the only nuclear bombs ever exploded... there is a large US military base there, but she is there because it is where her husband is from (though initially she went there to teach English with the JETS program).

But see... Okinawa is the large city FARTHEST from the devastation... Okinawa is far to the south in Japan (it's actually tropical) and so has experienced some small tremors ( 0.5-1.0 in strength) and has had warnings not to go on the beach... but because of their history, everything is strongly reinforced for both earthquake and tsunami... their life has been largely unaffected... except the emotional impact.

Michelle talks of something akin to survivor's guilt. She has a sister-in-law in Tokyo who is okay, but her WHOLE FAMILY there is Japanese—they are tied to this event. They know people they are worried about, but they are worried for their country in a bigger way, too. Michelle's email from Sunday morning said they'd been warned of a few more earthquakes around the 6.0 range in strength, so she went to the bank, the gas station, and the grocery... stocking up for a disaster, but feeling this odd powerlessness that THEY aren't probably the people who need this... and how do they help?

I'm sure SHE, like Cruella, would request if you WANT to help, to donate to disaster relief for the people actually affected. If you can. I know economic recovery is a trickle down process, so not everybody can... but in whatever form, we can send prayers, karma, warm thoughts, healing energy... whatever your belief (the scientist I am by day knows it doesn't matter--it ALL works--our collective energies are a thing of beauty, so send away)

And then the Nuclear Thing...

GADS! I need to confess something. Among the things that scare me, NOTHING outranks nuclear power plants. It may or may not be rational, but I've long felt like our skills were outpaced by the potential for disaster. Now Cruella posted a FB update about this Sunday... that Chernobyl comparisons were not appropriate... knowledgeable people said the modern technology made that kind of disaster all but impossible. All. But.

(My American Friends hold the same indoctrination I do, so they are more worried, mostly...)

Not impossible. All BUT impossible... I worry for the radiation disaster that seems possible, if not likely. But even barring that... given 55 nuclear power plants... 11 with damage... that is a 20% cut in power in the short term... Maybe in the long term... At least 5 of these plants seem to have sustained substantial damage... maybe the time of year is lucky... Daylight Saving Time is all ABOUT power conservation... but I can't help but wonder if there is a pending power shortage and how that might impact the recovery efforts.

Michelle said the 8 prefectures (which to me, sounds like states) closest to Sendai are having rolling 3-hour blackouts for the time being to conserve power. My friend Cathy expressed her home was in one of these, so it gets CLOSE to Tokyo... This seems so practical and reasonable... which considering the magnitude of everything, is darned impressive.

And this just in... From Michelle--she is part of a Yahoo group of educators in Japan and forwarded this from their discussion on the nuclear threat:

But here's one helpful comment (from my friend at Princeton) regarding
the nuclear power plant issue:

"To the best of my understanding, the technical analysis in this blog


is essentially correct. In other words, there is *very* little danger of a radiation release at Fukushima significantly affecting people at the distance of Tokyo. And even people in the area are surely at much more risk from less exotic dangers such as typhoid (from contaminated water supplies), tainted food, dehydration and exposure, fires started by the earthquake etc. English language news coverage in the US is focusing heavily on the "nuclear crisis" (I don't know about the Japanese coverage), but this is basically due to "nuclear hysteria" and the media's love of fear, as far as I can see."

And then here are two more links from Michelle on the discussions about the nuclear power stuff:

So that is fairly heartening... Did I mention of my lifetime friends Michelle is probably the one with the highest IQ? (in fact I'd bet I could place her with Jason and Leanne, which my fellow Burrowers know is fairly phenomenal) This makes her the rare American likely to assess the information and come up with the rational answer? So on the nuclear piece, I think this is a fair assessment.

Still I wonder...
How devastating is this going to be to Japan's economy?
How much does that affect other world economies?

I'm sure a ton of you know a lot more on the subject than I do, so PLEASE, chime in!


Jan Morrison said...

Oh Hart, I think you know lots and I'm glad you are writing on this in your good and fair way. I am, as I freely admit, not a listener anymore to news but I have been going on a bit. I listen only to BBC not to any american stuff because I don't trust it. I heard a nuclear physicist on As It Happens last night (a CBC radio show). He wasn't encouraging. Not at all. But he wasn't hysterical either.
I'm like you - when we go through New Brunswick to Maine (when we do) we go by a big nuclear power plant. I don't even like driving by it. there. I'm a ninny.
Jan Morrison

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm not in love with nuclear power either. In my uneducated view there is too much potential for monumental disaster if things go awry.

Prayers continue for everyone affected. I'm happy for you that your friends are safe.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

The scope of this disaster has really just been tough to even digest. So glad your friends are well. I was thinking how completely amazing the Japanese people are--so calm and organized during crises. And they were so prepared even *before* the disaster--building codes, drills, etc.

Amber T. Smith said...

Just the word 'nuclear' makes me cringe. I have no real clue about it, and no desire to find out more lest I scare myself into an early grave.

It's been five day since the quake hit Japan, and still I can't get my head around the sheer scale of the tragedy. It's just awful.

Hart Johnson said...

Jan, i trust the BBC a lot more than US news myself. The US news force is all about ratings, which means they sensationalize everything. And there is a Nuclear Power Plant in Washington that is a place where the Columbia river juts down, so it has Oregon east, west and south of it, and it has always made me both sad and scared. I never liked driving by it, either.

Carol, that's exactly right... I guess I figure until we know how to neutralize the waste, really it's just stupid to tinker.

Thank you, Elizabeth, and that was exactly my impression, though Mari's blog today suggests that was the short term response and it's getting worse.

Tara-exactly! It is so sad... just SO SAD...

Natasha said...

It sounds almost unbelievable when I say it, but I heard about the tsunami from S's status update. And I saw that update right after coming out of a call with a lady who is working with a community that was affected by the 2004 tsunami that struck India. Six years down, they are still coping with problems like groundwater sources being contaminated by saline water.
I know the immediate reaction is to want to do something, but in most cases, where people most need help are after the immediate things are over.

Sorry, nothing to do with the post, but it is just something I have been thinking about a lot the last couple of days- on how we can help apart from sending positive karma.