March 15th 2011

March 15th, Graduation Day

In the 48 hours since I wrote my last update the information and pictures coming out of Miyagi have been awful, and the state of the damaged nuclear power stations is extremely worrying. However, I think there is still a lot of unnecessary hysteria in the media and I want to update you on what life is like in Tokyo. This comes with the usual proviso that it is only my experience and what I have heard from other people, I am not claiming to present a picture of the whole city. It is a snapshot, but I hope it helps you understand some of what we are experiencing in Tokyo.

Before I go any further, and so you don’t have to read between the lines and worry unnecessarily, I will try to explain how I am feeling. First, of course I am worried, and can feel that I am more stressed than usual. It is frustrating knowing that there is very little we can do for ourselves, it is really a question of watching and waiting (and praying) to see what information comes out. With the worsening situation regarding the power stations, more people are finding their anxiety at a level where they need to leave Japan, either for a short break (it’s spring vacation now) or permanently.

Yesterday I either spoke to or received e-mails from 3 people feeling they needed to leave Japan while this situation continued. Dealing with their anxiety annoyed me, for 2 reasons. Firstly, I didn’t feel like being some kind of therapist for them, second, no matter how you keep yourself calm, another person’s anxiety coming at you does rattle you a bit. So while I was doing OK myself I ended the day feeling a little spiky towards those people.

Onto the power stations. CNN (yes, I know, I told everyone not to watch it, so why am I watching it myself? Answer, I watch for a few minutes, get disgusted and return to the BBC. I have no excuse.)  CNN is a disgrace to journalism, and anyone who is relying on them for news / information will be far more anxious than someone watching real news. They have big, scary graphics, big, scary music (dum! dum! dum!) and reporters being thick and / or lacking sensitivity and compassion.  Also lacking in cultural awareness. While the BBC seems to have sent in a number of people who I recognise as former Tokyo correspondents, (and of course some others), CNN has sent in their usual crowd who don’t appear to know much about Japan. (On seeing a wrecked house and the portraits still hanging high up on a wall of deceased relatives, someone said, there are the pictures of the people who lived here. Well yes, but they haven’t lived there for some time . . .) The dreadful Piers Morgan started his programme with the words ‘Apocalypse Japan’ and that was it, back to the BBC for me! Apocalypse? Really? Is that helpful? Is it any wonder people’s anxiety levels are rising?

The situation at the power stations does not look good at all, but Tokyo is 250km away  and the evacuation zone is 20km around the area, people between 20 and 30km away are being told to stay inside. The wind was blowing to the south-west the last time I saw any information (away from Japan) and the radiation levels at the plant are 4 times the legal limit (of course not good), not 400 times the limit, as I have heard on some news reports. Radiation levels in Kanagawa, next to Tokyo, are ‘9 times normal levels’ but that is not the legal limit, but compared to the level it normally is. We have to wait and watch enough news to get the information we need but not sit glued to the TV until we are wildly goggle-eyed with anxiety.

Next, the shortages. Some people in Miyagi and Iwate are in evacuation centres and even the ones who aren’t are struggling with food, water and petrol shortages. There and in neighbouring prefectures there are people who have lost water, gas, electricity or some combination of all 3. I heard a report that the petrol is being diverted to emergency services, which sounds sensible.

In Tokyo we have all turned into giant hamsters and have made trips to the convenience stores and supermarkets to stock up. Apparently bottled water, tofu and toilet rolls are what we need, so I can be a very satisfied hamster because I have all of those. The shelves of convenience stores are extremely depleted, especially when it come to things like bread and rice balls etc. I think it may be just because the resources are being diverted elsewhere so it’s difficult to re-stock. Anyway, as soon as they re-stock the human hamsters return and buy it all up.

I am unclear why we are doing this in Tokyo. I think it may be because historically that is what people needed to do, but in urban areas these days no one is going to starve. I understand the need for water, but I don’t know why people seem to be stockpiling so much – unless they are all watching Piers Morgan of course. I have asked all the friends I know who have also done it, why are we doing this? and no one can tell me why, we are just doing it because everyone else is.

Next thing, the rolling power blackouts. You may have heard that power in Tokyo has been turned off. Not true. There are 2 things being reported here. Firstly, parts of Tokyo that are a riot of neon lights are turning them down, and Tokyo Tower has been dimmed. Theses are voluntary measures. Secondly, yesterday was the first day of rolling power blackouts around Tokyo, but not the 23 wards that make up most of Tokyo. In fact, the 23 wards may be protected from even scheduled blackouts because the power company is unwilling to cause such disruption to businesses etc. That seems unfair to me, since we in the 23 wards are gobbling up energy like Godzilla, while a few people at home during the day in areas around Tokyo are hardly draining the grid. I am trying to keep as many things turned off as possible, but at this point it doesn’t sound like anything is going to be imposed on us. I don’t know of anyone in Tokyo who does not have water, electricity and gas.

Onto earthquakes. We continue to have quite strong aftershocks, and there is a likelihood we could get another big earthquake in the next few days. This is a horrible thought and there is nothing we can do about it. We all know this is a possibility and we are all just staying calm and waiting to see what happens. Since Mother Nature will do whatever she wants in her own time I can tell you no more than that.

Finally, school. As I said at the beginning, today was Graduation Day, normally a big, long day of celebration. Yesterday the school decided to amend the schedule for this week, which is actually the last week of the school year. The students should have been in school yesterday picking up their exam papers, but the decision was made early in the morning to close the school. Some teachers were in, because there is still grading etc. to do and there were some preparations for today.

They decided to go ahead with Graduation, but to scale it back. Usually, the entire senior high school (4th, 5th and 6th years) would be there, but the 4th and 5th years were told not to come this year, only the graduating 6th years were there. Their parents came of course to watch the ceremony. All the teachers were asked to come if at all possible, but the train service is still patchy and unreliable, so I think a few didn’t make it. Usually, each student goes up to receive her diploma, but today the names were read out and then just one student from each class received her diploma, the others carried theirs into the hall because they had already received them in their classrooms.

Of course, the headmaster mentioned the earthquake and all its horrible aftermath in his speech, and the mood was certainly not as excited and emotional as usual. I think we all felt quite sombre. After the ceremony, the students all assembled for their commemorative photo and they sounded happy and excited. Normally we would have then gone into the school gym to have lunch and listen to more speeches, but that wasn’t possible this year; the students have not been in school so they have been unable to decorate it and make preparations.

Tomorrow is the teachers’ deadline for grades (by 9am). I have already submitted all of ours, but I have to be there tomorrow morning while the computer processes everything, in case there is a problem. Thursday will be the lunch for teachers who are leaving, and again, as many teachers as can come in should be there. Of course, I live next door to school, so I will never have any problem getting there!

The school will be closed on Friday, and then on Saturday we will have the junior high school graduation and closing assembly, and the students will receive their test papers and report cards. We should have done it on Friday but it has been changed to Saturday. That is our last day of school, and then we don’t have to be in until April 7th for a staff meeting. The entrance ceremony for the new 1st years will be on the 8th, opening assembly on the 9th, then classes will start on the 11th. In between we have the cherry blossoms to look forward to, and anything else that might come our way.

So that is everything up to today. I will send another update soon. Than you for all your prayers, good wishes and just keeping in touch. This has been written as a general e-mail, so if I have explained anything that you already knew because you have lived in or visited Japan, my explanation was for others who also received this. As I said before, if you know of anyone else who might be interested to read this, please forward my e-mail to them.

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