March 29th 2011

No sign of cherry blossoms yet! The buds are really big so I imagine they’ll start to open in the next day or 2, but so far nothing! This is good, though, because we will have the Entrance Ceremony for the new 1st year students on April 8th and it will be lovely if the driveway up to school is lined with all the trees in full bloom. For the past few years the cherry blossoms have been getting earlier, so all our trees have been at their best when the students weren’t there, it would be nice to have more people see how beautiful they are.

I am up to my 7th update now, as time goes on it feels like we’re settling more and more into what I think I described before as a new normal, and I think that the situation we find ourselves in today is going to go on for a while. It’s going to take weeks, if not months, to sort out the mess at the reactors and as for the people in Miyagi, I hope their lives regain some sense of security and comfort soon, but goodness only knows how long it will take to rebuild. Anyway, here is an update from Tokyo today. Please note that if I say that someone has told me something I am only reporting something I have heard, for the most part I can only give you snapshots and anecdotes.


Well, this doesn’t look good, in the last 24 hours they have been talking about a ‘partial meltdown’. The scary ’10 million times the normal level’ reports that were coming out on Sunday were not accurate, the number was actually 100,000 times the normal level. Clearly this is still a very high number, and so gets filed under Not A Good Thing. However, it was pointed out in a BBC report that this is what would be expected inside a nuclear reactor, and it was this they were measuring. The people who were measuring levels should have taken a 2nd reading but saw what they thought was ’10 million’ and scarpered. Since then, they have also found plutonium in the soil around the reactor and elevated radiation levels have been detected in the air as far away as South Korea, China and even the US. However, these levels are still minute and they are being reported because people have looked for the radiation and found it but the amounts they are talking about are miniscule.

Although the government has created a 20km exclusion zone around the reactors, and they have urged everyone to leave, there are some people who have refused to go. From reports I have seen they are mostly elderly farmers who don’t want to leave their homes and animals. Self Defence Forces personnel visit them and try to persuade them to leave but some refuse to go.

The Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) are what the Japanese military is called. After the war the new constitution stated in Article 9 that Japan renounced war and the means to wage war forever, so this ‘Self Defence Forces’ idea is a way round this. If you’d like to read more, follow this link:


This is the heartbreaking part. The people whose lives and homes and everything they knew were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami are still living in school gyms with next to nothing. They are short on supplies and today there are still more than 17,000 people missing. They are being amazingly strong and brave.  One report that made a great impression on me was this one:

I saw it on TV too and what they don’t say in the article is that the villagers want to rebuild their community but not where it used to be so they are discussing where they will all rebuild together. As the last line in the online article says, ‘This nation’s great disaster has brought out the best in its people.’

In the newspaper today there was an article titled ‘Local wisdom a lifesaver for kids’ which explained how almost all the schoolchildren in Kamaishi survived because they had been taught the word ‘tendenko’, ‘a word coined from the city’s long history of repeatedly being hit by tsunami’. The article then goes on to explain that ‘the word means go uphill independently at the time of tsunami caring only for your own safety, not thinking of anyone else, even your family’. So actually some kind of abbreviated slogan, because no one word can mean all that!


So, how is this great city doing? Actually, we are doing OK. We continue to avoid the rolling power blackouts that the areas around Tokyo are being subjected to (not fair!  I think we should do our bit) but as I said last time, we are all trying to cut down on how much power we use. A lot of the unnecessarily bright lights and giant video screens etc. have been turned off, and in shops and other places the lighting is dimmer. Interesting how much we can cut back if we want to, I hope these lessons remain long after all this is over.

People are still subdued, but we are all just getting on with life. Although there are fewer people about, the trains not so squashed (!) and it all just feels quieter, in personal interactions it seems people are friendlier, kinder, smiling at each other, starting conversations. A lot of people I know have thought about what they have and what they can do and have offered what they can. An example: a friend of a friend, whom I met when I first came to Japan in 1991, and with whom I have kept in touch sporadically over the years, decided that she wanted to do something to encourage me and help me feel better, and sent me a box of oranges from her hometown. (In Japan most places have their regional speciality and producers regularly ship these products all over Japan.) So on Saturday evening the man from the delivery company struggled to my door with a 10kg box of dekopon, a particularly yummy type of orange from southern Japan.

The shortages: there are no large bottles of mineral water in the shops. I suppose we have all got our supplies at home now. I finally got tired of having all the bottles in the corner of my living room and loaded them all into a cardboard box and put them in a storage room under the stairs outside. In case you’re wondering, I have enough water for about 2 weeks if they tell us it’s not safe to drink tap water. I don’t know what the people who left will do as they come back, because they won’t be able to stock up. One of my colleagues went back to the UK  and said in a recent e-mail that they would have to order some water on the Internet to be delivered for when they come back. I don’t know how realistic that is; if we could all do that we wouldn’t have been hamstering everything away since the 11th.

Apart from the lack of large bottles of water, the shops are OK. Some shelves are depleted, but whenever I have been to the local supermarket I have been able to buy everything I wanted. For some things (e.g. eggs) there are signs that say, one box per customer, or something like that, but for most things you can buy what you want. At the same supermarket today I saw a sign in Japanese that also said in English, ‘save energy, shop with love, share with others’. In a lot of places you see a poster of the red circle of the Japanese flag with ‘Pray for Japan’ on it, or another sign which says ‘Ganbare Nihon!’, which is probably best translated as something like ‘Come on, Japan!’, ‘Do your best, Japan!’ or if you were feeling especially British, ‘Chin up, Japan!’

To go back to the radiation levels I mentioned earlier, you can check the levels in the air and the water in Tokyo every day if you follow these links:

radiation levels in the air:

and in the tap water:

There continues to be help from overseas. The US military (which has a large presence in Japan, especially in Okinawa in the south) has been helping with personnel and supplies. They were at Sendai airport from the beginning with personnel from the SDF and together they have cleared a lot already, clearly it was a priority so more aid could be flown in. In the last few days it has been reported that the US is sending a ship / barge / tanker carrying 500,000 gallons of fresh water to help cool the reactors in Fukushima. Salt water is not so good because the salinity can damage the reactors even as they cool them. I heard (hearsay warning!) that the Japanese government was dithering when the help was offered so in the end the US just told Japan, we are sending the water, please use it. In the newspaper I read that the UK is sending a lot of bottled water. It seems a lot of countries have offered help, but until the Japanese government accepts it the aid can’t get through.

Since Libya is in the headlines now the situation here has slipped down the news, and this seems odd to me since the news coming out of Fukushima is as concerning as it has been for the last 2 weeks and while all the overseas media had their reporters here they were certainly making it sound awful. Now we are a footnote! Another odd thing is what they choose to report. For example, Miyagi has had aftershocks registering magnitude 6+ almost every day since the 11th, but a few days ago one of the aftershocks was the first item on the news. Why would they do that?  What was special about that aftershock? (Answer: nothing.)

I would like to add a little about the Japanese language and what you may see reported about what the government and TEPCO have been saying. I have heard the government has ‘scolded’ TEPCO for its failings in dealing with the crisis at the reactors. This is a commonly-used word when translating this kind of criticism. It sounds childish in English but is a common formula. It was also reported last week that TEPCO had apologised for the ‘trouble’ or ‘nuisance’ they had caused, and in English, when you think about a partial nuclear meltdown or the threat of such a thing, ‘nuisance’ doesn’t begin to cover it. Again, it is common in Japan, and when a company fails in some way (and has to issue a recall of products for example) the executives will usually appear and apologise. Sometimes they are actually on their knees. I think in Europe or North America the tendency would be for a company to try to get out in front of something damaging and do some kind of damage-control, but here it seems they start to deal with the problem and then apologise in a very formulaic way.

This week is seeing the return of more people, partly because the international schools are starting back this week. Some people are not returning, and I heard (hearsay warning!) that at one school 12% of the students are not coming back. The same schools lost a lot of students when some banks collapsed a couple of years ago, so this is clearly not good for them. I wonder how the people coming back will cope. For those of us who have been here I think we have got used to rolling with the news, staying calm until we have double-checked information, keeping in touch with people when we need to, (and hamstering) but for them they have to come back and play catch-up. I wonder how differently stressful it will be.

Finally, although I have mentioned before how frustrating it has been to see how ill-chosen words in the media have affected the tone of reporting and the effect it has had, I would like to leave you with 2 links to people who really should have kept their mouths shut. The first is Ann Coulter, known to people in the US but maybe not elsewhere. Right-wing pundit? I’m at a loss at how to adequately describe her. She seems to revel in saying outrageous things, but when what you say makes even Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly incredulous, surely that should make you stop and reconsider what you are saying.  Here’s the link:

The other person in my (admittedly small) hall of shame is Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo, who delights in saying offensive things about everyone, rather like Prince Philip, but with scary real political power. The headline alone is brilliant, if only everyone he tries to annoy had the same reaction:—religious-groups-ignore-him/

This has turned out to be a long update, and when I started I thought it would be quite brief. Thank you for everyone keeping in touch, for everyone sending prayers and encouragement, it is all amazingly helpful. I feel I am learning so much about the inherent goodness and kindness of everyone around me, and am impressed and thankful every day for the sense of community we are all sharing.


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