Japanese earthquake – one week on in Tokyo

As I write this, it’s been almost one week since the initial magnitude 9 earthquake that devastated northern Japan, and left the rest of Japan in an anxious state.

Thank you all very much for your messages of support – it’s been really important to hear from you all at a time like this.

I’ve been planning to write a post for a while updating the situation here, but with things somewhat in flux, it’s been difficult to create coherent thoughts. Instead, I thought I’d answer the most common questions I’ve received (and the ones I’m wondering about too). I’m just someone living here through this with no special inside knowledge, so this is how it looks in my little part of the world.

Q. How are things in Tokyo?

A. Firstly, I can’t proceed without mentioning the plight of the people in the north of Japan. Many people have lost everything – family members, homes, all their worldly possessions. They need much more support at a time like this, and I’d encourage you to donate to help out.

As for Tokyo, things are relatively stable but a little anxious. The main points of instability at the moment are blackouts, food supply, transport, and aftershocks.

Q. How about the blackouts?

A. Damage to power generation facilities, a cold snap plus the need for power in stricken areas has mean we’ve had to face some scheduled blackouts here to reduce overall load. Blackouts for much of Tokyo were scheduled last night, but the people in and around Tokyo stepped up, turning off every unnecessary appliance until the need to cut power was greatly reduced. I can’t stress how good everyone has been dealing with the problems (inconveniences, really) we’ve been having here.  People are still going to work, school, the park, the bank, and just going about their lives largely as usual.

Q. How about the food supply?

A. Anything instant or preserved is tough to find right now: ramen noodles, cans of soup and the like. Milk and bread is also limited, but I’ve had success finding these. Last time I checked, there’s more than enough fresh fruit, vegetables and meat to go around, the same quantities I’d expect at any other time.

It’s worth saying this varies greatly by supermarket. The supermarket at a nearby big mall where people can park and load up their cars was very sparsely stocked. However, the local supermarket in the backstreets near my house, with no vehicle access, had plentiful supplies of most things except instant foods. The problem until now seems to have been caused by hoarding to some degree – a natural reaction at times of uncertainty. My supermarket has created limits of 2 litres of milk and one 2L bottle of water per customer.

Otherwise, we’re well stocked here – not to worry.

Q. How about transport?

A. Because of the electricity cuts, the timetables for Tokyo trains have been running at reduced capacity. This means that Tokyo’s already crowded trains have become more crowded, with wait times to board in some places. If you’ve been to Tokyo, you’ll know what “crowded” means here – unable to really move or breathe. Still, commuters are used to this, and everyone deals with these conditions brilliantly.

Many workers (including me) have been traveling at off-peak times, or not going into work for a few days.

Q. What about the aftershocks?

A. We’ve had many aftershocks since the initial quake, including 1-2 per day of significant strength, between 5-6 magnitude. You can get an idea of how many and where they are with this map. These are probably the main concern at the moment, as the epicentres of these quakes are all along the east of Japan and around the Tokyo region.

The strength of these quakes is such that they shake buildings, move small objects around, and put everyone on edge to see if they’re going to build up into something bigger like the M9 quake last week.

Q. Okay, so what about these reactors I’m hearing so much about?

A. This has been one of my main complaints about the media coverage. The attention has swiftly moved from the suffering in the north of Japan to the threat of a nuclear disaster. I have to admit “JAPAN’S NUCLEAR CRISIS” is an eye-catching headline.

However, if you read analysis from people who seem to know a thing or two (you know, they actually understand reactors or nuclear physics, and aren’t generalist journalists claiming subject expertise), on the whole they believe the risk to be far lower than what you’re seeing in the Western media. We’re not quite ready to relax yet, but I’d ask you read some of their contrary opinions:

MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub
Radioactive Risk to Tokyo Limited Even in Worst Case, U.K. Official Says
Radiation Effects, Cancer Scares, and Concerned Citizens
Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation

The hydrogen explosions at the reactors which damaged the outer housing didn’t help confidence very much, but as far as we can tell, the reactors are still contained.

The company that runs the reactors, TEPCO, are also not helping things by being secretive – not just now, but for years. Apparently the Japanese Prime Minister even stormed into one of their crisis meetings, demanding they tell the Japanese government what was going on.

It’s hard to know what’s PR and what’s actual risk at the moment. When they announced they were going to drop water on the reactors with Japanese Self Defence Force (SDF) helicopters, people around here rolled their eyes – it smelled like a PR stunt. In better news, I’ve just heard they’ve connected power back to the cooling system on at least one generator.

Q. Complain some more about the media coverage.

A. That’s not a question, but don’t mind if I do.

The Western media coverage has generally been loathsome. That doesn’t make it any different to their normal reportage of other disasters, but you finally get to see its true awfulness at work when you’re on the receiving end. Many articles start with a headline of “NUCLEAR DOOM IN JAPAN”, then buried in the text of the article, “Scientific advisers say the risk of nuclear doom is minimal”. I heard iodine tablets have sold out in California, because a cloud of atomic death is definitely headed over their way any day now. I don’t think anyone is absolutely ruling out some kind of further incident at the reactors, but the chances of this happening seem significantly low from what I can gather.

The most loathsome of the loathsome coverage has been the generally loathsome Sun, who’s “GET OUT OF TOKYO NOW” headline was only matched by their “GIGGLING BABY IS WEB SENSATION” headline right underneath it.

The Japanese media, on the other hand, has been relatively calm in their reportage. Naturally, they don’t want to cause a panic or hinder the government’s rescue attempts. They’ve been most useful for providing earthquake alerting, more technical explanations of the reactors at Fukushima, and useful information for the rest of us.

Of course, media is always biased by the very act of observing an event and the reporter’s biases and experience. The Western media has been far too sensationalistic, the Japanese media possibly too mild in their assessment of the situation. The truth will lie somewhere in the middle, but considering how far apart the two poles are, this doesn’t really help us to understand the situation right now.

I decided to stop watching so much news and watch a DVD. I finally saw that Glee that everyone’s been raving about. It’s good! Very good. I’m worried that I like a musical.

Q. So, what about the US / UK / Australian governments recommending leaving Tokyo?

A. Yesterday several foreign embassies recommended an 80km exclusion zone around Fukushima, far greater than the Japanese government’s 30km. They also recommended that foreign citizens that don’t need to be in Tokyo leave.

This is a difficult decision. Firstly, to understand the foreign embassies’ decision making: they’re going to be risk adverse. Their citizens are far more highly mobile than Japanese citizens, and they can easily go back to their home countries to wait things out. So from their perspective, it’s better to take the low-risk option, and tell their citizens to evacuate. Indeed, the French embassy recommended this quite early on, and I’ve heard anecdotal reports of ex-pats on flights home or headed over to western Japan.

On the other hand, what are the tens-of-millions in the greater Tokyo area (and beyond) going to do? If the Japanese government makes the same announcement, we’re going to see all kinds of new problems as everyone tries to leave at the same time.

Leaving for this particular foreigner isn’t quite so easy in practice. I have roots here now, and I really don’t want to leave them. It’s not purely a rational decision as it would be if I was a tourist or on my own. There are people here I care about deeply, and it’s reassuring to be with them and that we’re going through the same experience at this moment. So, while some planning is definitely required, that’s how it is for now.

Q. That’s probably enough questions for now. Uh, don’t you think so?

A. Sneaky, turning it into a question like that. Also, I agree.

I’d like to stress again that this article is about Tokyo because that’s where I am, and it’s all I can comment on. The international media fixation on Tokyo has also been infuriating when there are so many people affected in incomparably terrible ways by this tragedy. So I’d ask you donate, try to take what you read in your English language papers with a large sack of salt, and stay in touch. Things are still uneasy here, and your support is really helping.

I’ll update this in the future, and will also be updating things on Twitter with more frequency.


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4 thoughts on “Japanese earthquake – one week on in Tokyo

  1. Tanks for your report, glad to read a mindful account on the situation.

    I totally agree with you on the way the media is reporting this, and other things. It was on the television non-stop and they seemed to have yet another expert predicting the worst every day. Stay tuned as we bring you live coverage on the end of the world, after the info-break!

  2. It may be just me but whenever I see a report on the news about the “nuclear situation” they seem to have a new expert every single time! It seems almost as though anyone can have a go…

  3. Thanks for keeping us all updated. We’re thinking of you both over there. Don’t watch too much Glee. There’s a danger you may break out in song in the office…

    Stay safe.

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