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4 entries from March 2011

Reflections on the past two weeks in Japan.

Many have asked if our friends and loved ones are safe.  The answer, for the moment, is yes.

Master Right's family live in western Japan, and our friends in Tokyo are shaken, but OK. We held fears for the family of a dear friend from Fukushima. Luckily her folk live in the inland hills, and so were spared the tsunami.  But the earthquake damaged their property badly, and the family is now together in Tokyo.  As far as situation with the nuclear reactor...well, we'd be fools not to worry desperately for our friends and colleagues in eastern Japan.

As you can imagine, it's been two sombre weeks at our place, glued to N24 and N-TV.   NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, and the BBC are on our computer screens. 

By now, most of you will have read or heard the facts of what happened, and seen images of the aftermath.  Let's reflect on these things for a moment. 

Lessons from Kobe.

The Hanshin Earthquake of January 1995 horrified Japan, not just with the scale of the destruction, but with government impotence in the face of it.

Kobe lay in ruins, and rescuers simply couldn't reach the worst-hit parts of the city.  Many who survived the quake itself died of exposure, without a place to shelter as the cold winter days dragged on. 

They vowed that such avoidable suffering should never happen again, in one of the richest nations on the planet. 

By 2000, when I arrived in Tokyo, many of the current systems were in place.  Evacuation and refuge centres, and the system of accounting for people's whereabouts, had been established.

When I first moved in to my apartment near Toranomon, the police paid a call.   They provided ample information in English to make sure I knew safety drills and precutions (like securing bookshelves to walls).  They told where to report in a quake's aftermath.  In my case, it was the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace.  It comforted me to know that should the need arise, I would share a chemical toilet with the Emperor.

At the office, the drill intensified.  Yebisu Garden Place, then a new development in Tokyo's fashionable inner west, set an example of exceptional earthquake safety in both design and procedure.    An extensive network of building marshalls met regularly to review practice.  That included practice in first aid.

A Tokyo night club opened 1995
Here, we see colleagues brushing up on CPR and wound-dressing at the annual Safety Awareness Day.  German readers will be familiar with this sort of thing.  One needs to undergo such training in Germany to get a driver's license, or to work in a school or public building.  But under few circumstances is one required to brush up as often as the Japanese.

It was easy to giggle at this as over-caution.  But take a look at the video in this link.  At the fifteen second mark, we see people administering CPR with confidence, perhaps learned under such circumstances.

Our local ward government, the City of Shibuya, would provide its Earthquake Simulator on Safety Awareness Day. 

Spectators climb aboard, and take seats in a small room, built to the same standards as earthquake building codes.  An operator begins to shake the building. 

A Tokyo night club opened 1995
As the intensity increases, lights on the wall show the scale reading.  A pendant lamp from the ceiling acts as a reckoner, so that when the earthquake happens, you can judge its magnitude from the swing of the light in the room in which you find yourself. 

This is more than just a curiosity.  It demonstrates that even though the building may shake or sway quite violently, if it is built to withstand Richter 7 quakes, it will.  If you're caught in the middle of a major earthquake, such reassurance unlikely to completely eliminate your panic.  But if it calms you enough so you can think clearly about what to do next, then it serves its purpose.

By the time Friday's earthquake reached land, it was a Richter 7 in northern Japan.  Sure enough, few moden buildings collapsed. It was the tsunami that proved so destructive.

Protection from tsunami relies less on engineering, and more on organisation.  After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Japan accelerated the development of its  Earthquake and Tsunami Early Warning system, which came into effect in 2007.  It detects the early "P" waves, which simply compress the soil, before the more damaging "S" waves which follow when the compression is released—the latter are the waves that actually shake the earth. (For a simple explanation, click here.)

The system is triggered automatically, with no human intervention.  It gives warnings on TV, public media (such as the jumbotrons of Hatchiko Square, loudpeakers on streets and infoscreens in trains or stations) and it can even text your mobile phone. 

It may give only minutes—even seconds—of warning.  But if you're in a speeding train, an elevator, or a plane that's about to land, that can prove crucial.

This was the system in action at around 2.45 last Friday, interrupting NHK's broadcasts of the Japanese Parliament. 


It shows that communities had at least five minutes notice to make a dash, and fortunately, some had more.  Was this warning long enough to save everyone who heeded it?  

Tragically, no.  Like the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Sendai tsunami hit with great speed.  Outrunning the wave as it bore down was impossible. Many of the frail and elderly, often without a car, couldn't have escaped, and had to hope for the best on the upper floors of their homes.

Some lost precious minutes rescuing possessions to take with them. In  rural areas, many would surely try dig out evidence of ancestry.  Ownership of the family farm, having been passed down  for centuries, has an almost religious significance.  Did it cost them their lives?  For some, undoubtedly. 

The system couldn't save everyone. But remember this:

Right now, hundreds of thousands of people huddle in refuges, and over ten thousand are confirmed dead.  There may be more dead.

Were it not for diligent organisation and planning, those figures surely would be reversed. 

In the days since the quake, the Japanese Self Defense Forces have taken nearly 25,000 survivors from the wreckage.  Almost as many, again, have been identified as alive and waiting rescue.  That's fifty thousand more people to add to the list of the living.

The Japanese government mobilised almost 100,000 troops to deal with the crisis.  That's more than the entire US contingent in Afghanistan. (Of course, provisioning these troops creates its own supply-chain problems, but that's another story)

The survivors are miserable.   They're cold, hungry and frightened.  But they're alive.  And we can thank the foresight of those in charge for that.

Trust me, I'm from TEPCO.

The record of some Japanese officials over the past decade or so has not been so virtuous, however.

Has complete atomic catastrophe been averted?  We hope so. Though the news this morning certainly causes concern

It's not as though nobody warned about genpatsu-shinsai, a term coined from the words for earthquake and nuclear meltdown.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (or TEPCO) has given us trouble before.   They have a history of cover-ups, and lax reporting.  That includes at Fukushima.

A whistle-blower once reported TEPCO to the (powerful) Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).  The ministry's only action, apparently, was to blow the whistle back by reporting him to the power company.

Japan was officially prepared for earthquakes and tsunami.  But for atomic catastrophe?  No.  Why?  Because the atomic energy establishment assured us that such an event was far-fetched.

Should we be skeptical of people who reassure us of the safety of anything nuclear, anywhere in the world? 

Three Mile Island showed that the industry can make optimistic statements; not always through malice, but through belief in its own cleverness.   Just read what former governor Richard Thromburgh of Pennsylvania has to say on his experience managing TMI.

The (relatively) smooth handling of TMI—and the pains taken to distinguish the Chernobyl reactor from the sort built elsewhere—made the world complacent about the hazards of nuclear power.  Recent events have given governments pause. 

Especially so here in Germany, where the crisis at Fukushima led to some hasty policy changes.  Bavarians welcome talk of closing the ageing Isar1 reactor at Landshut, north of Munich.   But we remain a tad nervous about the communist-era reactors just over the border in the Czech Republic.  Plans to build reactors in Italy, a known earthquake region, might fray a few nerves, too.

Let me point out a key fact.  The earthquake and tsunami early warning system is a government initiative.  There is little telmptation to cut corners or gouge profits when running it..  On the other hand, nuclear power is a public-private partnership.  The government regulators who control it have close ties to the private sector.  Profit drives the industry, as much as public service. 

One system performed.  The other failed.  Just sayin'.

International Coverage and Response

Andrew Cornell, a journalist for the Australian Financial Review in Tokyo, writes that he and his wife chose Japanese media over international news sources in English.   The Japanese media stay calm, and prioritise fact over drama. 

Many observe, with regret, that entertainment value has replaced editorial judgement in much Western journalism.  The requirements of drama—heroes, villains, conflict, treachery—leach into the fabric of news.  The English-language reporting of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami shows how badly this serves us.

A Chiba-resident British journalist who blogs at Our Man in Abiko, got an invitation to write for the Huffington Post.  He was chuffed, but his pleasure changed to dismay when he discovered that they simply wanted him to seek out, in his words, "disaster porn".

Quakebook cover He is, by the way, publishing a book of crowdsourced experiences of the tragedy, told with respect, and without sensationalism.   He calls it, simply, 2:46, the time of the first shock on the floor of the Pacific on March 11.  I urge you to support the project. 

The media do not respect the memory of those who died, nor the suffering of those who remain, to turn their story into The Poseidon Adventure. Not every tale needs a Bruce Ismay or a Roger Simmons.

As I write, I'm watching CNN's Max Foster as he bullies Noriyuki Shikata, spokesman for the Prime Minister, into using more inflamatory language. No, insists Shikata, unstocked shelves in Tokyo conveninece stores do not translate into mass starvation in the capital. Foster quibbled rather nastily with Shikata's use of such words as "precaution". Perhaps he would have preferred the government spokesman to say omigod we're all going to die.  It would make better television. 

Master Right and other Japanese like him think the western media sensationalising a tragedy which needs no hype. 

The US Embassy actually had to issue an English-language statement telling American residents to listen to Japanese authorities.  And, indeed, to trust the US government, as it works closely alongside.  "There is no double standard," writes Ambassador John Roos, "what we advise our Embassy personnel will be provided to all Americans."   Of course, the US and Japanese governmnets diverged  in their advice later, causing confusion and anger on the Japanese side. 

The US media have used a bullish tone to report the bedlam which followed, inevitably, in the wake of a natural disaster on this scale.   That leaves a bad taste in Japanese mouths.

In Japanese culture, it is ghoulish and insensitive to gawk at others when they are at their most emotionally vulnerable.  Alas, that's pretty much the main reason why Americans turn on the TV, nowadays.


Masa and I were in Tokyo on September 11, 2001.   Our neighbourhood, Atago—a little two-chome district sandwiched in between Toranomon, Shimbashi, Kamiyacho and Shiba Park—was pretty much cordoned off.   The US Embassy was a couple of blocks away from us.

As happened in so many places around the world, the managers of tall buildings added extra precautions. Yebisu Garden Place requested ID to enter the building; standard procedure in many US offices, but extraordinary for low-crime Japan.

Several days later, I passed through the security screening, and picked up my customary Excelsior Latte.  As I  checked emails at the desk (remember, these were pre-Blackberry days) I noticed a request from our New York office.

In a most delicate way, it asked for an opinion on a sensitive subject.  After the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, how long did it take for public spirit to return to normal? 

That was a very delicate subject. And frankly, wouldn't someone who lives in New York have a lot more to worry about?

Our team looked into the matter.  With the Kobe earthquake in January, and the subway attacks in March, 1995 was truly an annus horribilis.

Japan's econmy took an immediate dip in reponse to the Kobe quake.  And no wonder.  The port of Kobe, Japan's second-busiest after Yokohama, lay in ruins.  The nation could still build the goods that would earn money for reconstruction, but had significantly less capacity to ship them out. 

According to sources,  Japan's economy recovered significantly over the course of the year. A fiscal stiimulus package helped the recovery.  Kobe City had restored water and sewerage in about four months, and officially ended its emergency housing efforts eight months after the event.

It took about a year for consumer sentiment and optimism  to reach pre-1995 levels, even accounting for Japan's sluggish economy at the time. (The same pattern held for the USA, as it happened.)

For several  months, people avoided confined spaces with crowds—which ain't easy in Japan, as you can imagine.  Cinemas, theatres, night clubs and department stores showed steep declines in business.  You can't avoid public transport in Japan, but if people could, they did. 

As always, the human spirit recoves.  In connection with the paper, I read Haruki Murukami's Underground, a book of interviews with survivors of the attack.  It is an amazing testiment to human strength. 

Even playfulness recovered.  Not long after, a night club in Roppongi opened.  Owners called it GASPANIC, a morbid joke about people's reluctance to gather in public places.  It was so successful, there are now three branches.

A Tokyo night club opened 1995
The Gaspanic Party Bus

The scale of the 2011 tragedy makes it different.  Communities, and the nation as a whole, will certainly need more than a year.  You can't whip up buildings, infrastructure, and economic activity out of thin air.  But how long to recover psychologically?

The rhythms of everyday life comfort the spirit.  Children get back to school, shirts get ironed, meals get shared, jokes get cracked and beers get gulped.  How long before such rituals can comfort Japan again?  I don't know.  I fear it may be a very long time for those affected, and equally so for those who share a sense of community wth them.

Gambatte, or Do Your Best.

One of the anchors on the German network ZDF interviewed Jörg Brase, their Tokyo correspondent.  Surely, remarked the host by satellite, you are living among tragedy and chaos?

Brase corrected him.  Tragedy, yes. Chaos, no.  He described the Japanese response as "organisiert" and "dizipliniert", both officials and the public at large. 

That's how Japan works, day-to-day, and in moments of crisis.  To the extent that something can be done, it will be done. If nothing can be done, then one forges ahead, doing one's best, no matter how grim the prospect.  Nicholas Kristof, former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, writes with admiration at this highly practical philosophy.

Beloved friends, beloved city.

Our hearts ache for those who have lost lives, loved ones, livelihoods, homes and property.   How much more can the nation suffer?  

In particular, what will become of Tokyo, the city we once called home, and our beloved friends there? 

We think about the unthinkable. We can't help it.

I wrote several paragraphs about what might happen to the city under different scenarios, knowing its infrastructure and geography.  I deleted them.  They would upset too many who read this blog.

Rather, I'd like to write about our local liquor store. 

The Atago Konishi Cellars lay just around the corner from us in Tokyo, at the base of Mt. Atago (Atagoyama).  Too often, we overlooked their thoughtful selection of French wine and fine Scots whiskeys, to stock up on jumbo-sized longnecks of Sapporo Black Label beer—its "Polaris" symbol is the world's oldest brand, you know.   For late-night souses, the management provides one of the city's few remaining liquor vending machines, just outside the front door.  Litre cans are available. 

Konishi Cellars first opened its doors in the 1600s, and kept the neighbourhood tipsy ever since. That means our local bottle-o has operated on the same spot for over four hundred years.  Through the great Kanto earthquake of 1923.  Through the fire-bombings of World War II.  

Even in the face of great challenges, Tokyoites will do their best.  They will attend to the demands of the present, and look to the future.  Its citizens will show the courage that has served them in the past.

The city will go on. 

During those years I lived in Japan, my colleagues would worry when I travelled.   I was alone, abroad, and they knew something of my personal carelessness.  Thieves, assailants, strange foods, and countless other dangers lay in wait.  Please, they said, get back to Japan quickly.  Japan, where there's order, where people co-operate, where things work as they should, where you can set your watch by the arrival of the train, where the cab driver will return your phone when you leave it on the back seat, where life makes sense, where it's safe.

Now, it's my turn to worry about you.  And I do.  Our love and thoughts are with you.

Gambatte, or Do Your Best.

One of the anchors on the German network ZDF interviewed Jörg Brase, their Tokyo correspondent.  Surely, remarked the host by satellite, you are living among tragedy and chaos?

Brase corrected him.  Tragedy, yes. Chaos, no.  He described the Japanese response as "organisiert" and "dizipliniert", both officials and the public at large. 

That's how Japan works, day-to-day, and in moments of crisis.  To the extent that something can be done, it will be done. If nothing can be done, then one forges ahead, doing one's best, no matter how grim the prospect.  Nicholas Kristof, former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, writes with admiration at this highly practical philosophy.

Cutlery and Treachery


As you might expect, I attend dinner parties where both Europeans and Americans gather.  Guests often remark on the manner in which the natives of both continents use cutlery. 

Here's the drill.  A European stabs his meat with a fork in the left hand, slices off a piece with a knife held in the right, and raises the left hand to his mouth.  An American stabs his meat with a fork in the left hand, cuts it with a knife held in his right, transfers the fork to his right hand, and spoons up the meat with it. 

Europeans think Americans are infantile, because a toddler eats the American way after a parent cuts the meal into bite-size bits.  Americans think that Europeans are stupid because the European way makes it much harder to deal with peas and mashed potatoes and stuff.  It becomes an issue of cultural superiority.  The dinner conversation grows tense as each team sneers at the other side, until the Americans remind the Europeans about World War Two, and the Europeans remind the Americans about German cars and universal health care. 

One of the things which sustains this meme is that no-one knows how the difference came about.  If there were a logical explanation, one could judge what makes more sense. 

Then the wrong side must change.  Because wrong sides always change when you point out how wrong they are. 

En Garde!

Thinking that it would tell me about chopstick etiquette, I bought a book called From Hand to Mouth, Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks, & the Table Manners to Go with Them, by James Giblin.  The author had little to say about chopsticks, but dug deep into the cutlery issue. 

He tells the story like this.

Many years ago, a knife served as both weapon and eating implement.  You took your dagger from its scabard, sliced a chunk from the joint, and speared the food to bring it to your mouth.  Any actor who plays Henry the Eighth has to get this move down pat.

Understandably, Henry and his fellow monarchs felt nervous when every feast at court involved guests who waved around murder weapons. 

In the 1600s, European nobility introduced an Arabic invention; a device with two prongs, designed to help eat chopped fruit.  Since it resembled  the way one road splits into two, they called it a fork

With the arrival of the fork, knife tips could be blunted, making them useless for a stabbing.  As a bonus, you could eat faster, two handed.  Since the royal court determined manners, it wasn't long before well-to-do subjects all ate this way. 

Nobody sent America the memo. 

Colonists innocently bought knives and spoons, not thinking to add these mysterious new items called forks that appeared on the order form.  When knives arrived with a round end, they improvised.  They cut the meat with a knife, as before, but had to use spoons to shovel the pieces in to their mouths. 

By the time Americans caught on, the fork had evolved. It grew a couple more prongs, so each tine could be blunter and less threatening.  Habits being what they are, Americans simply substituted the fork for the spoon, and continued to scoop up their meat.  They have done so ever since.

Proved right, for what it's worth.

See?  There's a logical explanation. 

Not that it matters.  When I tell this story at a dinner party, people sometimes fall asleep, face down in the dessert.  It does take some telling, after all.

More often, they scoff in disbelief.  The story makes too much sense. They long for these cultural differences to have an exotic source.  They want to believe that George Washington ordered his troops to eat with their right hands in honour of Benjamin Franklin, who lost his left arm in a guillotine during the Spanish Inquisition, or something.

You can imagine the smug pride I felt on a recent trip to the Salzburg Fortress, where I found evidence that corroborates the historical account.

The picture above shows a museum exhibit from the seventeeth century.  The table setting contains a knife with a blunted tip, and a two-pronged fork.  Exactly as the theory would predict.

The next time I'm invited to a dinner party, I'll email everyone this story first.   It will save time.

Merry and Gay, and Often Both

Lots of people shitcan the Germans for having no sense of humour.  Bollocks, I say. 

Germans have an exquisite sense of humour.  They invoke sarcasm.  They savour irony.   They ridicule any target worthy of it, and make sure no worthy target escapes.

The official humour season in Germany for 2011 has reached its peak.  Today is Shrove Tuesday, and that means Karneval—or Fasching, as we say in Bavaria.

Pre-Lenten festivals take place in many parts of the Christian world.  In Rio, nubile cariocas samba down the street wearing littleIn New Orleans, revellers flash tits, tush and trouser-snake to snare a gift tossed from a float.  In Sydney, topless Dykes on Bikes whip armies of speedoed lads into step for the world's biggest pride parade

Germans are a practical people.  It's cold.  We keep our clothes on. 

But the spirit shows in many ways.  Grown men can be seen smiling, without provocation, while completely sober.  And silly hats.  We're big-time into silly hats.

This portrait sourced from the Aachen Karneval Verein website, and links to source.
The silly hatted gent to your left owns one of the most famous senses of humour in all of Germany.  He's Guido Westerwelle, Foreign Minister and Deputy Chancellor of the Bundesrepublik.  That is, Angela Merkel's right-hand man.

Reacting against generations of dull political hacks, he declared Spaßpolitik ("fun politics") the official schtick of the Freie Demokratische Partei, which he leads.  Among his many jokes, we count a bright yellow campaign bus called the Guidomobile, an appearance on Big Brother, and a plan to wipe trade unions from the face of Europe. 

He may stand against trade unions, but he stands in favour of civil ones.  Last September, Westerwelle got hitched to his partner of several years, sports manager Michael Mronz.

As a seasoned homosexual, let me make an observation.

Take a look at the fifth frame in this photo essay from Die Zeit, snapped as the happy couple shared a toast at Karneval in the Rheinland.  The Foreign Minister wears a smile of adoration for his husband; Mronz returns the favour with a wolfish leer.

Now, remember that gay relationships take many forms; that one can't generalise; that assumptons are odious; that queer couples negotiate their personal boundaries in unique ways; that it's invalid to apply heterosexual models to homosexual relationships; that what goes on in private need not follow convention; that stereotypes oppress; that there are no rules; that one can't be sure of anything; and that what I am about to say is no more than speculation.  But I suspect that the Deputy Chancellor, the second most powerful man in the German government, might be a classic, old-school—how shall I put this?—catcher.

Before we go any further, let me shout big deal, and add a not that there's anything wrong with that for good measure.   What Guido and his husband get up to in the bedroom (or other places if they're feeling frisky) in no way reflects on his competence as a minister, his political authority, his policy acumen, nor his capacity to argue for his country's interests on the international stage.  Just because you might be a bottom, doesn't mean you're a pussy.  

A cheap jibe?  Well, it's Fasching.  Smutty jokes about politicians are de rigeur.  Have a look at this gem from the Düsseldorf parade in 2010, sourced from the excellent Düsseldorf Blog.

Merkel_steuer_cd1 duesseldorf blog
The float shows Chancellor Angela Merkel chasing after the notorious CD-ROM which contained Lichtenstein banking details of prominent German tax avoiders, for which the government reportedly paid over four million Euros. 

It may be racy, but it's hardly unflattering to the Kanzlerin.  If I were she, I would view it as a compliment if someone sculpted my 57-year-old bustline so perkily. 

Some caricatures are worse.  If you check the link, you'll find a float which shows Berlusconi being rogered by the Mafia, under the title Homo Marriage, Italian-Style.  

By that standard, this blog's affectionate tease of the foreign minister seems quite mild.   After all, I didn't write "Hey Guido, don't drop the soap when Vladimir Putin is around!"   Did I?

Is there a point to make from these rambling Karneval thoughts?  I think so.  And it has to do with sexual jokes being less insidious than we imagine. 

Humour is powerful—laughter makes it hard to hide malfeasance behind a cloak of false dignity.  

Acknowledging that the powerful are sexual beings, too, is a leveller of the highest order.  And that's good.

It's hard to be pompous with your legs in the air.  Right?