Tuesday 28 June 2011

Good News

Dear Friends,
Today was Tokyo Electric's shareholders meeting. 9,300 people and it went on for over six hours. Calls for the management to take responsiblity. A motion calling on the company to pull out of nuclear power (supported by Minami Soma and Shirakawa local authorities - unprecendented) was rejected. A lot of angry people. No wonder as the share price has fallen from ¥2,121 before the accident to ¥316 now and the company has a massive deficit with more, much more, to come.

Relations are at rock bottom and weren't helped by news leaked at the weekend of plans to build steel walls underground in reactor 1 to stop contaminated water seeping into the sea. Tokyo Electric informed the government but in view of the cost (one billion yen) asked that the information be withheld until after the shareholders' meeting. (It seems that the uranium that melted through the inner casing  into the containment vessel has probably now made a hole in that and is sitting on the concrete at the bottom of the building and seeping into the ground.)

But there is good news. As of four o'clock this afternoon the filtration system is working at last. It's a massive circuit - four kilometres of pipework - which will circulate and clean water for all three reactors. No need to add water for cooling (which was about to overflow) and a start made on cleaning the 110,000 tons of contaminated water which has accumulated.

Nearer to home the clean up continues. School yards have had the topmost soil removed and now attention has turned to the routes children take to go to school. Drains and ditches have high radiation and the vegetation is being removed and the areas cleaned with power hoses. No one's quite sure what to do with the weeds and dead leaves that are removed. Probably just pile them up and put a blue sheet over the top like the soil in the schoolyards.

Apparently all two million of us Fukushima citizens are to be surveyed soon and amid much fanfare ten evacuees from Namie-machi now living in Fukushima city were bussed to Chiba today to have thyroid and full body tests for internal exposure (naibu hibaku 内部被爆). The results come out mid July. This is of course the big question, what we all want to know. It's one thing measuring levels outside but we're breathing this stuff in. We want to know how much we've been exposed.

Yesterday I was at a business lunch sitting between two people I've know for a long time but haven't seen since the quake. The man on my right told me he got his two teenage daughters into schools in Kyoto from the new school year in April. So his wife and daughters are now living in Kyoto. The lady on my left has two primary school age sons. She's a mainstay of the family business and can't leave but every Friday night she drives her kids to a place they have in Niigata two hours drive away (160 kms). To get away from the radiation and to have a place to go to - just in case. Also talk of various people having their gardens cleared.

It's certainly stressful living here. But I'm trying to be like the 92 year old man on TV who told us it's important to be positive, and build up our natural resistance. Konbu (seaweed) is a good food and I take sea kelp tablets religiously (thank you again, Heidi) and the guy said apples are good because of their natural pectin. I wonder if jam works?
Love to you all

Sunday 26 June 2011

Rainy Season

Well into the rainy season now. Heavy rain all day. But not to worry. I'm well prepared for mould and mildew, moths and cockroaches and whatever else the next  few hot sticky months throw at us. Best clothes are back from the cleaners. The rest washed and packed into boxes and bags. Last year in an economy drive I bought old-fashioned mothballs and the smell still lingers. This year I bought odour-free. Being on the 7th floor thankfully I don't have a problem with cockroaches but out of habit scrubbed out the kitchen cupboards. I had to stop myself from buying a trap - cute  little cut-out houses with red roof and shutters and mats for the cockroaches to get stuck on, called Gokiburi Hoi Hoi. I got in a supply of mosquito deterrrents. Every year they get more sophisticated. This year just one squirt from a bottle will last all night.  In view of the current drive to cut electricity I bought a fan.

And today I've been to the hairdressers for that most miraculous treatment, the straight perm. Ladies, let me let you into this best kept secret. I can't believe I've lived in Japan on and off for thirty years and only two years ago found out about this. The first US whole-house humidifier (1954) specified that the sensor’s filament be human hair, but not just any hair; blonde hair, Swedish blonde hair. I'm not Swedish but at the slightest hint of humidity my hair turns to frizz. The treatment takes three hours and it's expensive but for the next few months my hair will be glossy and respectable. A miracle.

Things seem to be moving at last with regard to the recovery. A law was passed last week which sets up a special Ministry for the Recovery which is to be headed by the person who's been in charge of the disaster work so far. The Recovery Forum presented its report calling for local areas and communities to take the lead,  for the recovery to revitalise the economy as a whole, and for the whole country to work together and share the burden. I think this means higher taxes. The report says this generation should pay the bill, not pass it on. For Fukushima it calls on the government to take responsibility for the accident and for providing compensation, though it falls short of specifics. It  recommends monitoring of radiation, measures to deal with contaminated soil, new medical research centres (after all, we are guinea pigs and will need watching), the promotion of high tech medical industries, and alternative energy. Mr Iokibe wants the recovery to be 'a spring for growth'. Let's hope he's right.

Finally, here's a picture of me with my new hair and wearing my 'I love Fukushima' outfit. The suit was a white suit I bought for  a wedding and only wore once. Last summer I spent a happy day with Kabuki-san in Kitakata dyeing it indigo. It's a mystical process and I think we dyed and stretched the fabric in the sun four times in all. The top I made from a piece of cloth, tenugui, dyed indigo at the same workshop (not by me). The pattern is from one of Kabuki-san's 30,000 Edo period stencils. (Kitakata used to be a centre for making stencils for dyeing kimono.) And the bag is woven from cotton kimono rags. In the old days once a kimono had done the rounds, been mended and patched, and couldn't be used anymore it was torn into strips and woven - the last resting place of the kimono. There are so many interesting crafts around here especially in the Aizu area.

Goodnight to you all,

Golden Oldies

Over 2,000 people are at Fukushima Daiichi working around the clock in reportedly bad conditions. Several a day are carried off in ambulances suffering from dehydration and heatstroke. Radiation levels are so high that people can only work for short periods, and then have to be replaced by new workers after a few weeks. The fact is that there is a chronic shortage of workers.

'Sunday Frontline' (always an interesting programme to watch, TV Asahi) had an interesting feature last Sunday morning . Apparently Yamada Yasuteru (72), a retired engineer, has got over 300 people, all over 60 years of age, to volunteer to work at Fukushima Daiichi! At first no one took him seriously but he's now met with Kaieda, METI Minister, who has given conditional support to the idea. 

It turns out Yamada was one of the Tokyo University student leaders in the 60's riots and he's obviously not lost his taste for action. He argues that human cells no longer divide in people over 60, so the risks of radiation, compared to say a 30 year old, are minimal. He says this a national catastrophe, a war situation, and the oldies who're just drawing their pensions should pull their weight. He sent out 2,500 letters and e-mails and had over 300 responses. Half the volunteers are experienced engineers like himself - there was an interview with a 68 year old guy who'd spent his working life in nuclear power plants, including Fukushima. Even his family backed his decision to put something back. The other half have no experience, like the 68 year old Nagasaki victim (she was two at the time) who reckons she has resistance to radiation.

The story was taken up by the foreign press with CNN calling them kamikazes and the Suicide Corps. You must admit it's a good story. What I found quite shocking was that Professor Koide Hiroaki (小出裕章), an expert in radiation and long time opponent of nuclear power has signed up as one of the volunteers. Surely since he's opposed it so long he should let Tokyo Electric clean up the mess? He says he feels responsible as he is part of the nuclear industry. If you can understand Japanese his lecture on YouTube is wonderfully clear and very interesting. (It's in 6 parts, about an hour in total).

So we'll see what happens. However skilled they are as engineers, they're not as young as they once were and won't find working in the heat and adverse conditions easy. And then jobs have to be found for the non-skilled amongst them. Still, full marks for initiative - and bravery.

Another irony in all this is that the workers are living at J Village, about 20 kms from the plant. J Village was built in 1997 and is the national soccer training centre. It's funded by the Japan Football Association, J League, Fukushima prefecture and - Tokyo Electric. Sato Eisaku, former governor of Fukushima, says that the original offer was for the soccer centre in the coastal area (Hama-dori), a football stadium in Koriyama and a museum in Aizu but strangely only the facility in the coastal area materialised. Not a sop to the locals for having the nuclear power plant on their doostep?!! Anyway, it's now closed and hundreds of workers are sleeping on the floor.

We're now in the rainy season, hot and sticky, but nothing like as hot as the 35 degrees they've been having in Tokyo and Osaka. More about the weather tomorrow.
Bye for now

Wednesday 22 June 2011

End of the Affair

Dear Friends
I had been hoping to give you some good news about the water filtration system being installed at Fukushima Daiichi but it's still not working. There are 110,000 tons of contaminated water in the various turbine halls, increasing by 500 tons per day, and unless this system gets going contaminated water will overflow and will  have to be dumped in the sea again. Five days to overflow is the current estimate but with the Tohoku region officially in the rainy season as of yesterday, and no covers on the reactors, it's a race against time.

The system is an international effort. First any oil is removed in a Japanese machine (Toshiba), then the caesium is removed in an American apparatus (this is the one that's been having trouble), then through a French filtration system, and finally desalination in a Hitachi machine before being returned to cool the reactors. No need to add more water and the contaminated water gets cleaned, two birds with one stone. It just needs to get going.

In my last post I said there was little debate here on the nuclear issue. What a difference a week makes! The Trade and Industry Minister's request last week for those reactors closed for routine repairs to reopen as soon as possible fell on deaf ears.  Local governors have basically told him that if he thinks Japan's reactors can reopen with the same safety standards, with the same organisational structures as before, he must be joking. The new buzzword is datsu genpatsu  脱原発 -stop nuclear power.

My current hero is one Mr Kanno, head of Iitate-mura, whose 6,000 inhabitants' planned evacuation was completed yesterday. The village is 40 kms from Fukushima Daiichi but was caught in that northeast fan-like area of fallout which was made public long after the disaster. He's managed to get work for 1,000 of the inhabitants doing security patrols and monitoring radiation levels and he stuck out to prevent the evacuation of 120 old people in a home which is in an area with a relatively low level of radiation (0.8) arguing that they would be more at risk if they were moved. He's also announced his vision for returning to the village in 2 years time and listed the things he's going to do until then. He admits himself that 2 years is an arbitrary length of time but he knows that people need some kind of vision, something to work towards, something to keep them going. This is what our central government should be doing. We have Tokyo Electric's schedule which still aims to have cold shutdown by mid-January but nothing from the government.

Prime Minister Kan won his confrontation with ex-PM Hatoyama by promising to retire 'when things are under control' (medo ga tsuitara  めどが付いたら)making Hatoyama look foolish but Kan continues to speak in riddles so that no one, not even those closest to him, know when he is going to step down. Silly games. So out of touch.

One television commentator on Sunday was spot on when he said Japanese politics is in 'meltdown' and all we want is an end to it (shusoku 収束). This is the word used about putting an end to the accident at Fukushima so a nice play on words.

Good night from a hot and sticky Koriyama.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Atomic Village

Dear Friends,
Novelist, Murakami Haruki, spoke at an awards ceremony in Spain last week. He's drawn criticism for blaming the Japanese people for condoning the way the nuclear industry is run. In Italy a referendum has come out overwhelmingly against nuclear power and after public debate Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power. I hear there are demonstrations at Tokyo Electric's offices in Tokyo but  there's amazingly little debate going on here.

The IAEA recently submitted its report to the Japanese government. It calls for better ways to deal with tsunami and for independent regulators.  But this is nothing new.

I've just been re-reading Sato Eisaku's book, The Annihilation of a Governor (Chji no Massatsu  知事の抹殺, Heibonsha 2009). Sato used to be governor of Fukushima prefecture, a good friend of my husband and an acquaintance of mine. He was finally brought down in a scandal where his brother sold some land to a construction company for far more than the market price allegedly to secure building contracts. But Sato maintains that it was a conspiracy, that the Tokyo Prosecutors' Office had it in for him because of his longstanding opposition to central government and the nuclear industry.

It makes interesting reading. He says the nuclear industry was controlled at the top levels of the government, that local authorities had no say and were the last to hear of any irregularities. He chronicles a list of accidents: in 1989 a bolt fell off in the cooling pump of Reactor 3 (not any bolt: it weighed 30 kilograms) but the accident was covered up for a week, the government decided to leave it where it was, and Tomioka-machi, where the plant is, only got to hear of it in a roundabout way from the prefecture Then there was the 'bucket' accident in 1999 at Tokaimura, just over the border from Fukushima, in which untrained workers bypassed regulations and dissolved uranium oxide in buckets rather than the dissolution tank and  to speed things up tipped the solution directly into the precipitation tank. Two workers died. In 2001 a pipe was found to be cracked at the Hamaoka Plant but the Safety Agency instructed the plant to keep going. Sato comments, 'It's not a safety agency but a promotion agency'. Then in 2002 the news (from a whistle blower) that for many years Tokyo Electric had been faking records at Fukushima Daiichi and Daini regarding breakdowns and cracks.

Sato becomes increasingly angry at the way the government bulldozes through nuclear policy with little regard for the locals and their safety.  'Atomic Village' (genshimura 原子村)is the name he gives to the collusion between the government, the electric power companies, and the Nuclear Safety Agency (Hoanin 保安員) which is not independent but part of METI (Keisansho 経産省) the Ministry that promotes nuclear power!You can also add the media who have long taken part in junkets financed by the electric companies and towed the government line.

But Sato also points to what he calls 'structural paternalism' endemic in Japan where people put their trust in the government and big companies - even when workers are stirring radioactive materials with buckets! 

So Japan has not seen the liberalisation and privatisation we have seen in Europe. The electric companies have a monopoly not only on the generation but also the supply of electricity. In England I can choose where to buy my power. Here I have to buy it from Tohoku Electric. There is no low rate night electricity. No Smart Grid. The east of the country (from Tokyo north) uses 50 Hz, the west 60 Hz, with only one transforming station. The way contracts are written, companies that have their own generators can't use them in a power cut. Things are slanted in favour of the electric companies in an uncompetitive environment.

The direct cause of the accident was the tsunami. The plant stood up to the earthquake but the cooling systems failed as the back up electricity was all on site and flooded. But behind this is a history of complacency with regard to safety. Currently only 17 of the country's 54 nuclear reactors are in operation. Regulations say that they must be closed for safety checks after 13 months. Those that closed for routine checks after the Fukushima accident have not yet reopened. If this goes on there will be no reactors operating next spring so the govenment has today asked that they be reopened. It remains to be seen whether the locals, or the population at large, will agree.

Three earthquakes today. A short sharp jolt around midday and a long roll (Force 4) at half past eight this evening.

Friday 17 June 2011

Photo Series: Koriyama getting on with life three months after the Fukushima Nuclear Accident

And here is a guest post from my son Takeshi, who recently visited me in Koriyama.
Over to you, Tak.

Posters are everywhere. Visitors arriving at Koriyama with the Shinkansen bullet train are greeted with these "Ganbaroh! Koriyama" (loosely translates to "Let's keep going, Koriyama") slogans.

The earthquake buckled the door frame to Mum's apartment and it is still wedged with bits of wood. Every time you enter or leave the apartment, you have to duck under the wooden bars.

Mum's usual commuting outfit to fend off the radioactive particles. Mask, headscarf, sunglasses, long sleeves and gloves. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't be allowed into a bank looking like this. But this kind of outfit isn't unusual in Koriyama these days.

Mum's apartment still bears the scars from the earthquake. The walls of her balcony are still scarred with cracks. Construction workers inspect the external damage to the apartment block.

She still uses her teapot that was broken in the quake. During the earthquake, the rice cooker fell to the floor and the lid now has to be held down with a dumbbell.

The view at the back of Mum's apartment block before the earthquake in autumn 2008 and after the earthquake in June 2011.The Buddhist temple with the big red roof is gone. The landscape is still dotted with blue tarpaulins patching up the roofs. In many cases, the delay is because of a shortage of Japanese roof tiles and some have opted to replace the tiles with metal sheets.

Sakura Dori that runs near Mum's apartment was relatively badly hit by the earthquake because many of the buildings are old. The damaged buildings are covered up with cloths or nets. Those buildings marked up for demolition have a red poster stuck on the door. It's not an uncommon sight in Koriyama.

The masonry had toppled over at the local Shinto shrine.

The local chamber of commerce was being demolished.

 Rebuilding is going on. Mum looks at the work as she explains that the pavement had been a mess after the earthquake.

Most people go about their daily business as normal. The only people still in nuclear garb are usually middle aged ladies. The standard outfit is a hat, a mask, long sleeves and optional gloves. It will soon be too hot to be walking around like this. I even noticed a kind of nuclear fashion trend for the summer: a three quarters sleeve shirt with long elbow-length gloves like the kind that royals might wear, except that they are fingerless.

Apart from the middle aged ladies, the other group of people still wearing masks are young mothers with children. The threat of radioactive particles is a big stress for mothers (it's still very much the woman who looks after the children). One mother who used to live near us would not let her children outside and got so stressed that she's gone off to Okinawa, the southern tropical islands, with her primary school aged daughter and 2/3 year old. It's as far as you can get away within Japan. Another mother who used to be my classmate has moved with her children to her grandparents' place in Nagano.

School children have to walk to school with a hat, mask and in long sleeves. These kids said that some of their classmates have moved school. One school in Koriyama that had a high level of radioactivity lost 30 children who moved outside the prefecture.
Senzaki-san, who Mum stayed with after the earthquake, looks on to his vegetable patch. The older generation are still growing their own vegetables and eating them. They do take precautions and avoid green leaf vegetables like spinach.

Endo-san, my father's old driver, is clearly annoyed with the nuclear accident. He jokes that the vegetables he makes should taste good but when you're worried about the health effects, they just don't seem so appetising. 

He complains that the regulatory levels for radiation in food are confusing. The latest scare of the day was green tea. The government applies the same radiation limit of 500 becquerels per kilo to both fresh green tea (生茶) and dried green tea (荒茶). Even fresh green tea that meets this requirement could exceed the limit when dried simply because it has lost moisture. Endo-san points out that you're not going to eat green tea like it's spinach and wants a whole picture for a reasonable intake. 

Many people are fed up with the endless factional wars being fought by the politicians. Endo-san's tongue-in-cheek solution: get them to do something useful, put them in nylon suits and send them off to help clear up the rubble at the nuclear power plant. I pointed out that they will probably continue bickering amongst themselves and just get in the way.

Among the uncertainties, farmers have planted rice and are tending their rice fields.

The proprietor of an old-fashioned barber shop thought that the earthquake and the nuclear disaster would finish off his business. But after a while, customers returned. I suppose people's hair continues to grow - come earthquake or radiation. He remarked that rainy days are noticeably quieter as customers avoid going outside because of the fear of radioactive rain.
And that's it.
Thank, Tak!

Thursday 16 June 2011

Radiation 'Fever'

Dear All
I had dinner with some friends last night. One of the guys had prostate cancer but was cured a few years ago after a course of low dose radiotherapy. But his PSA levels have gone up again. He told us he's been sleeping with a stone in his bed which gives off low radiation (granite?).  We were joking that the low radiation we're all getting now might be just the thing for his cancer! Come to think of it, it might be knocking many nascent cancers in the bud. Living here might even lengthen our lives, we oldies joked.

But one of the women was telling us that her daughter is newly pregnant and is planning to go and stay with friends in Hokkaido. Whatever the government tells us, I know that if I were in her situation I'd do the same. And at least her older child will be able to play outside, something she can't do here.

The situation is not improving. The reactor continues to leak radioactive materials into the air and sea although most of the damage was done in March at the time of the explosions. The number of people being advised to evacuate is rising all the time. Today four more areas (Date, Hara-machi) were designated as special evacuation areas. This means that the people living there, who've been anxious as they had the same levels as the evacuated areas, will now get financial help to move. Pregnant women and small children are actively being encouraged to leave (I've read of one  hospital in Niigata sheltering nearly 100 women with babies and young children, there are probably more).

The removal of soil from school yards continues apace. Today TV footage of a school with grass grounds, (unusual here and the school's pride and joy) being bulldozed away. Parks continue to be monitored. Sakubuta Park, little park famous for its cherry blossom, has reopened but Araike Park has closed (4.4 microsievelt/hr). This is in a prime residential area so the residents there are not going to be pleased. And what about people's gardens? No one's got round to measuring  those yet.

Tonight's NHK 9 o'clock news was entirely given over to radiation including a 10 minute piece on the efficacy of water for washing away iodine and caesium. So we are to wash vegetables well and boil in water, and slice meat thin and boil rather than grill or fry, and boil fish taking care to remove the scales and the innards. It's like being in the 60s and the Cold War again ....

I don't know quite what to make of all this. My head tells me that only radiation levels of 100 millisievelts/year will increase the risk of cancer (the government evacuates areas over 20 millisievelts/year) so there is nothing to worry about. But it's just dragging on so long, and wearing us down. No end in sight.

I saw an old lady out today in yukata (cotton kimono) and parasol. I'm not going to emulate her but I did think it was a far more elegant, and cooler, way to cover up than the raincoat and hat I continue to wear.

Goodnight, from a Japan in the midst of radiation 'fever'.

Monday 13 June 2011

Company History

Many years ago I was shown a family photo - my father in law surrounded by his family - taken towards the end of the war.  The story goes that he knew Japan was losing the war and thought he would be shot by the Americans for running a munitions factory. He said goodbye to his family and had them evacuate to the countryside. This  was the souvenir photo.

Toshiaki's mother remembers it well. The Military Police (Kempei) had visited and her father had been identified as the person in charge of the factory. On that day, her mother was busy with the four other children and she, as the eldest, was entrusted with a body belt containing the bank books, seals and 500 yen (a lot of money in those days). She was 14 at the time.

Before the war the company's business was silk-making, then it became a munitions factory making wings for the Ginga, a naval aeroplane. Koriyama was bombed on 12 April 1945, and the area where we are on the east side of the station with the Hodogaya Chemical Works (still there) and the Nakajima Aircraft factory was a major target. Our company was founded on 5 May 1945, a 'peace' industry making light sensitive paper for copying. Some neat self-preservation on the part of my father-in-law who also cannily changed the name from Tohoku Koku Kogyo (Tohoku Aircraft Industries) to the shorter and less specific Tohoku Kogyo (Tohoku Industries).

Amongst some old papers we  recently discovered an evacuation order ordering the company to evacuate by October 1945 to Odaira, an area 5 or 6 miles further east,  where facilities were to be provided underground. Unfortunately there's no date on the document but presumably it was after the air raid. This explains the mystery of this land which we still own, scrub land with no roads or facilities. We've never understood why anyone would have bought it. Now we know. 

The reason for this sudden interest in the past is that the box business moves to Rengo's old factory in another part of Koriyama in September and we need to make plans for the land. We've commissioned a soil survey and I'm braced for the worst.  According to Toshiaki's mother, the wings for the Ginga were assembled at an adjacent site (now sold off) and the corner plot where the factory now stands made the parts. After the war it was a plating factory. This is not sounding good.

Toshiaki's mother also told us about the different things her father tried after the war just to keep the staff in work and the business going: metalware such as tops to play with, rice storage bins, dust pans, and an adventure into saccharin production as there was no sugar. He certainly sounds to have been an enterprising man. He went into cardboard cases in 1960 as the economic miracle took off and people bought fridges, kotatsu (tables with heaters underneath), and other bulky household goods needing lots of packaging (like China today).

As of April, the packaging business is no longer a family business but a subsidiary of the industry leader. We are left with a property company but it's not going to be plain sailing. The first hurdle is solving any soil contamination problems, the next is trying to sell land in Fukushima. Any buyers out there? Oh well, as my mother always says, 'There are no problems, only challenges'!
Love to you all

Sunday 12 June 2011

Three Months On

Today is 11th June and yesterday was Friday. Three months since the earthquake. I thought I'd give you a run down of where we are.

Well, the official figures are 15,240 dead and 8,173 missing (Fire and Disaster Management Agency). The police and Self Defence Forces are still looking for bodies. Someone who lives near Matsushima told me that rivers are being dammed in an attempt to recover bodies. Of the dead, over 2,000 remain unidentified. Families are giving DNA samples (saliva) to try and find their relatives.

Work on clearing the debris is going ahead and from what I see on television it is being sorted for recycling, gathered into piles and transported by truck to large areas set aside for the purpose. But according to the paper only 20% has been cleared and it is behind schedule.

The television has lots of 'feel good' stories of factories, small businesses and shops working against the odds to recover their businesses. And everyday I meet people who have been working against the clock to get things back to normal. On the other hand, there is frustration that the big decisions are taking so long. The Disaster Recovery Bill was delayed by the shenanigans in the government and was passed only yesterday. It sets up a government agency to oversee the recovery. Local governments can't get the actual money they need until the 2nd Extra Budget is passed and that too is being held up by the power games in Tokyo. The Recovery Forum, headed by the man with the name no one can read (五百旗頭, read Iokibe), produces its first report at the end of the month. It looks like higher taxes to foot the bill.

In the three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima 148,582 people  have been evacuated from their homes, of these 99,184 are from Fukushima. Of these 35,500 have left Fukushima and 40,000 are unaccounted for. This gives you an idea of the scale of the exodus and the damage. Although radiation levels are down (1.27 microsievelts/hour in Koriyama today) these official figures are measured a metre from the ground on concrete and we're more savvy now. The hydrogen explosions back in March spread radioactive material over a wide area. It's in the soil, in ditches and drains. Those schools that have had the soil in playgrounds removed are allowing children to play outside again (but under supervision and the kids have to wear long sleeves, masks and caps) but the parks are deserted, no washing or futon are hanging outside, and as the barber told Takeshi, no one goes out on rainy days.

At Fukushima Daiichi it was announced a few days ago that the meltdown in Reactors 1, 2 and 3, was followed by 'melt through', i.e. the uranium that melted and fell into a pile at the bottom of the   pressure vessel subsequently burned a hole through, dripping into the the outer containment vessel (which is probably leaking). Previously they'd thought that Reactor 1 was full of water and just circulating the water would keep it cool. But plans had to be changed when they found the pressure vessel nearly empty. There are plans to clean and circulate the water in all three reactors but there seem be various setbacks and they're not working yet. High levels of radiation and now the hot weather are affecting workers.

Our sales figures are in for May: 22% down on May last year. We've lost a couple of customers who've moved out of the prefecture to avoid the Fukushima label, another customer is in the 20 km area so stopped production, and some customers have resumed production but are not yet up to full speed. Fruit and veg are delayed but volumes seem to be at normal levels - so long as the produce passes the tests when it's ready. Local sake brewers are doing well with internet sales. But what with the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear accident, loss of consumer confidence (fuhyo higai), antipathy on the part of a few of our customers towards our M&A, and having to accomodate customers who are changing to weekend working to save electricity, things do seem a bit hard.

On a personal note, I've decided it's time for my own Disaster Recovery and Renewal Plan. Sakai-san's parting shot last Monday night was to the effect that I had put on weight (アンさん、ふくよかになったね)so I decided to take myself in hand. I've rejoined the gym I went to until two years ago when I started working late.  (It's on the 3rd floor of a hotel. I was told the earthquake smashed the glass between the gym and the pool which lost half its water.) After only two visits I feel better already. Whether there will be any visible results by the time of second son Tom's wedding in six weeks time, remains to be seen.
Sorry this is a bit long.

Friday 10 June 2011

Life Goes On

Hi folks
Takeshi's in Tokyo now. Leaving tomorrow. His visit went all too quickly. On Monday I organised a dinner, now that the sale of the business has been safely concluded, to thank some of the people who've helped and supported me over the years. Seven people: the elderly accountant, lawyer, old friend and self-made businessman Sakai-san, the bank manager, Toshiaki, Takeshi and me. It was a lively evening, lots of laughter, and, as I'd hoped, heaps of praise for Toshiaki for pulling the deal off.

There was general agreement that we were very lucky that the sale went ahead in spite of the disaster. Lucky that the contract was so close to being signed and lucky that we were dealing with the leader in the packaging industry, Rengo, who can't so easily renege on a deal.

Most of the conversation is not worth repeating, bits not repeatable, but here are a few things that are perhaps worth passing on. There's not a hotel bed to be had in Koriyama. The town is full of insurers and assessors. The hot spring resorts are doing well, either with evacuees or admin officials from other areas. Pachinko and game centres are doing well, as are taxi companies (since the evacuees have time on their hands, compensation in their pockets and nothing to do!).  The restaurants are full of officials in boiler suits out having dinner. Some people have bought geiger counters but, in Sakai-san's opinion,  they just make life more stressful. 

There was scepticism about the way the monitoring is being carried out and a general realisation that things are probably a lot worse for Fukushima than we think. But this was masked by a kind of black humour since somebody has to stay on and keep things going. Takeshi was relieved to see for himself that we are getting on with life and said he was glad he'd been.

He didn't get to experience an earthquake. There was one today (about force 3) but it was the first noticeable one we've had in a week. Radiation levels here continue to fall (1.28 microsieveltss/hr) but remain high at Fukushima Daiichi. They now say that the melted rods of uranium burned a hole in the bottom of the containment vessel. So that means more leaking radiation. 100,000 tons of contaminated water, increasing by 500 tons per day. Plans to get purification systems going but not up and running yet. Also today the news that reactors that had closed for servicing are not being reopened due to local oppositon and at this rate all 54 reactors (which currently supply 30% of the nation's power) could remain closed by next spring .

So Takeshi heads back to Holland. Laden with Japanese books and DVDs (courtesy of for little son Kaj (海) who from just a few months old has responded with enthusiasm to the repetitive, onamatopaeic sounds of Japanese children's  stories.

Thank you for coming.
And love to you all

Sunday 5 June 2011

Takeshi's visit

My son, Takeshi, who lives in Holland, is here to visit his Mum. He's 34, father of a 5 month old son. At first he'd been talking of the whole family vsiting but I wouldn't let him bring the baby. So he's here on his own. (Apologies and thanks to partner Janna for letting him go. It's lovely to see him.)

For once I had the weekend off. On Saturday we drove to Ura Bandai. We walked the Goshikinuma (Five Colored Pools) from the Kogen Hotel end ending up at the most famous spot, the Rashomen Pond. It was a sunny day, early summer, and extremely beautiful. The sky was blue so the ponds had a clarity I'd never seen before, the leaves and ferns were fresh and new, and the heavy rains of the typhoon on Monday had produced rushing, gurgling, bubbling streams of water. The walk from one end to the other, about an hour and a half, was as always, calming and refreshing. It is a beautiful place.

Then we drove to Aizu city  We stayed at a ryokan in the town, Tagoto (田事). We had a room in the old part (Taisho period, view of the garden) and the food was good. The bathrooms leave someting to be desired but apart from that I can thoroughly recommend it as a place to stay. They were very glad to see us. They have 25 evacuee residents from Okuma-machi (where the power station is) but Takeshi was the first 'foreign' visitor since the earthquake and was presented with a lacquer bowl to commemorate the event!

We visited the castle which has been renovated with new reddish tiles. Inside there's a hands-on exhibition which is good though there are no explanations in English (I offered my services as a translator). A pity as the Boshin War (1868-1869) is a complicated period of Japanese history with people switching sides and the people of Aizu in the end cast as traitors to the Emperor when they started out as staunch supporters.

Then we drove to the coast. Onohama fish market was in ruins although there were fishing boats in the harbour which seemed to be working. Lots of abandoned cars - windscreens smashed and muddy inside - on the roadside. Further up the coast, houses destroyed by the tsunami.

Asked for his impressions, Takeshi said that apart from the obvious damage of the earthquake (bumpy roads and buildings being demolished) life seems to be going on as normal. And he is relieved to see this. He says things seem worse from the outside. Outsiders should not discriminate against and stigmatise Fukushima.

So please visit Ura Bandai and Aizu. Life goes on as normal and we need your support.

Takeshi after his one hour haircut, shave and massage

Takeshi by the 'blue pool', Ura Bandai

Takeshi peering into a shuttlecock fern

Takeshi and me  outsideAizu castle

Friday 3 June 2011

Strong people, weak politics

What a day. When thousands of people have no homes or money, when we are scared to go outside and are worried about how to earn a living, our politicians play power games and muscial chairs. Whilst Prime Minister Kan was being feted by Sarkozy in France (Kan smiling broadly as the G8 leaders did walkabout on  the streets of Deauville did not go down well here), his opponents in Tokyo were plotting to overthrow him and a no-confidence vote was held today. Kan survived but only because he promised fomer prime minister Hatoyama, who with Ozawa led the rebellion within the party, that he would step down 'once things had got under control' (ittei no medo ga tsuitara). Now they're arguing about what this means and when exactly this might be.

I got an e-mail from friend Kazue in England who is very anti DPJ (the party in power, the Democratic Party of Japan). Yes, people made a mistake voting them in two years ago, their policies are populist and they lack vision. Their handling of the disaster has not been brilliant: communication has been confusing at best, information has been withheld, donations are only now reaching the people in need, local authorities have not been given the budgets and cash they need to get on with the job. But the last thing we want is an election. If politicians don't like Kan they should get on with the job of passing the budgets and all the million other things that need to be done and let the people decide in a year or so who's done the best job and who should lead. Since the disaster we have had leading actors and personalities from all walks of life in public service announcements encouraging us to work together (see link below). Everyone is working so hard. We feel let down and disgusted by these politicians who have time to waste bickering.

Incidentally, one person who is getting on with the job is Yosano, the very clever man with the gravelly voice, currently Minister of Economic and Fiscal Policy, who, when the LDP lost the election two years ago left the party and a while later went over to the oppositon and joined the government. He's  working hard on the difficult issue of raising the consumer tax (VAT) to fund welfare. We need more people like him. People who're willing to put party politics aside, roll up their sleeves and get on with the job.

No, I'm afraid this is not the time for an election. It would be a waste of time, money and organisational resources. Not to mention the logistics of finding the people on the electoral roll and providing places to vote.

Here's a link to an advert that's been on television constantly (in the early days there were no adverts at all and these were all we had but it's still on and doesn't jade). It features pop group SMAP and rugged actor Kagawa Teruyuki. Why can't the politicians take these words to heart?

Here's a rough translation of the words:
Whatever happens you're not alone.
All of us are with you.
Making way for each other, helping each other.
We believe strongly, strongly in the future.
At this time, when we are one
We believe in the strength of Japan.
Japan is a strong country.
I believe in the strength of Japan.
It may be a long road.
But if we work together, we can overcome this.
I believe in the strength of Japan .

And goodnight

Wednesday 1 June 2011


I was in the bank today leafing through a magazine (it always takes ages) and I noticed an article about a Greenpeace survey of marine life off the Fukushima coast. Japanese weekly magazines (shukanshi, 週刊誌)are a bit like the English tabloids: going for headlines, risque, of dubious provenance. Yet you do find insights not generally available on mainstream television and newspapers which tend to toe the government line. I looked at the Greenpeace website (below) and the results were published on May 27th - but I haven't heard about this on TV or even in the local paper which  usually has very thorough reporting of the the accident. It seems like this news has been blocked out.

The article was saying that the Japanese governement had refused to let Greenpeace ships collect data as they used different criteria. It was also suggested that there was confusion about what Greenpeace is. A lot of people in Japan think of the Sea Shepherd and think that Greenpeace is an anti-whaling terrorist organisation (whereas Sea Shepherd is a radical offshoot of Greenpeace but now no longer connected). Anyway you can see the results of the survey in a link from the article below and they show extremely high levels of iodine and caseium, especially in seaweed.

Another word that you hear a lot these days is 'internal exposure' (naibu hibaku 内部被爆). The levels of radiation in the air are widely reported (in Koriyama it was 4.4 microsievelts/hour to start with, falling steadily and now at only 1.3). We know that iodine and caesuim taken in as food is very dangerous (food above 500 bequerels/ is banned). But it's just beginning to dawn on people that even if we don't ingest it in our food, if it's in the air, we will be breathing it in. To measure these levels you need something called a 'whole body counter' but 2,000 people working at Fukushima Daiichi are waiting to be tested by these machines which are in very short supply.

Radiation levels are low and we are probably quite safe but it's a nagging doubt and constant anxiety for us here. The prefecture has announced it's going to survey all 2.2 million inhabitants over several decades. I suppose they mean well but it does rather reinforce our suspicions that we are all guinea pigs in this.

Late at night there's a TV advert for an orthodontist in the centre of town which  has the GReeeeN song playing in the background - so I think I've identified one of the group. Anyone need their teeth straightening?