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.