Empty hospitals?? That’s a good thing, right? Not in Fukushima, it seems. Last night’s NHK news broadcast showed an elderly woman, critically ill and already unconscious, being turned away from the hospital in her own neighborhood. Although the Minamisoma hospital had empty beds aplenty, the reason was a new government regulation preventing new patients from being admitted. The woman (only a brief glimpse of bare feet sticking out from a sheet) was rushed to a hospital in a nearby city, hopefully in time, as TV viewers wondered what on earth was happening.
The situation, as it turns out, is this: Minamisoma and other cities now prevented from admitting new patients are within the “Emergency Preparedness Zone”. This is the grey area just outside of the evacuation zone, where radiation levels register higher than normal, but not yet high enough to warrant a full-scale evacuation. All residents within this zone must be prepared to evacuate at the drop of a hat should further troubles develop at the Fukushima Plant, and ill patients cannot be rushed out of the city without proper care and preparations. Thus the new regulation: medications may be distributed and health consultations are allowed, but no patient may actually be admitted for fear of an evacuation that may or may not occur. Naturally, hospitals in neighboring cities are now flooded with elderly patients (many unhappy to be far from their own neighborhoods), and doctors are up in arms, calling this a “humanitarian issue”. The regulation is particularly distressing to residents since it came from the central
government, without consultation with local officials or community members. City officials are justifiably frustrated and distressed, calling for greater co-operation between the central government and individual prefectures, and urging the Prime Minister and his officials to use “imagination and compassion” in their decision-making.
Meanwhile, back in Tokyo….people are preparing for the next big quake. Because it’s Tokyo, they are doing so with style. A blog called “Tokyo Trends” reports that Hello Kitty silver emergency bags (seen in the above photo) are now sold out in on-line shops. At 10,000 yen per bag (approximately a hundred dollars), that seems astonishing. The contents consist of a handkerchief, a “pouch”, a small blanket, an earthquake hood, an alarm buzzer, and the backpack itself. Considering that all of these items are easily found in the home of any elementary school student, I was amazed to know that anyone would pay that amount of money simply to have the Hello Kitty logo on their matching earthquake goods. Not to mention the impracticality of the contents! No flashlight? No tinned biscuits? Not even a box of Hello Kitty band-aids? Oooo…kay….Let’s move on to the next item: the answer to unfashionable earthquake hoods and helmets.
The traditional earthquake hood looks rather like a couch cushion tied onto the head. In fact, they do double-duty as chair cushions in elementary school (where space is at a premium), as they can be easily removed and thrown onto the head in a matter of seconds. During the second world war, even adults wore these for safety, but these days it’s mostly children. Helmets are for adults. Yes, but who in the fashion-conscious heart of Tokyo wants to be seen in a helmet? Apparently, a Danish company called Yakkay has found the answer: a helmet, concealed by a dapper little overhat that somehow clips on and is interchangeable. “Japan Pulse” claims these hats are not only worn by cyclists in the city, but by train commuters as well! Apparently not out my way, but I will be on the lookout from here on in.
And now for the protest! It is nine o clock in the evening here, and my Twitter feed says that thousands marched through the streets of Tokyo today, protesting Japan’s continuing reliance on nuclear power. This was confirmed by the e-publication “Tokyo Times”, and I expect to see something in tomorrow’s Asahi Shinbun pages. Maybe. The tweets were unclear as to exactly how many people, but there was agreement that it was in the thousands….which is impressive to me, since I’ve never seen crowds that large here apart from fireworks festivals, and have never witnessed a single protest in twelve years. No farmers from Fukushima this time, and no cows, but plenty of “cosplayers” (young people dressed as their favorite Anime characters), chanting, “Genpatsu, yamerou!”, or “Stop Nuclear Power Plants!!” Someone had tweeted, “Old boy at the back annoying the cops,” so I guess there were older folks, too, and apparently plenty of police. Adept at organization, the police neatly divided the protesters into groups, watched for any signs of unruliness (there were none), and that was that. Everyone went home, and there was nothing more to tweet about. Still, that’s pretty exciting stuff for Tokyo.
And now….back again to Fukushima Prefecture and the troubled reactors. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun reported that fewer workers are willing to brave the radiation risk inside the plant, and that former workers (who had worked under dangerous conditions shortly after the disaster on the 11th) are refusing to return to their jobs. According to the article, “..many workers have been begged by their families not to work at the plant again,” and no wonder. The “Fukushima 50”, who were lauded both at home and abroad, are probably among those who refuse to return, and who can blame them? They have paid their dues. As of this posting, there are 1,312 workers at the plant, most employed by sub-contractors hired by TEPCO. The reactors, they say, are still filled with “radioactive rubble” caused by hydrogen explosions, and daily exposure to excessive radiation is unavoidable. Suffering from hyperventilation and abnormal heartbeats caused by living with stress and fear on a daily basis, they are urged by colleagues to “keep quiet” within the earshot of their TEPCO employers. TEPCO officials, attempting to salvage the remains of their bedraggled reputations, are taking measures to improve the workers’ living environments by constructing temporary dorms and showers. I had to read that twice, as you probably did, too. No dorms or showers until this point??……
Other news, in a nutshell: operations at the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant (one of the topics of my last post) have been halted by the central government! Suddenly and completely, and I was truly surprised, given the company’s determination to not only continue operations, but to re-start a reactor which had been closed for inspections. The shut-down is only temporary, to give the company time to construct a massive breakwater and take long-term precautions against future disasters, but still it’s a small victory, and a bit of breathing space.
The Prime Minister has also taken a firm stance against TEPCO, stating that full responsibility for clean-up and compensation rests with the company, rather than the government, and professing “no sympathy” for the universally reviled TEPCO officials. TEPCO, while promising to do its utmost, still begs for mercy, crying, “Don’t break us!” In reality, the government will end up footing part of the bill, though how much, and by what means remains to be seen. In the meantime, farmers from Fukushima go uncompensated, and their future remains uncertain.
In a rather alarming short article found in the Tokyo Times, I learned that Red Cross Japan has been sitting on a huge amount of aid money, earmarked as “compensation” for Tohoku residents. I have been fund-raising for Red Cross since the aftermath of the quake, and urging others to do so as well, so THAT news gave me a jolt. In their defense, Red Cross officials say that distributing the money fairly is a delicate process, and that many factors (including the results of searches for lost family members) have prevented them from getting the money out in a timely fashion. The truth of that can hardly be denied, and I am trusting that the money will find its way to the victims as soon as possible.
And so, Japan’s Golden Week comes to an end tomorrow. Many young people spent the holidays in Ishinomaki or Kesennuma, paying a good sum of money to be allowed to help with the clean-up and re-construction, and living like shelter residents themselves for a few days. Others travelled and enjoyed life as usual, in spite of dire news predictions that the average citizen would spend Golden Week at home, behaving frugally. I chose to stay at home, behaving semi-frugally, and taking one day trip to the Hakone mountains. Expecting few other tourists, my family and I were unprepared to do battle with the crowds squeezed onto the train platforms! We had planned to meet friends on the Hakone-Yumoto platform and board the train together, but that proved impossible, since we were unable to see each other or move in any direction but toward the train doors. We ended up on the same train, but in different cars, and finally met up at our destination (which was worth the stress of the train ride). It will be some time before families in Tohoku are able to travel for pleasure, and I must remember to appreciate my own good fortune. And I will continue to blog in the evenings. The news is chock-full of drama–no end in sight– and it seems important to reach out and grab at stories, in an effort to make sense of them and to make sure that they get told at least once again before life moves on. Again, I thank you for reading those same stories and for keeping Japan in your thoughts and prayers.