Tuesday 23 April 2013

Happy Golden Week!

Woke up on Sunday to snow, heavy snow that continued until noon. Tourists were treated to the sight of cherry blossom weighed down with snow (the second time this season) though fortunately neither the flowers nor the trees seem to have suffered any adverse effect.

We've also had a spate of earthquakes. Last Wednesday night, just as the 9 O'Clock News was expounding on a day of earthquakes on Miyake island south of Tokyo, the earth shook here. Followed a couple of days later by the strong earthquake in Sichuan in China. The ones in Japan we were told were aftershocks from the big one two years ago and not connected but they're unnerving.

Yesterday saw another power outage (for four hours) at Fukushima Daiichi, and two more dead rats(!). It was also the day the IAEA team gave a preliminary report on their week checking decommissioning work there. They said the reactors and spent fuel pools have been made stable and there's a good plan in place but stressed the difficulties in the long term, for example the need to develop robots and ensure workers' safety in view of high levels of radiation. They recognised that dealing with contaminated water is the most pressing problem at the moment and said more permanent facilities were needed. Finally, they stressed the need for better relations with the public especially as the decommissioning is going to take decades. Quite. We're fed up and worried by the catalogue of troubles at the plant. 

An old lady I know, a friend of a friend, is in excellent high spirits. Not because it's spring, but because her nest egg on the stockmarket, after years in the doldrums, is rising in value with each passing day. It seems to be the best medicine there is! But Abenomics hasn't affected my life yet. New figures show that the population for the prefecture as a whole, which fell below two million after the disaster, has now fallen below 1.95 million. (The actual figure will be lower as it includes people who have moved away but are still registered here.) April 1st figures show 7,000 fewer people than the previous month. When the population goes down, the economy shrinks, and it's harder to sell goods and services. Apart from construction and decontamination work, business remains tough here.

But if you'll excuse me I'm taking a holiday from nuclear and seismic fallout. I'm off to Blighty to see my folks so there won't be any Fukushima blogs for the next ten days. I return to Japan on 5th May.
In the meantime, take care and enjoy the Golden Week holiday.

Friday 19 April 2013


Everywhere you go the cherry is in flower. The weather's been mixed. A couple of warm days but for the most part on the chilly side. 

My son was visiting and was intrigued by the idea of making a special trip to see a tree. He enjoyed the festival atmosphere - stalls selling everything from cherry pink cakes to cherry tree postage stamps to cherry tree saplings. And after visiting a few of the famous trees he got the hang of it: 'You could spend a whole day going round these trees'. Then we just enjoyed driving around the countryside, fluffy pink with cherry blossom.

Currently there seems to be a movement to plant cherry trees all over the Tohoku area. They're a symbol of hope and recovery.
Here are a few pictures I took this last week. 

The Waterfall Cherry (takizakura) in Miharu exactly a week ago.
 Flowers open at the top of the tree but the lower branches in bud and deeper pink.
A sign proclaimed that it was 50% in flower. Very scientific!

The same tree a week later. In full flower

Night cherry blossom in Kaiseizan Park, Koriyama.
Floodlit and stunning against the black sky.
Jizo-zakura in Miharu.
 You line up to say a prayer in the little  shrine at the foot of the tree.

My favourite tree. Fudo-zakura in Miharu.
And this is the 'fudo',  Buddhist deity Acala, inside the shrine.
Beautiful tree over 350 years old.

You might also like to see the light show on Aizu castle which took place on the 2nd anniversary, in terrible weather. It's a new technology: 3D projection mapping. Have you seen one of these shows? They're astonishing.
Projection Mapping Tsurugajo

Tuesday 16 April 2013

New Koriyama Mayor

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom and spring is here. The light is bright and all of a sudden I need sunglasses. The air is warm and soothing. Things are looking up.

The election for Mayor of Koriyama was held on Sunday. It was the first election since the disaster and with a population of over 327,000, Koriyama is one of the largest cities in Fukushima. You'd think people would  be interested in deciding their future at this important juncture but the turnout was an abysmal 45%. Admittedly the two candidates were the same as last time so the campaign lacked freshness. And a lot of people are disillusioned with politics and think that it doesn't make any difference who the mayor is. But even within Fukushima prefecture turnout is low. Some people put it down to Koriyama being a city of outsiders (it's a relatively new city and developed with the railways) so people have no strong allegiances; and they're unwilling to get involved, preferring to stand on the sidelines and watch. Whatever the reasons, the outcome is that the new Mayor with 61,000 votes was voted in by only one in four of the electorate.

Masato Shinagawa (68) had a career in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, an independent  candidate who pledged to do more for children and speed up the recovery. Hara Masao (69), backed by the LDP, asked the electorate to judge him on his two terms in office but decontamination of houses is behind schedule and people probably just wanted a change.

But that's not all. There's a rather unpleasant aspect to the campaign which I wouldn't have mentioned but it's been in the papers today so is in the public domain. About a month ago Shinagawa started using the phrase nigenai' 逃げない (meaning 'won't run away') on his posters, e-mails and campaign cars. He says it means that he won't shy away from taking tough decisions. But everyone knows it's a reference to the rumour that Hara was not in Koriyama at the time of the disaster. Hara himself said in his literature that he thinks this rumour started because there were no lights on in his house: it had been so badly damaged in the earthquake that he moved in with his daughter. He decided against responding to the accusations during the campaign but his sense of propriety may have lost him the vote. The whole incident doesn't reflect well on Koriyama. But it also highlights how touchy this issue is. Koriyama has quite high levels of radiation. People try not to show it but they've suffered a lot and there's still plenty to be worried about. Even a hint of betrayal in a leader is inexcusable.

So the new Mayor takes office in a couple of weeks. He's an ideas man. He says he wants to re-think the way decontamination is done. He wants to set up storage sites for the waste (at the moment all the waste is stored on site, i.e. they dig a hole in your garden to dump the stuff). He wants more nurseries close to where people work and he wants them to be free. He wants Koriyama to be a convention city, a musical centre, a focus for inward investment (including companies from overseas). He wants the city to grow to 500,000 people. As I say, lots of good ideas. Let's hope he can deliver.
Bye for now

Saturday 13 April 2013

Update 11 April 2013

Time for my monthly update.
More trouble at Fukushima Daiichi. After the case of the rat shorting a switchboard and halting cooling for a day, the latest is leakage of highly contaminated water from two storage pools. Contaminated water from the bottom of the reactor buildings continues to increase at a rate of 400 tonnes a day and two years on the remedies still seem to be makeshift with no solution to the basic problem. Where does this water come from? Water continues to be injected into the three reactors to keep them cool and circulates within a system. But some escapes through cracks in the containment vessels (they need to be repaired but high levels of radiation prevent the work getting done). Then there's underground water which continues to seep into the buildings from outside. Wells have been sunk and underground water pumped out but still it pours into the buildings. A relatively new water filtration system (ALPS) is cleaning the water, nonetheless, much of the site is given over to hundreds of tanks storing contaminated water and, it turns out, seven covered pools, five or six metres deep, lined with plastic. A few days ago there was a leakage from one of the pools - 120 tonnes of water containing 7.1 billion becquerels of radioactive material - and a much smaller leakage from another pool.

So again we're treated to the sight on television of the prefecture hauling Tepco bosses before it and eliciting a stage-managed apology. Then the CEO was summoned by the Minister of the Economy who gave him a dressing down in front of the cameras and told him that Tepco must not dump contaminated water in the sea. Necessary gesture for the fishing industry (which has just started trial fishing) and to reassure our foreign neighbours. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has put its oar in. Not before time. And the IAEA has said it will send a survey team, the first one to do with decommissioning. The latest is that Tepco has said it won't use the pools after all and all the water will be moved to tanks. But when they started moving the water, one of the pumps sprung a leak ... It really doesn't inspire confidence. The accident won't be over until all this water is properly dealt with - and the spent fuel rods are removed from damaged Unit 4. These are the two priorities at the moment.

Let's look for some good news instead.
Here's some really good news. A research team at Tokyo University has analysed the data of 33,000 people who've had their radiation dose (internal exposure) checked in whole body counters and reports that since March 2012 radioactive caesium was detected in only 1% of cases and that since May 2012 none was detected in the 10,000 under 15 year-olds tested. Professor Hayano commented, 'Compared with the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, chronic internal dose in Fukushima is extremely low. Testing of food in the market would appear to be working effectively'. This is great news. The rigorous testing has been vindicated, the dangers do not seem to be anything like as bad as at Chernobyl, and at last there is data on which experts can form an opinion. (In addition, the team reports that although a UNSCEAR report in 1988 suggested a correlation between internal dose and contamination levels in the soil, this new data does not support such findings.)

Also some good news for those families living apart. Voluntary evacuees (estimated to be about 30,000 people) can travel free on the expressways for the next year. The proposal was in this year's budget but wasn't to be debated in the Diet until later on in May. It's been brought forward to start from the coming Golden Week holiday end April/beg. May. Nice to see something being done right.

Finally, three more local districts have been re-zoned. This means that instead of the whole district being in the exclusion zone, it's been divided according to levels of contamination into: areas over 50 mSv/year which remain out of bounds (and re-named 'difficult to return areas'); 'restricted residence' areas and 'areas being prepared for having the evacuation order lifted'. Up to now residents could only visit under special conditions (bussed in and wearing white radiation suits) but under the new system residents in the latter two areas can go in and out freely (they have a code for the security gates) though they can't stay the night. Work will also start on decontamination and getting infrastructure working again. Only two of the 11 districts in the original exclusion zone to be re-organised.

Still cold in Koriyama but bright and sunny. The cherry blossom is out. Loudspeakers blaring out all over town this week as it's the election for Mayor tomorrow.
All the best

Monday 8 April 2013


Dreadful weather. The cherries are trying hard to bloom but the cold, wind and rain hold them back.

I thought for a change I'd talk about my heroine George Eliot. For the NHK World television programme Booked for Japan I was asked to choose a book that had inspired me. A difficult question. What would you choose? There are books I read in my youth that changed my life: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,  Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch - but for sheer enjoyment I would choose the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot, and the more I learn about the latter the more I admire her. In the event the reading was cut from the programme so I'll take the liberty of imposing it on you now!

George Eliot (1819-1880) took a man’s pen name because she said she wanted to be taken seriously. Middlemarch is her longest novel, set in a small town in mid England around 1830 against a backdrop of the Reform Bill which widened the franchise and the construction of the railways. The main character is Dorothea who’s attracted to a scholar much older than her and has an unhappy marriage. And the main theme is dreams and reality. When we’re young we  dream of being famous and then in our 20s we realize we’re just going to live ordinary lives. The book is about how the different characters cope with that reality. She’s been criticized by feminists as allotting a mediocre life to women but I disagree. Her observations of the human psyche are universal, they're not just about women. For her time, she was remarkably free-thinking. Self-taught, she supported herself in London as assistant editor of the Westminster Review and as a translator. She lived openly with George Lewes a divorcee, which was scandalous for the time, yet their home became a salon for the new liberal ideas of the time. The British Humanist Association includes her among its 19th Century Freethinkers. And the thing that endeared me most to her was when I read that Lewes used to hide bad criticisms from her as he knew she would lose the confidence to write. What a wonderful man! Here's the quotation I chose. It's the last paragraph in the book. Talking of Dorothea,

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Such delicious prose. Such typical English understatment. And she is so learned. I must have skipped that reference to Cyrus a dozen times but for once I looked it up. In the 5th century BC, Cyrus, King of Persia, set out to capture Babylon. According to Herodotus, he lost one of his sacred white horses in a mighty river and was so enraged that he swore he would break the strength of the river. He sent half his army to the other side and had his soldiers on both sides dig myriad channels effectively diverting the river. He then marched across the dry river bed and eventually took the city of Babylon. What a poweful image. So you and me, like Dorothea, all doing our best, in unhistoric and diffusive acts, together have the power of a mighty river.

For the past five years I've been so busy and not inclined to read fiction. George Eliot took me on a journey to another world and gave me insights into my own life. Tomorrow, back to Fukushima!