Sunday 29 September 2013


Sorry I've been off the wire. I've been in hospital. With pneumonia. As summer turned to autumn I must have caught a chill walking to and from work in my summer clothes. Come to think of it, didn't I mention in my last post that I'd left my cardigan on the train? I should pay more attention to those weather people on TV who in nanny-like fashion are forever reminding us to wrap up at the changing of the seasons (kisetsu no kawarime 季節の変わり目)!

So a week in a Japanese hospital, a week's worth of antibiotics and I'm right as rain. As you'd expect everything, from the nursing to the cleaning of the rooms, was efficient and to a high standard. Absolutely no complaints. I had my own room with en suite (5,000 yen extra per day), with an array of remotes to control the bed, the TV, the air conditioning, the lights. The food was Japanese, pretty plain, but palatable. From the 3rd day I chose to have bread at breakfast and lunch. It was a bit odd having, say mackerel in miso sauce, with bread but it was OK. 

I had one X-ray at the local doctors before I went in, then a CT scan and two X-rays at the hospital. That's a massive 7.18 mSv exposure to radiation which makes a mockery of my current attempts to limit additional exposure to 1 mSv/year. According to a book I have Hibaku Iryo Gaido (Guide to Medical Exposure), Japanese average per capita exposure from medical sources is 3.00 mSv/year, as opposed to a world average of 0.6 mSv/year. Strangely, I'm happy with this. I like the way Japanese doctors order lots of tests and only then give you the diagnosis. To me it seems systematic, rational - and reassuring.

And the damage? The bill was for 122,000 yen. When you deduct 35,000 yen for the private room and 4,400 yen for meals, the medical bill (medicines, tests, 7 days stay) was 82,500 yen (550 GBP). I pay 30% of the actual cost. (Incidentally, to cope with hardship, there's a ceiling of about 80,000 yen per month.)

Everyone's required to be covered by one of two national health insurance schemes. I'm satisfied with the way things work here. In England where I come from the NHS is free to all - no money changes hands - which is a great ideal but the system is creaking at the seams for lack of cash and too many people take it for granted. But as Japan prepares to join the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) there are fears here that American insurance companies might flood the market and break down this national system. 

Tonight is the last day of the Autumn Festival here in Koriyama. All day the neighbourhood has echoed with the sound of drums and pipes. Now darkness is falling and in the streets chants of Washoi! Washoi! But I'm convalescing and can't join in. It brings home the attraction of Matsuri: an invigorating show of strength, vitality, and love of life.
More later
P.S. October 5th
Looks like I'm going to get about 75,000 yen back from a couple of private health insurance schemes so the damage is looking less (though obviously I've paid in premiums over the years). Follow-up consultation today and I'm much better. CT scan booked for one month's time. Ouch, more radiation .....

Friday 20 September 2013

Veni, vidi, non vici

There was a big earthquake in the middle of last night. Force 5 at the coast, Force 4 here in Koriyama. A long, low grumble. According to this morning's news, it was an aftershock from 3.11 and we are urged to remain vigilant. Quite frankly there's not a lot you can do when you're woken up at half past two in the morning. Wait for it to end, turn over and go back to sleep. I do have my emergency rucksack packed ready, I've stockpiled two weeks supply of food and water, and I keep the bath full. But I don't sleep in my clothes as I did that first month. 

The Prime Minister visited Fukushima Daiichi yesterday. I saw the cavalcade at Koriyama station yesterday morning as I was waiting for the bus. He's made the monumental decision to urge Tepco to scrap Reactors 5 and 6. Blindingly obvious, I should say. What took him so long? It would be hard to operate these reactors normally while the difficult work of clearing up the damage to Reactors 1 to 4 is carried out, and where radiation levels in some places are extremely high. And socially, the people of Fukushima would never accept it. The governor continues to press for a decision to scrap Fukushima Daini nuclear plant, 11 kilometers to the south, but no word on that yet.

So He came (along with members of the foreign press), He saw and tried to show the world that he's fulfilling the promises he made at the Olympic presentation in Buenos Aires. But the local press weren't allowed into the press conference 'for reasons of space'. Maybe they'd ask too many tricky questions about the leakage of contaminated water into the sea, and voice the fury of the local fishing community.

More important than Abe's 'performance' is the work going on in Tokyo to draft new legislation delineating the responsibilities of the power companies and the state in the nuclear power industry. This is the crux of the problem. Japan has always maintained that the electric companies take care of everything but it's now obvious that a single private company cannot sustain the costs of an accident. Abe has said that the government will step in but there's still a lot of work in the detail.

The government and bureaucracy may be overpaid and useless (common grouch in this country) but the private sector can be outstanding. How's this for an example? On Tuesday I came back from Tokyo and left my cardigan on the shinkansen bullet train. At 3:30 pm I reported it to the Lost Property office in Koriyama. At 7:00 pm I got a phone call saying the garment had been found. Did I want to go to Sendai to pick it up or have it sent to me paying postage on arrival (chakubarai 着払い)? I chose the latter option and at 10:00 am on Thursday the package arrived (I paid 740 yen). Is there any other country so efficient or so trusting?

Last weekend the country was lashed with heavy rain from a typhoon. It cleared the air and now we have glorious autumn weather. 
All the best

Saturday 14 September 2013

Tokyo Olympics

Tokyo is to  host the Olympics in 2020. Prime Minister Abe swung the vote by asserting that the situation in Fukushima is under control and personally guaranteeing the safety of athletes in Tokyo. The governor of Fukushima has been begging the government to take control ever since the disaster but only when the contaminated water crisis threatened Tokyo's Olympic bid did the government intervene. 

It's been hailed here as an 'international pledge' so we're hoping the government really is going to take charge and get results. Money has been found from this year's budget and a team of vice-Ministers, foreign experts, and frontline specialists are to work on decommissioning the plant and finding solutions to the contaminated water issue. The Prime Minister sounded super-confident but is the situation really 'under control'? Is the 'silt fence' (a net curtain supposed to stem the flow of water) really effective? Is there really no contaminated water escaping into the open sea, as he claimed? 

In the long term things should be under control. In all there will be three walls to contain contamination and stop water going into the sea: the 'frozen wall' around all four reactors (work to start next year and to be completed during fiscal 2014); a seawall already half built and to be completed in December this year; and an earthen wall reinforced with waterglass around several contaminated areas between the reactors and the sea. There has been some trouble with this last one where contaminated water was found to have been flowing over the top of the wall, and also a recent discovery of water flowing from one of the tank areas along a trench and into the open sea, south of the seawall. So all is not quite as under control as Abe seemed to suggest. The immediate crisis of the leaking tanks needs to be solved and there is a serious shortage of staff.  

The government's also pledged to step up overseas PR. The farmers and manufacturers of Fukushima have been fighting this battle for three years now, measuring all their produce, explaining over and over that Fukushima is safe. Now it seems that that battle has to be fought internationally. A cartoon in a French publication showing sumo wrestlers with 3 arms and legs has been widely shown here. In bad taste certainly, but it shows the kind of prejudice one is up against. It wasn't good to hear the person responsible for Tokyo's bid repeatedly say that Tokyo was 250 km from Fukushima so nothing to worry about. For us it only served to reinforce the gulf between us here and the powers-that-be in Tokyo. So in a way we have to thank the foreign journalists who have reminded Tokyo - and the rest of Japan - that Fukushima is a national and international issue.

But it's good that the Olympics are coming to Tokyo. For far too long Japan has been in the doldrums and people have been gloomy. Then there was the disaster. It would be great if the Olympic Torch were carried through a regenerated North East Japan (including Fukushima). The owners of J-Village, the national youth soccer centre which still serves as a dormitory and base for workers at Fukushima Daiichi, are already making plans, hoping that it will have some support role in the Olympics.
Bye for now

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Contaminated Water

Contaminated Water - osensui  汚染水 - we hear the word all the time but it's another new word which along with the word for Decontamination - josen  除染 -  you won't find in any Japanese dictionary. How our lives have changed.

Contaminated Water, particularly the issue of leaking tanks at Fukushima Daiichi, has been top of the national news and made headlines across the world. After the Prime Minister announced last month that the government would step in, money has been found from this year's budget and a special 'Contaminated Water' post set up within METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry). Today there was an announcement of government plans to tackle the problem. Promises of money (which is welcome) but nothing new.

There are over 1,000 tanks holding 340,000 tons of contaminated water on-site. The current problem is with 300 tanks which are bolted rather than welded together. Yesterday's paper says extremely high airborne radiation of 1,700 mSv/hr has been detected in one of the tank areas. Spare a thought for the 3,000 people working there, in radiation suits, full face masks, and with temperatures still reaching highs of 30'C.

Maybe the government can coordinate policy on contaminated water and work out ways to stop it increasing and ways to deal with it - in place of the stop-gap measures until now. But with the Prime Minister swanning off on foreign trips to sell nuclear power overseas (you'd think he'd get his own house in order first), with no discussion in the Diet (broken up for elections in July and not back until October), there's still a general lack of a sense of crisis. No wonder the fishermen at a meeting with Tepco today were getting very angry indeed.

Electricity bills in our region (Tohoku Electricity) went up on the 1st of the month, the first increase in 33 years. The cost of electricity will rise 9% for households and 15% for businesses. This is the price we have to pay for the nuclear power stations being shut down - the cost of all that imported LNG. But it is strange. There doesn't seem to have been a shortage of electricity this summer - and it was a very hot summer. It does make you wonder what all that saving back in the summer of 2011 was for? There were peak cuts, fines for businesses, everyone was cutting back hard on usage. Maybe if people had kept in saving mode, we wouldn't have needed the price increases? But it seems consumption is back to normal, more fossil fuel LNG is being used, and prices are going up to pay for it. Not a good situation.

There's a typhoon sitting south of Kyushu that won't budge so we've had high humidity (60% on my home thermometer) for the past two days with unsettled weather. Hope it improves by the weekend. I'm going camping!