All of a sudden, the heat has picked up. Neighbors meet on the street and greet each other with, “It’s HOT, isn’t it?” while dabbing at their foreheads with absorbent towel-handkerchiefs (a must for summer). There’s more to be said, but few folks have the energy to make the effort. The evening news continues to feature the nation’s “battery”: a graph showing the available amount of electricity verses the next day’s predicted demand, based on the anticipated temperature. Last week’s battery showed the nation using approximately 80% of available electricity, but this week it’s “giri-giri safe”, meaning the supply is just barely matching demand, with the nation using 91% of it’s electricity. And no-one I know is using air conditioners in their homes, except for an hour of so of respite when the kids come home from school (kids have no air conditioning at all in their classrooms, so they come home wilted, and covered with sweat), or during dinner. We feel pleased with ourselves , and justifiably so, as graphs also show a significant decrease in energy use compared to this same time last year; still, it’s hard to keep one’s spirits up. In short, folks are cranky. I am extremely cranky myself, and sleep–an even sweatier experience– brings no relief.
Heat is stressful. The disaster victims are now battling torrential rains (the rainy season seems to have wimped out in the Tokyo area, but is drenching Tohoku on a daily basis) as well as heat; I can imagine the stress level of even healthy folks must be soaring right now. And speaking of stress….I came across a short but interesting article in the Asahi Shinbun, stating that the clams off the coast of Fukushima are also stressed, as evidenced by changes in the patterns of their shells. Ninety percent of the 216 clams studied had ruts in the middle of the shells, marking the start of different colors and patterns. As evident in the photograph, the clams above (the “normal” variety) look significantly less wild and crazy than those below (taken from Matsukawaura Bay in Fukushima), with their large white splotches. Kenji Okoshi, a professor of environmental dynamic analysis at Toho University, believes this is a result of their sudden and violent change of habitat, as they were swept away by the tsunami and transported to new sea beds with different concentrations of salt, and an “unnatural mix of sand and mud in the seabed.” Okoshi was quick to add that the clams would still taste delicious, but that is a different matter altogether. The bottom line is, if even the humblest forms of marine life are suffering from stress, the situation in Tohoku is truly deserving of our sympathy.
Aside from the heat, another source of stress that I have not yet focused on in this blog, is personal debt. Deep personal debt, on a scale never-before-seen in modern day Japan. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun featured an article with the header: “Surviving the Tsunami but Drowning in Debt”. Reporter Toyotaka Nagata described the situation as “….the worst natural disaster in the postwar era…(it) was so devastating that it took away many people’s sources of income and their homes, making it almost impossible to rebuild on their own.” The Hanshin Earthquake that rocked Kobe in 1995 was devastating to both individuals and the city itself, yet there were no government measures taken to aid in the victims’ loan burdens. This time, however, the loan burdens are on a different scale, with victims often swamped with multiple loans for houses and boats that no longer exist….in many cases, they are able to receive some compensation in the form of disaster aid , but it is rarely enough to cover the amount owed, much less enough to make payments on a new home. Is the answer to take out yet another loan to get a new boat or home? In addition, those who co-signed on the loans of relatives who died in the tsunami or quake are now responsible for those “family” loans as well. Is it any wonder that the suicide rate in Tohoku is climbing? Having lost families, homes, livelihoods, and often entire communities, and facing a black hole of debt (this last is a particularly shameful thing in Japanese culture), many are unable to handle the emotional stress and uncertainty of their situation. Lawyers are working round-the-clock, vounteering their time to give advice to the countless victims lined up in evacuation shelters–all seeking a way to pick up and move on without being dragged down by their losses and responsibilities.
Civic groups and lawyers across the country are calling for increased public aid and possible absolution from debt for the hardest-hit victims. Hopefully their voices will be heard amidst the noisy squabbling of politicians who still spend an inordinate amounts of time attempting to oust the current Prime Minister (unsuccessfully, since Kan has dug in his heels, and refuses to go after promising a swift retirement). It has taken the government three months to come up with a basic framework for reconstruction (compared with 40 days for similar legislation after the Hanshin Quake). The bill was passed on June 20th, and chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano was asked why the delay. His reply? He was quoted at a news conference saying, “It was certainly late from an objective viewpoint, but that has not caused any particular inconveniences.” No inconveniences to him, at least, but ask the mayors of the cities and towns in Fukushima prefecture how convenient the waiting has been. And how pleasant, outfitting their citizens with dosimeters, scraping the topsoil off parks and schoolgrounds, trying to find cement companies willing to accept their radioactive sewage sludge that continues to accumulate, desperate to find doctors and nurses willing to work in their prefecture (Nahara and Futaba towns in Fukushima prefecture are functioning with one nurse per 2,000 residents ), desperate to find buyers for their vegetables, and desperate to make progress in cleaning the rubble from the most radioactive areas. Among other challenges.
The challenge of shutting down the crippled power plant continues, as the deadline for cold shutdown is extended further and further into the future (the the promise is still for the “near” future). The reactors (some topless since the hydrogen explosions) have been steadily filling with water, both from efforts to cool the system and from weeks of seasonal rain. Naturally, the water is now highly radioactive, and cannot be easily disposed of. So far, it has been stored…in huge tanks, that are themselves becoming full. The plan was to begin “decontaminating” the water, then recycling it to continue cooling the reactors, but results have been dubious at best. The decontaminating system broke down shortly after starting up (TEPCO says the system is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and promises that things will be running smoothly very soon), and very little water has actually been decontaminated. Actually, I believe the news report said, “some” water has successfully been decontaminated and recycled, which is hardly edifying or confidence-inspiring.
New reports have also been released revealing further details of the lack of disaster preparation at the plant. According to an Associated Press article, protective gear for the workers was actually located in a separate offsite crisis center five kilometers from the Number One plant. On the day of the disaster, workers were ordered to release steam (“venting”) to begin cooling the reactors, but by the time they had picked up the gear, and put on the air tanks, face masks, and coveralls ( just dressing properly took an hour, according to the article) precious time had sped by. Meanwhile, the instruction manual for the venting system was also in a separate office building rather than the control room; further time was wasted in retrieving the manual, while aftershocks continued to occur. By this time, we now know, the fuel rods were already melting, and the efforts made would come far too late. Literally, what a nightmare, especially for the terrified workers involved. And what a contrast to another story I want to share….
I saw this story in the Japan Times shortly before my Las Vegas trip, and filed it away for future reference. Reporter Setsuko Kamiya tells of a Jr. High school in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture that was so well-prepared for disaster that students were able to follow their pre-ordained evacuation plan without direction from their teachers, saving the lives of younger students as they did so. A few years ago, the city had begun a disaster prevention education program; as sixth graders, students researched local tsunami history in their social studies classes. They studied the physics of tsunamis in science class, and read about past tsunamis in language class, writing essays on the topic as well. Disaster preparation education was mandatory at all grade levels, with students receiving training in first aid, cooking, and the workings of soup kitchens in times of disaster. They had created their own hazard map, and performed quake drills multiple times.
On the day of the quake, students had finished class, and were about to start their club activities. The quake hit, students took cover, and even teachers dove under their desks for protection, some for the first time ever. According to the disaster manual, when the trembling subsided students and teachers were to gather on the playground, where the teachers would then lead everyone to safe high ground. In reality, the force of the quake knocked out the school’s power instantly, and teachers were unable to use microphones to call the students together and give instructions. Students, knowing this was no ordinary quake, dashed to the school grounds on their own, and began running toward the designated
evacuation center, one kilometer away. Teachers at a neighboring elementary school, seeing the Jr. High students fleeing, decided to abandon their plans to evacuate to the third floor of their school, and led their students outside, urging them to follow the older children. All the children and teachers reached the evacuation site, only to find that part of a nearby cliff had collapsed during the quake, making the ground unstable and the site vulnerable to a tsunami. Teachers urged the children to begin running to the next evacuation site; this time, the older children ran behind the younger ones, urging them on and supporting them. By the time they reached the second site, the tsunami had already struck their school, and was steadily encroaching. They fled this site as well, and began scrambling up the mountainside, many screaming and crying, but continuing to move forward. In the end, the tsunami swept over the first evacuation site, stopped a few meters short of the second, and the students were safe. Teachers were especially proud that because of the support of the older children, the elementary schoolers all made it safely as well. According to the article, nearly 70% of those children lost their homes, and 14 lost either one or both parents. Still, they survived, and their school’s well-organized and tested program puts the ill-prepared, unimaginative, unprofessional response of the TEPCO officials to shame.
I want to close with some thoughts from author Haruki Murakami, who recently blasted not only Japan’s nuclear power industry, but the Japanese people as well, for allowing nuclear power to both ruin the environment, and corrupt the heart of the nation. In a speech given on June 10th in Barcelona, Spain (technically, an acceptance speech for a prestigious literary prize), Murakami used the occasion as a platform to speak out against Japan’s dependance on nuclear power. “In the face of overwhelming disaster,” said Murakami, “we are all victims and assailants. We are all exposed to the threat of this–in this sense, we are all victims. We extracted the nuclear power and we also could not stop using the power–in this sense, we are all assailants…..We Japanese arranged this accident by ourselves: we made a mistake, we ruined our land, and we destroyed our lives. ” And can what has been ruined be renewed?? Murakami says yes. The reconstruction and physical renewal will be successfully carried out. “But to try to reconstruct our ruined ethics and standards, that is the work of all of us. It will be a simple, rustic, and patient work. Like a fine spring morning, when all the people from a village go to the fields, tilling the soil and seeding it, we must all join and co-operate in this work. ”
Of course, Murakami is right. And that is why we grumble and sweat, yet we stubbornly resist the urge to turn on the air conditioning. It’s why young people with no connection at all to the families in Tohoku are spending weeks at a time doing heavy labor, enduring sweltering heat and foul odors. We all enjoyed years of bright lights, cool rooms, and power-guzzling appliances. And it took a national disaster of epic proportions to get people into the streets protesting nuclear power and calling for adequate safety standards. As Murakami points out, the promise engraved on the memorial for victims of the Hiroshima bombing has been broken: “Please rest in peace, since we will never repeat the mistake.” This time, the nation has been poisoned by a nuclear disaster caused by greed and easy living as well as earthquake and tsunami. Murakami suggests developing a new energy source at the national level as a way of doing penance, and as a way of honoring “our collective responsibility to the victims who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Listening to the wranglings of opposing political parties leaves me more confused than ever; Murakami’s words speak truth to me, and the right way becomes steadily clearer. Well, done, Haruki. I pray that your voice is heard.