Thursday 22 December 2011

Happy Christmas!

What a year it's been. I've experienced fear and anxiety, but also love, support, help, information, and the power of the internet which can be used to enhance or aggravate all of these.

Thanks to all of you for helping and supporting me this year through this blog.

I'm off to Tokyo to meet my daughter hot off the plane and we're going to spend Christmas with friends. So I'll sign off now and wish you all a very happy Christmas from Koriyama!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

New Words

About this time every year, the TV and newspapers do features on new words that have come into the language. One of the obvious ones is 's'maho', short for smart phone. And there are stupid catch phrases coined by show biz people.  But as you can imagine, a lot this year were to do with the disaster. Here's my choice:

SOHTEI-GAI (想定外) 'outside the realms of probablility'.  This was Tepco's first excuse for the nuclear accident and it met with derision from the general public. Actually it's based on the laws of probability. They meant that based on their  calculations, the likelihood of a tsunami of that size were slight. Later it became known that experts had been warning of a high tsunami (there was one of similar size 1,000 years ago in the Heian period) but the warnings had been ignored, because of cost. The phrase also seemed to sum up Tepco and the government's shirking of responsibility - if the accident couldn't have been predicted then no one was responsible for it. (So-called 'stress tests' are now being carried out, computer simulations  to calculate worst case scenario situations, on the remaining nuclear plants as a condition to them being reopened.) Anyway, this phrase has worked its way into common speech. The other day I made a rather unpalatable proposal to one of our mangers and he said it was 'sohtei-nai' i.e. 'within the realms of probability', or in other words, he was half expecting it.

FUHYO HIGAI (不評被害) This is a difficult one to translate. According to internet sources it means 'financial damage caused by harmful rumours or misinformation'. And indeed it is one of the criterion for compensation. But it's used in a much more general sense to mean prejudice against us in Fukushima.

JOSEN (除染)'decontamination, clean up'. We hear this word all day every day but you won't find it in a dictionary. It certainly isn't in my regular Japanese dictionary and an online search on Kojien, equivalent of the Oxford Dictionary, was fruitless. Just goes to show how our world changed on 11 March. On Sunday went with a friend to a farmhouse just outside Koriyama where they make traditonal paper-mache dolls. When I asked where the boss was, I was told he was out dong 'josen'. It was a Sunday and the village had roped in the locals to clean the neighbourhood, specifically to hose down the schools and the routes to school. JOSEN rules our lives at the moment. Until areas are cleaned up, peope won't be able to return to their homes. And  there is the still unresolved problem of where to dump the soil that's removed.

KIZUNA (絆) Every year a priest in Kyoto decides on a single Chinese character (kanji) which sums up the past year. And he writes it with a huge brush and a big flourish. This year he wrote the single character 絆 (kizuna) . It refes to the ties, bonds, connections between people.  A tragedy like this makes you re-evaluate your life. Suddenly someone to share your problems, someone to rely on, seems more important than having a nice house or car. Marriages are on the increase. It will be interesting to see if the children of today develop different values from the 'throwaway' generation of their parents.

And finally, something completely different. OSAKA-TO KOHSOH (大阪都構想), a new word meaning 'Osaka capital project' the baby of  Hashimoto Toru (橋下徹), 42, father of seven, newly elected mayor of Osaka City. Until two weeks ago he was governor of a much bigger area, Osaka prefecture (Osaka-fu), but resigned to stand for the lesser position of Mayor in order to promote his vision of a single Tokyo style authority for Osaka. His argument is that there is a lot of waste with both the prefecture (fu) and the city (shi) having libraries and other duplicate facilities. He wants to cut waste, cut losses and use the money saved to solve Osaka's many problems (education, homelessness etc. etc.) He has experience. He famously negotiated through the night with civil servant unions to cut pay and after that put Osaka-fu in the black for three years in a row. He's the person to watch:  refreshing, dynamic, decisive. Such a contrast to the government in Tokyo. I wish we had someone like that in Fukushima.
And a very goodnight to you all

Saturday 17 December 2011

Cold Shutdown

The Prime Minister today announced that Step 2 of the roadmap has been achieved and Fukushima Daiichi has reached cold shutdown ahead of schedule. The temperature at the bottom of the pressure vessels in all 3 reactors is stable at well below 100'C ( 2,000'C at the time of the accident), there is a cover on Reactor No.1 and the emission of radioactive materials is slight: one of the standards was to get it down to 1mSv/hr around the plant. A cooling system is working for all four fuel pools. Actually there's nothing new to report since I posted Update on 31 October but the government is hailing this as a milestone, the 'end of the accident' (jiko no shusoku 事故の収束).

We're glad things are under control and emissions are down. The workers at the plant have done a great job. A few weeks ago Yoshida, the man who's been in charge since the disaster, was taken to hospital for health reasons. He's something of a hero in these parts (at the time of the explosion he famously disobeyed an order from head office and continued to inject seawater into the plant) and he's worked selflessly and tirelessly ever since. We were worried that he might have got radiation sickness. It turns out to be (by his own admission) cancer of the oesophagus so is probably not connected with the accident. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Although it may be the end of the accident phase there are still many unknowns. First, the temperature at the bottom of the pressure vessels may be under 100'C but the fuel has melted through  and is sitting on the concrete floor of the containment vessel. Temperatures there are not known. Only when the reactors are opened up will they know for sure and since levels inside the reactors are high and there is so much debris this won't happen for a long time. Secondly, there have been worrying announcements in the last few weeks: that fuel in Reactor No.1 has burnt through the 2 m concrete floor of the containment vessel leaving a rim of only 37 cm., that there are leakages of water etc.

It may be the end of the accident but for us this is the start. Or as Hosono, Minister for the Nuclear Accident, put it, 'korekara ga honban' (これからが本番). Time to get on with the Clean Up and get back to normal. The big question is when can the 160,000 evacuees go home? Can they go home? They've been in limbo for nine months but they may be getting answers soon. The government today announced guidelines which it is going to discuss with local leaders over the weekend. Areas with external radiation of under 20 mSv/yr are to be cleaned up so the evacuation order can be lifted. Areas above 20 mSv/yr will have some restrictions. People will not be able to return to areas showing over 50 mSv/yr. These are huge areas: all of Futaba-machi and Namie-machi and part of Iitate-mura.

Step 2 may be over but it's going to take 40 years to fully close the plant. Hosono, the Minister in charge, said he was committed to seeing it through: either getting people back or seeing they get proper compensation. He's 40 so with a bit of luck he might see it through - but it's not going to be done in my lifetime.

Meanwhile, the governor has announced that Fukushima is to be a no-nuclear prefecture. The four reactors at Fukushima Daiichi are to be closed but there are two more, 5 and 6, and then four more at Fukushima Daini. These are currently closed for safety tests but could be re-opened. It's a brave decision as the nuclear power plants provide jobs and generous government grants. But his stance reflects the wishes of the majority. So new energy companies, please flock to Fukushima!
Bye for now

Sunday 11 December 2011


Out and about this weekend. Saturday went to our copy shop in Sendai. Leaving Koriyama on Saturday morning the air was swirling with snow and momentarily I wondered if going by car was a wise choice. But changed the car's tyres last week to brand new studless snow tyres and you can't live here and be afraid of a bit of snow. Low dark clouds were swirling in from the west, but there were gleams of sunshine to the east. And as it turned out the journey up the Tohoku Expressway along the Pacific side was clear and free of snow, bright sunshine, hills a rich gold with the last of the leaves, and persimmons a picture on the bare trees. There are a lot of persimmons left hanging on the trees this year. Wonder why? Ah well, at least they look pretty. And in the distance the high mountains capped with snow: the Azuma mountains on the left as you go past the city of  Fukushima and the peaks behind on the pass to Yonezawa. Further north I couldn't see the top of Mount Zao for cloud, but the ski slopes were etched white against the black of the mountain. With a top up of artificial snow the ski resorts are open - just waiting for visitors.

This time I didn't have to show my 'earthquake damage certificate' (risai shomeisho 罹災証明書) at the toll. The processing was causing long queues at the expressway exits and we desperately need visitors so since 1st December travel on the expressways in Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate is free.

Sunday headed west to visit my friend in Kitakata. Came out of the tunnels on the expressway to heavy snow. The contrast is stark. It really is like the famous first line of Kawabata Yasunari's novel Snow Country: 'The train came out of the long tunnel - and there was the snow country. The night had turned white.' (Seidensticker)

Last night's snowfall was the first to settle this season. About 10 cms. Snowploughs on the expressway churning slush up into the air. A bit scary. But clear on the way back.

What a country of extremes. Not only is it sweltering hot in summer and freezing cold in winter but in the same area the weather on the east, on the Pacific side, is mild with hardly any snow, whereas the Aizu area  is in the snow country with several metres of snow. Good luck to those evacuees from the coast who're having to put on snow tyres for the first time!
Good night

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Baby Milk

I was intending cutting down on these posts and getting some early nights but the Fukushima saga takes so many twists and turns. The latest is contaminated baby milk. Meiji is to recall 400,000 cans of powdered baby milk which have been found to contain a maximum of 30 bequerels/kg of caesium (official limit 200 bq/kg ). As usual an expert was wheeled out to say that since the milk is diluted the dose for infants would be only 2 to 3 bq/kg and nothing to worry about but as you can imagine parents are frantic.

Worryingly, it was discovered not by Meiji or any officials but by a citizen's group in Nihonmatsu who pressed the company for details. According to our local paper, the Fukushima Minpo, the government carried out 25 tests of baby milk, including Meiji, in July and August and found no irregularity (nothing above 5 bq.) So this is another case of contamination slipping through the net.

Meiji reports that the milk was made from dried milk from Hokkaido and Australia. This was diluted with water which had been tested and was clear. The theory is that it was hot air (air from outside) used to dry the milk and turn it back into powder which caused the contamination. The milk was made between 14 and 20 March and the factory is in Saitama, 180 km from Fukushima!

The story illustrates several things we knew already. First, that in those first few weeks there was a lot of radiation around over a wide area, not just here in Fukushima. Secondly, random tests for food are not good enough. Everything should be tested and food should be labelled. If that's impractical for everything surely it should be done for baby milk and baby food at least. Professor Takeda (and others) has been calling for testing and labelling of baby milk since June. Why wasn't it done? Why are the milk companies only now stepping up their tests? Third, people probably are over-reacting and a bit of caesium is not going to kill you but again announcements that 'levels pose no immediate danger to human health' (tadachi ni jintai ni eikyo ga deru suchi de wa nai  直ちに人体に影響が出る数値ではない)don't exactly inspire confidence. Especially when the government is in the process of recategorising food and setting new lower levels with, at last, a separate category for baby milk and infant food.

Here's a link to the story on Japan Today, an online newspaper and discussion forum in English. You might find the comments after the story from residents here in Japan interesting/amusing:

And another story today which is almost comical. Trainloads of ash from incinerators which  had been transported to Aomori right in the north have been returned to Tokyo and environs as the locals won't have it dumped in their backyard. Radioactive rubbish being transported from pillar to post with nowhere to go. The problems are so huge you have to laugh.

Tuesday 6 December 2011


Dear Friends
Applying for compensation is in full swing. A manual (a thick tome) written by a national legal association is best seller in the main bookshop in town. At the company we're preparing our application for the period to end August but we're getting lawyers in to do it. It's very complex and there are big sums of money involved. We can't claim for sales lost due to the earthquake, for example if a factory was closed for several months for repairs to earthquake damage, but we can claim for sales lost to businesses which were evacuated from the 30km zone, or for sales lost due to the nuclear accident - boxes to pack fruit and vegetables,  boxes used in our shiitake packing business, and loss of business to some industrial and food producers.

The word on everyone's lips is fuhyo higai  風評被害 which according to an online dictionary translates as 'financial damage caused by harmful rumours or misinformation'. Or in other words, this blight to the Fukushima brand.

The forms have been simplified but still too difficult for smallholder Endo-san to cope with. He sells about 200,000 yen's worth of persimmons every year, enough to pay his costs, but doesn't have receipts and can't cope with the paperwork. Good news then today that a government committee has decided that we're all going to get compensation. Up until now only those evacuated in areas where radiation levels amounted to over 20 mSv/year could claim. But now the area has been extended to cover three quarters of the prefecture, 1.5 million people, Koriyama included. So I'm going to get 80,000 yen ( that's 657 GBP or $1,026 ) for the period from March to end of December. Pregnant women and children under 18 are to get 400,000 yen each ( 3,288 GBP or $5,132).

From the start the prefecture has been demanding compensation for all, especially  those who evacuated voluntarily. It's been a long struggle to get some recognition for the stress we've suffered and I'm glad those who left are eligible too. This kind of stress and fear affects people in different ways, it's very subjective, so you can't blame people for leaving. And living in two places is expensive.

More good news for Endo-san. At last testing has become available for small scale growers and he took his persimmons along to the city office to get tested. He hasn't had the full results yet but had a phone call to say they were OK and he can sell them if he wants. I immediately sent a box off to my friend in Osaka who loves persimmons. She told me a local women's group she's a member of is taking orders for Fukushima apples. Good work.

And following on from the Dalai Lama, Yoko Ono visited a junior school in Fukushima city today. What fame. She told us we had to be strong as the world was watching and she hugged every child in the class.

New Office

This is an update for friends and family. Those of you who've been following this blog since it started in March will know that it's been a year of change for me personally, not just because of the disaster. In March we split the company, sold the box-making business to Rengo the industry leader, and carried on as a property management company. The box business moved off the Hoha-cho site east of Koriyama station to Rengo's old factory five miles away. I wear two hats: I have an honorary position with the box company, still called Tohoku Kogyo, and go there every day. My other job is managing the property company and a subsidiary.

Whilst the box business moved to a spacious factory and smart offices in September, Toshiaki and I remained in the old building. The crack on the stairs caused by the earthquake which I had had repaired in May re-opened with the aftershocks in June, and at the time of the typhoon in October water poured through the crack like a waterfall! We moved to a temporary office nearby but at last we've moved to 'proper offices' near the station.

We're on the 8th floor facing west. The immediate view is not pretty - a sprinkling of  pre-war wooden houses, some 1960's down-at-heel concrete buildings, a monster of  a derelict building that was once occupied by Daiei supermarket. But most of the land is given over to parking  (aozora chushajo 青空駐車場 'blue sky parking lots'). Beyond, there are the mountains. Mount Adatara to the north and the summit of Mount Bandai to the west, with the weather creating an ever-changing landscape.

It's not a big office but very smart: we have new furniture, lots of storage space so it looks clean and efficient. The building's owned by an insurance company and the way the building is managed is an eye-opener. I hadn't realised that the management of office buildings is a whole industry. There's a form for everything. In our office of two we have had to split the required responsibilities. I have overall responsibility and am in charge of recycling and sorting of refuse. (Note: 'in charge'. We have cleaners.) Toshiaki is in charge of fire, crime, and is the day to day contact.

The toilets are beautiful. The lights go on when you enter and the toilet flushes automatically. And the best thing of all - for the first time in many years, I don't have to clean them!

Coming out of the building on Saturday evening after the move, life seemed good. The area round the station was bright with Christmas illuminations (well done, Urara from Edison) and the streets were full of people. It's the bonenkai season (忘年会 year end, literally 'forget the year' party) and people are out having a good time. We have anxieties about the future but at last life seems normal again.
Goodnight from a cold and windy Koriyama,

Sunday 4 December 2011

Iodine and Thyroids

I went to a lecture last week by a thyroid specialist and it did me good. It was good to hear an expert talk objectively. Since March we've been caught in the crossfire not knowing who to believe: the initial announcements by the government which in order to avoid panic did not tell the whole truth; the media doing their best to be objective but wheeling out experts on all sides; then information, misinformation and disinformation on the internet. So it was reassuring to sit in a lecture, have the anatomy and workings of the thyroid explained, and the risks assessed by someone who knows what they're talking about.

The lecture was one of a series organised by the older Dr Kikuchi, paediatrician in Koriyama. It is his son who I have mentioned before who is active with the  'Koriyama Post Disaster Children's Care Project' (that should be Kokoro no Kea, care of the heart, which I find impossible to translate) which, among many other activities, is opening an indoor play centre just before Christmas.

Anyway, the speaker was Dr Naoko Momotani. She showed us diagrams of the thyroid, wrapped around the front of the throat, shaped like a butterfly. (By the way, learnt a new word, do you know this one? Nodo-botoke  のど仏 literally, the Buddha of the Throat. It's the Adam's Apple! Funny how both languages have a religious reference - must look into that sometime ...)

Back to the lecture. Thyroid hormones are essential for regulating metabolism and the production, use and maintenance of energy. Symptoms are listlessness and lack of energy so diseases of the thyroid are hard to diagnose. Thyroid stimulating hormones (TSH) are produced in the pituitary gland in the brain and regulate the amount of thyroid hormones, FT3 and FT4 in the blood. FT4 are produced by the thyroid and need four iodine molecules, FT3 need three iodine molecules and can be converted from FT4 not only in the thyroid but in other parts of the body too.

Different amounts of thyroid are needed at different ages. The highest amount is needed from birth to three years (none is needed in the womb) for the development of the brain and for growth. That blood test on the heel of a newborn picks up any deficiency so there are no irregularities in developed countries. Diseases of the thyroid can be treated easily and cheaply.

Thyroid cancers account for 6% of cancers diagnosed. Only one kind is fatal (undifferentiated carcinoma of the thyroid) and occurs in people over 40. The rest can be treated and most people recover. The cancer amongst children in Chernobyl was papillary thyroid cancer and occurred 5 years after the accident.  She thinks the reasons for the prevalence of that cancer in Chernobyl were 1) Ten times more radioactive material was emitted from the plant at Chernobyl than Fukushima 2) children drank contaminated milk (this she thinks was the main reason, 80% of cases) 3) general insufficiency of iodine  4) late evacuation and 5) late diagnosis.

The Recommended Daily Allowance of iodine for an adult is 150 μg. Japanese consumption varies between 180 and 30,000 μg. That high figure is for the days you eat the konbu seaweed and drink the soup in that winter speciality o-den! Average Japanese consumption is 1,200 μg/day. (Incidentally, she pointed out that in a Western diet the main source of iodine is in salt - it's added to salt in most countries but not here - and in the US 10% of people are not getting enough because they are cutting their salt intake or switching to non-iodized salt.)
Talking about iodine pills, she said they have to be taken before the plume goes over, or up to 3 hours later. She said it's no use giving them later on. (I read different on the internet, but she's the expert).

Her conclusion, and that of three international conferences she's been to since March, is that there is no increased risk of cancer for children in Fukushima. The prefecture is, however, carrying out ultrasound tests on all children under 18 (for the rest of their lives) and she says this is to reassure people and create a baseline.

One mother got up and said she's been feeding her kids seaweed in all forms (nori, konbu) since the disaster but Dr Momotani urged moderation. Too much iodine can stop the thyroid working.

So there we have it. It's official. Fukushima kids are unlikely to develop thyroid cancer. We can knock that one off the list. Now, we need measured advice on all the other nasties. It's going to be a long haul but we're getting there one by one.