I’m back from three days in Las Vegas, where the lights are on twenty-four-hours a day, the air is fresh and clean, and folks seem to know very little about the situation in Japan. On my first day there, I had commented, “It’s so bright here! Tokyo is dark these days..” My friend’s response was, “Why?”, but it was hard to give a succinct reply. I was in town for a wedding, and was reluctant to spoil the mood. So instead of elaborating, I decided to drop the subject altogether and throw myself into the wedding preparations, meeting a myriad of new people (I had flown in from Japan knowing only the bride, her sister, and her younger brother. I also came without a date, so was determined to be sociable and make friends as I went along. All this was much easier than imagined) , and celebrating whole-heartedly along with everyone else. When asked, “Where are you from?” I’d say, “Japan.” Only a few folks asked, “Wow….is everything okay there?” The rest of the folks simply thanked me for coming such a long distance, and we’d move on to other topics. Weddings are no place to discuss death, destruction, debris or deep debt, and I respected that unwritten rule for the extent of my stay. Back in the hotel in the evenings, I opened up facebook rather than turning on the TV, and the only newspaper I saw was local…..the Friday headline was a story of two cops busted for using the patrol car to go sightseeing outside their district while on-duty. So thoughts of Tohoku were duly subjugated and not allowed to surface for a while as I shopped, ate out, tried the casinos, and got manicured, pedicured, washed and styled for the wedding. For the record, it truly was the best wedding ever, and I’ve no regrets about taking a break from all those “d-words”.
The extended vacation lasted until I arrived back in Narita on Sunday. The return flight had been packed full of cheery young people–employees of a Japanese home furnishings chain store called “Nitori”….seven hundred of them had been abroad touring American style malls and super-stores (they were particularly impressed with Walmart), and were on their way back to report their “findings”. They were fairly fluent in English, had been sight-seeing and shopping as well as “working”, and were in high spirits. No glum faces or mask-wearers among them, so the festive mood continued throughout the flight. The only reminder that we were returning to the darkness and tension of Japan was the passing of a “collection bag” during the flight, for the victims of the quake and tsunami. In twenty-five years of frequent flying I’ve never been asked to donate to anything, and I dumped in a liberal amount of change, both yen and American coins.
Landing in Narita, the mood was instantly subdued…and overly warm. I won’t say “hot” YET….as I know it’ll get much worse than this. The airport is (for those of us with already dubious eyesight) uncomfortably dim, uncomfortably warm, and far too quiet and orderly. “It’s been quiet since the quake,” said the attendant who checked my baggage on the flight out. On the train ride home, I whipped out my iPhone and began catching up on the past week’s events via my favorite on-line newspapers and Twitter. No major events–not politically correct to say “earth-shaking events” here– or changes; instead, signs of progress here and there, and discussions of further obstacles to be overcome. New findings on what actually happened at the Fukushima plant during the week of the quake continue to surface (in bits and pieces) as the situation is analyzed, critiqued, and slowly made public. The government continues to tread water rather than achieving a steady crawl stroke, and ordinary folks from Hokkaido to Kyuushuu express anger, frustration, and disgust with the status quo. I’ll try to give a brief update on some of the news highlights, whether positive, negative, or simply human interest with no judgement implied.
Nearly 90,000 Tohoku residents are still in shelters. The rainy season is in full swing, and the basements of the Fukushima reactors are still in danger of overflowing; by the end of June, all the storage areas of the nuclear plant will be completely full of radioactive water. The new plan is now to “de-contaminate” the water, and recycle it to continue cooling the reactors. Surrounding areas are still dealing with (or rather, stymied by) the issue of radioactive sludge; there are no guidelines in place to follow, so the sludge blocks continue to pile up as local officials discuss what on earth to do with the stuff. We see it on the news nightly.
We also get a new addition to the nightly news these days: a prediction of how much of the country’s available energy supply will be used the following day, based on the weather forecast. Like the iPhone battery image showing how much juice is left, we see “the country’s battery” on the TV screen. High temperatures predicted for the following day mean very little juice left over, since air conditioning will be in used heavily in public spaces and in homes. The screen also predicts peak hours of energy use, and viewers are urged to plan their energy use accordingly. The goal is for each household to reduce energy consumption by at least 15% this summer, and to use a minimum of energy during peak hours. Businessmen are already working early-morning shifts to take advantage of the cool morning air, and some businesses will shut down entirely during the hottest weeks in August.
This week, according to NHK’s “national energy reserve battery” indicator, we’ve been using 80% of the nation’s available electricity. This is quite alarming, since the days have been cool and rainy, and no-one is yet using air conditioners in their homes. I dread the advent of July, when the daily battle will begin: to give in to the coolers, or to sweat it out. Unless we are very, very careful, it looks like we may–for the first time–have no choice. Since only 14 out of 54 of Japan’s nuclear power plants are actually functioning at this time (the remainder have either been damaged by the quake and tsunami, or are temporarily shut down for safety inspections), it does not seem possible that the nation’s energy demand will be met. More rolling blackouts seem unavoidable, even with people using resources sparingly and public spaces dark and warm.
I dread the advent of July and August, but the shut-down of most of the nation’s nuclear plants can only be seen as a good thing, and long overdue. It happened nation-wide, in a chain reaction, after Prime Minister Kan “requested” the shut-down of the Hamaoka plant, situated directly atop a dangerous fault. Suddenly, local government officials across the country decided to follow suit, shutting down their own nuclear operations until new safety standards can be agreed upon, and until the plants have passed strict inspections. The Japanese public is okay with this. More than okay, according to TV and newspaper polls, which show steadily waning support for nuclear energy, and an increasing willingness to explore alternatives. This past Saturday, the 11th, was marked by anti-nuclear protests in 140 different sites across Japan, including a large-scale march (20,000 people) in Shinjuku. It’s all peaceful and orderly, of course, but still highly emotional . In Koriyama ( a central city in Fukushima Prefecture), 200 protesters marched, bearing signs reading, “Return our Hometowns!”. One woman’s surgical mask read, “I can hardly take a deep breath.”
And speaking of protests and protestors….this week’s Asahi Shinbum announced that the government is seriously considering the offer of the “Suicide Corps”, a group of elderly men who have volunteered to step in and work long hours cleaning up the Fukushima reactors. Their leader, Yasuteru Yamada, was also a leader of the 1960 student movements at Tokyo University–a former hippie/activist who now wants to save the country for future generations, rather than leaving them with a “negative legacy”. He and his group of volunteers range in age from late 60’s to 82; having already led long and productive lives, they are unafraid of the risks of radiation exposure, and propose to work for longer stretches of time than the younger workers currently tackling work on a rotating schedule of short shifts. The older men have a sense of mission, and have finally been acknowledged by Japan’s trade minister Banri Kaieda , who told Yamada, “We want to make preparations so that you can work on the site before your enthusiasm burns out.” Yamada and his group have not yet set foot inside the Fukushima plant, but they’re already on the fast track toward becoming big-time heros.
The Prime Minister, however, can’t seem to make anyone happy. Surviving a no-confidence vote last week, he then used to occasion to announce his intention to resign…..sometime. Sometime? Yes, that’s right. The opposition party is furious, and want him out immediately. His own party is befuddled, not knowing how to respond when asked exactly when “sometime” might be (he has revealed nothing, even to his own party), and shelter victims in Tohoku are, according to NHK polls, upset and “disgusted” with the situation. Personally, I was ready to wash my hands of him for good and start praying for a miracle (there are no other popular or capable candidates), when tonight’s news set me wondering. “The Prime Minister is full of energy and spirit!” announced the NHK translator, “..and shows no signs of stepping down soon.” A grinning (literally, grinning) Kan was seen laughing into the camera, proclaiming, “You must be tired of seeing my face! Really! Are you really? Do you hate seeing my face?” The reporter went on to say that Kan is now in league with the billionaire Korean owner of Softbank, Masayoshi Son, and the two have great plans for a natural energy bill. According to tonight’s report (the reports change on a daily basis), Kan has no intention of leaving office until his dream bill is successfully passed, and the future of natural energy in Japan is secured. He is literally laughing in the face of opposition (either that, or he’s lost his sanity completely. I must say, he looked almost unhinged as he cackled into the microphone). WELL. This is a new development, and I can’t write the Prime Minister off just yet. Anything could happen from here on in, and I want a front row seat. There’s more to tell, but I need my beauty sleep. More to come next week, and thank you again for reading.