Tuesday 29 October 2013

Another aftershock

A big tremor last Friday night. I was woken at ten past two, got out of bed, stood under the doorway to the kitchen (best to be under a supported wall) and held on. It lasted quite a while. My building was built over 20 years ago and being on the 7th floor I feel it swaying. Next, switch on the TV (as one does): magnitude 7, off the Fukushima coast, force 4 in Koriyama, warning for a tsunami one metre high. About five minutes later, a report that Fukushima Daiichi has sustained no damage. So that's alright then. Back to bed. Next day hear that it's another aftershock from the big one and that we can expect more.

There's been a development regarding repatriation of evacuees since my last post. A proposal to end monthly compensation one year after the ban on an area has been lifted seems to have been accepted by the local authorities affected. There was some opposition. People were saying a year wouldn't be long enough if there was a rush to get building work done. But it seems to have gone through. The corollary of this is that residents may try and delay the bans being lifted. This has already happened in Miyakoji in Tamura city area. The government wanted to lift the ban on November 1st but the residents got this delayed until next spring. The compensation, by the way, is that being paid by Tepco for 'stress' caused by the accident; rents etc would continue to be paid by the prefecture/government. Still, as I said, in my last post, there are a lot of issues that should be sorted before people go back including compensation for property, proper infrastructure including schools, hospitals and shops, various kinds of support. But stopping monthly compensation will no doubt serve as a stick to encourage people to go back.

After the many typhoons this season the weather seems to be settling. Beautiful autumn weather. Not before time I'm planning a couple of trips to the mountains to enjoy the autumn colour. More later.

Friday 25 October 2013

When Home's not so Sweet

Post-Fukushima, life here in the city of Koriyama is back to normal. We get blow-by-blow accounts on TV of leaking contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi (only 60 km away) which makes you angry but, generally speaking, people here don't seem so nervous these days. The schools have lifted restrictions on how long kids can play outside. People seem to be buying Fukushima produce - new season rice and wonderful fruit. 

But what of those who've been evacuated? Nearly 30,000 people in Fukushima prefecture face their third winter in temporary housing. Kasetsu - it's a new word, written in katakana カセツ - and refers to the flimsy barrack style prefabs designed to last for two years but extended to five. Nearly 54,000 more people live in rented accommodation paid for by the prefecture and there are 1,200 in council housing. All are waiting, still waiting, for new flats and houses to be built. A few hundred have been built but things aren't going according to plan. For example, there's a patch of land in Koriyama earmarked for building. Construction was supposed to start last month for completion next March but there were no bids when the work was put out to tender. This is a story being repeated all over Tohoku. The price of materials has risen 20% and there's a labour shortage so construction companies can't do the work at the price offered by local authorities. One bloke was telling me he used to be able to book a crane a few days ahead, now one needs to be booked weeks in advance. People up here have mixed feelings about the Olympics. They're worried that Olympic projects will make shortages even more acute and delay construction further.

And what of the future? Will people go back? Even in Kawauchi, where the ban in the 20 to 30 km zone was lifted as early as March 2012 and the mayor has done everything right - attracting new businesses and building an old people's home and a clinic - only 20% of the population have returned to live full-time. Likewise in Hirono, south of Tomioka, many people are still reluctant to return. Now the government wants to lift the ban in Miyakoji in Tamura city (coloured green on the map below) so that those who want to can go back. But these are not easy decisions for people to make. Even if the house is decontaminated and levels low, levels in the woods or fields around may be high. Old people may go back but not young families. Can they cope? Can they afford to renovate or rebuild their houses? Where do they go to work or to do their shopping? The coastal area, where they used to go, is out of bounds. Decontamination proper has started in the exclusion zone but who wants to go back to an area over-run by wild boars and rats? As a friend reported in the Mainichi yesterday, it's not a case of 'going home'; the place they knew is no longer there. More a case of daring to venture into new territory. The evacuees have been kept in limbo too long. They need to be told either that they'll never be able to go back, or highly organised plans need to be put in place to support repatriation in those areas on the periphery.
Map in English of current zones

Heavy rain all day today. Typhoon No 27. Tepco workers making more preparations: there were too many spills during the last typhoon. This spate of typhoons is said to be caused by rising sea temperatures due to global warming ...

Tuesday 15 October 2013


There's already a gale blowing outside tonight but a strong typhoon is set to hit Tokyo (and us) tomorrow. We often get the wind and rain from typhoons further south but it's not often a typhoon actually hits, or 'lands' (joriku suru 上陸する). It's Typhoon No 26 - the 26th this season (here they don't give typhoons girls' names) and it's said to be the strongest in 10 years. Over 600 schools in Fukushima prefecture will be closed tomorrow, trains will be on a reduced timetable and hundreds of domestic flights are cancelled (although at the moment only a few international flights).

The TV always goes over the top when it comes to warnings. We have to take everything off the balcony, including clothes pegs which can turn into 'deadly weapons' in the wind (NHK's News Nine tonight). Once many years ago I watched so much television I scared myself silly and stayed with a friend for three days! 

It just happened that today was the day Mr Sato, governor of Fukushima, visited Fukushima Daiichi. Of course he stressed typhoon preparation - especially since there was a problem after Typhoon No. 18 last month when heavy rain raised water levels in the 'overflow trays' at the bottom of the tanks for contaminated water and overflowed. IAEA international experts are also in Japan and Governor Sato will have stressed the need for better management of the contaminated water. But strong winds, high waves and heavy rainfall in what threatens to be the worst typhoon since the disaster aren't going to help.
Good night
17 October:  There was a lot of rain. Workers did have to empty some of the sinks around the tanks into the ground (having checked levels were below limits previously agreed with the Nuclear Regulation Authority). Excess water was also pumped into an unused storage pool.

Friday 11 October 2013

Trouble, trouble

Never a day seems to go by without some announcement of 'trouble' at Fukushima Daiichi. Tanks have been leaking, areas near the tanks are showing very high levels of radiation (in one place as high as 2,200 mSv/hour), a group of workers opened the wrong pipe and got irradiated, another worker hosed contaminated water up into the wrong tank and it overflowed, the ALPS decontamination plant came to a halt because someone had left a rubber sheet in the works, there was a brief power failure etc. etc. The other day it was reported that a contract worker had thrown confidential papers regarding compensation into a Tokyo street rubbish bin. The list goes on and on. 

We know there is a shortage of workers (3,000 at the plant, 2,000 of them subcontractors). We know they work in very difficult conditions and demands on them increase daily. We know the measures are stop gap and temporary (quick to assemble bolted together water tanks rather than properly welded tanks, miles and miles of plastic tubing ... ). We know Tepco is over-stretched. It is after all, supposed to be running a power generation and supply company. No nuclear power plant has ever been decommissioned in Japan, let alone one the state Fukushima Daiichi is in. 

And yet the mistakes seem to be so basic, caused it is said by lack of communication between the Tepco managers (the elite) and those on the frontline (mainly subcontractors). The president, Mr Hirose, has pledged to bring more people in from other parts of the company. In the meantime, confidence on the part of the public, the government, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, and people here in Fukushima, especially the evacuees, ebbs away.

Yesterday Tepco announced that it had found a small amount of caesium in waters 1 km out to sea for the first time (although only 1.4 bq/litre; the iinternational limit is 10 bq/litre). That does challenge the Prime Minister's assertion to the International Olympic Committee that the sea is safe. The IAEA is to send a team of international experts next month to monitor radioactivity in the sea and publish the results in English. In the meantime, test fishing resumed towards the end of last month and the fish has been tested and seems to be selling well so there seems to be no cause for concern - at least for the time being. 

The Japanese word for 'trouble' is to-ra-bu-ru. And it's even evolved into a verb: torabutte iru - 'there's a problem'. The English language evolves in mysterious ways!

Thursday 10 October 2013

Yae no Sakura 2

Hi again,
NHK's historical drama this year tells the story of local heroine Yae, who at the age of 22 and dressed as a man, fought with a Spencer rifle to defend Aizu Castle in 1868. I wrote about the early episodes on 17 February in my post Yae no Sakura
The action has now moved to Kyoto though 23% of Fukushima residents, me included, are still glued to the telly every Sunday night.

History is written by the victors and the generally accepted narrative of the Meiji Restoration is that revolutionaries from Satsuma (southern Kyushu), Choshu (southern Honshu) and Tosa (Shikoku) overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and after 260 years opened the country to the outside world, heralding in a new era of modernisation and prosperity. Aizu have traditionally been the villains of the piece, linked in the popular imagination with the Shinsengumi who terrorised Kyoto, stigmatised as enemies of the emperor, and portrayed as die-hard supporters of the old regime. The fascination of this series is that it tells this famous period of history from the other side, from the point of view of the losers.

Here are a few scenes which were memorable for me:
  • Yae's first husband Kawasaki Shonosuke, a gunsmith who had studied the 'Dutch learning' in Tokyo, was played delightfully by actor Hasegawa Hiroki. After the fall of Aizu he was banished with the other Aizu samurai to the far north where they had to battle against cold and hunger. He got caught up in a scam when trying to procure food and died in Tokyo in difficult circumstances. Sad. Cried buckets.
  • Many times have I visited the Samurai House (Buke Yashiki) in Aizu and seen the suicide scene, women and children dressed in white kimono, and a soldier, a tall figure in a red wig. I never really knew who they were. They were the family of Saigo Tanomo (played in the drama by Koriyama character actor Nishida Takayuki). He was Aizu daimyo Katamori's most faithful retainer who in 1862 advised against taking on the post of guard of Kyoto as he saw, rightly as it turned out, that Aizu would get embroiled in the troubles which would lead to their ruin. Later he called for an early capitulation. But Katamori took his responsibilities to both the shogun and the Emperor very seriously and Saigo's pleas fell on deaf ears. Twenty one women in Saigo's household - including his wife, mother and five daughters - chose not to take refuge in the castle and committed suicide. The man in the red wig was Itagaki Taisuke (later founder of Japan's first political party) who generously put one young girl out of her misery. Over 240 Aizu women chose to die by their own hand rather than be captured.
  • I've no idea if this is true but in the drama, after the surrender, the proud samurai ladies scrubbed the floors and handed over a pristine castle - to the embarrassment of the enemy leaders who walked over the shiny floors in muddy boots!
  • Yae's older brother, Yamamoto Kakuma, is another hero of this story and was a remarkable man. He had studied in Tokyo under Katsu Kaishu and Sakuma Shozan and believed Japan shouldn't waste its energies on infighting but catch up with the West. He was injured and lost his sight in skirmishes in Kyoto and was later captured by Satsuma forces and thrown into prison. There he dictated his famous work Kanken which was a farsighted master plan for national reform covering such varied topics as government, parliament, education, currency, women's education, military, commerce, medicine etc. etc. and which came to the attention of the new government leaders, Saigo Takamori and Iwakura Tomomi. Kakuma himself, in spite of being crippled and blind, later served in the Kyoto local government. After Aizu fell he summoned his family to Kyoto. Yae married Niijima Jo and he helped them found Doshisha University and Women's College.
  • One of the sub plots of the drama is guns. In 1865 the American Civil War ended and weapons which were no longer needed came to Japan to be traded by James Glover and the like. Yae's family are gunsmiths and Kakuma's mission was to procure up-to-date weapons from abroad. One of the reasons for Aizu's downfall was that they just didn't have the fire power to compete with the superior weaponry of Satusma and Choshu.
  • The role of Saigo Takamori was played with panache by ageing rock star Kikkawa Koji. Always spoiling for a fight, but dissuaded by Katsu Kaishu from attacking Edo (Tokyo), he turned his attention to subjugating the north and later had a key role in the new government. But ten years later The Last Samurai acted as a focus for the disaffected samurai and made one last stand against the government forces. This was the Seinan War of 1877 in which he died. 
Finally, two footnotes to this story, not in the TV series.
First, the new government refused to give permission to bury the bodies of those who fell in Aizu, including all those women and children. Only six months later in the spring of 1869 was permission granted. This was the source of rancour between Aizu and Choshu which rankled for over a century.
Secondly, the Meiji government was dominated by leaders from Choshu and Satsuma. People from Aizu were not appointed to government and again this prejudice persisted until recent times. Instead, many Aizu survivors, like Yae and Kakuma, devoted their efforts to education and many went to study abroad.

Now the action of the series (which continues until December) has moved to Kyoto where Yae is building a new life with Jo. The story holds a strong message of recovery from disaster so has obvious parallels with today. It's also given a great boost to tourism with visitors to the castle up 50% over pre-disaster levels. So in addition to being a good yarn, the series has been very good for Fukushima.
P.S. If you want to read a blow by blow account of the series there's a translation of every episode in English at this site On The Tube