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!