Tuesday 29 November 2011

Fighting Back

It's been a bad week for Fukushima's image. First, fishing on the coast was supposed to be resumed before the end of the year but the fish is not safe and the ban's not been lifted. Then after the discovery of contaminated rice last week, high levels of caesium have been found in the rice of more farmers in the next valley. It makes a mockery of the governor's declaration last month that Fukushima rice is safe. Two tests per area had been taken but it's obvious now that such tests are simplistic. Tests need to be more detailed taking into consideration the topography, soil, rainfall etc.

Meanwhile the fruit farmers in the north have been issued with power hoses and taught how to sluice down their fruit trees. Two thousand hectares of orchards (peaches, cherries, grapes, apples, pears, nashi pears and persimmons) to be cleaned this winter.

A group of local leaders visited Chernobyl and they were shown on TV. Twenty five years on people still take their food to be checked for radiation. Koriyama's alright but the people from the 20-30 km area, for example the people from Kawauchi evacuated to Koriyama, is that what it's going to be like for them?

Even when the produce is safe, will people buy it? Will people visit? How long is the stigma going to remain? Five years? Ten years? This is what's at the back of everyone's mind.

People here are working very hard to stay cheerful and live a normal life, or rather to adapt to the new reality. And they're fighting back. Attended a rally on Sunday organised by the Chamber of Commerce. Two resolutions. The first for measures to boost the economy following the earthquake: call for the Ministry for the Recovery and WHO and IAEA research institutes to be based here, for special funding and help for businesses, and rebuilding of roads and infrastructure. The second resolution calling for an end to the nuclear accident, for Koriyama to be throughly cleaned, for a speedy decision on the permanent disposal area for radioactive waste; measures for health and children (free medical treatment for all, more monitoring of radiation, free education, more indoor play facilities) and for compensation. There was also a call for the word 'Fukushima' to be dropped from the name of the nuclear plant.

In spite of the all the bad news though you can't help admiring the way people just carry on with their daily lives.
"Eh, Eh, Oh!" and the resolutions were passed.
(I was given an orange hachimaki headband but sorry to say I didn't wear it.)

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Christmas Shopping

Hi folks,
Not very Christmassy round here yet, but Christmas is only a month away and I'm going to do something unusual and blow my own trumpet. If you're looking for Christmas presents, here are two suggestions.

First, let me introduce my very talented daughter, Reiko. She's based in London. She started out designing all sorts of things for the home - furniture, lights, cushions - but is now settled into designing bone china tableware. The best thing is that the china is made in England, in 'The Potteries' in Staffordshire, where she can keep an eye on manufacturing and quality, which wasn't the case in the early days when she was having things made in China and eastern Europe. She's still in her twenties, works very hard and has come a long way. I am very proud of her.

Her company is called Reiko Kaneko and this is the address. Take a look.

I can't get back to England this Christmas so she's coming here to visit. As you can imagine I'm looking forward to her visit immensely.

Next, my book. Last summer, 2010, when the mercury hit record levels, I spent every weekend on a book which was published last  month with the title, 'Conversational Japanese: The Right Word at the Right Time'. I'm not supposed to say this but it's actually a revision of a book I wrote years ago. I added the kanji and brought it up to date adding internet shopping to the shopping section and e-mail to the chapter on letters. Every chapter has an orientation in English as I've learnt the hard way that knowing the bare bones of the language is not enough to make yourself understood. Then there are dialogues for real life situations, often disaster scenarios, which were fun to write. There are chapters on the neighborhood, the telephone, traveling, business, children, as well as gifts, weddings, funerals and speeches.
Here are details of the book.
Conversational Japanese: The Right Word at the Right Time
by Anne Kaneko (Tuttle Publishing)
It's selling on for $9, Amazon Japan for 1,470 yen, Amazon UK for 13 GBP.

If you like it, please give it the thumbs up ('Like' on sites in English and いいね on Japanese sites).

That's all for now,

Monday 21 November 2011

Budget Passed

Dear Friends,
Hurrah! The 3rd Supplementary Budget that will provide the money to reconstruct the tsunami hit region was passed today. Only two months late. That's 12 trillion yen, half of the 5 year budget for the recovery. That means that all those plans, for example, for moving people to higher ground, can start at last. Let's hope the  money gets to the regions quickly.

There's money for shifting debris, building roads and infastructure; finance for small businesses; and money to start the Clean Up here in Fukushima. Not before time. Winter's setting in which will hamper work.

Endo-san came round the other day complaining. He's got a friend who works in some official capacity and got him to come to his house with his 'proper', 'official' geiger counter (dosimeters are one a penny but a lot are unreliable). Anyway, the readings were high at 0.8μSv/hr and he's creating. The city have told him to scrape the topsoil, collect it in a corner and cover it with a plastic sheet. He's not happy. Kept saying he thought levels were low round here (sendo ga hikui 線度が低い). This must be a new word. People don't say hoshasen (radiation) any more, it's contracted to sendo (literally, wave levels). Six months ago we didn't know a sievert from a sausage, now we're so used to talking about radiation we shortcut the language.

While on the topic of the Clean Up, the other day a leaflet dropped through my door from the City, the Do's and Don'ts of Clean Up activities. Don't attempt to clean areas over 10 μSv/hr (contact City Hall). Leaves and weeds are to be put in bin bags and will be collected but soil has to be piled up, higher radioactive stuff in the middle, covered over and the city notified. There are grants of up to 500,000 yen for organisations volunteering to do the work. There's a fuller version of the manual here: Koriyama City Clean Up Manual
Sorry to be mean spirited but I'm in no rush to volunteer.

And here's an article I came across which suggests that since the radiation here is low dose and since cancer is such a major cause of death, the effects on statistics may be so slight that we'll probably never know whether radiation here in Fukushima led to more cancers. Is that reassuring or not?

BTW I've corrected an earlier post (Bonfire Night) where I said 2,000 workers were working at Fukushima Daiichi. The correct figure is 3,000.
And a very goodnight to you all

Osaka and Back

Dear Friends
Busy week. Spent Friday and Saturday in Osaka. Took the shinkansen bullet train from Koriyama to Osaka, 470 miles in four and a half hours, and that was on a slow train with a change in Tokyo. Bad weather, not much to see, a few fields of tea in Shizuoka, otherwise mile after mile of conurbation and the factories and head offices of Japan's household names: Pola (cosmetics), Ajinomoto (seasonings), Chugai (pharmaceuticals), Wacoal (underwear).

Went to attend the twice yearly meeting for Rengo subsidiaries. Can't say anything about the meeting but once again it was a chance for me to be thankful that in these difficult times we are now backed by the industry leader's money, brains and expertise. Everyday I am thankful to those who got the deal done. (Photos of our new and old offices below)

My first time in Japan was in Osaka, at Expo 70 when along with 11 other British students of Japanese we worked for six hot months in the British pavilion. At that time visits to Osaka were for okonomi-yaki pancakes and yakisoba fried noodles in cheap dives around the station. Hot, no air conditioning. All gone now. Unrecognisable.

I stayed with an old, old friend from those days. She's now 79 and recently moved into a new apartment on the 14th floor with splendid views, underfloor heating, lights that go on and off automatically and a TV in the bathroom. Her hobby is editing and making DVDs of a lifetime's photos. When I visited her a couple of years ago I was thrilled to find Fukushima veg in her supermarket. But not anymore. And I'm ashamed to say I bought up lots of vegetables and fish from the west of the country and had them sent up here by chilled delivery. Tonight I gorged on tomatoes and cucumbers. I've hardly eaten any all summer.

Big setback here in terms of food. Last week a farmer from Onuma, about 10 kms east  of Fukushima city centre, took his rice along to be tested and it was found to contain 630 bq/kg of caesium, over the limit of 500. Some had got as far as the shops but none had been sold. All shipments have been stopped pending further tests. The area is in a valley surrounded on three sides by steep hills and the theory is that caesium collected in the paddy from streams on the hills. An agricultural 'hotspot' as it were. It's exposed a flaw in the random testing conducted up to now and shown that testing is not straightforward. Experts are calling for detailed 'soil maps' and soil analysis. What is needed of course is testing of every bag of rice (and other food) but we're told there aren't enough machines or technicians.

Election of local councillors today. Lowest turnout on record, 47% (including postal votes). But maybe not too bad when you consider 150,000 are evacuated from their homes, 59,000 of these outside the prefecture. Electoral officers have had their work cut out travelling the country these last few weeks trying to persuade people to vote. The head of Okuma village, where Fukushima Daiichi is situated, fought on a platform of keeping the village together and working towards returning one day. He won but his opponent who said they should all give up and move to other local authorities got 40% of the vote. What is going to happen to those areas within the 20 km zone?
Lovely and warm in Osaka and Tokyo. Got off the train to a freezing Koriyama night.
All the best
The office building at the new site newly emblazoned with the name 'Tohoku Kogyo'. Very satisfying for me to see the company name live on.
The old building, covered in scaffold and netting.

Demolition of the office building. Can you see the water being hosed in to keep the dust down?

Demolition of No 2 workshop complete (the empty space). Now working on No 1.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Bonfire Night

Hi folks
Tonight it's Bonfire Night in the neighbouring town of Sukagawa - or rather the Taimatsu Akashi Festival that goes back 400 years. Last year I had visitors from England (Hi Heidi!) and we went to see it. The climax of the festival is the burning of about twenty bamboo poles, packed with grasses and reeds, hand made by local schools and organisations. This year, however, the reeds (kaya カヤ, as in kayabuki - thatch)were found to contain caesium.  The city appealed for donations and bamboo and kaya were sent from all over Japan. The  poles have been made as usual and a radiation-free festival will be enjoyed by all. This is the website (Japanese only) and I've put some of last year's photos at the end of this post.
Sukagawa Taimatsu Akashi website

Had dinner last night with some people who'd been to the Dalai Lama's talk. They were sitting in the front row and their main impression was how young he looked. He's 76 but has no wrinkles! He must be doing something right. When asked about the radiation he told listeners to heed the scientists. When asked about the tsunami he told people to move to higher ground. "If you have too much fear, too much worry, too much attachment, your mind becomes biased. With that kind of mind, you can't see reality. You need a calm mind to see things clearly." Good advice and I think we're getting there but certainly the first few months after the disaster there was a lot of fear, a lot of worry, people did get biased one way or the other, and we couldn't see the reality. Easier now, but still difficult for us mere mortals.

Reporters were taken on a bus tour of Fukushima Daiichi today. Foreign press too so the pictures are on the BBC. Up until now we've only seen fuzzy pictures taken from 30 km away but close to, the destruction, the mess, even eight months on is shocking. With radiation levels at 50 to 300 μSv/hr no one was allowed off the bus but they did to get to go into the control centre where officials are working and where the clearance workers get scanned (two thousand people - correction: three thousand people - working at the plant everyday). A few weeks ago the Spanish gave an award to honour those working at the plant and today Yoshida, the plant manager (the one who in the early days famously chose to ignore his boss's order to stop adding seawater) said in an interview that several times in that first week he thought he was a gonner. Yes, we owe these people a lot. Things are bad but they could have been even worse.
Good night
Taimatsu Akashi festival in Sukagawa. These youngsters have received the flame after a ceremony at a shrine
and go on to light torches around the town.

Everyone joins in taking the torch up the hill. (Fire hazard?)

At the top of the hill, the poles are set alight, one after the other.

And burn all night.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Cold Winds

Hi folks
The weather's turned cold and I've succumbed and put the heating on for the first time. From now on cold westerlies will blast Koriyama until next spring. Like Chicago it's a Windy City. But at least the winds will be blowing away from the plant and out to sea.

The plan for the indoor children's play centre that I mentioned earlier has been officially announced. What I hadn't realised was that the motivation for it was a survey done by paediatrician Kikuchi Shintaro of about 250 children at two kindergartens where he found that children in the year to June this year had only put on one quarter of normal weight gain. He attributes it to two things: hormone imbalance due to stress partly connected with not being able to play outside, and then physically not being hungry so not eating because they're not playing outside. The play centre is to have a huge sandpit, jungle gym and tricycle track and has been made possible through the generous sponsorship of Koriyama based supermarket chain, York Benimaru. It's to open on 23 December (nice Christmas present for the kids) and entrance will be free.

The authorities in Motomiya (just north of Koriyama) have provided two machines for people to go and get their home-grown produce tested. At last! Up until now only produce going through JA (the agricultural cooperative) has been able to be tested. But why has it taken so long? It's the end of the season. Why wasn't this kind of machine available in the summer to test all those lovely tomatoes and cucumbers? It's too little to late.

It's not that the Tokyo bureaucrats or politicians are lazy it's just that everything has to be decided in Tokyo. So local government officials have to go to Tokyo, petition for what they want done, then the Tokyo bureaucrats have to sift through everything (on top of their normal work) and make their decision. This is what devolution is all about - making local decisions local. The bill that's doing the rounds (the government doesn't have a majority so likes to get agreement from the opposition parties first) has provisions for special areas (tokku 特区) which will be exempt from a lot of red tape. All the disaster areas want to be tokku. But getting that decision itself is taking a long time!

Our salesman who lives 34 km from the reactor has no plans yet to return home. His house is surrounded by trees which the city has agreed to cut back. He's hoping that will get some air moving through and improve the situation. Unlike his neighbours 4 km away he is not eligible for compensation.

Good night from a chilly Koriyama,

Sunday 6 November 2011


Spent last Thursday, the holiday, celebrating the harvest in Hirata-mura, about 30 miles south east of Koriyama. In the past we've planted and harvested the rice but sadly Sato-san died of illness last year and the work has been contracted out. But with a yield of 750 kilos there was still a lot of work to be done taking the brown rice to the mill to be polished, bagging it up and sending it off to the many supporters who're prepared  to eat rice from Fukushima. Having said that the rice in the area has been tested and shows no trace of caesium and a letter with these results was put in every package.  (I have to say though that I opted to take white rice this year - cleaner than brown rice - just to be on the safe side.)

It was a lovely day to spend in the country, the weather mild, trees beginning to turn colour, some post-harvest activity in the fields (threshing, cutting grass, burning stubble), but generally still and calm. Paddy fields, dry fields, villages, bamboo groves, woods: there's a word in Japanese for this country scene, satoyama (里山) which has been coined by conservationists to describe the symbiosis of people in their environment and biodiversity.

The Satoyama are under threat. No one looks after the woods any more. The average age of the farming population is 66 and the vast majority of farmers have another job - they can't earn a living from farming alone. That's in spite of subsidies for growing rice, for not growing rice and with the price of rice ten times the world price. I don't begin to understand the complexities of farming here but the country is currently split in two over whether to enter talks  with a view to joining the TPP, the Trans Pacific Partnership, a sort of EU with free movement of goods and no tariffs. America and Australia are in. As are Chile, Peru and Malaysia. China's not in and Japan is dragging its feet. Of course the farmers are against.

But the rice really was delicious. How much water do you add to rice when you cook it? I was amazed to hear that for each cup of this rice you need less than a cup of water. First, it's fresh and still moist (it'll need more as the season progresses), secondly it hasn't been in a dryer like most rice but dried out in the fields. So it had a beautiful nutty aroma, glistened in the bowl, and was chewy to eat. Delicious.

Last night I went to a one man show by Issey Ogata. I saw him in London over ten years ago. If you get the chance do go and see him. He's immensely talented and very funny. He did seven sketches, changing on stage, becoming seven different personalities: the old lady who can't ride a bike, a foundry worker whose most exciting moment in fifty years work had been the time a goat got into the factory, or the lady of a certain age in a bar. Just everyday scenes but very cleverly observed and acted out with a face that moves like elastic.

Back to work tomorrow.
Sato-san's family home

Harvest festival

Rice hanging out to dry the old fashioned way

Me measuring rice into 5 kg bags

30kg sacks of Fukushima rice stacked up in the old farmhouse

The rice really is good, fragrant and glistening

Country scene

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Trouble at No. 2

Dear Friends
Fukushima back in the news with the announcement today that Xenon, a radioactive gas, has been found coming out of Reactor No.2 (that's the only reactor with its building still intact, a pretty square box painted blue with white cloud patterns). Xenon 133 has a half life of 5 days and Xenon 135 of only 9 hours and they're produced when the fuel Uranium 235 has a nuclear fission reaction. So this means that some small nuclear reactions may be continuing inside the reactor. Everyone's playing it down saying that there's no possiblity of criticality, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and that the temperature is down to 76'C so should not affect the plan for cold shutdown by the end of the year. Nonetheless, announcements like this make you realise how big the accident was and how little is known yet. No one can get inside that building so it's all supposition. The centre of the reactor may be 76'C but the fuel has melted down, off the rods, and is sitting in water at the bottom of the building and may even have melted through the floor. Underestimate of the dangers? I don't know. Meanwhile, boric acid is being injected to neutralise the stuff.

Tomorrow is a national holiday, Culture Day, and the lucky people of Iwaki were treated to a ballet performance by Sylvie Guilleme. Here in Koriyama our huge concert hall is bottom of the list for repairs so is still shut. Couldn't even be the venue for the Dalai Lama who is coming to Koriyama on Sunday. The Dalai Lama coming to Koriyama! (All tickets sold out)

Main topic of conversation in our office is the tax office's announcements today of 'adjustments' to land valuations. Every summer land valuations are announced which form the basis for taxes (inheritance tax, property tax etc). The value of land has been falling every year since the bubble burst so land now is worth half, or in some expensive areas one tenth, of what it was in 1991. Don't let anyone tell you that the price of land always goes up! Today's announcements put a figure on the effects of the earthquake and the nuclear accident. So Koriyama is 0.85 which means that property tax will be reduced by 15% as a result of the accident. It's supposed to be a goodwill gesture but it would be naive to think that this will not affect sale prices. Areas on the coast in Iwate and Miyagi were valued at 0.3 and land in the exclusion zone at 0. Good that these people will not have to pay tax on their land but a slap in the face to be told your land is worth nothing.

On a brighter note, todays news showed foreign companies moving into Aizu Wakamatsu. A Chinese company which makes heavy machinery and sees big business in the recovery and Accenture, global management consulting company, that sees that local hydro and geothermal could form the basis of new renewable energy. When we here are reeling from the news that Xebio, a local sportswear company that made it nationally is moving its HQ out of Koriyama as foreign buyers won't come, frightened off by the radiation, this is good news indeed. The government does nothing, the local people are doing their best but basically waiting for instructions (and money) from Tokyo, so it's great that some outsiders are putting their brains together and looking for a way out of this mess we're in.

Tomorrow I'm off to the country to pick up my year's supply of rice. The weather is mild and it's too nice to stay indoors.
Love to all

Tuesday 1 November 2011

My News

Hello again,
Yesterday I gave a macro view of what's going on in Fukushima. Tonight I'll give the micro view: what's happening in my life. Interesting for my friends and family I hope, and perhaps mildly interesting trivia for anyone else who can be bothered to read this.

Well, having split the company in two in April, I currently  have two jobs. As (honorary) Chairman of the box company (which we sold to Rengo), I go every morning and late afternoon to the new factory. Here are some pictures of a ceremony held last week at the little Shinto shrine on the premises. A Shinto priest was invited over and we all prayed for Safety at work.
The Shrine decked out for the ceremony
The priest doing his stuff, much waving and shaking of white paper wand, paper confetti, and deep bows
And here's me. One bow, two claps, one bow. Perfect!
Then in the middle of the day it's back to our temporary office. Just the two of us, me and Toshiaki. From there we oversee the  demolition of the old factory (photo below), make plans, and run a copy shop business (12 staff).

My old office. How they got that digger up to the 2nd floor I don't know!
I had an accident the other day. Caught my hand in a chair and gouged a bit out of my right index finger. Needed to go to hospital. Very quick and efficient and it is mending well. Strange to be in the orthopaedic dept. of a hospital and surrounded by 'good' radiation in the form of X-rays, scans and radiotherapy. There's a good health insurance system here and I had to pay 30% of the cost: 4,000 yen for the treatment and 2,500 yen for some antibiotics and painkillers. (That doesn't seem expensive to me here but I just converted it into pounds sterling at the current rate of 125 yen/GPB and got a shock. I'm used to thinking 1,000 yen is 4 pounds but it's 8!)

Went to Tokyo on Saturday for a funeral. Had lunch there, just a bento box but delicious. Full of things I don't normally eat. I haven't eaten fish for a long time (might contain strontium) and mushrooms were a bad source of contaminaton in Chernobyl so I avoid those. It really brought home to me the fact that we are not leading normal lives. Just those ordinary things that you take for granted.

Waiting for the bus on the way back I got talking to a man who'd been demonstrating outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Big anti-nuclear demonstration over three days. He was complaining that the recent health questionnaire we've all been sent is too vague and was calling for more health checks and health passbooks for all. Saw on the news tonight that the Prime Minister has signed an agreement with the leader of Vietnam to build two nuclear plants there. Admittedly it was agreed before the earthquake but there are talks going on with other Asian countries too. Seems incredible to us here.

And finally, here's a quiz question for you. What do you think these are and how do they work? Repair work has started on our apartment at last. Scaffolding is being put up and these curious gadgets have appeared all over the outer walls. They look a bit like fairy lights but the 'bulbs' are of hard plastic. Presumably a device to fill the cracks in the walls but we'll have to wait and see.

This has been an odd blog. You've been very indulgent.
Much love to you all