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.


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.

Don’t be wet

Happy 2011 from Japan!  For a country which loves fireworks – and if you haven’t been to a Japanese fireworks display, you can’t even begin to understand what this means – the changing of the date is a very low-key affair.  On New Year’s Eve, thousands of people cluster outside shrines, waiting.  At the stroke of 2011, no “Woo!”.  No kissing, awkwardly or otherwise.  No songs.  No fireworks.  People just get on with the business of paying their respects in an orderly fashion.  If the shrine has a bell, they might make some noise with that for a bit.

TV, however, is a different affair.  Most entertainers have a hectic night, with various family variety specials trotting out something everyone from toddlers to grandma can enjoy.  Perhaps no entertainers are busier than those from Johnny’s, aka The Boy Band Factory Dominating Japanese Pop Culture With Suspiciously Mafia-like Iron Fisted Power.  That might roll off the tongue better in Japanese.

Just about all of the biggest somewhat-androgynous boy bands from Johnny’s like SMAP, Arashi and one hundred others are slickly packaged products deployed in ads, movies, music videos and variety shows.  The Johnny’s web site doesn’t even contain pictures of their stars, such are the lengths they go to protect the valuable image of their commodities.

Want in to the Japanese music biz?  Let me give you slightly more than the no chance you have.

What you need to know about pop music in Japan that that English is the coolest language ever invented.  If you’re reading this, congratulations!  I guarantee you would be much cooler in Japan than wherever you are now.  Yes, you, even you.  So, songs often employ the use of some English to make them more sophisticated.  Like these guys:

Don’t be wet!  Get a grip (if you step)

(From today) We are Fighting Men

Don’t think. Feel! Bring it on (don’t think, let’s go)

Do you think you could do better (but not much better)?  Looking to add “Boy Band Lyricist (2011-2011)” to your resume?  Applications will be graded for curious grammar, awkward phrasing and improper Use of capitalisation.


This year, I decided to stay in Japan for Christmas and New Years, to experience first hand the local flavour of the holidays.  Christmas in Japan is a somewhat different affair to what we’re used to.  Rather than a nominally religious holiday, Japan throws any pretence of that out the window and markets it firmly as a day for couples and presents.  Almost like a Valentine’s Day II, if you like.  Ingredients for a successful Christmas Day in Japan:

1. KFC.  Before Christmas was a big deal in Japan, someone exceedingly crafty at KFC decided to market their product as the de-facto standard for celebrating a romantic, if not greasy, holiday.  It’s now firmly entrenched, with other fast food chains spruiking KFC-like boxes of chicken out of the front of their stores, from stands erected especially for the day.

Rumour has it that you need to book your chicken months in advance to avoid disappointment.  The sign out the front of the store directs people who have pre-ordered to a separate queue to handle the rush.

Alternative 1. Roast chicken.  High end department stores sell whole cooked chickens like the one below.  Unlike Australia, where you can pick up a decent chook for $10 at any supermarket, in Japan this is a rarity and it will run you $35 for the one below.

2. Christmas cake.  Someone, sometime decided that Christmas was a holiday in search of a baked good, and so a sponge cake with white icing and strawberries became the essential buy for the day.  Once again, cake shops start taking orders months ahead, so you need to get in early.  Many Tokyo apartment don’t have ovens, so making one yourself really isn’t an option.

3. Guys forced to advertise a carwash and wear Santa suits on Christmas Day.  Not essential really, just kind of interesting.  I equate Christmas in Australia with almost everyone having the day off, and most shopping malls being ghost towns.  In Japan, it’s just another day, not marked by a public holiday or any slowdown in effort.  Lots of people will celebrate in the evening, but aside from the massive illuminations and decorations like you’d see anywhere else, these are purely for prettiness rather than any “reason for the season”.

In any case, the big show in Japan is New Years, the type of family-oriented day we have at Christmas.  From most reports, the shrines in Tokyo are packed full of people going to receive blessings for the New Year, like some sort of monastic mosh pit.  Wish me luck!

That’s a haggling

Tokyo-ites are really quite adverse to haggling.  Even for big-ticket items, like a fridge or a computer, people will normally pay the sticker price with no questions or counter-offers.  After all, getting into a confrontation about money would just be… unseemly.  I’m not sure if this extends to cars, though.  The thought of buying a car at sticker price makes me feel a little ill.

It’s interesting to see how different cultures have unwritten rules when it comes to negotiations.  In contrast to Tokyo, haggling in Japan’s western Kansai region is much more accepted than in Tokyo. Or, if you go to a lot of places in South East Asia, not only is haggling common, it’s expected for just about everything (never accept the first offer!).  On the other hand, in Australia we’re generally happy to negotiate for white goods or cars, but we wouldn’t negotiate for a steak, even if it cost $60 for 100 grams like the marbled loveliness below.  Why?  Because, is why.

I used to be very nervous about negotiating when I was younger, but by reading around and adjusting my philosophy of what negotiation is – not a conflict, but a compromise – I’m somewhat capable, though still with lots to learn.  The hardest part is often knowing when it’s appropriate to negotiate.  For that reason, one thing I like about Tokyo is that the appropriate time to negotiate is easy: never.

In spite of seemingly not having much latitude to haggle in Tokyo, I got a Masonic-handshake-quality insider tip from a Japanese TV show recently.  If you’re in a big electronics store, buying a new camera, do thusly: casually, yet obviously, touch the price tag.  According to this show, the shop assistant will immediately give you an unspoken “At once sir!” look, scurry away to get the floor manager, and come back with a healthy discount knocked off the price.

Asking around actual non-TV Japanese people here, there was some skepticism that this would actually work.  “The price is the price” was one philosophy I was offered.  Getting a discount for very little work sounds a little good to be true, so in the name of science, I hereby declare I will buy an unnecessary, expensive piece of electronics and see if this works.

For science.

As always.

1000 Bar Mitzvahs

My little brother (who’s taller than me) was in town a while back, so we decided to go out and find some tradition outside of the neon jungle of Tokyo.  We settled on Nara, which is a forty minute train ride from Kyoto.  Nara is like Kyoto, focusing on history, but is a little more low-key and very slightly less touristy than its bigger neighbour.

What’s amazing is that this year, Nara is celebrating their 1300th anniversary, complete with a special commemorative Kirin beer to celebrate (the coloured band along the bottom is the special edition part):

It’s mainly famous for impressive places like this and the ant-like people who visit them:

This is Todai Temple, the largest wooden building in the world.  It’s difficult to fathom the scale when you’re standing in front of it. It’s build to house this massive statue of the Buddha, one of the biggest in Japan:

How’s this for some history?  The temple was built in 752 AD.  In 855, the Buddha’s head fell off after an earthquake.  Shortly after they fixed it, the whole building was burned down in a war.  Then they rebuilt it.  Then it got burned down again in another war in 1180.  They they rebuilt it.  Then in 1567, it got burned out in another war.  Then they rebuilt it.  In 1610 it collapsed in gale-force winds.  Since 1709, the current building has endured.

For a life of 1258 years, I guess that’s a pretty good track record, but I can’t help but think of another famous building:

Stormy with a chance of swears

“But… it’s Arashi! How could you not know Arashi!”

This is the likely response in Japan if you make the grave mistake of not knowing who Arashi (tr: storm) are.  They are by far and away the boy band with the most momentum in Japan, and there are plenty vying for that mantle.  In Japan, they’re bigger than the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and Take That put together at their respective peaks.  Incidentally, feel free to replace my examples with bands that are actually popular now.  What I’d like you to take away is that they’re really quite big.

To only call them a boy band really wouldn’t be doing them justice, though.  “Pop culture factory” would perhaps be more fitting.  As well as putting out music, each of the band members are also capable actors, doing various solo projects.  Most likely to be familiar to Westerners is Nino (in the purple below), who appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima as one of the main Japanese soldiers.  So, you can think of Arashi as ‘N Sync where every member is Justin Timberlake.

As well as singing and acting, the group pimps out just about every product under the sun, from beer to ecologically-friendly appliances to tissues to women’s beauty products.  Their latest pitch has been for Wii Party (recommended, by the way).

With all their acquired loot, their prodigious output suggests they’ve bought an extra day in the week.  Along with all of the above, they also have a weekly TV show called Arashi Shiagare (which I’m going to take a stab at translating as “Let’s do it, Arashi!”). Every week the group tries their hand at a new skill as instructed by a visiting expert.  A few weeks ago was attempting to beat the world record for table cloths whipped out from under a place setting, and before that, sumo wrestling.

Their universal appeal is that they’re squeaky-clean-cut.  Everyone from the kids to grandma can enjoy the non-offensive, clean fun of it all.

So imagine the shock of the admittedly few foreigners watching the nationally-broadcast Arashi Shiagare a few weeks ago:

Vulgarity aside, we have to at least entertain the high likelihood that it’s an accurate t-shirt.