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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.