Wednesday 30 May 2012


Adventure on Sunday. A young Japanese man, a comic artist living in Edinburgh, contacted me wanting to see round Fukushima for material for a book. He particularly wanted to check out the frogs of Kawauchi. Now, Kawauchi is a  remote hilly area just outside the 20 km exclusion zone. Official population: 2,826 - though most of the inhabitants are evacuated elsewhere. The eastern edge remains in the exclusion zone but most of Kawauchi was in the 20 to 30 km zone where on 15 March last year people were ordered to stay indoors. On 22 April it was re-designated a 'voluntary evacuation area'. In effect everyone left. Then on 30 September last year this was revoked. The village mayor, a Mr Endo, immediately pledged to get schools and a clinic opened by the spring and moved back with his staff in March this year.

But first my new friend wanted to see the barrier into the No-entry zone, so pre-armed with a dosimeter borrowed from a friend, we set off along Route 288 to see how far we could get. Through the towns of Miharu and Tokiwa, and past Insect Land (ムシムシランド). Gradually the landscape began to look run down. Some houses seemed to be inhabited, others not, then we noticed that the ricefields were not cultivated, and overgrown. The village of Miyakoji, at the bottom of the hill leading up to the barrier, seemed prosperous enough. There were schools, even a nursery with swings and slides in the yard, and newish buildings we'd been told housed workers for Fukushima Daiichi. Half way up the hill and a couple of miles out of Miyakoji, we were stopped and asked (very politely) to turn around. A few signs, a policeman waving his arms signalling us to stop. No barrier. (Cars coming the other way, out of the exclusion zone, have to have their tyres washed.) The checkpoint was manned by three men. A quiet country road, birds singing, frogs croaking, no barrier, just a very polite policeman who asked us to turn around.

A few hundred yards down the road we stopped the car and measured the radiation. 0.6 μSv/hr, not much more than in my local park in Koriyama which is 0.414. The reality is nothing like the drama you see on the news. 

Back in Kawauchi village itself we met a lady and her young daughter leaving their house. They'd visited to check it out but live in emergency housing in Koriyama. The woman said each house and 20 meters around was to be decontaminated. But her house is surrounded by trees so the radioactive materials would just blow back again.  She's not planning to return to live just yet.

It was Sunday so all was quiet at the town hall and there was hardly anyone around. We drove on. What was most upsetting was the untidiness of it all. At this time of year, the ricefields are flooded and planted with rice seedlings in a six inch grid and dead straight rows. The paths around the paddies are mowed to keep the weeds down and everything is incredibly neat and tidy. To see fields not flooded and overgrown was heartbreaking. And the silence. Nightingales echoing in song, frogs croaking. The fresh green leaves, wild wysteria, wild azaleas. Incredibly beautiful. But just not right.

There isn't much to Kawauchi-mura. Two hundred square kilometres, 80% of which is thick forest. It really is remote. Its main claim to fame is the moriaogaeru, a rare tree frog, and the modern poet Kusano Shinpei who made them famous. We set off to track them down. We travelled many miles along a single track road, alongside a beautiful gurgling river, up and up, racing against the fading light (it gets dark here about 6 pm). We reached the pond. Exquisitiely beautiful. We saw lots and lots of tadpoles but not sure what kind they were. 

I've never been to this area before and was stunned by the beauty of the place. But the more I felt the beauty, the more angry I became that this had been spoiled. 

Police roadblock about two miles before the barrier to the exclusion zone.
Dump of waste materials in Kawauchi village.
Banner at Kawauchi town hall: 'Kaeru Kawauchi' - Come back to Kawauchi.
(Play on the word 'kaeru' which means both 'frog' and 'to return'. )
Overgrown paddy fields.

The pond. (平伏沼 Hirafusenuma)

Wild azalea
The river - drove alongside it for miles and miles.

Friday 25 May 2012

Tokyo Skytree and the Eclipse

It's been a week of media frenzy here. First the eclipse of the sun on Monday morning and then on Tuesday the opening of Tokyo Skytree. The eclipse was an annular solar eclipse, a rare phenomenon when the moon blocks all but a ring of the sun's light. The Japanese 'kinkan nisshoku' (金環日食)literally 'band of gold eclipse' is much more romantic than the English and captured the public's imagination. Skytree at 634 metres is the tallest tower in the world and the technology that gets the lift up to the first observation deck at 350 metres in less than 50 seconds is amazing. But why did NHK think it worth spending the whole of the morning news - from 7:00 am to 7:23 am on that topic alone? Weren't there more important things going on in the world? Neither event lived up to the hype as the weather was bad on both occasions. Here in Koriyama it got dark as I walked to work on Monday but the cloud was too thick to to see anything.

So for a couple of days these two events eclipsed (sorry) the more pressing issue of what is to happen to the nuclear plants and how the country is to deal with the upcoming electricity shortage. Up here in the Tohoku region we're going to have enough electricity and Tokyo (which has got old thermal power stations going again) should have enough, but in Osaka a request has gone out for a 15% cut (compared with the hot summer of 2010). Restaurants serving the local specialities, 'konomiyaki' cabbage pancakes and noodles cooked on a hotplate, are complaining that without air conditioning temperatures will rise to 40 or 45'C. I remember those days when I first came to Japan. Boy, was it hot.

In a separate development, the local authority has voted in favour of opening the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui. It doesn't really have much choice as it can't function without the tax income from the plant. The whole system is skewed this way and without changing the system it's hard to see how Japan will actually abandon nuclear - which is what most people want. And Hashimoto, Mayor of Osaka, came up with the bizarre suggestion that the Oi plant could be opened 'just for the summer'. What happened to the idea that they couldn't be re-opened until their safety was assured?

Good news is that today big government handouts for the recovery have been decided. The first slew of money in February was only 65% of what had been requested prompting the governor of Miyagi to comment that the Recovery Agency was not trying to help but was a censor. This time 1.5 times the amount requested was granted so the Recovery Agency seems to have got its act together and the recovery can get going at last.
So that's a round up of this week's news.
Bye for now

Sunday 20 May 2012

Children and Radiation

Interesting leader in the local paper (Fukushima Minpo) today written by Genyu Sokyu. He's highly respected locally, a Buddhist priest, and past winner of the highest literary prize, the Akutagawa Prize. He was on the first committee to discuss the recovery last year. He put forward an interesting thesis that, contrary to popular opinion, children are better able to deal with the effects of radiation than adults. Up to now,  Bergonie-Tribondeau's law of radiosensitivity, the result of experiments with rats, stated that immature cells were at greater risk. But Dr Kohei Takahashi, an obstetrician in Minami Soma, has found that babies repair quicker, and excrete caesium  faster than adults. Dr Masaharu Tsubokura of Minami Soma General Hospital who has done surveys using whole body counter machines says that whereas the half life of caesium in an adult is 100 to 120 days, for  a 6 year old it's one month, and for a one year old only 10 days. 

Certainly we're in new territory here. If it's true then it could be good news for those mothers and young children currently choosing to live outside Fukushima.

The Emperor's back after his trip to London - much to everyone's relief. It's only 3 months since his heart bypass operation and he packed a lot into a 3-day visit. England got a lot of good publicity. There was footage of his visit to the Coronation at the age of 19 with the Queen chatting to him at the Derby. We saw his walk around the Japanese garden in Holland Park, the reception to thank those who had offered assistance at the time of the disaster (some familiar faces in the Embassy ballroom!), and the lunch at Windsor Castle where he was seated next to the Queen. No mention here of the issues made much of in the British media - the presence of the King of Brunei (Princess Michiko was sitting next to him) and the snub from Queen Sofia of Spain. 

And today was the last day of the summer sumo tournament. I'm not much of a sumo fan but Kokutenho, unranked,  beat yokozuna Kokuho and six Ozeki to become the oldest wrestler ever to win (he's 37). Incidentally, one of the idiosyncracies of living out in the sticks is that at the end of the news we are always told how our local wrestlers, way down in the ranks, have done. Today one Oazuma did well. He hails from Tomioka and his parents are in emergency housing. He looked pleased.
Time to watch the historical drama, my Sunday night ritual,
Good night

Saturday 19 May 2012

Before and After

After six months of repair work, the scaffolding is down, the netting cleared away and for the first time in a long time I have daylight coming into my apartment. 

Now that I have use of the balcony again, the vexing question: to hang the washing out or not? A quick survey of the flats and houses in the vicinity suggests that most people are still drying their clothes inside - maybe 10% have washing outside. But it's a lovely day and I take the opportunity of putting the 'futon' bedding out - the first time they've been aired since the disaster. What a change from the old days when Japanese would put everything out in the sunshine: to air, kill the bugs, and make soft and fluffy.  The bedding would plump up so much it wouldn't fit back in the cupboard!

Anyway, here are some Before and After pictures to show you how things have changed round here.
Bye for now

Badly damaged tile roof replaced with a newer, lighter roof.

The temple was demolished within weeks and a new one opened just recently.
(The tree in the circle on the right - they took it away during the work and brought it back again!)

This was the most dramatic damage in Koriyama. Rumour has it that the owner wanted more space, and contravening building regs, removed the pillars in the ground floor office. Now it's a car park.

The church hall (white building with red roof) was unsafe so had to be pulled down. The  house to the left is a 'soba' noodle restaurant. It took a long time (shortage of workers, shortage of tiles) but the roof tiles on the ridge were eventually replaced in November.

And this is the entrance to my apartment. Brand new front door to  replace the buckled one
and  walls as good as new - or let's hope so ...

Saturday 12 May 2012

11 May 2012 - Update

My usual monthly update but not a lot to report. All quiet at the reactor. Off the news radar, even here. According to the Tepco website (it's in English too) some of the issues raised recently in the media are unfounded. The building over Reactor 4 is not going to collapse and a mere 60 cm of water in the containment vessel of Reactor 2 won't affect cooling.

There's been a lot of debate about how much electricity the country needs this summer and whether we can manage without nuclear. A few weeks ago it seemed that the PM was pushing for the Oi Plant in Fukui to be re-started to meet demand - and that may still happen - but the debate is more measured now. An independent inquiry was set up and has just concluded that IF it's a sweltering hot summer like the year before last, and IF people throughout the country economise like Tokyo did last year, and IF no nuclear plants are in action, then most of the country will have enough electricity except for Hokkaido and Kyushu which will be a bit short and the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto) which will be 15% short.

How to meet the shortfall? An appeal for energy conservation, planned power cuts and the re-opening of the Oi nuclear plant are on the cards.

Big companies are taking independent action. Our parent company Rengo which opened a  brand new factory in Sendai on 15 March to replace the one washed away by the tsunami has fitted over 2,500 solar panels which will provide 45,000 kW/year of electricity saving 200 tons of CO2. Lithium ion storage batteries have also been installed for emergency back up of server and phones and to store cheap night-time electricity to use during the early afternoon peak. But these measures are too expensive for small businesses and hospitals.

The debate about nuclear goes on. There's a groundswell of popular opinion against nuclear, some of it emotional. Setouchi Jakucho, novelist turned Buddhist nun and 90 year old national institution, went on hunger strike in protest. The electricity companies are being grilled and ways to meet the shortfall are being discussed. One interesting point that came out was that Kanden (short for Kansai Electricity) says  it can't abolish nuclear immediately as that would wipe half the assets off its balance sheet effectively bankrupting the company.

Tepco has produced a recovery plan. Asking for a 1 trillion yen  injection of government funds (I think that's 7.7 billion GBP but the figures are astronomical). The government would take a majority shareholding, thereby nationalising the company. Prices are to rise. Electricity for businesses in the Tokyo area has already gone up 17% and domestic bills are to go up 10% in July. The recovery plan is based on the premise that two reactors at the Kashiwazaki plant open next spring but this is controversial. The company aims to cut costs by 3.3 trillion yen over the next 10 years. The new chairman Mr Shimokobe has said he'll work for no pay and the new CEO is to be a Mr Hirose an internal promotion.

Nearer to home, the local authorities in the evacuated areas continue to wrestle with the thorny problems  regarding their future. They were dealt a heavy blow a few weeks ago when the government produced maps showing that even in five years time radiation levels would remain above 50 mSv/year in the four villages nearest to  Fukushima Daiichi. The government wants to get on and build an 'interim storage site' there for all the radioactive waste but the local authorities won't agree until compensation is properly sorted and so the wrangling goes on. Recently the four villages announced they want to set up temporary communities elsewhere and the government has promised to build houses and roads but no one's quite sure how this 'town within a town' would work. Who'd pay taxes to who? Which authority would collect the rubbish? Etc, etc.

Koriyama continues to prosper. The bars and hotels are full, the department store is doing well I hear. There seems to be a lot of money swishing around. Construction obviously. Those buildings that didn't survive the quake have been demolished and some rebuilt. Many people are having work done to strengthen their homes. (An old couple I know is having the traditional tiles removed from their roof and replaced with a lighter roof, not the kind of work you'd normally contemplate in your 80s.) And then a lot of compensation money ends up in the pachinko halls which continue to do good business. It's a mini-bubble. The funding for the big recovery projects isn't in place yet.

Another radiation measuring office opened on Station Road (Ekimae-dori) - they're taking over empty premises like charity shops on a UK high street. Levels still at 0.59 μSv/hr here in Koriyama but people are a lot less worried than they were. If you came here you wouldn't think anything was amiss.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Kodomo no Hi (Children's Day)

Yesterday, 5th May, was Kodomo no Hi, Children's Day and a national holiday. Girls Day is on 3rd March and this one is mainly for the boys. A Japanese helmet on display perhaps in the tatami room and for a very lucky little boy, carp streamers flying from a flagpole in the garden. Driving round the Koriyama countryside this holiday week I saw lots of these (koi nobori 鯉のぼり)  though oddly hardly any in the Aizu area. I don't know the reason and neither did my friends. No kids? Custom dying out? Can't be bothered? Pity as the kids must love them and they're a joy to see. Around here you also see splendid banners (のぼり) made by craftspeople based in Sukagawa.

Sadly, the number of children in Japan is diminishing year by year with Fukushima seeing a big drop last year. Nationally the number of children (under 15) has been falling every year for the last 31 years. In Fukushima prefecture it has been falling about 2% a year but figures for 1 May this year are 15,494 down on the same date last year, a fall of 6%. Koriyama's seen the biggest drop - 3,800 less than last year. (And these figures don't include those who have moved away but have remained registered here.) 

Although the authorities are doing their best to make the place child friendly through health checks, free medical care, free breast milk testing, the provision of indoor play facilities and community care, there's still so much uncertainty. The clean up hasn't really got going yet and it's not clear what's going to happen to the evacuated areas. 

I know a few people who've put off starting a family for the time being and if this is a trend it will keep the figures depressed for a few more years yet.

May 5th was also a milestone in the nuclear saga. The last nuclear power plant (the Tomari plant in Hokkaido) was shut down for 71 days of routine tests, to be followed by 'stress tests'. Japan now has no nuclear reactors in operation - they used to supply nearly 30% of the nation's power. When will they re-open? The discussion goes on with no conclusion yet. The government is to announce a plan for supply and demand this next week and an energy saving appeal. It's going to be another hot summer.

Koi-nobori carp streamers and banners at a farmhouse between Koriyama and Miharu  a week ago.
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