Sunday 24 February 2013

More Good News

As we approach the second anniversary there seems to be more and more good news.

First, the news that evacuees should be able to file for compensation for their houses and land at the end of March. There have been so many delays, first it was because local authorities wouldn't release personal details, then it was because there's land that's not registered in the name of the current occupiers (inheritance etc.). This latter problem hasn't been totally resolved and for those concerned will take some time but it's been decided to go ahead with the rest of the applications. Altogether 60,000 households are eligible. It means the evacuees will get their money and can start afresh. Good news for them and good news for the local economy.

In December I talked about the high level IAEA conference held in Koriyama. Well, in yesterday's paper it was announced that the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi is to be an international project. This means that Fukushima will get the benefit of international expertise and the experiences of Fukushima will be spread worldwide. Welcome indeed.

A few months ago I lamented the fact that there were so many empty plots in Koriyama. Changing Landscape One photo in that post (top of Sakuradoori) was particularly awful but the plot is to be developed with an upmarket apartment block. No prices yet but the selling point is the view of the park and the fact that it's earthquake-proof. The Japanese word is 免震 menshin. A search tells me that the English technical term is 'base isolation'. The building sits on a rubber base and when there's an earthquake, the whole building moves so you don't get that swaying in the upper storeys that you get when the bottom of the building is fixed (here that form of construction is called 耐震 taishin, 'able to withstand earthquakes'). I know of one building in Koriyama that's menshin. An acquaintance who lived there told me that in the earthquake nothing fell off his shelves. I was amazed as in my apartment the fridge fell over and all my crockery fell out of the cupboards and smashed.

So things are looking up. After a year of chaos, a year of planning, at last things are beginning to happen. Hopefully in the next year we'll get a real sense of a recovery.
It's Sunday afternoon, a typical Koriyama winters day - snow blowing horizontally in the wind. How we long for an end to the snow and the cold. 
Keep warm!

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Seeing is believing

Hi folks,
Chemical smog drifting over from China, a meteorite dropping out of the sky in Russia. Blimey. Maybe it's not so bad here after all. 

First, a bit of good news. An acquaintance of mine I haven't seen for a while surprised me with the news that they've just had a baby. They'd been putting off starting a family since the nuclear accident especially since they live in a part of Koriyama that's had high-ish levels of radiation. But they must have decided that it's safe. I'm very happy for them. Good to know that life goes on, regardless.

I often quote Wade Allison's book Radiation and Reason, the Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear. He believes that strict safety standards paradoxically increase the  fear of radiation and that the only way to reduce fear is through education from the bottom up. Here are two examples of that education in action. First, children in Fukushima are now receiving basic classes in radiation. They get 2-3 hours a year, primary schoolchildren in general studies, and junior high students in science lessons. The lessons started last year and are to be taught in all state schools in the prefecture from the new school year in April. It's not easy getting the right balance between giving them the basic knowledge and making them anxious. I hear that teachers from other areas are coming to observe lessons. It would be great if this could be rolled out across the country. Across the world?

And how about this piece on the local news tonight? Kawamata county which had the ban lifted last year, invited local people to come along and check out the radiation at a dump for the soil that's been collected in decontamination work. A special camera picks up the radiation and shows it in colour on a screen, so you see the view (in black and white) - and coloured areas where there's radiation. This is brilliant. For the invidious thing about radiation is that you can't see it and you can't smell it. It's an invisible enemy and that's what creates the fear. 

The residents were shown the radiation in the dump, spots of red and yellow here and there, then the dump was covered over with thick plastic and no radiation could be seen. Only 10% of inhabitants have returned to live in Kawamata since the ban was lifted last year so it's hoped this PR exercise will convince more of them to go back. The residents who were interviewed seemed impressed. Seeing is believing.
Good night
P.S. I've added something to the previous post Children if you want to take a look (about thyroids)

Sunday 17 February 2013

Yae no Sakura

Hello everybody,
Every year NHK puts on a historical drama. It lasts a whole year, 50 episodes. Is there any other country that does this? It really is amazing. I got hooked a few years ago. What I've learned is that you have to start with the first episode in January and keep watching (and sometimes watch the repeats). There are so many characters, plots and sub-plots that you get lost if you miss a few episodes. The language isn't easy either but I've found that watching it on digital TV with subtitles is a great help. (Unfortunately they're only in Japanese. Please give us English ones, NHK.) I gather from people who know their history that there's quite a bit of artistic licence but for someone like me it's a great opportunity to learn more about Japanese history.

This year's drama is very special for us in Fukushima. 'The Double Cherry' (八重の桜 Yae no Sakura) , tells the story of Iijima Yae (1845-1932) who at the age of 22, with her hair cut short, dressed as a man and shooting a rifle, helped defend Aizu castle in the Boshin War of 1868. She's been dubbed a samurai Joan of Arc. After the surrender she moved to Kyoto, married Iijima Jo who was fresh back from America, and they set up Doshisha College (now a famous university). After Jo died, she served as a nurse with the Red Cross in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. Quite a lady. Not only is this a remarkable story of recovery from disaster, but it's hoped it will be a much-needed boost to tourism. Among a myriad initiatives the Chambers of Commerce in Kyoto and Aizu have agreed to a year of exchanges and ANA has covered a jet in  Yae livery!

This is the poster that appears in every shop in this part of the world
We have seen six episodes now so it's time to form an opinion. The series opened, surprisingly, to scenes of the American Civil War. The point being that guns from that war found their way to Japan and into the hands of those trying to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and open the country to the outside world. We were introduced to our heroine (a delightful child actor) who was a tomboy and fascinated with guns. (Her family are gunsmiths and her brother has studied the 'Dutch Learning' in Edo, Tokyo.) We are introduced too to the 'Aizu spirit' inculcated in young boys at a special school where they chant a set of rules, the last one being 'naranu koto wa naranu' - that which is wrong is wrong. This school (日新館 Nisshinkan) was rebuilt and opened as a tourist attraction a few years ago but I'm ashamed to say I've never been. An omission I must rectify soon. The first two episodes were a compelling study of what it means to come from Aizu (and by inference Fukushima). Stubborn, proud, extremely loyal. It seems to have gone down well here. I'm also told that the accents are spot on.

Now it's got a bit more complicated. Yae has grown up into an excellent markswoman. But these are turbulent times. Perry's 'black ships' have come to Japan demanding that the shogun end 200 years of isolation and open the country to trade. The country is split between the revolutionaries from Choshu and Tosa in the south who want to give power back to the emperor and open the country, and those loyal to the shogunate. The revolutionaries begin to commit acts of violence and murder in Kyoto and the shogunate organises a kind of secret police to keep order. It's at this difficult time (1862) that the Aizu clan are ordered by the shogun to go to Kyoto, keep order and protect the emperor. Last week's episode showed the daimyo of Aizu, Matsudaira Katamori (the actor bears an uncanny resemblance to the old photo you often see of him) agreeing to the order although he knows that Aizu will get dragged into the war at great cost. An order is an order. Aizu people, you will remember, put duty above all else. 

That's as far as we've got. Still to come is Yae's finest hour, and then the action will move to Kyoto. Yae survives but Aizu is treated extremely harshly by the victorious imperial forces which form the new Meiji Restoration government. Old wounds heal slowly and as recently as 1986 Aizu refused a twinning offer from the city of Hagi in Yamaguchi prefecture (the old Choshu domain). But all is now well. Hagi made generous donations at the time of the disaster -  and much was made of the Mayor of Hagi shaking hands with the Mayor of Aizu.
Anyway, here's a link to a trailer to give you a taste.
Yae no Sakura trailer (Youtube)
My family know not to Skype me until after 9 pm on a Sunday night and it looks as if the same will be true this year too.

Monday 11 February 2013

One Year and Eleven Months

It's the 11th of the month again. Time for my monthly round up. 
The good news is that radiation is falling. The monitoring post in the park near my apartment yesterday registered 0.327 μSv/hour (in the snow it dropped to 0.2). According to Dr Takamura (seconded from Nagasaki University) in one of his weekly columns in the local paper, there are no radioactive particles circulating in the air now in Fukushima. The radiation is gamma rays emitted from radioactive materials - in the ground (which the snow shuts out), in trees and on buildings. So it's safe to hang out washing and open the windows. Hurrah! 

A survey in Fukushima city carried out in September and October last year showed radiation had fallen on average 49.4% since a survey in March 2012 and 70.7% since the first survey in June 2011. Of this 24.8% was thought to be the result of natural decay in radioactivity and 45.9% the result of weathering and decontamination work. Another survey, this time of woods and forests in the prefecture (not the exclusion zone) carried out in August to November last year showed that average levels had fallen 37.8% compared with the same period the year before. Natural decay and the geography of the country with its steep hills and abundant precipitation means that the radiation is leaching out quite quickly.  

This month we've had the usual reports of minor mishaps at the reactor. This time it was an iron frame that broke as it was being removed from the spent fuel pool in Unit 3. No damage caused, we're told.Then there was the Nuclear Regulation Authority member who took it on himself to slip the electric companies an advance copy of papers for a meeting. Nothing changes. At least it's out in the open - as far as we know. Helicopters have been allowed to fly over the site for the first time and today's papers show the new facility being built next to Unit 4 to take the spent fuel, and rows and rows of water tanks. Tepco wants to clean the water and dump it in the sea but no one wants to upset already tense relations with China and Korea.

Every year figures are announced showing movements in population between Japan's 47 prefectures and it was no surprise to see Fukushima top the list again with a net outflow of 13,843 people in the calendar year 2012. This was hailed an improvement on 2011 when the net outflow was 31,381 but these figures don't tell the whole story. Our city of Koriyama had the second worst figure in the country but recently the trend is reversing. In November there were 100 more people who came to live in Koriyama than left, 36 in December and 117 in January. The paper the other day quoted a net inflow of 1 person in February so was able to claim an increase for four consecutive months. Maybe the tide has turned. (These figures are not to be mistaken for an increase in population. As deaths outnumber births, the population as a whole is declining.)

There's plenty work too - in theory. The ratio of jobs to those seeking work is top in the country by a long chalk and for the first time ever. The trouble is the jobs are in construction, decontamination (real shortage of workers threatening to delay work) and the caring professions, not in clerical and manufacturing.

Nothing to report regarding the evacuees. There's talk of 'recovery housing' (復興住宅 fukko jutaku) but I don't think any have been built yet. And compensation hasn't been sorted. We're lucky here in the middle of the prefecture. We're more or less back to normal. But people here feel for those who've lost everything and then have to live on handouts. It can't be easy. 
So that's it. One year and 11 months. Next month it will already be two years. 

福島市自動車走行サーベイ Article in Japanese below,  and on Fukushima City website in due course
Fukushima Minpo Jidosha Soko Sabei

Interim survey of woods and forests Aug - No 2012

Sunday 10 February 2013


Hello again,
However rational you may be as an adult making judgments about yourself, it's hard to decide what's for the best when you have kids. This whole radiation thing is every parent's worst nightmare. But parents here are coping and, as many people have said to me,  'people outside Fukushima seem more anxious than we are'.

All school playgrounds have been decontaminated so in the Koriyama area at least there seem to be no restrictions on how long primary and secondary school children can play outside. Last year there were announcements telling after-school baseball clubs etc that it was time to come in but not any more. Those who want to go out at break to kick a ball do so, and after-school clubs are running as normal. It's different with younger kids. As far as I can gather it's at the discretion of the school and most play is still indoors. A friend who runs a kindergarten takes her charges out for only 30 minutes a day. At another kindergarten the kids were allowed to make snowmen and play out in the snow recently (snow shields the radiation).  Younger children in nurseries don't seem to be going outside much. There are some really good indoor play centres now such as PEP Kids so parents might choose to take their kids there rather than to the local park partly because it's safer but partly because the kids have fun and get lots of exercise. NPOs and students at the local university have been organising days out skiing or other outdoor activities in low radiation areas.

The 'glass badges' which were distributed in the early days to measure the accumulated dose of radiation seem to be a thing of the past. Certainly children are not wearing them round their necks anymore. Some have them in satchels and pencil cases I'm told. One mother told me that at her son's school they were collected a couple of months ago but new ones haven't been issued.

A friend's son recently had his thyroid test and she was mightily relieved. All kids in the prefecture are to be tested once every two years but it's taken a while to get round everyone. Another friend's daughter had the 'whole body counter' scan and thyroid test last year. From what I read in the papers, the risk of thyroid problems seems to be low. There was an international conference in Tokyo a few weeks ago refuting the WHO's earlier high estimate of risk. It's proving hard to work things out as Iodine 131 has a half life of only 8 days and in the chaos that followed the earthquake the necessary measurements were not done. A recent documentary on NHK was basically a paean to the scholars - physicists, radiation measurement experts, meteorologists - who are working together to salvage data and piece together a map showing how much Iodine 131 people were exposed to. But Fukushima Daiichi emitted one tenth the amount of iodine as Chernobyl and experts are saying the risk is low. Parents seem reassured by the system that's been put in place for testing.
(18 February 2013  Just been announced that a third case of thyroid cancer has been detected. Experts are saying that the thyroid cancers at Chernobyl developed 5-6 years after the accident and that these cases are nothing to do with the accident here; they are tumours which ordinarily would not be detected until the kids were in their 20s and 30s. We certainly hope so.) 

Parents are careful about food. All the parents I have spoken to use bottled water. They all want to know where their food comes from, yet to my surprise, several people told me they would rather eat food grown in Fukushima because they know it's been tested rather than food from neighbouring areas. Since last autumn every school has been supplied with equipment to measure school meals. One meal is chopped up and tested before the rest is served. The menu, the results and the sources of the ingredients are on school websites. I haven't heard of any sudden lunch cancellations yet!

Decommissioning is going to take 40 years. What if there were another accident? Certainly, there's always that worry. But if it's not one thing, it's another. Chemical smog from China is plaguing other areas of Japan. You have to get on with life, earn a living, and bring your kids up as best you can. The parents that I know seem satisfied with the measures the prefecture has taken and are doing just that.
P.S. Fukushima has never been top of the education league tables but one recent survey showed that children's interest and willingness to learn was above average in all subjects. Like all of us, the kids must have grown stronger as a result of the disaster.

Difficult Sums

January's paypacket slightly less than the month before. The new tax to pay for the disaster went into force at the start of the year. It means that income tax has gone up by 2.1% but in my case it's only a  few hundred yen, not as much as I thought it would be. The tax will go on for 25 years.

The budget for Fukushima prefecture has just been announced and I've been wrestling with the figures. Not with the content of the budget but with the maths. I feel innumerate. For a company CEO this is not good. You see, the papers quote the figures in units of 100 million and 10,000 yen - that's oku and man. And it's driving me crazy. When I first inherited my husband's business, all the figures were in man, units of 10,000. Eventually I got the financial information stated in units of 1,000 yen but the sales department held out for another 10 years before eventually changing over. Now the company figures are all the same, the commas are in the right place, and the figures mean something.

I have a mental picture of 1 oku. It's 100 million yen, that's 700,000 GBP or at 100yen/$, 1 million dollars. 10 oku is one billion. So far so good. But I have a real problem with man, or 10,000's, and when in the paper you come across figures like 21,859,515 man (the amount allocated for decontamination) then you really have to think. For your information it's 218,595,150,000 or 218 billion yen. You see what I mean? Sorry about the rant. My Japanese is fluent but at times like this I realise that to be truly bilingual you need to absorb the concept of counting in 10,000's with your mother's milk. Do they count like this in China? Does anyone know?

Anyway back to the budget. Let's not mention figures! Suffice it to say it's roughly double what it was in normal times, before the disaster. But 53% is to be spent on measures to deal with the disaster. So considering all the extra work involved and the fact that the prefecture's emergency reserves are depleted, this is not as generous as would first appear. The figure above for decontamination work is 12% of the budget, only slightly less than the education budget. 

In addition to basic things like paying for the police and building roads, there are numerous projects to speed up the recovery such as building affordable housing, support for mothers and children, new measures to support agriculture, small businesses and tourism, and money to promote new forms of energy. But the amount of money being spent in the aftermath of this accident is shocking.

It's still very cold and icy here. There was a 75 car pile-up the other day on a brand new road in Kitakata. Fortunately no one was killed but the cars were slipping around all over the place. 

Sunday 3 February 2013

Good Fortune

'In with good fortune!', shout the bean throwers to the beat of the big drum. 

Kids, along with men and women born in the year of the snake (年男、年女 toshiotoko, toshionna) aged 12, 24, 36 up to 96 (I didn't see anyone who looked 108!) throw beans, daruma dolls and balls into the crowd.

Nyoho temple (如宝寺)in Koriyama, Shingon sect, tombstones going back to the 13th century (Kamakura period). This was the scene of the annual bean throwing ceremony to mark the end of winter, get rid of the demons (outer and inner),
 and bring in good fortune.

Colourful ceremony beforehand. At one point the 20 or so priests swished their sutras open in a fan-like motion accompanied by shouts to show they were saying all of the scriptures on our behalf, a sort of fast-forward digest of the scriptures. 

The priest gives his 'blessing' - for safety and good fortune in this new year. Amen.

When the kids were small we used to throw beans at home. A handful up in the air in every room - "In with good fortune!" ( 福は内 fuku wa uchi ) and a handful out of every window, "Out with the demons!" (鬼は外 oni wa soto) The kids must have thought us normally tidy adults had taken leave of our senses.The beans are roasted soybeans and afterwards you eat one for each year of your life. I used to find the beans for months afterwards. 

Funny take on this idea in a news programme yesterday morning (Wake Up, Yomiuri TV). The PM was likened to The Peach Boy, Momotaro, who is out to get rid of the two demons, deflation and the strong yen. In the fairy story Momotaro is helped by a dog, a monkey and a pheasant. Abe's weapons are public works (especially disaster defences and repairing ageing infrastructure), quantative easing, and investment in growth (funding application of Nobel prizewinner Yamanaka's iPS cell research has been mentioned but not an energy strategy). The national debt will increase significantly. The nation waits to see how it will all work out  ....

Post Health Check Musing

Hi folks,
I had my over 40's health check yesterday. In this country all employers are obliged by law to give staff a basic health screening once a year (this includes a chest X-ray) and then there are extra checks to prevent against so-called 'lifestyle diseases' (生活習慣病 seikatsu shuukanbyo). This is the one I've been putting off as I didn't want extra radiation. I asked the nurse how much radiation I was getting with the mammogram and she replied chirpily, 'Oh, about the same as a flight to Europe'. But I reckon that with the chest X-ray, barium meal and 2-image mammogram, I clocked about 3 mSv. In one day. That's three times what the health survey calculated I'd got in the four months following the disaster.

Funny old world. The city of Koriyama at vast expense is decontaminating houses to get levels down to 1 mSv/year in an attempt to stem the flow of people leaving and people get really twitchy if there's any radiation in their food yet no one thinks twice about medical imaging. I guess it's a question of trust. We trust the medical profession but because of the history of nuclear - the atom bomb and fishing ship that got caught up in the Bikini atoll tests (Fukuryu-maru) in Japan and the Cold War in the West - we don't trust governments when it comes to nuclear safety.

I've been re-reading Wade Allison's book, Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, written in 2009. (It's been translated into Japanese, 放射能と理性 なぜ「100mSV」なのか) His thesis is that according to the science the risk of cancer is first detected at a single dose of 100 mSv. But that the body has the facility to repair itself so 100 mSv a month would be safe, and 5,000 mSv over a lifetime. The ICRP stuck to out of date thinking, for example that radiation should be kept As Low as Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) and that damage increases in line with exposure (LNT Linear No-Threshold) with no allowance for repair. Such strict regulations created a climate of fear. At Chernobyl people were evacuated suddenly and there were many deaths. The lessons were not learnt and it was repeated at Fukushima. Allison maintains there is a pandemic of fear which only education from the bottom up can solve.

Here we are in Fukushima, not afraid, living ordinary lives but the indirect cost has been phenomenal: 30,000 people living in cramped emergency housing, over 1,000 people dead from indirect causes, children getting fat as they can't play outside, young families leaving, the cost of combating prejudice against food and industrial products. Not to mention the direct financial costs of clearing up after the accident.

Societies do over-react when it comes to radiation and nuclear. We, and the country as a whole, is paying a tremendous price for that. Perhaps one of the good things to come out of this is the extraordinary amount of new data which one hopes will help us think more objectively in future.

Enough. It's a cold but bright sunny Sunday morning and I'm off to see the 'bean throwing' at the local temple! More anon.