Archive for March, 2011

Tokyo Day 11 – Life by the river

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Today, we decided that since we believe it is safe to be out and about, we might as well go out. So we went cycling down by the river (there’ll be more about Japanese bikes in another post). We probably went about 5km down the river and 5km back, so we got a reasonable view of life.

People are back to work, doing the things they usually do. Other people were out walking their dogs:

There were lots of small dogs in silly dog outfits like this one. Other dogs looked more sensible.

This guy spent ages lifting dog poo with newspaper, making sure he got every tiny bit of it.

Meanwhile less disgustingly, other people were stopping to photograph the cherry blossom.

Cherry blossom season is very big in Japan, and under normal circumstances, the media would be tracking the cherry blossom line, as it progresses through the country. A number of people stopped to take pictures of this cherry tree.

And there were lots of other things I didn’t photograph – the folks playing tennis at the tennis courts, the guy practising his guitar on a park bench, the guys kicking a football. Plenty of people out and about, doing normal things.

And today’s shopping update – bread and milk are now back in stock in the supermarket, though there was no chicken or fish (but it was later in the day, and they may have just sold out).

Still no panic, still no empty supermarket shelves here.

Tokyo Day 11 – it’s been a long week

Friday, March 18th, 2011

The quake happened just a week ago. It feels like longer – it’s been a long week.
This morning, we find that for the first time, Japan has fallen to second place in the news on BBC World, which is good news for us. The plant having stabilised isn’t nearly as newsworthy as a plant that might blow up and do something exciting for the watching media
So we’re actually thinking of going further than the shops today!

Tokyo Day 10 – did you feel that?

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

This morning I was introduced to the fascinating concept of the banana equivalent dose, which tells us that bananas are radioactive enough to produce alarms in radiation detectors. Someone told us that the background radiation in Tokyo was “about a banana”, which was hilarious, and puts so much of the media scaremongering into focus. I thought that the comparison with the elevated background radiation in the Mournes was a good analogy, but a comparison with the fresh fruit section in Tescos is even better!

Meanwhile, we are starting to feel some of the effects of the level of shaking that we’ve received – my sense of equilibrium seems to be shot to bits, and I can no longer tell whether I am moving or not. I keep asking “Was that a shake?”, and we don’t know until we check the earthquake web site whether it was a real tremor or not. I hope that will pass when I get home, as it is a bit unsettling.

And yet I still manage to miss the real ones! I thought I heard footsteps in the corridor this morning outside the bathroom, and said hello, but actually it was the corridor flexing in an aftershock. I was almost certain there was one just after I went to bed last night, but I didn’t even get up. But I did feel the large ones this evening that set the building swaying again.

Have also decided to get an early night, instead of staying up until 3 in the morning. G’night all.

Elsewhere on the internet

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Marty wrote a new post here.

And Karen wrote one here.

Tokyo Day 10 – another day

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Today we wake to more media scaremongering. If you haven’t seen it yet, this page from the UK Embassy (not the Japanese government), from UK nuclear experts makes it clear that Tokyo is safe from radiation whatever happens.

However, the US (followed by the UK, and probably everyone else) has extended their danger zone out to 80km/50miles around the plant, and are advising people to leave that enlarged area. I don’t know about you, but if I had been outside the 30km, but within 80miles, I think I would be out of there already, so I don’t think this is a very bad sign.

Likewise the US has said that he families of embassy staff can leave Tokyo on a voluntary basis – yes that is what they are saying – that the families may leave if they wish. I had kind of assumed that US citizens would be allowed to leave if they wanted at any stage, but the US have now explicitly given permission. They’ve also arranged some flights to help them get out, which is helpful. But it is still not a major evacuation – they are not advising their people to go, just saying that they can. And they’re not saying anything to other American citizens who happen to be in the country, only the families of American Embassy staff.

But anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the Japanese people, and what happens to them next. Japan does not have a welfare state – if you don’t work, you don’t get handouts from the government. When I went walking by the river last Wednesday before all this started, I saw a number of tarpaulin homes along the path. At first it wasn’t obvious what these shacks were – they could have been building or gardening supplies, but then I saw flowerpots outside one, and washing hanging out by another, it became obvious tat people were living in them. And yet in 3 visits to Japan, I have never seen anyone begging, and the crime rate is very low here, so these people manage to get buy somehow without asking for help or stealing it.

I worry that this problem is about to become huge. I don’t know what kind of exceptional payments will be made available to those who have lost everything, but there will be a huge social need here for a long time to come. We’ve all seen the pictures from the north – there are no homes, there are no jobs, there is no infrastructure – there is nothing left. In a state which is not in the habit of giving out money, and may not have the mechanisms to do it, there could be yet more suffering for the survivors. Because of the risk here earthquake insurance is a specific thing, and not included in general house insurance. However, not only is it not mandatory, but quite often people can’t eve get earthquake insurance because of the age, or location, or building style, so a lot of people who have lost homes will get no automatic insurance payout. Japan is a rich country, but not all Japanese people are rich, and I hope that the world’s charities do their bit to help where it is needed in the longer term.

Tokyo Day 9 – life is wierd

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Life is a really strange thing.

I’m here in Japan on holiday, and would normally be out and about, wandering around taking pictures, eating out, singing karaoke, and doing the usual tourist things.

Instead I haven’t been further than the shops in days, and have been contributing to the Belfast Telegraph and the evening news on Radio Ulster. I’m sure I will never live it down. The apartment has been in fits of giggles about it all, which I guess is typical of Northern Ireland people in a crisis – there’s nothing we can do about it, and at least it relieves the tension.

As well as going to the shops today (where there are still fresh strawberries, vegetables, fish, meat and rice, but no pot noodles), we emptied the bins. Emptying the bin hasn’t been a priority, obviously, but today we decided it was time. We expected that the rubbish room in the building would be overflowing, as everyone would be doing the same as us. Nope.

As you can see, the bins have been emptied, and the room is spotless. Again, life goes on as usual in Tokyo. You will probably be as startled as I am that there are 9 different bins for the various types of rubbish. I assume that a degree in rubbish selection is required before you even think about throwing something out.

As for the ongoing nuclear concerns, I just read a brilliant transcript of a conference call run by the British Embassy here in Tokyo. Full marks to them for a clear statement of the situation at the Fukushima reactor, and the risks here in Tokyo. Short summary – it really is safe in Tokyo. The full article is here, but the penultimate statement puts it well:

given the devastation that you’ve got in Japan and the hard work at the Embassy people are having to put in, I would characterise the nuclear issue as a sideshow. You’ve got a massive problem.

And so that’s how we end the day in Tokyo today.

Tokyo Day 9 – Karen speaks out

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Karen has posted a great rant on her blog.

Tokyo Day 9 – blowing in the wind

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Today added a new factor to life on the 24 floor. It’s windy. Really windy! Instead of waking up by being shaken, I was woken up by the sound of the wind roaring round the building. This was unnerving, but apparently completely normal – we’re on the 24th floor, and if it is windy on the ground, it really howls up here. But I hadn’t heard it before, as the weather has been very calm so far.

The strong wind also causes positive and negative air pressure, because the centre of the building is open to the outside, but the apartment isn’t (as we have the windows closed, obviously). That meant that the apartment door wouldn’t open this morning due to the pressure difference. I thought I had broken the lock, and that we were now trapped in the apartment. That was actually one of the scariest moments so far, when I thought I had actually managed to imprison us in a swaying box in the sky. But Karen just gave it a good yank, and it opened with a bang, and all was well again. She also pointed out the many other exits via the balcony doors (we have 5 of them), and the emergency call button to summon the building managers downstairs.

We are also back to swaying. This afternoon has been like last night, with some obvious shakes, and some less obvious. And to be completely honest, there may be some imaginary ones too, as we’ve become a bit sensitive to it all.

Meanwhile, the world looks on. Today the French announced that they don’t trust the Japanese government and are putting on two planes to evacuate French citizens. And some companies are advising their employees to move south, or leave the country. But there is still nothing from the UK government in terms of advice or assistance.

I called my travel insurance company yesterday to see if they would cover the eye-watering price of a flight home. First I couldn’t get in touch with them, because their international 24 hour numbers were all for medical assistance, and I’m not ill. Then when I did ring, they told me that they wouldn’t cover me for a return home unless my airline told me I had to come home. And I’m guessing that if Virgin Atlantic tell me to come home, they would give me a free flight change, rather than charge over 2 grand. The girl on the phone said that a travel advisory from the UK or Japanese government would not be a basis for a claim. So needless to say they are going to get a huge earful when I get home.

Meanwhile, it’s actually a beautiful day outside.

You may not be able to see the workmen on the building site through the middle pane of the balcony window, but they are there.

Tokyo Day 8 – It just keeps on going

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

My post this morning said that the aftershocks had diminished. Well, I’ve now lost my seismology credibility, as we had a fairly major quake again tonight. There were two together with a magnitude of 6.0 after 10 pm, which gave Tokyo a pretty good shaking. They were so big that even I noticed them (I continue to be hopeless at noticing the minor tremors). These struck inland, so the good news is that there won’t be a tsunami, but the bad news is that an earthquake centred on land could be a lot more destructive. Because it was late, and therefore dark, I guess we won’t get a proper damage assessment until morning. But it can’t be good news.

Meanwhile, to the north, the nuclear reactors continue to melt themselves into puddles. I finally found some science in English here, which gives a good explanation of what’s going on inside them. Also had to look up the definition of the sievert on wikipedia, since the media has been full of numbers today to describe the radiation levels in various places. The facts seem to be that yes, the radiation level in Tokyo was higher than usual today (about 3 times usual background), but that this doesn’t represent any kind of danger. Much higher levels have been seen at the reactor sites, but that can’t be a surprise to anyone, and thankfully we’re not there.

We also went out shopping today. We didn’t have any particular need to restock, but as much as anything we just wanted out of the apartment for a while. The media has reported that central Tokyo is quieter than usual, but Karen reckons it’s busier than usual here, so people seem to be staying near home, as expected. The supermarket was busy, and had run out of staple foods (bread and rice), but had plenty of other things, including a lot of fresh looking things – meat, fish, pre-sliced vegetables and things. So although there are some shortages, there are no signs of a problem. The cafes were closed, but the bakery was open. And there was no shortage of face masks to buy, which the Japanese wear to keep their cold germs in, but would be useful to keep radioactive material out.

And so we continue to watch and wait. We finished season one of the Big Bang Theory, which is quality comedy, and has helped to keep spirits up. Meanwhile, Karen continues to turn into Mrs Doyle in a crisis, and bake cakes to deal with her stress and boredom. Marty and I continue to eat them. Life could be much worse.

Tokyo Day 8 – Stay Calm, Carry On

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Was not awoken by a earth tremor this morning, which was positive (and different to the last couple of days). Mind you, a quick look at the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Earthquake Site indicated that after the five hour gap between tremors last night (the longest there had been for a while), they had resumed, and been pretty frequent during the night (there were 4 of them between 5:00 and 6:00). But the good news is that the size of the aftershocks is much lower than it was yesterday.

Although the aftershocks haven’t made a lot of news internationally, they have remained a part of the problem, since a number of them have been centred on Fukushima itself – while they have been working on the dodgy reactors, they have been shaking for days.

The aftershocks have also been one of the major concerns for the whole country, as we were told over the weekend that here had been a 70% chance of another quake of a magnitude of 7 or above. Again, the good news is that this probability has been reduced, so there is less likelihood of a really serious shaking happening.

Which leaves the nuclear reactors. Some of the technical coverage has been poor, but the internet has made up for that. Yes, reactors have melted down, and the fuel rods are becoming a puddle at the bottom of the core. They’ll never generate power again, but as long as the core doesn’t breach, they can cover the whole thing in concrete for a thousand years, and there won’t be a serious risk (future earthquakes notwithstanding). Someone was apparently out with a gieger counter in Tokyo yesterday, and their readings showed no change in the background radiation since December.

The government have put out some serious warnings this morning, and extended the safety zone to 30km. People within 10km have been asked to get away – that implies that their buildings can no longer protect them, and the risk of being outside getting to safety is less than the risk of staying put. Out to 30km, they feel people are at less risk staying put than being outside heading away. That must mean that there’s something in the air, but not a long-term risk, or they would want those people out of the way too.

There is still no advice at all for the rest of the country, in terms of going in or staying out, and so life continues as normal – Marty got the train to work this morning, and we can hear the trains running outside.

Life goes on.