March 24th 2011

Life in Tokyo continues in the same subdued manner. The trains are much less crowded, although people are still going to work so there is a certain amount of traffic. I think everyone is going home earlier and some businesses are closing early. A lot of lights have been dimmed (Tokyo is usually a very brightly-lit city) and so that feels different. Some vending machines have been turned off too, and also descending escalators, all with signs on them that this is a measure to conserve power. The much-reported scheduled blackouts don’t seem to be happening much, so maybe we are doing enough voluntarily to make a difference.

It almost feels like a new sort of normal, especially since a lot of reporters have left and the news focus has shifted to Libya. I must say I am glad that much of the alarmist reporting has stopped, though there are still some instances of poorly-chosen words. The BBC website is generally good and I check the British embassy website every day. Other than that I try to limit the news I get, it can all get repetitive and stressful.  If you want to see how bad some of it got, follow this link:

http://jpquake.wikispaces.com/Journalist+Wall+of+Shame

On Monday I had lunch with friends and then we went to the British embassy to get our potassium iodide tablets. Like I said, it’s kind of a new normal. I am used to having medicine which says ‘this is for the treatment of migraine’, or ‘this is to prevent the symptoms of hayfever’ but now I have something which says, ‘this is to be taken in the event of a nuclear emergency’ which is something I never imagined I would have and no matter how calm you think you are, something like that makes you stop in your tracks.

I would like to stress, though, that the embassy has given them out as a ‘contingency’ and no other embassies have done it. I don’t imagine we will need them, and once this is over and we can stop thinking about it I intend to frame mine.

Obviously the big news yesterday was the discovery of radiation in Tokyo’s water supply. Scary stuff. However I found this on the BBC website:

Professor Richard Wakeford from the Dalton Nuclear Institute and visiting Professor of Epidemiology at Manchester University said the health effects would be extremely small. He calculated that drinking water for a year at the Japanese limit would give an infant a dose of 0.4mSv, so you would need to double that to get the effect of drinking water at the higher level of radiation for a year. Professor Wakeford said “in theory, there would be a very small additional risk of cancer, but in practice nothing more than you could expect to get from normal background levels of radiation”.

So the extra risk from drinking tap water in Tokyo for a year would be far less than that of someone moving, say, from London to Cornwall for a year.

As several scientists have pointed out, the alert about drinking water in Tokyo is simply a sensible precautionary measure, based on the principle that if you can easily avoid risk, you should do so.

I do not mean to underplay the issue of the Fukushima nuclear leak. But the dangers from Tokyo tapwater do not bear any comparison with the earthquake and tsunami where there are currently nearly 9,500 confirmed dead and more than 14,700 people still missing.

Now, if you have a small child this is clearly not good. For anyone, this is not good.  However, I would refer you back to one of my first updates where I described the hamsterish habits we had all adopted after the initial quake and tsunami. I can’t imagine there are many people in Tokyo who don’t have some supplies. I have enough bottled water and tea to keep me going for at least a week. If you go into convenience stores there are no large bottles of water but when I was in the 7-11 today one of the employees saw me and without me saying anything asked if I wanted a bottle of water. You can only buy 1 2-litre bottle but as long as you just buy one when you can you should have enough.

Onto the advice we were given yesterday, which was basically, a child under 12 months shouldn’t be given tap water, older children are OK as long as they don’t drink vast amounts (how much not  specified) and for adults it’s safe.

What would you do?!? I can’t imagine there’s a parent in Tokyo giving any child tap water at the moment if they can possibly avoid it. For myself, I think it is safe for showers, for brushing teeth, and for washing up. For anything else I am going to stick with the bottled stuff until we get more information. I am thinking, though, that Monday and Tuesday were rainy days and so the radiation would have washed into the water supply more easily. Today it is dry and sunny and the forecast is for it to remain so for  a few days, and I am hoping this is a good thing. (Not so good for people with hayfever though.)

Regarding the levels of radiation in the air, you can check this link every day if you want to know what it is:

http://metropolis.co.jp/quake/quake-2011-03/tokyo-atmospheric-radiation-levels/

The news from the power station continues to be a mix of what sounds like good and bad. Power restored to control rooms, but then smoke rising.  A couple of days ago this was on the BBC website:

‘the power station is undeniably more stable than at any time last week, and for the first time the International Atomic Energy Agency says it ‘has no doubt’ that the crisis will be overcome.’

If you are unclear about all these measurements for radiation etc. please use this link to find out more:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2922671

Tomorrow it will be 2 weeks since the earthquake that started it all. My ladies’ reading group decided not to come, since several of them come from quite a distance and we are all staying closer to home at the moment. There wasn’t one single factor which decided them, it was a mixture of transportation concerns, aftershocks, radiation concerns and having elderly relatives at home. I have already written about the radiation, so now I’ll write about the other 2 general concerns.

Although the transportation network is running reasonably well, on some lines there are no express trains, only local ones, so journey times are longer. Some lines running to the north and north-east of Tokyo are affected by aftershocks (and maybe damage?) so they are not running so well, if at all. I have not had any problems on trains or buses, but some journeys have taken a bit longer. I believe the reduced service in Tokyo itself is more to conserve power than anything else. Still, so many people were stranded that first day, I think we are all trying to avoid being stranded again!

Aftershocks. Yuck. They are still quite big and Miyagi is still getting magnitude 6 quakes daily. We feel them in Tokyo but they are smaller here. Having said that, the size of quakes we are now blasé about is another part of the new normal. It could take weeks or months for them to stop so we’d all better get used to them I suppose (if we haven’t already).

The rush of last week for some people to leave seems to have slowed down to a trickle. If anyone was going to leave they have probably done it by now. It is in some ways easier now that some people are not here, since their stress and panic was not helping other people. Now we are just carrying on and getting through this together. I have mixed feelings about all this.

On the one hand it is an incredibly positive experience. You have probably seen articles praising the Japanese people for carrying on, staying calm, helping each other. It is all true, and more. It is inspiring to be here. In any conversation we check that we are all doing OK, if there is anything we want, sharing what we have, helping each other to get what we need. There is patience and tolerance, smiles everywhere, no one is taking any of this stress out on anyone else as far as I have seen. No one is getting angry in shops, there is no pushing or grabbing anywhere. Quite amazing.

On the other hand, it seems some relationships are shifting, there are attitudes coming out about the groups of people who decided differently from what you decided was best for yourself. I have been thinking about it quite a lot, because I do feel most definitely that I am where I am supposed to be and when I see how amazing everyone is being I feel quite privileged to witness it, to be able to send these updates and tell you all what I am seeing and experiencing. But I have concerns too. I think whichever decision was made (basically one of three; stay put, de-camp to another part of Japan, leave the country) we all have to respect the decision that was made. You can’t convince me that I should have left, and I can’t convince you that you should have stayed. We all did what we thought was right.

There is no need for those of us who stayed to become self-righteous and make people feel guilty for not being here, that’s just mean. Of course, among ourselves, we can always remember what we have experienced being here, there are many wonderful things I want to remember for the rest of my life. To the people who de-camped to another part of Japan, (personally I don’t know many), I hope they have enjoyed a break in another part of this beautiful country. To the people who left Japan, I would have one request, and that would be, please stop sending e-mails to those if us who chose to stay (either directly or cc’ing us) making it all sound worse than it is. Maybe you need to convince yourself that it was so very dangerous that it will justify your decision to leave, but you have not been helping us. You left because that was your decision, and it’s OK. Just come back! We miss you and you are part of our lives here. I, for one, have no interest in having any conversation with you that will make you feel bad.

(Special note: while I am sending this to some people who have left Japan temporarily, no one receiving this e-mail has sent me any of the e-mails I just referred to.)

I think that’s everything for now. Today was another lovely sunny day, the buds on the cherry trees are starting to plump up, and I looked at my favourite weeping cherry trees today and wondered when they would bloom. I am already planning cherry-blossom viewing with several friends, and Tokyo is expected to see the blossoms opening on March 28th or 29th, with best dates for viewing between April 4th to 14th.

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