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.


2011 Sendai Earthquake, first day

Friday 11 March 2011


I’m sitting on the 11th floor of my organisation’s office in central Tokyo, proofreading a document in English written by a co-worker: a “native check” as we call it. The building starts to shudder slightly. This is nothing too unusual – in four years living in seismically-hyperactive Japan, there have been hundreds of earthquakes, about ten which I’ve actually paid much attention to.

This one, however, feels different. It doesn’t stop within a few seconds: it gets stronger. And stronger. After ten seconds, alarmed faces pop up over cubicle walls, and people run to open the doors: standard procedure during a serious earthquake in case the doors are buckled closed. I have no idea now how I get there, but I end up clinging to the office entry doorframe as the building sways sickeningly. After ten more seconds, the vibrations get impossibly violent, and the building’s collapse seems very possible.

Books fall off shelves, earthquake warnings are blaring, people are screaming. A coworker is sitting on the floor next to me, legs splayed, staring into nothing and looking emotionless while all this is going on. I can’t tell if she’s supremely controlled or panicked beyond the point of emotion. For my part, I’m pretty sure my eyes are as wide as dinner plates. I realise at this perfectly late moment that I’ve never actually taken part in an earthquake drill, unlike all my Japanese co-workers who have done so from elementary school, learning how to get under desks and wear cushions on their heads as makeshift helmets.

Gradually, the vibrations stop, but the sirens are still howling. Everyone is rushing around, checking the extent of the damage. We’ve gotten off pretty lightly – a few objects fallen on to the floor and not much more. As we discover later, the base of one of the filing cabinets has warped, indicating how powerful the force of the quake was.

We switch on the TV, and the announcer on NHK is already halfway through his first report on the quake.  Japan has got it together when it comes to earthquake warnings and reporting.

A few small aftershocks follow. People seem to be debating whether to leave the office or not. Up here on 11F with the lifts automatically disabled following the quake, I know what I’m doing. I get out of there, leaving my bag and everything behind. A few co-workers follow me out, and we move with purpose down the twenty flights of stairs, joining a stream of others surging out. Everyone is very calm – no shouting or pushing. Everything is done in a very orderly – perhaps, Japanese, even? – manner.


My co-workers and I gather outside the building on the curb, along with throngs of people from nearby buildings. With aftershocks on the way, in hindsight it’s a bad move to be standing under tall buildings largely constructed from glass. People are trying to get through to family and friends, but inevitably, the cell phone network has collapsed under the sudden load.

A motorcycle cop snakes through the traffic in the intersection and pulls up to the curb. Through his headset microphone and personal PA system, he asks if everyone is okay. Seeing mostly nods, he moves on to the next clump of people.

We decide to set off for the open spaces of the Imperial Palace, only a five minute walk from where we are.

It turns out the palace and parkland itself has been closed, but everyone is congregating on the outskirts. We’re a good distance from any buildings now, so this seems like a good place to wait it out. Word is coming through that the quake was centred on Miyagi Prefecture in the north of Japan, about 300km from where we are now. If we were hit with so much force all the way in the south, it’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those in northern areas. People with families in Miyagi Prefecture are trying to get through on their cell phones, but they’re not even getting as far as a dial tone. Even if the local mobile cell was even up, the chance of getting through to the affected region seems very slim.


We’ve had a number of middling aftershocks in the wake of the main event, but this one is sizable. An hour ago, I would have called it the biggest earthquake I’d ever experienced. Cars and buses are rocking back and forth on their suspensions, and street signs are jinking around crazily. People get their cameras out – as do I – and learn that it’s difficult to film a minor earthquake outside. Are things wobbling, or is it just unsteady hands?  The initial surge of adrenaline hasn’t quite worn off yet.

Looking around at the immediate area stacked with high-rise offices of twenty stories or more, it seems miraculous that nothing appears to even be slightly damaged. It’s truly a tribute to Japanese engineering and building codes that the infrastructure has proved so resilient. Even the overhead expressways, the first thing to go in places like Kobe and San Francisco, look as normal.

You also have to credit the culture in Japan of preparedness. One look at the group of nervous-looking company employees across from me in their identical white hard hats, and you know that if anywhere is going to survive an earthquake like this, it’s Japan.


A few co-workers have brought laptops with 3G cards; while voice networks and cellular email are down, roaming data is miraculously up. Gradually, people are piecing together what’s happening, including the devastating tsunami in the north. We’re not quite sure what to do at this point. I’m quite happy to wait outside, but it’s also getting cold and I don’t have any way to work out what’s really happening. We head back to the office.


The doors of the office have been propped open with water bottles. Our office is highly security conscious, and we have two secure entry points that you usually have to negotiate to get into the office proper. That everything is wide open today certainly highlights the extra-ordinariness of the situation.

There’s word that Tokyo’s train lines have sensibly been stopped for the moment. I learn that lots of infrastructure, notably the famous bullet trains, automatically stop or go into shutdown mode on first detection of an earthquake. That does leave us with the slight problem of how to get home later on.


We’ve had a number of aftershocks now. With each aftershock, my nerves get pulled a little more taut. The memory of the initial shock is still in my mind, and my heart rate hasn’t returned to normal just yet. My co-workers seem to be handling this better than I am. Unlike me, they’ve been preparing for a day like this since they were children. I have little idea about what to expect at this point. Sitting in a high rise building, the scene of initial drama only two hours ago, is not helping my anxiety.  To give my jangling nerves a break, I tell my co-workers I’ll head to the park opposite the palace to read my Kindle and take my mind off things for a while. Grabbing my bag and overcoat, I head back down the stairs.


I’m sitting on a cold marble bench facing the palace moat, trying to read but finding it hard to concentrate. There are more aftershocks, but they’re decidedly easier to cope with on ground level. Workers are continually streaming past in throngs, having decided to head home before things get worse.

Everyone is very calm in spite of what’s happened and the news filtering out about the north of Japan. I briefly think of my apartment out near Tokyo Disneyland and wonder what state it’s in at the moment. I sit there failing to concentrate on my book, watching people walking past, until it gets cold enough and dark enough that I decide it’s best to go back to the office.


Climbing twenty flights of steps for the second time today, I get back to the warm confines of the office. Amazingly, power and internet have not even blipped through the whole afternoon here, though that’s apparently not true in other parts of Tokyo.

NHK is on the office TV. Footage of the devastation in the north of Japan is being shown on a loop. Helicopters track along the tsunami’s front, in footage I suspect is unprecedented. This footage will be replayed again and again until it’s somehow even more unreal than it initially was.

When I get back to my desk, I’m surprised by the number of people who have emailed and messaged through Twitter to see how I’m going. Even more helpfully, they’ve compiled some links about the situation and sent them through, which gives me a big head start. I’m at a informational disadvantage compared to my co-workers watching the Japanese broadcast on NHK. My Japanese gets me by, but I’ve never acquired the vocabulary required to describe large scale natural disasters. I run Al Jazeera’s English streaming web service in the background and keep one ear on it. It’s mostly focused on the drama of the situation, and is not so helpful for on-the-ground advice.  Twitter, however, is an excellent resource, and it’s definitely proved its value today.


All Tokyo train lines are confirmed as cancelled for tonight, at least. The only choices right now are to walk home or to stay in the office. With a four hour walk home to a messed up apartment potentially without power or heating, staying in the office with my co-workers sounds much more appealing.  I’ve managed to email everyone I care about in Tokyo, and they all seem okay where they are.  The phones are still down.


A raiding party returns from the convenience store with cups of instant ramen, toothbrushes, disposable chopsticks, and lollies. They say that just about everything else has been cleaned out, especially bento lunchboxes and onigiri riceballs.


Japan has a remarkable earthquake early warning system. Using a network of sensors around the country, they can triangulate the early stages of an earthquake in sub-second times. These warnings are automatically send out via TV and radio broadcast, as well as to a special cell phone service.  The warning will beat the tremors to regions away from the epicentre.

It’s quite eerie when every mobile phone in the area starts to go off simultaneously.  TV anchors quickly report the source of the next tremor and areas expected to get hit. Then there’s nothing to do but wait and see how bad it is. Of course, if the aftershock is right under you, you get next to no warning. Comforting.


A number of my coworkers decided to walk home earlier in the afternoon. One reports in that he has walked five hours already, and expects to walk another 1.5 before he gets home.

In a prudent move, the guys in the office are keeping an up-to-the-minute list on who’s checked in and where they are at the present moment.


Following the situation on Twitter and NHK, updates are coming in minute by minute to make a very fluid situation. With the sun having set some hours ago and a lack of new material, TV news is replaying the same footage over and over again from the afternoon. The thought of people homeless, cold and separated from their families up north is very sobering.

Word comes in that my train line is running again. The thought of going home crosses my mind, but there’s sure to be a crush of people all trying to do the same. Decide there’s strength in numbers, and will wait it out until morning. It’s also good to have people around who can help me understand the subtleties what’s being reported on the TV.

Saturday 12 March 2011


Down below the office, the normally moderately-frequented streets – and never at this hour – are in gridlock as far as the eye can see. The overhead expressways have been closed down for safety, and everyone needing to get across town is trying the backstreets. This proves to not be such a great idea.


There are around 15 or so of us left in the office. Everyone else seems to have found their way home on foot. Most of us are watching TV or gathering information on Twitter and the Internet. Some dedicated souls are using the opportunity to catch up on work.


Outside the window, the cars haven’t really moved from when I checked an hour ago. I feel for the drivers, who might have been sitting in their cars for four hours or more with nary a break. Two ambulances, sirens blazing, try to get through the gridlock, but the traffic ahead seems unable or unwilling to move aside for them.


I should be sleeping, but with all the aftershocks, I’m more than a little wired. Everyone seems to be in that strange caffeinated-zombie state of exhaustion bolstered by adrenaline. I’m still focused on Twitter and email, finding out what’s going on and talking to others. The amount of information I’m obsessively consuming is unhealthy, and not all of it useful.  Someone says there are going to be blackouts this morning, but they retract this later without a source.


Everyone is getting very tired now. A few people are sleeping under their desks. I’m picking through the scavenged remains of our convenience store haul for sugar and caffeine, but little remains. Looking out the window, the gridlock seems to have dissipated for the most part, so hopefully motorists are getting closer to home.


I’ve been taking little cat naps at my desk. Every 20 minutes the cell phone early warning tones shriek again, and everyone jumps out of their seats to find out the affected areas.  The initial quake was to the north, but the aftershocks have been steadily been moving south.  Several have come from as far west as Nagano, to the north-west of Tokyo.  I’m getting steadily more confident with the integrity of the building with each one.


Sunrise is here. With the trains running, I decide to head home. I’m not sure what I’m going to find there or what the weekend will bring, but I make my way to the station.

To be continued…

Update: whatever happens here, it’s incomparable to the devastation in the northern areas of Honshu.  Please give to recognised charities such as Doctors Without Borders.

Update 2: I’ve been planning to do an update on the situation here, but it’s currently too much in flux.  For now, it feels more important to focus on the situation at hand rather than doing a detailed analysis. I’ll provide shorter updates at Twitter.

No family is the most important thing

Off on a Sunday afternoon walk through the suburbs of Tokyo… what’s this interesting cabinet?

A condom vending machine?

I assume that according to the machine’s designers, a “Happy Family Life” is one without any new additions.

I have seen exactly one condom vending machine in public sight in all my travels around Tokyo, and it’s this one in my neighbourhood. It’s just inexplicably sitting there on a completely unremarkable backstreet. It feels like finding a glow-stick vending machine in a public library.

Medication time

I tend to write about a lot of small, quirkier things I find in Tokyo, but for a long time I’ve been planning to write a longer series on what the day-to-day routine of Tokyo working life is actually like.  Luckily for me, this ad on the Tokyo subway does all the work for me:

To explain:

07:45 – Crushed in Tokyo subway.
09:00 –  Operate computer in wind tunnel.
13:00 –  Bolt down lunch at a standing ramen bar.
15:00 – Offer your business card to a customer, making sure to show respect by being knock-kneed.
16:00 – Carry a box of things somewhere – quickly!
18:30 – Erase the soul-crushing memories of all of the above by ingesting some booze, and plenty of it.

Of course, being marketing, this is not nearly realistic: no-one finishes work anywhere near as early at 6:30pm.

I like my soup like my laughter: canned

It’s gotten cold in Tokyo: not arctic cold, but enough to make everyone a little grumpy.

The perfect fix: hot tomato soup, just like Mama used to make!  I’m assuming your Mama made soup in a gigantic industrial vat, poured it into 200ml ring-pull cans and sold it to her children from vending machines.

For the princely sum of 120 yen, you can be quaffing a hot can of vended tomato soup in seconds.  And how is it?  Not too bad at all!

Sadly, while you can find hot corn soup in vending machines everywhere, I’ve only found this tomato soup in one vending machine in the whole of Tokyo, whose location I have promptly forgotten.

Monkeys: snow edition

Snow monkeys!  I’ve been waiting to see them for the whole 3.75 years I’ve been in Japan.  It was worth the wait.

The “snow monkeys” are actually Japanese Macaque, famous for spending a good amount of their spare time in natural hot springs.  I believe there is a statutory requirement that any traveloge about Japan feature them, so likely you know what I’m talking about.  Interestingly, ask Japanese people about them, and chances are they won’t have heard of them at all.  For some reason, it’s chiefly foreigners who have this fascination.

The place to see these monkeys is Jikokutani (Hell Valley) in Nagano prefecture.  It was a very cold day in Hell Valley indeed:

When you get through the entrance and into the park proper, you’re instantly in the thick of a troop of 200 monkeys.  They live in a complex social hierarchy, having a strict pecking order…

Look, you can learn about how fascinating the Macaque monkeys are on Wikipedia.  It really is a delight, though, to be able to walk right into the middle of their society and have them go about their business, seemingly oblivious to all the foreigners with DSLR camera roaming around.  There are some highly complex simian interactions going on, obvious even to the least David Attenborough-like of us.

If you ever go there, some advice.  The monkeys are wild, but co-exist with the gawking humans around them extremely well. They ignore you for the most part, but don’t make eye contact too much – they’ll start hissing and generally being grumpy.  Strangely, they don’t seem to mind flashes.  If I was aggressively strobed by amateur photographers while trying to take a bath, I know I’d be one angry monkey. I tried to refrain from using flash in the following photos.

The next photo is what happens if you’re standing next to someone getting a little closer than a monkey likes it.  Not photographable: loud shrieking.

A highly recommended experience. The more snow, the more monkeys you’ll see in the hot spring, so time your trip well!

The cheap beef bowl of doom

As your correspondent has written on this blog before, Tokyo isn’t nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be. You can live largish here on the cheap.  One reason? Deflation.

“Deflation?” you interject for the sake of narrative. “Awesome! Everything is cheap!”.  Actually, it’s not quite so awesome as that.

The Economics 101 class you mostly slept through taught you about price/wage spirals. One version goes like this.  For some reason – say, the end of a massive Japanese bubble economy in the 80’s – demand for goods falls, so prices get cheaper to attract customers. Manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits, so the amount of labour they can support falls. Competition for fewer jobs among workers increases, so workers are prepared to accept lower wages. With lower wages, consumers can’t buy as many goods, so demand for goods falls. Prices get cheaper, so manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits… and so on.

So what does this mean? Cheap beef bowls! The prices at Yoshinoya, the ubiquitous beef bowl chain, are a sign of the times.  By way of introduction, Yoshinoya is a great after-work dining choice for the illiterate and terminally single. Buy a ticket from a vending machine, hand it wordlessly to the attendant.  Inside a minute, he sets a tray in front of you with a steaming bowl of fried beef on a heaping of rice, along with pickles and miso soup. You eat it under a blanket of silence broken only by the dreary muzak.  You finish your complementary water, sitting alongside the clientele of exclusively male salarymen mournfully eating beside you.  You leave after the ten minutes it takes you to bolt it all down.  Utility eating at its finest.

Back to economics. When I came to Japan almost four years ago, you could buy the lonely set meal described above in Yoshinoya for about 580 yen (about $7 AUD). Now, the same set goes for about 500 yen ($6 AUD).  In the menu below, one of the bowls by itself starts at a very cheap $3.30 AUD.

The set below – a spicy Korean beef bowl plus vegetable miso soup and water – costs a grand total of 400 yen.  That’s around $4.80 AUD for a complete, filling meal, which is cheaper and nutritionally superior to what you can get at McDonalds.

Using the staple beef bowl as a price index is widely used as an informal economic indicator in Japan. If you want to read more about this exact topic, the New York Times has a feature which likely involves actual research and editing.