Friday 21 December 2012

Up, up and away

There's excitement in the air as the year draws to a close and people rush about trying to get things finished off in the old year.  There are queues at the lottery kiosks. 600 million yen in prize money to be won this year (roku oku 6億, over four and a half million pounds). But I'm off. I'm going to spend Christmas with my family in England.

Panicked a couple of weeks ago when I realised my visa was due to run out but it's all done now and I was amazed at the new system. In July the law regarding immigration was revamped and we are no longer aliens! I don't have to register as an 'alien' but when I need one I can get a 'residency certificate' (juminhyo 住民票) like any Japanese citizen and instead of my 'alien registration card' I now have a 'residence card'. Neither do I need to get a re-entry permit to come back into the country. I remember the old immigration office on the east side of  Shinagawa before it was redeveloped. It was not a nice place to go. And when I first came to Koriyama in the 80s I had to travel 2 hours to Sendai to get a re-entry permit every time I wanted to leave the country. Things have changed a lot.

I'm about to get the train to Tokyo. For the first time in decades I have a flight from Haneda airport. But I have to be at the airport at 4:00 am for my flight at 6:30 tomorrow morning. The agency I booked with (HIS) offers a unique solution. I will be spending the night at the hot spring theme park in Odaiba (Oedo Onsen Monogatari), bathing and resting on reclining chairs, before boarding a bus to the airport at 3:25 am. The things I do at my age. I'm going to be exhausted. But at least I'll be clean!
If I don't get another chance, I'll wish you all a very happy Christmas.
With love

Thursday 20 December 2012

Lessons from Fukushima

The International Atomic Energy Agency Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety was overshadowed by the election but with 700 delegates from 130 countries and organisations it was a big event for Koriyama. There aren't that many foreigners here and I know most of them so it was unusual to see so many strangers in town. I could tell something was up when I saw a car with blue diplomatic plates (never seen one here before) and ladies wearing heels. Koriyama ladies may dress up when they go out but no one over the age of 20 wears high heels outside in this weather!

The conference took place in the Big Palette conference centre which was where I was when the earthquake hit and which for five months afterwards became an evacuation shelter for 2,000 people. As if on cue, there were a couple of strong aftershocks on Saturday afternoon which must have concentrated minds in the conference hall.

Friday and Saturday were given over to visits (Fukushima Daiichi, decontamination work, Fukushima Medical University), and there were some important announcements. Next year the IAEA is to establish a centre in Fukushima City to train experts from around the world to deal with nuclear emergencies. Other projects include technical assistance in decontamination, dealing with waste, and radiation monitoring, in addition to working with Fukushima Medical University on health management. In the joint comunique the IAEA pledged to do more to support safety in developing countries. Then the dignitaries departed leaving the experts to carry on with working level meetings for two more days. Having been here, and seen all that's happening in Fukushima, one would like to think that lessons have been learned and safety around the world will be improved.

Sunday was election day although only a third of the electorate bothered to vote. The conservative LDP won by a landslide. Big names in the ruling DPJ (including 8 Cabinet Ministers) lost their seats and at about half past eleven on Sunday night PM Noda announced his resignation. The new Prime Minister will be Shinzo Abe who held the post for a year in 2006 but resigned because of stress/stomach trouble. During the election campaign he was constantly photographed tucking into 'tonkatsu' (Get it? tonkatsu, fried pork cutlet. Also katsu 'to win'.) The election result was a resounding No to the ruling party. The so-called Third Force was too fractured to gain a majority. 

Whatever your politics I think most people here are relieved that the government coming to power will have a solid majority and will be able to get on with the business of running the country. Here in Fukushima we just want things speeded up. 30,000 people in barrack-like emergency housing face another cold winter.
Bye for now

Saturday 15 December 2012

Koriyama Clean up

Hi folks
Radiation levels are not that high in Koriyama compared with other places in Fukushima but the city's trying to clean the place up so levels are back to a normal 1 mSv/year (0.23 μSv/hr). Schools, nurseries and routes to school were decontaminated last year. Parks and other places where people congregate were cleaned over last winter and in the spring. Now they've got round to domestic houses and gardens. Work started in October and by the end of this month 14,200 houses will have had their gutters and drains cleaned, shrubs and trees cut back, and lawns replaced (pics below). 

In a separate initiative, agricultural land is being decontaminated. Our company owns some land which is officially farmland and last night I attended a second meeting about the plans. It's all very organised. The land will be scattered with zeolite which will be ploughed in to a depth of 20 cm. Then soil samples will be taken and potassium silicate added at a later date according to the results of the tests. We were given poles and flags which we were told to set up on our land asap - and leave there. The organizers hope they will be a good advert for Fukushima farming and might encourage more farmers to have the work done in the next round. One man said he hadn't farmed his patch since 3.11 and asked who would be responsible for getting rid of the weeds. It seems the owners are responsible. I'm ashamed to say that our company has not been looking after this land properly so we are in the same boat. So we can't get the work done unless we clear the ground (understandable, it is the Ministry of Agriculture that's in charge). There's no way yours truly is going to shift that vegetation so we will have to pay someone with the right equipment to do it. Need to think  about this.

In the meantime, here are some pictures taken yesterday of work in progress in Saikon near Sakubuta Pond where levels have remained stubbbornly  high. It was a lovely sunny day.
Sign saying that decontamination of houses is in progress
A garden being cleaned. Top soil removed, trees cut back.

Sakubuta pond which had the highest levels in the city.
The grass under the trees has been removed and replaced with a covering of netting.
More work done here.
And with good results. Work completed on 4 December has  reduced
levels from 2.44 μSv/hr to 0.67 μSv/hr
I know waste has to be left on site but I hope they're not going to
leave these here on the doorstep!
Local volunteers cleaning the street near my flat one Sunday morning.
Yesterday was a lovely day - Mount Bandai to the west of Koriyama  ...
and Mount Adatara to the north.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Monthly Update

Time again for the round-up of events I do every month around the 11th. News about Fukushima has been overshadowed by the coming election although both the Prime Minister and the leader of the main opposition party kicked off their election campaigns here - first time that's ever happened. With 12 parties to choose from and 40% of voters still undecided, it's going to be an interesting election. Voting next Sunday, the 16th.

But people here are not convinced by glib promises to speed up decontamination work or aid recovery, they want to see more action. Everything seems to be taking so long. Negotiations - for reorganisation of the no-go areas, for the interim storage facility - have been tortuous.

The 20 km no-go zone is being re-drawn and the barricades have just gone up in Okuma, which is where Fukushima Daiichi is situated. In theory the area is split into three according to levels of radiation but the council fought to have all residents treated the same - for how can you have a minority or residents return when there are no facilities? So all 11,000 residents now know they can't go back for 5 years. But as one resident said, it will then take 2 or 3 years to get electricity and water up and running, another year or so to rebuild his house. So he's looking at 10 years. But who knows?

The no-go zone is a wilderness. I hear that cats and dogs have been picked up by charities but there are 1,000 cows on the loose and wild boar are rife.

Slight progress on negotiations for the interim storage facility which is essential for the clean-up. After high handed announcements by the government and a frosty reception by local authorities the prefecture intervened and the government has got permission to do field surveys. But it's already December and plans are supposed to be completed by next March. It's all taking so long.

The other big news this month concerns the safety of nuclear plants in earthquake-prone Japan. The new nuclear watchdog, the NRC, has been flexing its muscles and decided that a fault running under No.2 reactor at Tsuruga on the Japan Sea coast is indeed active - well at least in geological terms, we're talking hundreds of thousands of years ago here. It seems the reactor should never have been built there in the first place so it looks as if it will not be re-opened and may be decommissioned.

Outside of the restricted areas, life here in Fukushima goes on as normal. Most of the evacuees are in Iwaki on the coast which is comparatively warm and has low levels of radiation. That area is doing well: lots of new houses, space on industrial estates at a premium. There are grants for investment and for employing evacuees (though some of these will cease next March). Koriyama too has seen an influx of people and is doing reasonably well.

Fukushima's a busy place these days and national and international organisations continue to lend support. We've just had the Japan women's professional golf tournament in Iwaki, the national ballet concours in Fukushima, a while back there was the national shogi (Japanese chess ) championship. I saw on TV tonight that two schools for evacuees that re-opened in Aizu had a surprise visit from Disneyland characters. And this coming weekend Koriyama is to be host to the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety no less. Fukushima used to be a backwater that no one had heard of. Maybe there is a silver lining ...

That reminds me. We're going to get another payout of  80,000 yen (615 GBP) - more if you're a child or pregnant - to cover 'mental stress' between January and August this year. I'd better make the most of it. It's to be the last. ( 17 December, Correction: Got the papers today. I'm only eligible for 40,000 yen for expenses. Children and pregnant women get an extra 80,000 yen for stress.)
The snow has melted in town but the hills and mountains around are white. Beautiful to look at but cold.
P.S. I eventually got round to replying to the comments on Two Winds. Take a look.

Sunday 9 December 2012

New Season Rice

Truly into winter now. The autumn leaves blown off the trees and two or three inches of fresh snow this Sunday morning.  I've been so busy of late I didn't get much chance to enjoy the autumn but the harvest is now safely gathered in. 

Rice is big here. When I first came to Japan most people ate rice three meals a day. But as people discovered the delights of hamburgers and cream cakes, consumption fell and the government reduced the acreage grown to rice in  a policy called gentan 減反. Fukushima has the dubious honour of non-cooperation in this policy with the worst record of gentan in the country.

Incidentally, here's an interesting statistic I heard on the radio recently. 2010 was the year when the Japanese ate more meat than fish for the first time, and also the year when consumption of flour based products (bread, noodles) overtook consumption of rice for the first time.

But here in Fukushima people really like their rice and I've become something of a convert. New season rice shinmai  新米 is the thing and it is delicious. There was some criticism that the new system where every sack of rice has be to passed through a machine to measure levels of caesium would delay sales but the 200 machines in the prefecture seem to be coping. Some sacks are taken off for further testing (it's reported in the papers) but they're generally proclaimed ND (non detectable) and the rice is safe to eat.

A few months ago I saw a film (at the Sukagawa Short Film Festival) about a group of rice farmers in Tenei County, south of Koriyama, who practice organic farming and for three years running had won the gold medal for the tastiest rice in Japan. The film was a documentary of the lengths they went to to make sure their rice was safe. 

First stop the Japanese Society of Soil Science and Plant Nutrition which ever since the nuclear tests at Bikini Island in the 1950s has monitored radiation in soil samples all over Japan and determined that the take up of caesium by the rice plant is 1%. In April last year the soil in Tenei County measured 1,128 bq/kg, which would give a level of  11.28 bq per kilogram of rice - well within safe levels - but the farmers decided to do everything they could to reduce levels further. In systematic testing they added potassium, zeolite, and prussian blue to the soil. The last is the ideal medium (it was fed to cows in Chernobyl) as it only absorbs radioactive materials whereas zeolite also absorbs nutrients such as potassium which can affect the health of the plant. Prussian blue is expensive but they managed to get funding for the experiment and I'm left with the abiding image of bright blue water being hosed high over the emerald green fields. 

Farmers here have been on a steep learning curve and gone to tremendous efforts to make the rice safe. Here's a picture of my favourite rice from Hirata County and a close up of the label that's on every bag of Fukushima rice (with home page address and phone number).
Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll make some sticky pink rice (mochi rice and azuki beans) to cheer me up and keep out the cold.

'2012 -  Safe Fukushima Rice'
Heisei 24 nendo
Anzen na Fukushima ken no o-kome

Friday 7 December 2012

I'm OK - again

We had a big earthquake this evening at twenty past five. It was Magnitude 7.3 at the epicentre off the Sendai coast. Force 4 here in Koriyama though it seemed stronger. I was alone in our office on the 8th floor. There's supposed to be an early warning system but my phone starting buzzing as the shaking began. The quake went on for a minute or so, up and down and side to side. I dived under our heavy conference table. It brought it all back. 

It was Friday night anyway so I decided to leave. Walked down the stairs, still quite shaken, but amazed to find that outside everything seemed to be  going on as normal. People here are made of strong stuff. Did a bit of shopping before heading home. Nothing fallen off the shelves in the shops. NHK had cancelled all programmes and the TV was wall to wall earthquake. It's a good service. Returned to normal programming about quarter to eight when the tsunami warning was lifted. Experts on the TV are telling us that such aftershocks are to be expected and there may be more in the next few days. I've filled up the bath and checked my supplies! 
But I really was amazed as I walked round the streets and shops this evening at how calm everyone was.

Friday 30 November 2012

Radiation Questionnaire

Hi folks
A year after I sent in my health questionnaire Radiation 5 I've received the results. In the four months from 11 March to 11 July last year my external exposure is estimated to be 'approximately 1.0 millisievert'. This tallies nicely with my own calculations which came to 1.02 mSv.

But what does this mean? According to a graphic that came with the results, the limit for the general public is 1 mSv/year. Yet on the same chart, average  'natural radiation' is shown as 1.5 mSv/year in Japan and 2.4 mSv/year worldwide. Careful reading of the pamphlet that came with the result suggests that you can have up to 1 mSv/year excluding natural and medical radiation. So does 'approximately 1.0 mSv' include natural radiation? I presume it does but I thought I'd ring the helpline to make sure. There must be a lot of other confused people. The line was engaged all day.

The pamphlet is quite technical and stresses that under 100 mSv/year, risks are minimal. It mentions a place in Iran with 260 mSv/year where there is no occurrence of cancer or higher than normal death rates, and a place in Canton where high radiation from building materials has indeed caused abnormal chromosomes - but with no increase in the incidence of cancer.

Being a conscientious sort of person, I filled in the questionnaire and promptly sent it off but it seems I'm in the minority. Only 22% of Fukushima citizens could be bothered. You often hear celebrity Nishida Toshiyuki on the local radio urging us to fill it in, and Fukushima Medical University has set up a help line and a service centre but I think most people have lost interest now and are too busy getting on with their lives. (It's a different story with the thyroid tests for kids which have a high take up.)

Certainly, levels are down. In July last year levels near my flat were 0.8μSv/hr. When the monitoring post went up in March it was 0.438, now it's 0.368. A quick look at current levels in the schools (Koriyama City HP) shows that, thanks to decontamination, levels are for the most part under that magic figure of 0.23 μSv/hour which we are told equates to 1.0 mSv/year.

I need to revise that last post about the election. I said that the parties' stance on the nuclear issue was unclear. Well, it's all changed. That was Sunday. On Tuesday Kada Yukiko, governor of Shiga prefecture, an elegant lady I have mentioned before, announced that she was starting up a new party, the Japan Future Party (Mirai no To 未来の党). Kada is a conservation expert and and she's standing on an anti-nuclear platform. (Shiga is sandwiched between Kyoto and Fukui on the coast where there is a cluster of nuclear plants.) The very next day wily old kingmaker Ozawa announced his party would join her. So that's the end of his People's Life First Party (Kokumin Seikatsu wa Daiichi 国民生活は第一)- stupid name for a party anyway.  His 50 or so MPs, along with two other parties have joined the new party. So now we have 12 major (?) parties as well as the usual minority parties and independents. The media are having a helluva job trying to explain to the electorate where each party stands. Election on 16 December.
Bye for now

Sunday 25 November 2012

Election Fever

Last week Prime Minister Noda surprised everyone by announcing that he would call a general election on 16 December and the Diet went into recess two days later. As part of a deal with the opposition last August he'd promised that he would call an election 'in the near future' and there had been much speculation on what exactly this expression chikai uchi ni 近いうちに meant. One month? Two months? Surely not 4 months? It became something of a catch phrase.

No sooner had he made this announcement than MPs began to leave the party in droves some forming new parties, only then to merge with other parties. So in addition to the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto 民主党), we have the main opposition party LDP (Jiminto 自民党) led (again!) by former Prime Minister Abe in coalition with the Komeito 公明党 (backed by the Soka Gakkai religious group). There is a Communist Party and then there are all the parties in the middle collectively termed the 'Third Force' (daisankyoku 第三極). It's been a confusing week and at the time of writing there are 15 parties to choose from. As I'm not a Japanese national I don't have the vote but it's difficult trying to differentiate between the parties.

This is the first general election since 3.11 and you'd think, after all the debate, that nuclear would be a major issue but only three minority parties: the Communist Party, the SDP (Shaminto 社民党) and Your Party (Minna no To みんなの党) have come out firmly on the side of a zero nuclear policy. The other parties, under pressure from business and the unions, are fudging the issue. Even Osaka Mayor Hashimoto, who vocally opposed nuclear power at Kansai Electric's AGM earlier in the year seems to have  conceded this issue in order to secure the merger between his Japan Restoration Party (Ishin no Kai  維新の会) and former Tokyo Mayor Ishihara's party.

Here in Fukushima organisers face a logistical nightmare trying to ensure that evacuees get to vote. Polling booths have to set up wherever there are evacuees - and that's every prefecture in Japan! - and people given information about the candidates and motivated to vote.

And a colourful photo in the paper caught my eye. Artisans in Shirakawa hurriedly putting the final touches to the big red daruma dolls which are essential election props. Candidates black in one eye to wish for success and black in the other if they are elected. Shirakawa daruma

For those of you who're interested, the other big election issue is whether Japan should join the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) a nascent free trade organisation to which America, Australia and several east Asian countries have signed up - but not China.

So how's this election going to go? The Japanese made history three years ago when they voted in the DPJ putting an end to 40 years rule by the LDP. But they've been disappointed and I don't think they'll risk another inexperienced party like the Japan Restoration Party. I'd put my money on a forced coalition between the LDP, the DPJ and Komeito, what people here, in a handy shorthand, are calling  Jikomin 自公民. We shall see.
All the best

Wednesday 14 November 2012

One Year Eight Months On

Hi folks
You'd think people would be saying 'about a year and a half ago' but, no, the date, the 11th of every month is marked solemnly and everyone knows that it is one year and precisely eight months since the disaster. People mark the day with prayers and we're told on the news that the search parties have been out again. There are still 2,700 people missing in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. Again, nothing found and a bit pointless after all this time but it's important to be seen not to give up looking.

Signs of progress in two areas this last month. First, progress on the interim storage for waste which must be one of the most urgent issues, and secondly Tepco - not before time - has decided to move its recovery headquarters up here.

First, the vital question of the interim storage facility. Back in August the Environment Ministry nominated, out of the blue, twelve sites along the coast Nuclear Waste (2)  There was an outcry, not so much about the proposal itself - everyone knows this faciltiy has to go somewhere - but about the way it was done. No consultation with residents beforehand. Previous to that, the government had announced that compensation and repatriation would be carried out according to levels of airborne radiation. Pity then the people in Naraha, where levels are low, who had begun to plan going home but who suddenly find that the biggest dump is to be on their doorstep! Surely it's the wrong way round. First, these big issues should be settled. And only then should villages and towns be deciding if and when to return. (A similar issue incidentally concerns the 'buffer zone' round Fukushima Daiichi. We hear there is to be one, but no one yet has any idea how big it will be. Several hundred metres, or several kilometres?)

Anyway, the ministry wants to carry out further surveys and has been carrying out consultations with residents to smooth the way. Three months on and it seems that the basic plan will be completed by the end of this month and work for the surveys go out to tender.

A similar thing happened in neighbouring Tochigi prefecture where the government, without warning, told the mayor of Yaita that radioactive sludge from Tochigi incinerators was to be dumped in national forest in his area. I can't understand why they do it this way. This is the country of nemawashi or concensus and often in a company by the time a decision is taken you're fed up of hearing about it, it's taken so long to get there. But it seems that central bureaucrats can descend on local authorities like a shogun in a period drama. Consultation with local residents - who need to be reassured that the facilities will be safe - is the only way forward and a lot needs to be learned.

Maybe Tepco is beginning to learn that lesson. It announced that it would increase staff dealing with compensation and decontamination and set up a  'Fukushima Recovery Head Office' here in Fukushima with a vice-president in charge. The chairman of Tepco, Mr Shimokobe, has also announced that all Tepco staff will spend a stint in Fukushima. He has his heart in the right place (he's even working unpaid) but people are sceptical here. There is so much resentment about getting us in this mess in the first place, their high handedness, and the long delays over compensation and decontamination. We reserve judgement.

Finally, figures announced on the 1st of the month show a fall, for the first time, in the number of evacuees. There are still roughly 100,000 people in Fukushima and 60,000 in other parts of Japan. Of this 60,000 about half evacuated voluntarily and it is this number which is falling. The reality is that people have just got to the end of their tether, financially and mentally, and are drifting back. Still, it's not a bad place to live and families being reunited must be a good thing.
Love to you all

Sunday 11 November 2012

Unchanging landscapes

Hello again,
After the rather bleak photos in the last post here are some photos taken today of things that don't change. I stopped by at a village on the outskirts of town and then went on to Hachiman Shrine and Kaiseizan Shrine in Koriyama. It's the festival of Shichi-go-san, 7-5-3, when boys and girls of three years of age, boys of five and girls of seven, go to the shrine to give thanks and pray for health and happiness. I've never really known why it's this way, but on the radio the other day a Shinto priest explained the origins. According to him, in the old days both girls and boys gave up their short haircuts at the age of three and were allowed to grow their hair long. Five was the age boys wore formal hakama trousers for the first time. And when they turned seven, girls put on the obi, the stiff kimono belt, for the first time in place of a child's sash. The milestones in a child's life are different these days - first day at school, learning to ride a bike - but parents' wishes for their children's happiness don't change and it was good to see so many people out enjoying the day.

The harvest safely gathered in. Abandoned scarecrow.

Farm store with keyaki, (zelkova serrata). It's Fukushima prefecture's tree, often planted
next to farmhouses and magnificent when allowed to grow to full height.

Farmhouse with persimmon tree and zelkova.  People are picking
(and eating) persimmons this year.

Couldn't resist photographing this sign put up (yonks ago) by the local youth development
committee:  'A little self denial is character forming' (Chiisa na gaman wa kokoro o kitaeru).
The storehouse still suffering earthquake damage.

Five year old with Grandad at Hachiman Shrine.

Three year old girl - so cute - and there are bells in her shoes.

Kaiseizan Shrine

I just love the 7-year old girl's outfit. She's wearing 'hakama'  trousers over her
kimono, like the  female students of old. She looks like she's in charge.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Changing Landscape

Scarf and gloves now for the early morning walk to work though the days are sunny and bright.  We've had some rainy and windy days but for the most part the blue skies and bright sunshine continue. And on a few days, like today, the air is so clear and the mountains so close that you feel you can reach out and touch them.

Got a new camera so I've been out and about in town taking pictures but what shocked me most was the open spaces. Where there used to be a building, suddenly there's nothing. For those older buildings that were not in a good state of repair the earthquake was the last straw. The owners held on for a while but now they're coming down. Most are turned into car parks, or just left empty. Very few are being developed properly. Prime sites with just a convenience store and a massive car park have become commonplace. Presumably the owners don't have the money to replace the 5 or 6 storey buildings that once stood there, or can't be sure of the rental income needed to fund a rebuild.

The city has just appointed a committee to look into improving the look of the city. The word they use is keikan 景観. This word is generally translated as landscape, but it's more to do with the urban landscape and planning. I first came across this word in the early 80s when a high rise hotel was built at the foot of Mount Bandai. There was an outcry and the governor at the time slapped on an order forbidding further development that would blight the view of the mountain. In Japan's dash for growth in the 1960s and 70s old buildings were demolished and development was a free for all resulting in ugly urban sprawl and the countryside littered with billboards. Coming from England which has almost too many restrictions, I wanted to scream, 'Are there no regulations at all!'. A Landscape Act was eventually passed in 2004.

Well, here are some pics of the changing landscape in Koriyama. It would be good if these sites could be developed sympathetically in future.

There is snow on the high mountains: Mount Bandai and the Azuma Range. The tourist  roads which have been toll-free to encourage tourists are now only passable during the day and will close for the season next Thursday . This is our last chance to enjoy the autumn leaves in town before we hunker down for the winter.
Bye for now
Restaurant and building being pulled down just behind my office - though this one will be redeveloped.
Now you see it, now you don't. This building disappeared in a  matter of weeks.
(The building behind  is the apartment block where I live.)
Familiar sign:  Demolition in Progress - and a neat builder asking for your cooperation
The building where I work - covered in scaffolding and net for the past three months.
The building is finished with tiles and the cracked ones are being replaced.
Scaffolding goes up. Don't you love those baggy knickerbockers the builders here wear!
Used to be restaurant. Not a pretty sight. Top end of Sakuradoori.
(Car in the foreground is the neat little Cinquecento I drive these days.)
This prime site next to the City Concert Hall used to have a 5 or 6 storey apartment block .
Now it's a 7-11 with huge car park.
Here too, on the main intersection between Sakuradoori and Route 49.
At least the house with nice garden will get more sun now that the huge ugly
building that once stood here is gone.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Two Winds

Hello again,
Sorry to have been off the wire for a while. I've been mega, mega busy. I'm in the process of closing down a subsidiary, twelve staff, three shops. The shop in Utsunomiya, an hour south of here is closed, and the shops in Koriyama and Sendai are to be taken over on Thursday (1 November ) by existing staff. Two men in their fifties are looking for work (not something I'm proud of), and one lady decided to retire but the others keep their jobs. Yours truly has been negotiating contracts - from machinery to coffee machines - and shifting 10 years worth of records which I'm told we have to keep.

Drove up to Sendai today and that inspired me to write. It was good to get out of town. The weather is glorious - blue skies, sunshine, mild - (our reward for getting through that long hot summer) and the hills a patchwork of autumn colour.

There are two words you hear a lot these days here in Fukushima, both containing this character 風. On its own it's the word for 'wind' -  kaze. Put with other characters it's pronounced 'fu'. So we have fuhyo (風評) literally, reputation of the wind, or rumour. And fuhyo higai (風評被害) the damage caused by rumours, or perhaps we should say 'loss of consumer confidence' which remains a big problem here. 

I was at a conference of business people earlier in the week and the chairman of the company which runs the Hawaiian Centre, a spa complex in Iwaki, was saying that although turnover this summer was back up to 90% of pre-disaster levels, that was due to promotions and stupendous efforts on the part of all involved. Their core customers, families in the Tokyo area, are still reluctant to come to Fukushima  (back up to only 60% ). The guy who runs the castle in Aizu was saying the same thing: tourism in Aizu only 70-80% of what it was. There was also a man from a company making precision machinery and he said sales were back up to 80% of pre-disaster levels. But all three were of the mind that the difference had to made up by their own efforts and by creating new business and that what they'd lost in terms of buildings and a terrible balance sheet was made up for through a sense of purpose and working together they'd got from their experiences.

But back to the other 'wind' word which was  new to me. Fuka 風化, literally 'changing with the wind' which when I looked it up in the dictionary means 'weathering, erosion'. But it's used here in the sense of people getting used to Fukushima, forgetting Fukushima. Another speaker at that conference made the point that an ongoing scandal about government funds earmarked for the recovery being used for non-related  projects was the result of fuka, a lack of urgency and comittment to the recovery. 

Imagine the interest then in the news that 80 year old Ishihara resigned as Mayor of Tokyo on Thursday and is to form a new party. This has really got people talking. He's a man of action, charismatic. Could he lead this country out of its current slough? Things are getting interesting.

As an aside, out of 540 people at that conference, I counted only 5 women including me. A sea of besuited men. The Buddhist priest (and literary prizewinner) who gave the opening speech made a comment to the effect that you don't often see so many men except at yakuza events which was rather daring. I don't think it went down well though I thought it was hilarious.

So I'm back to writing the blog - doing my bit to stop interest in Fukushima waning. Bear with me just another week and hopefully I'll have more time to do it properly.
In the meantime, thanks for reading this.

Sunday 14 October 2012

One Year Seven Months On

The Emperor and Empress came to Koriyama yesterday - on their way to watch decontamination work on houses in Kawauchi about 20 miles away. They came by train, then drove right past my office and I have to admit I joined the knot of people on the kerb. We were entertained by a young plain-clothes policeman from Niigata who gave us instructions. Cameras to be held chest height, flags to be waved in a narrow arc so as not to poke anyone. Then a rehearsal. He walked up and down giving us our cue. By this time the crowd was in high spirits. Hopefully Their Imperial Highnesses did not notice the man in hair curlers and silver cape who'd popped out from a nearby hair salon. I just wish I'd been quick enough to catch him on film when he posed with a policeman for a souvenir photo. What a hoot. 

With a general election in the offing, Fukushima has had a lot of visitors. The PM, dressed in white protective suit and full face mask, visited Fukushima Daiichi last Sunday. The press were shown round later in the week. Although a lot of tidying up has been done, Units 2 and 3 are pretty much as they were.  High radiation prevents working outside for long periods. 

A new water purification system is being tested. Currently water used for cooling the 4 reactors has the caesium and salt removed and is then recirculated. The new equipment will remove as many as 62 types of radioactive material. But the question of where to put the water remains. There are already 210,000 tons of water in tanks on site. 

From time to time we get reports of attempts to find out what's going on inside the reactors. Cameras inserted, water tested etc. This is the big difference between dealing with this accident and regular decommissioning - the situation concerning meltdown inside the reactors is still not at all clear.

Last month saw the disclosure by Tepco of 6 more hours of video conferences following the accident. Some of it was bizarre, for example the tale of a  whip round among the staff to raise the cash to go out on a futile trip to buy car batteries. However, the tension between the staff on the ground and Tokyo head office is palpable. Orders from head office to open the vents. Staff on the ground not able to do so. Pleas for assistance and for some source of water for cooling. What is clear is the complete lack of preparedness. (You can catch some of it on Youtube.)

This past week Tepco have admitted that they could have taken measures to prevent the effects of the tsunami and have apologised. This is a big change from their view up to now that it was unforeseeable (想定外 soteigai). The company has also got foreign experts in to reform the company.

Negotiations for 'new towns' for the evacuees continue. So much uncertainty still about the future. Even in Kawauchi where the Emperor and Empress went yesterday and which had the ban lifted a year ago has only seen 10% of its residents return to live full time. The mayor did everything right. He went back with his staff in March and got everything up and running. He got new companies to set up in the area. But it's heavily wooded and most residents feel levels of radiation aren't low enough. I realise now that safety and peace of mind ( 安心安全 anshin anzen) are as basic as food and water.
That's all for now,

Sunday 7 October 2012

The Perfect Shiitake Mushroom

Hi folks,
It's a three day holiday here. Monday is 'Physical Education Day' a holiday instituted in memory of the Tokyo Olympics. But Saturday turned out to be a working day for me. A sudden glut of shiitake mushrooms means  it's all hands on deck at Tohoku Kogyo's shiitake packing factory. 

The best mushrooms are picked out of containers and arranged on plastic trays: 8 small ones, 6 medium, 4 large, or 3 extra large to each tray. And then again by quality, A, B or AA. That's 12 combinations. Highly skilled work. We amateurs were given the task of dealing with the second rate mushrooms: cutting off the stems (ashi, literally 'legs' in Japanese), arranging in packs, and weighing to 210 grams exactly. The trick here is to arrange them low in the tray so they don't jam the packaging machine. Skinny mushrooms with long 'legs' have to have the stems intertwined out of the way and fat, light ones, which bear an uncanny resemblance to 'dorayaki' sponge cakes, need to be fit together like a jigsaw to get the weight and remain low in the pack.
(Correction: the correct word for a mushroom stem is ishizuki  石突き, ashi is packers' jargon)

Anyway, for your information, here's a guide to the perfect shiitake mushroom.

The perfect mushroom. The cap still attached to the stem.
'AA' quality. Firm and meaty to  the  taste.

'A' quality would be slightly open. 'B' half open.
These were the second class ones we were packing in bags. See how the mushrooms
open out as time goes by.  The one on the right only just usable. 

After a bad year last year production is back to normal. These should fetch a good price as it's still hot in many areas of Japan and shiitake won't grow in the heat. But Fukushima farmers have been getting bad prices, sometimes knocked down by Tokyo dealers who argue that Tepco will make up the difference anyway. (Tepco have promised compensation for the difference in price last year and this year but have not said how long this will go on.)

Finally, a curious linguistic point. In the factory, the boxes for the extra large mushrooms are marked WL. By a strange twist of logic, the English 'Double L' is rendered as WL. So what in standard English would be marked LL or XL has developed a new life of its own. Interesting ...

I intended to write this last night but after a bath to soothe the aches and pains I fell asleep in front of the TV. It's a long time since I've done a days physical work and it shows!

Sunday 30 September 2012

Autumn Festival

Koriyama has a summer festival but it's a relatively recent introduction. The autumn festival, Aki Matsuri  秋祭り is the one that's in people's blood. The festivities went on for four days. Last year the children didn't get to participate as radiation was still high. But they made up for it this year. The festivities culminated last night when 33 mikoshi shrines from different neighbourhoods were carried up and down the main street and finally made it to the main shrine, Hachiman-sama. They were lucky with the weather. Tonight, Sunday, as I write, a typhoon has hit the Nagoya area and here the rain is lashing down.

The excitement of the Matsuri is the sound of the drums, the pipes and the shouting. Photos are a poor substitute. But here goes ...

All the fun of the fair - shooting gallery and yakitori

Day Three, Friday, was for the kids' 

There are floats lit with lanterns ...

... and underneath kids play drums and pipes. They've been practising for weeks.

This is what I liked. Young and old joining in.

The carts are pulled by lines of kids. Not as many kids as there used to be, I was told.

Catching goldfish. The trick is to scoop them up really quickly
before the wafer  gets wet and disintegrates.
Only in Japan!
Day Four and the adults get to show their stuff. After carrying the mikoshi shrines
up and down the main street a few times, they head for this shrine. Classical dancing on show too.

Here they come!

The guys with the whistles set the pace - letting them go 
up the steps, and sometimes pushing them down again!

The jostling and showing off begins. They're not going to be let up the steps yet!

Washoi, washoi!

Finally, with a rush, they storm the steps and approach  the shrine.

A prayer for a good year ahead.

And now, the long walk home.