Sunday, March 13, 2011

422. Japan Quake (with updates)

As usual it came along without any warning. I had left the house that afternoon to drive up to the Honda factory where I was teaching a daily intensive. The class was scheduled to begin at 2 pm. My student and I had settled into a tatami room at the Training Center and were 45 minutes into the lesson when the light fixtures started shaking. Soon we could feel the movement rising up through the mats but it didn't seem all that bad at the time. It did go on for quite a long time, though, about 3 or 4 minutes, which in my experience of earthquakes over here was far longer than usual. Generally you will feel a jolt and the movement will last 30 seconds or so. My student and I left the room for the lobby of the building where we immediately turned on the TV. All stations had switched over to emergency reports as they do in Japan: this country experiences something like 20% of all worldwide earthquakes and tremors and their response is immediate. My student made a few calls on his cellphone (the local networks had not been affected) and told me he had to report back to his office, and could I wait for him? He later called to say he would be held up and the lesson was cancelled. I drove home. There were no signs of damage anywhere and the traffic flow was the same as usual.

Back at the house I followed the reports coming through on TV. It soon became apparent that the quake had been a lot bigger than I had realized. Locally the quake had registered as a Level 5 on the Richter scale (which is not all that terrible by Japanese standards) but at the epicentre about 600 km to the north, off the eastern coast near Sendai, it was reported as a Level 8.8 which made it the largest quake ever recorded in Japan since records began about a century ago.

The images coming through on TV made it apparent that the destruction had been massive in areas of the north with fears of a tsunami to come. Casualties in the early reports were placed at 40 people or so, rising later to about 60. It was to get much much worse as the later tsunami reports started to come in.

Casualty reports soon mounted into the hundreds as reports of massive waves along the Tohoku coast came in as well as fires and collapsing buildings as far south as the Tokyo area. Pedestrians in some cities were shown dodging debris falling down from highrise buildings. A nuclear reactor in Fukushima was reported as severely damaged. Police reported recovering several hundred bodies from the coastline near Sendai.

Now several ships have been reported missing as well as four trains that were travelling along the northeastern coastal route. As news continues to come in the magnitude of the destruction and the numbers of those feared dead or missing increases by the hour. This is turning out to be one of the worst natural disasters this country has experienced since the 1995 earthquake that devastated Kobe.

-- Sunday 3/13, 9.52 am

The aftermath of this thing is becoming a very grisly affair for those poor people up in the worst hit areas. Hundreds if not thousands of people are still missing with little hope being held out for their survival whereas something like 200,000 people or more are bedding down in temporary shelters on extremely limited rations of food and water. Shops and other services are basically not functioning. The nuclear reactors are shut down and the electricity grid is severely affected with power from the Tokyo area being redirected up north, hence the Tokyo power cuts. Apart from the human tragedy involved this is a devastating hit on the still very sluggish Japanese economy and rebuilding and recovery will take months, possibly years ... and where some of those coastal communities are concerned, sadly, maybe never.

-- Tuesday 3/15, 9.44 pm

Oh, no! We've just had another one. It was about 30 seconds or so in duration starting at 10.32 local time and it was centred on our area, Shizuoka. It was mild but my God, I'm starting to think this is malevolent. I know, logically, that nature is a blind force acting according to certain rules and conditions, but I'm also thinking that poor old Japan is coming under the hammer.

-- Tuesday 3/15, 11.29 pm

This is a map I have borrowed, in fact stolen, from a friend (with his belated but gracious permission) which shows where we live. We exist and enjoy our generally pleasant social being more or less under the same yellow pin which, as you can see, is quite some distance from where the Friday earthquake struck: (please click on the photo to enlarge)

-- Wednesday, 3/16, 4.52 pm

If you want to help out, and I don't think the currently weak Japanese government is really able to handle this thing entirely on their own, Google has put a donation link to the Japanese Red Cross

Nothing much happening locally. Our area is pretty much back to normal, never actually departed much from normal even last Friday, but the mood is nervous. We had that tremor the other night which wound people up just that little bit tighter than they were wound up before. Foreign friends are talking about leaving Japan, often under pressure from their families at home. Friends from Germany expected next week have abruptly cancelled their travel plans. I can understand all this but don't extend much sympathy. This is a dangerous country (earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, you name it) so if you can't handle that idea why bother coming in the first place? I think of all my Japanese friends, not to mention the handful of people I would gladly see swallowed up by any disaster, natural or man-made, and I also think of the millions of Japanese with family and local roots going back for generations and even centuries. This slinky archipelago off the East Asian coast is their home, for better or worse, and over the years since my initial bumbling arrival when I could barely speak three words of the language, it has become my home as well. My wife is Japanese. My daughter is half-Japanese, a third American, and three-quarters Irish (makes perfect sense) so this is no time to cut and run. This is a time to stick around and do what you can to help. Some of the Pretty People will duck out ... as they always do ... but who cares about them?

Saint Patrick's Day tomorrow -- Beannachtaí na Feile Padraig! -- but no-one's in much of a mood to party. How can you with people half starving and living in tents?

Wednesday, 3/16, 9.15 pm.

The shops have started running out of water, toilet rolls and rice as the city's beleaguered citizens panic-buy and supplies get clogged in the country's transport arteries. Candles, facemasks and umbrellas have sold out too, after government officials advised using them to protect from fallout. "Leave the umbrellas outside your door when you come back home," said one. Many convenience stores have shut their doors after ending up with nothing to sell, a minor but telling sign of the disintegration of normal life in a city where the stores light up almost every street.
-- David Mc Neill, Independent March 16, 2011

This is Tokyo he's talking about, the capital, 90 minutes away by train. He goes on to say that thousands of people are streaming out of Tokyo just to get away from the (worrying) possibility of radiation fallout. People, he says, are carrying umbrellas to keep the radiation off. This is like Alice in Wonderland. Morale in the country is NOT falling apart. Everyone is understandably confused, worried, and thinking about leaving for safer areas. In most cases they stay where they are if their homes and workplaces are still standing and simply carry on as before. Where the hell would they run to, anyway, with the airports closed and many train lines down? Actually, the airports are open again. The problem was you couldn't get to them for several days unless you flagged down a madly grinning taxi driver who could shake you down for 2 or 300 dollars. In some cases the flight would have been cheaper.

The government says the nuclear reactors are under control but in this country everyone is sceptical about government pronouncements. Nobody quite believes them. On the other hand, it could be possible that the government IS telling the truth for a change. That would be an interesting development and I personally believe that they are not lying, for the simple reason that so many people from so many different official and semi-official agencies are involved that it would be impossible to suppress the reality of what is happening. This is an opposition party in power (beleagured from all sides) and not the usual LDP, the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling elite for the last 50 years who were neither liberal nor democratic in any loose definition of those terms and ran the country like a family corporation. These guys lied big time and pretty much all of the time so that the public got used to thinking that governments could never be trusted. A possibly earnest & well-meaning & honest administration like the one we have now could be telling the truth but they are so politically inept that it really makes no difference. The Japanese public are suspicious about any government - albeit in a resigned sort of way. It's quite true that many foreigners are fleeing the capital, often at the urging of their foreign-based companies or families back home.

-- Thursday, 3/17. 2.20 am (get a life, go to bed: no, it's St. Patrick's Day, ye thundering heathen, so I'll have this wee little dram. Good luck to the lads and the lassies, cold and shivering but alive up in Tohoku. Sláinte, mo chairde, and may God be good to you, never mind if you believe in him or not.)

The damn thing goes on: more dead, more missing. I feel so bloody useless. I want to jump on a train and go out and help (doing what, exactly?) There are ongoing transportation problems north of Tokyo. Also, the last thing anyone needs is some eejit like me barging in needing his own portions of food and water when there is not enough food and water to go around. Send money? Been there, done that. What does it mean, though? Drop in the bucket. If a whole bunch of these people come down south looking for food and shelter (no signs of this happening so far) we could probably put up five or six of them in the tiny apartment we live in. Roof over their heads at least and the local stores and supermarkets are still in business, no probs, so plenty of food. Don't know how they'd take to my cooking, though, with this heavy hand on the garlic and chili. See what happens tomorrow.

Yoshikatsu Hiratsuka weeps next to where his mother's body remains buried under rubble in Onagawacho, Miyagi Prefecture, on Thursday morning.

I had to go out to Honda again today for a new class. Talk about deja vu all over again. I had been here when the earthquake hit last Friday afternoon and it was distinctly weird signing in with the same gate guards. The class went well, some poor chap being sent over the the Ohio plant for the next five years, having to leave his wife and three daughters behind. Normal Japanese company procedure. I don't really want to watch television any more. The disaster news goes on and on. Nothing else is on the telly. We're starting to feel earthquake overload, survivor guilt, just a whole load of shite. The thing is, as I said, it just keeps going on and on with no end or relief in sight. After hours and hours of it you go out for a drink with the lads and watch everyone trying to change the subject. We're just not designed to go into permanent grief mode. After a while you simply rebel against it. I know this may sound a bit heartless but put yourself in the same situation. It just won't stop.

Paul, an old friend from my battling JALT days (a Language Teachers national association), contacted me on Facebook. He was in town with his wife whose family comes from this area. They were "refugees" from the Fukushima district where those temperamental nuclear reactors are still bubbling. Their house survived but the ceiling fell down at his workplace. Yo, Bren, St. Paddy's Day ... what's going on? Well, I had an invite to a pub party down in Toyohashi but I had half decided to cancel. Yet disaster overload was taking its toll. Another evening sitting at home watching the news seemed totally repellent. Meet you down at the station at 5, how's that? We did, got the train, found the pub, met some lovely people and had a great old sing-song. There was a ¥500 cover for Earthquake Relief sort of to assuage the fact that we were trying to put the thing out of our minds and have a bit of cheer and human connection. And it was St. Patrick's Day which won't come along again for another long year. God knows what will happen in the meantime. Got home to the right city. Honda again tomorrow.

Thursday, 3/17, late

Several foreign governments are advising their nationals to leave Japan or at least the worst affected areas. The Chinese have already evacuated 6000 of their citizens and the British and the French are laying on special flights. We receive regular e-mails from the Irish Embassy and they stress that they are not advising people to leave other than moving to safer areas if they live in the Tohoku region. They ask people from that area to contact the Embassy if they have not already done so but there are no reports of missing Irish citizens. There are only about 2000 of us in the country and most live in either Tokyo or Osaka. Locally I have heard of about a half dozen foreigners planning to leave or who have left already. All of them were youngish single people with no real ties to the country who probably came under pressure from their families. Click here for a report from BBC News.

Emergency cooling procedures are still taking place at the Fukushima nuclear reactor complex with fears for the volunteer staff who have chosen to remain on duty to prevent the possibility of a massive radiation leak. Click here for a report carried in the UK Independent.

The mood overall seems to be stoic with few signs of panic. People have been evacuating the worst hit areas when possible to stay with friends and relatives further south. Tokyo is bearing up under a series of inconveniences caused by the rolling power cuts and ongoing transportation difficulties but there is little sense of imminent danger. The Japanese have faced both natural and man-made disasters in the past and have always applied themselves to the task of recovery with a sense of dedication and purpose that would be hard to match in most other countries. The country has been dealt a savage blow but it is by no means beaten down and the public seems determined to bury its dead, succour the injured and displaced, clean up the mess and work its way back to a full recovery. The economic consequences of the disaster will be enormous but there is little sense of the country feeling defeated or totally overwhelmed by it. Click here for more on this story.

Saturday, 3/19, 2.20 pm

Life Goes On Department ...

Ireland Thumps England 24-8 in 6 Nations Rugby

Verrrrry satisfying ... !

-- Saturday night/ Sunday morning, 3/19 - 3/20

Daughter Siobhan got back to Japan after her holidays with friends in Hawaii. She was well out of it but naturally concerned until we got through by phone and e-mail. Her flight was redirected to Osaka, she caught the train up and I met her at the station about an hour ago. We sort of fell in one another's arms. She'll be staying for a few days before (maybe) returning to Tokyo on Wednesday or Thursday.

-- Sunday evening, 3/20, 10.40 pm

Life goes on pretty much as normal here and further south. The electricity cuts have hit the northeastern part of Shizuoka but haven't come down to our area. Rescue work is still going on with little hope held out for the approx. 17,000 people still missing while the death toll has risen over the 8000 mark. A young man and his grandmother were found alive in the wreckage of their home after surviving for nine days. The road to Sendai in the north has been sufficiently cleared so that relief supplies are getting in; also several ports have been re-opened so that supplies can come in by sea. The problems at the Fukushima nuclear complex still continue. Many companies are considering halting production lines owing to problems with suppliers and transportation difficulties. My guy at Honda was supposed to pick up his American visa this week but has been told he will have to wait until the end of April or even early May, which seems to indicate that the consular service has shut down or cut down severely on staff. The Hamamatsu Festival has been cancelled for the first time in nearly 60 years - it's a 3-Day extravaganza held from May 3rd to 5th each year and goes back 270-something years. The overall mood is worried but resilient and there is a palpable determination among all the Japanese I have talked with to recover from this tragedy and get the country back on its feet as soon as possible. The outlook now is for months, perhaps even years, of recovery efforts. One local company I was teaching at has had to move in staff from a damaged affiliate company in the north taking up all the conference rooms and extra space so the teaching contract has been suspended indefinitely with some talk of (maybe) resuming in July. That may offer some insight into corporate thinking in terms of a time frame. Some foreigners continue to make plans for leaving, particularly the young and unattached, even if they live in areas such as this which have been hardly affected. Other foreigners are beginning to show signs of irritation if not downright anger at the contrast between the low-key factual Japanese TV news and the hyped-up reports coming through from the foreign media, as the two following local gaijin blogs, HERE and HERE will tell you in no uncertain terms!

-- Tuesday, 3/22, 10.25 pm

Rube, an old friend from those balmy JALT days (not so pleasant, come to think of them, when Gene and I had to push against the grain: poor old Gene is gone, a victim of cancer in 2009 but between us we saved the thing from going under) says don't be so optimistic. He has a point, as you can see from the following two articles:

Assessing death.

What's really going on at Fukushima.

It's not a question of not believing. I don't think it's possible that everyone locally has been lying to us. They couldn't suppress what is going on with all the various people involved in official and semi-official capacities, including the US military.

None of us plan to leave, whatever happens. Even if things get worse there is no way we can run away and desert our friends. Think about it. No-brainer.

-- Thursday, 3/25, 11.40 pm

I met Frankie down at the Schloss and we had a few jars. We talked things over. He says why the fuck do you trust the US military? That's got me thinking. Frank, bless his soul, is Canadian. I point out to him that Canada will shortly disappear off the face of the planet, absorbed by Amerika. He glares at me. He knows it's true. We order two more. The news continues bad: at least 10,000 dead, up to 20,000 missing.

Saturday, 3/26

Been down for the last three days, not feeling so well. It's been a physical as well as emotional reaction to the last few weeks when I found myself talking to dozens and dozens of people, most of whom I'd never met before, drinking in consequence a bit too much. The hang-in-there spirit (allied to a crashing hangover!!)is tremendously strong but the truth is we are all finding it hard to deal with the rising death tolls -- 12,000 now with 16,000 still missing -- and there is an underlying sense of deep depression. We are entirely with the Japanese and have no intentions of running away. Our friends and acquaintances have known that from the beginning. The strangers recently come in touch with (so much more readily open to talk) seem to appreciate it when they hear it. But what are we actually doing, apart from contributing to the Red Cross, and throwing in coins to all the collection boxes that have sprung up nearly everywhere? Not much, unless refusing to leave is a statement in itself.

Wednesday, 3/30

Four-year-old Manami Kon sleeps after writing a letter to her mother, who was swept away by tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture. The little girl said late last month that she would write to her mother, and spreading a notebook on a kotatsu table at the home of relatives she spent nearly an hour writing: "Dear Mommy, I hope you are alive. Are you well?" Manami's father and younger sister also remain unaccounted for.

-- Friday, 4/01