April 8th 2011

I haven’t sent an update for about 10 days, and a couple of days ago I started to think about sending another one; I wonder how much I actually have to say, but I thought that last time and ended up writing a lot, so I’ll see what I can do this time:

First of all, you have probably seen the news that late on Thursday evening we had a large aftershock, the largest since the magnitude 9 earthquake 4 weeks ago today. It was originally reported as a 7.4, but I see it is now measured at 7.1. For anyone familiar with the Japanese scale, it was a strong 5 in Miyagi, a 3 in Tokyo. It was in the same area as the original magnitude 9, and immediately we had the tsunami icon in the top right of the TV screen on BBC World, and they went back into overdrive reporting facts with their usual disregard for degrees of meaning. One reporter referred to the ‘panic’ after the last quake and that sent me to the website to complain, once again, that some of their people have no idea what they’re talking about. This particular woman wasn’t even here 4 weeks ago.

Anyway, at the time of the earthquake I was doing some washing up, and did what I have done a few times recently when we’ve had a rather large aftershock; I stood in the middle of my living room, watching the TV and my beloved Mac swaying and the freesias nodding vigourously and said bloody. stop. it. now. The earthquake took no notice, of course, and carried on for quite a while – apparently about a minute. That is much shorter than the big one, but if you have experienced earthquakes then you’ll know that they’re usually shorter and a minute seems like a long time when everything is rattling around you!

Since the BBC got very yappy and up on its hind legs within a few minutes I called my parents to tell them everything was OK, watched a few more minutes of the BBC then had enough and turned it off. I know from talking to other people that it’s a common reaction now to limit how much news you watch, and I haven’t met anyone in the last month who has anything good to say about CNN. (If you have satellite TV here your 2 main overseas news channel options are BBC World and CNN.)

Life continues to be the same as it has been for the last 2 weeks. Some supplies are depleted in shops (it’s still unusual to find large bottles of water) but that’s about it. I think any lack of supplies in Tokyo is due to the supply chain and maybe a lack of fuel. Some trains are still not back to full capacity (maybe all lines are affected) but I have not really been affected by it much. The frustration is minor compared to the people in Miyagi and what they are still going through, but if the express trains don’t run then a journey by local train can make quite a difference to the time it takes.

A lot of lights are still turned off or down – a friend who came back last week said Tokyo reminded him of Blade Runner! It does have a kind of dimly-lit feel to a lot of places. This, of course will have to continue for a while, because so many reactors (not just the ones in Fukushima) are offline. Tokyo continues to escape the power cuts, but I don’t know if the people in surrounding prefectures are as lucky. People are still more subdued than usual.  It is cherry blossom time and normally there would be cherry blossom viewing parties going on wherever there is a tree, really, but this year the government has discouraged it:

Tokyo gov’t criticized for discouraging cherry blossom viewing parties

 The Tokyo metropolitan government has asked visitors to its parks to voluntarily refrain from holding parties under blooming cherry trees, known in Japanese as “hanami” parties, in light of the March 11 quake and tsunami and power shortages. But the call has drawn some criticism for excessive restraint.

You can read the rest of the article here:

http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/tokyo-govt-criticized-for-discouraging-cherry-blossom-viewing-parties

The British Embassy has revised its travel advice to Japan! It continues to advise against travel to Tohoku, the affected region, but the advice to everyone in Kanto that we should consider leaving has gone. Hurrah! Some airlines have also gone back to their normal flight patterns. British Airways, Qantas and some others had suspended direct flights to Japan, and for example BA was flying via Seoul. Of course it made the journey time longer, and once the flight landed in Seoul almost the British crew got off and was replaced by an Asian crew. A friend who flew back last week said that there was an announcement made that the British pilot would fly the plane on to Narita but would leave again on the next flight to avoid spending a night in Japan. Since the British government had said repeatedly that outside the exclusion zone in Fukushima the levels were safe, it seemed a bit much to me and probably stressed returning passengers. I believe flying exposes you to radiation, so doesn’t working for an airline expose you to a certain amount anyway?

Since I have already mentioned the areas most affected by the earthquake and tsunami, I would like to add this; it is amazing to me how many people I know who have relatives in the affected areas. I just came back from school and Kyoko, one of the maths teachers, who is also a friend, was in the photocopying room while I was there. Since I have found that if I ask anyone how they are the answer is invariably ‘I’m fine’, I have changed to asking, ‘Where is your hometown?’, and then asking if everyone is OK, whatever the answer is. But the number of people who answer that they have relatives in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima has surprised me. Anyway, I asked her about her hometown and she told me it’s Ehime (in Shikoku, western Japan). Then I asked about her husband, and she said his family is from Fukushima, and they lived inside the 30-km exclusion zone and so have evacuated to Chiba (the prefecture to the east of Tokyo) where other relatives live. They’re farmers and so even if they’re allowed to go home they won’t be able to sell anything they produce.

I spent Monday in Kamakura, south of Tokyo and famous for the Great Buddha statue. You may have seen it on TV last year when President Obama visited it.  Another friend at school, invited me down to spend the day, because her parents have retired there and so she is often there. It was a beautiful day and we had a lovely time; we visited some temples and had a yummy lunch. It was the perfect day trip and I realised as I went through Yokohama on the train that this was the first time I had left Tokyo since March 11th. However, her mother grew up in Rikuzen Takata, which you have probably heard of since it was once of the places completely decimated by the tsunami. Her mother’s friend and her friend’s daughter are still missing but her friend’s husband’s body has been found. She said she had been watching TV as much as she could in the hope of hearing or seeing something that would tell her what had happened to her friend. In the afternoon we were at Hase temple, which has a beautiful view over the town and the bay, and her mother said, this is how Rikuzen Takata looked before the tsunami . . .

It is all heartbreaking and among the foreign community there is sometimes a feeling of tension. Most people are just trying to get back to a normal-ish life, but there are others who either stayed and are angry or contemptuous of the people who left, and still others who left and have come back in a very defensive frame of mind. I have already written about my feelings and how I feel about the pointlessness of any conversation revisiting the decisions we all made, but I have to say that when people come back saying ‘the last 2 weeks have been a challenge’ or ‘it was really hard for me being away’ I do feel irritated.

For one person’s ridiculously overblown account of what he did and experienced (‘a tortured, writhing land’), follow this link:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/8426171/A-tearful-sayonara-to-quake-hit-Japan.html

For an interesting angle on the relief efforts for Tohoku, please read this article:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-03-18/japanese-yakuza-aid-earthquake-relief-efforts/#

On the other hand, what I am finding incredibly wonderful is how this consensus-driven society has come together, and there is a general feeling of ‘we’ and ‘us’. While the media overseas was being shrill and talking about worst-case scenarios, the Japanese media focused more on what could be done and how the situation was being dealt with and slowly improving. Of course, most people didn’t have the option of leaving with the ease foreign residents could and so while some people with family in west Japan did sometimes de-camp, most people stayed put. One thing the Japanese TV channels (including satellite channels) have been doing is broadcasting a lot of public service announcements and apparently this has caused many people to make a lot of complaints because sometimes you get 3 or 4 in a row, all with the same annoying jingle at the end.

At school we held the postponed junior high school graduation on Wednesday, and then yesterday we had staff meetings. Everything that has happened in the last month has made the school think more about provisions made for emergencies, and so there was extra information yesterday, including a traipse round school to see where all the fire doors and emergency tannoy system panels are.

I wrote before at my frustration and disappointment at the church I attend and its lack of action to help anyone or make any useful announcements / pronouncements. The diocese has started to gather things people in Tohoku need and has sent up at least one truck loaded with these items. I was able to take some things to church on Sunday to drop them off in time for the truck on Monday.

But school – how I love you and the response so far! Yesterday at the staff meeting we were given the same list I had seen from church, but this time in Japanese, and a general commitment was made to do as much as we could. The headmaster said that the school had immediately sent ¥100,000 (about £700) to the relief effort, but stressed that this was just the beginning. It was proposed that some of the money amassed in the staff fund (that we use for welcome dinners for new teachers etc. and that we all contribute to every month) should be sent also, and that got a round of applause. The headmaster also pointed out that if we collect money at school, ¥1,000 from each student would result in over a million yen.

Later I was talking to the other two British teachers, and one of them suggested that when we know when the next truck is being loaded up we should get some supplies and take them to the cathedral (where everything is collected) together. I have felt much better being part of a school community that is thinking about what we can do, especially after the church community didn’t seem to be doing much.

Today we had the Entrance Ceremony for the new 1st year students, all big-eyed in their new uniforms. The cherry blossoms at school were almost fully out, but it was a bit overcast, unfortunately. The headmaster talked about the earthquake and tsunami in his speech, but it was an uplifting, encouraging speech and addressed a lot of other things too. Classes start on Monday, but I won’t see the 1st years until Friday.

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