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Absurd Figure Yukio Mishima - HESO Magazine

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and the Japanese Radical – Part 2

Absurd Figure Yukio Mishima - HESO Magazine

Yukio Mishima: Absurd Figure or Revolutionary Writer?

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Japanese radicalism and the absurd was certainly not only the preserve of the Left. Yukio Mishima was the most famous living Japanese writer in the Fifties and Sixties, even better known than the older Yasunari Kawabata, who ultimately nipped him to the coveted Nobel Prize. But Mishima wore many masks. He was a novelist, a playwright, an actor, a dandy, a narcissist, a homosexual. And also an ultranationalist hated both by the student radicals of the time, as well as the more straightforward rightists, whose own simplistic branch of patriotism did not match with Mishima’s esoteric ideals. Mishima, believing that a left-wing revolution was imminent in the chaos of the anti-war riots and campus struggles, started a private army with the help of his elite network. While radicals were turning Shinjuku and Haneda into battlefields of Molotov cocktails, Mishima and his Tatenokai group were training in the countryside for an event that Mishima planned meticulously but kept secret from everyone.

In November 1970 Mishima went to the Ichigaya headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force with four trusted members of the Tatenokai, including the much younger Masakatsu Morita. Morita and Mishima were enamored with each other, though it remains to be proved that they were actual lovers. The plan was to initiate a coup, to incite the SDF to rise up and restore the Emperor to full power. Needless to say, this was an utterly preposterous idea and Mishima must certainly have known it. It was not an attempt at revolution so much as an empty sign, a ritualistic gesture expressing Mishima’s warped ideals of beauty, heroism and sincerity. At first everything went like clockwork. They took a senior commander hostage in his office, blocked the door and demanded the soldiers gather in the courtyard below. Then Mishima stepped out onto the balcony to give what was expected to be a remarkable, valedictory exhortation.

No one was listening. The soldiers jeered. A police helicopter hovered overhead. His passionate and long-prepared speech was drowned out. Cutting it short, he then stepped back inside to cut himself open. Naturally, seppuku was the perfect means for Mishima to complete his gesture and naturally, the kaishaku – the beheading that is meant to end the suffering of the seppuku as quickly as possible — was to be performed by Morita. Again, they had prepared rigorously, even blocking their colons with cotton in case their bowels evacuated during the process. But the best laid plans of Mishima and Morita went very much awry. The former conducted himself splendidly, plunging the blade deep into his side. However, the pain was too immense and he could not write the customary calligraphy as he’d hoped. Mishima writhed in torment as Morita raised his sword to terminate the would-be revolutionary’s life. But he was no swordsman. Depending on the account he took at least two or three strokes yet Mishima’s head was obstinately still very much attached to his neck. It was left to another of the gang to fully decapitate Mishima and then also just as swiftly dispatch Morita, who was said to have barely penetrated his body when he performed his own “seppuku”.

Many of the activities of right-wing and ultranationalist activities are performative – done to be seen and heard as much as with expectation of real political influence – and the charging, blaring caravans of their black trucks that regularly race through Tokyo are still chilling, even if the locals are not paying attention. Occasionally they commit shocking acts of violence. In 1960, Inejirō Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was stabbed and killed live on television by a teenage zealot while he was giving a speech. And in 1990, Hitoshi Motoshima, then Mayor of Nagasaki, was shot in the back for daring to suggest that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the atomic bombings. Violent confrontations and attacks still happen today.

Tokyo Emmanuelle - HESO Magazine

Did Maeno get his Kamikaze idea from Tokyo Emmanuelle, in which he makes love to the lead actress while flying a plane?

But it is the absurd that seems to capture the imagination, to loiter in the memory. Yoshio Kodama, the shadowy figure from the wartime generation of old-school rightists who moved easily between the ranks of the Yakuza and the ultra-nationalist sphere, was implicated in the Lockheed scandal in the Seventies. The American aircraft manufacturer had paid out large “consultancy” fees to secure contracts and Kodama was hired to help put pressure on All Nippon Airways to accept the deal with them. It was later commonly believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Kakuei Tanaka, also benefited from bribes. But Kodama was not just corrupt; he was also a tax-dodger and this was what infuriated one particular nationalist, a minor porn actor called Mitsuyasu Maeno.

Maeno hired a plane from an airport just outside Tokyo. Perhaps the rental staff should have been worried when he arrived in the uniform of a kamikaze pilot. Taking off he soon enough turned the plane towards his destination – Kodama’s house in Setagaya. In what is surely the most eccentric assassination attempt of a public personality in Japanese history, Maeno flew the plane suicidally straight into Kodama’s home with commendable accuracy. Unfortunately for the porn star, though, the elderly Kodama emerged miraculously unscathed.

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In the same way that, in contrast to European courts, the Japanese Shogunate and Imperial palace was devoid of jesters, contemporary Japanese television or mainstream comedy lacks any real alternative performers or “edgy” talent. But is that role being filled by high-profile pranksters like the art unit Chim Pom?

From the schoolboy “humour” of their name – a penile reference, just in case you missed it – to the provocative stunts like drawing comic book explosions in the skies of Hiroshima, they have offended and amused in at least equal measure. Their “dangerous” videos made in the Fukushima exclusion zone immediately after the nuclear disaster and their addition to Taro Okamoto’s The Myth of Tomorrow mural generated a vast amount of hype. There are problems here. Chim Pom are a commercial enterprise, a mini factory of “controversy” issuing art events, fashion collaborations, books and merchandise. Their work has been claimed to be anti-art world, anti-consumerist, to be gleefully subversive – but all I see are formats that work within or even prop up the status quo. Their stunts are clearly publicity campaigns, regardless of whether you feel their work has artistic merit (the jury is decidedly out on that). The press coverage of their Fukushima exhibition translated into a major show at Parco and their bandwagon is not slowing down any time soon. Being tongue-in-cheek but actually fully located in the mainstream is perfectly acceptable as well, but no one can claim you are then the Fool to the zeitgeist’s Lear.

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It would be fatuous, not to mention tasteless, to try to use a neat trope to tie up all the gaudy panoply of postwar Japanese extremism. There is nothing absurd or ironic in the death of Michiko Kamba, crushed by police during the 1960 Anpo protests, or that of Hiroaki Yamazaki, like Kamba a student and still a teenager, who was killed by a vehicle – which may or may not have been driven by fellow protestors or police – at tumultuous protests at Haneda Airport in 1967. In 1972, the Asama-Sansō incident shocked the nation when New Left revolutionary terrorists massacred each other in the mountains before taking a hostage in a lodge and killing two police officers in the resulting siege. The event remains chilling today, even in these hardened post-9/11 times.

Jean Baudrillard was similarly criticized for his lack of humanity, for just being too pat with his theorizing, when he applied a post-modernist reading to the first Gulf War. People were in fact dying while he claimed the war was not real; it was hyper-real, a war for television, for image, like a simulacrum of war (or a war-game). It “did not take place” in the words of his book title. But only the bourgeois armchair intellectual has the daring and arrogance to throw out such pithy truisms.

While much of the Japanese right-wing extremists are more ridiculous than absurd, you mock them at your peril, as many have found out. Perhaps then it is that the extremism is more shocking precisely for its weirdness. Fanaticism is impenetrable and frequently risible, but its total obliviousness to how it appears to outsiders can make the violent actions then even more horrific. Shōkō Asahara, levitator, visionary and leader of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō, between plotting the murder of 13 people with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, also found time to record songs and appear in a very jolly promotional anime. One of the former is a kind of peculiar “counting song” including the line “I did not do it”, which is really the most untruthful of lyrics when you consider what happened.

A Levitating Asahara Shoko? - HESO Magazine

A Levitating Asahara Shoko?

During much of 2012 the Prime Minister had thousands of demonstrators outside his doorstep every week. The July 29th rally outside quondam PM Noda’s home attracted perhaps as many as 150,000 protestors (the police estimate was much more conservative 17,000). Meanwhile somewhere between 170,000 (organizer numbers) and 75,000 (police figures) attended a July rally in Yoyogi Park: labour unions, veteran campaigns and plenty of ordinary shimin (citizens) too.

We have yet to see any absurdity in the newly ignited civic activism Japan is experiencing post-Fukushima – but then, we also have yet to witness any radicalism. So far the protest movement seems very motley, a ragbag army of tweeting hipsters, office workers, ex-student activists, and the elderly. The dignified aspects of the movement – candlelit vigils outside the Diet and the PM’s residence – contrast with loud concerts and rallies angrily channelling past the TEPCO headquarters. In their apparent inclusive ambit of the social spectrum it is hard not to join the dots to the Anpo protests of 1960, though, thanks perhaps in part to social media, unlike Anpo, the new anti-nuclear power activists are not reliant on small group organizations to mobilize and organize them. People are shocked and angry at how they were treated as a nation, yet they are perhaps guilty of only earnestness, rather than violence, whereas the 1968 movement had both.

The tragedy now would be if the protests did not metamorphose from just an anti-nuclear power movement into being also a pro-renewable energy campaign. The real absurdity, though, lies in the Japanese government’s continuing efforts to ignore them and to squander this unique opportunity to create a green and better Japan. The announcement recently of the construction of the world’s largest offshore wind farm in Fukushima is a step very much in the right direction.

Farce, though, is a refrain that this writer at least welcomes. To single it out amongst a pantheon of incidents is not a form of mocking. The absurd is vital to a society, whether in peacetime or the most stringent of crises. The absurd brings us perspective on an uncanny platter. It reminds us how close we can get to revolution but yet how far away we always seem to remain.

In the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:

And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

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Part 1 of Absurdity and the Japanese Radical can be read here. William Andrews, a writer and translator based in Tokyo, is currently working on a book about postwar Japanese radicalism and counterculture.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

New Revolt

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th, 2011 and the resulting Fukushima maelstrom, the western media has frequently reported a spectacle that appears to surprise them: Japanese people, the “quiet people”, are taking part in demos. Seemingly for the first time, petitions are being signed online and off, angry protests are being voiced on the streets of Tokyo, and even respected celebrities are occasionally wading waist-deep into the debate.

All cultures attract canards. Every nation has its glut of stereotypes. Japan is no exception and even in these multi-media, multi-perspective times the rather unpleasant notions linger that all local woman are submissive, all men stoic. The Japanese are perennially characterized as a modest, subservient race, a fallacy spread by both western novices and veteran observers – and even the Japanese themselves. And yet history is written by those in power; stereotypes are born out of imagined truths more than complex cultural memory. The peasants who revolt but fail are never the shapers and stylists of national identity.

As far as the Baby Boomer generation should be concerned, the anti-nuclear power protests that Tokyo has been witnessing of late are old hat. They should remember and perhaps some even participated in the protests of 1960 against the renewal of Anpo, the security treaty with America first signed as the Occupation ended. As much opposition to the pact and what it stood for as fury against then-Prime Minister Kishi’s flippant disregard for parliamentary processes – notoriously calling in police into the Diet to have rival politicians removed like burdocks ripped out of the muddy field – the movement peaked in the summer in an orgy of nationwide demos, hundreds of thousands strong. Millions participated overall in the movement. It saw an invasion of the Diet grounds and the death of a young female university student that remains controversial to this day.

Those too young to join in the melee of Anpo could then make up for lost time in the later Sixties. While Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and American bombs rained down in the Tet Offensive, thousands of Japanese students joined French and American counterparts in campus strikes, protests and anti-Vietnam War clashes. The streets of Tokyo were turned into a battlefield. In 1968 over 6,000 students were arrested for protest activities. The number of political participants doubled in the following year, with 152 of Japan’s nearly 400 four-year universities locked down by disputes. Things got worse after the united campus movement (Zenkyōtō) itself dissipated, with radical groups turning on each other. Or they attacked Japanese society as a whole; there were 192 incidents involving explosives between 1969 and 1972.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

Japan-US Treaty of Mutual Security and Cooperation Signed January 19, 1960

The construction of Narita Airport, one of the crowning achievements of the economic growth of post-war Japan, was also marred by the long and drawn-out protests against it by local farmers and student radicals, who battled police for years in a futile effort to stop the relentless destruction of Japanese rural communities in the name of “progress”. Now long-haul international flights are coming into Haneda again and it is tempting to conclude that the new airport was never even needed in the first place.

Radicalism and revolt are not novel to Japan by any means. Even during the feudal era, like any civilization, the oppressed rose up in local and larger scale rebellions. There were some 3,000 peasant uprisings in the Tokugawa period and around 500 urban disturbances. Major outbreaks include the Shimabara Rebellion in Kyushu in 1637-1638, which centered around a messianic young boy leader. Likewise Anpo was an unusually large mass movement but it was not isolated even in the post-war years; in many ways it was the culmination of nearly 1,000 other much smaller but nonetheless incendiary incidents between 1952 and 1960.

Send In The Clowns – Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

“The real face of our time shows in Samuel Beckett’s novels,” said Herbert Marcuse, the favourite thinker of the 1968 generation. Beckett of course was the master of the absurd. His Japanese comrade is Minoru Betsuyaku, whose dozens of plays include The Move. It depicts an anonymous family ever in motion, always pushing their tottering tower of junk piled onto a cart: Japan’s Economic Miracle in the Sisyphean mode.

The great Japan scholar Ivan Morris argued that failure was integral to the existence and nature of Japanese rebellion, that a love of the underdog (so-called hōganbiiki) maintains the popularity of “heroes” who were actually rebels. The English instead celebrate the spectacular failure of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators every year on November 5th with firework displays and macabre effigies that are thrown into a bonfire, like a weird national pagan rite. On the other side of the world in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, an innocuous statute of Saigō Takamori pays tribute to the samurai without mentioning that he died rebelling against the modern Japan he helped to establish. His quixotic demise is central to his enduring appeal. Underdogs are popular in the western imagination as well – but by and large, mostly if they win against the odds. If the Bible had had a Japanese author, perhaps Goliath would have squashed David, but the boy’s glamour would have been none the lesser for it.

In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. The choice of arms? A sharpened pencil. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the… Click To Tweet

To Morris’s concept of the underdog we could add that absurdity and farce also always plays a reoccurring part, like a running gag that just won’t go away. The absurd creeps up on us unawares. It is most unsettling but unforgettable precisely because it is incongruous. It is uncanny in the Freudian sense. This is not to say that it was all fun and games in the Japanese student movement. Far from being frivolous, many of the radicals were deadly serious and hundreds ended up losing their lives – or taking others’.

The most famous incident in the Japanese student movement was what happened at the University of Tokyo. A seemingly minor episode, where medical students protesting with tutors about the internship system turned into a scuffle, ultimately engulfed the whole university and multiple campuses in strikes and barricades. The unified campus organizations (Zenkyōtō) mustered students across departments in rallies and demos, and kick-started large-scale, stubborn strikes. Along the way there was fierce internecine fighting between factions of the Zengakuren student council organizations and the pro-Communist Party wings. The students wore iconic coloured helmets according to their respective sect, like signs of the arcane guild to which they swore allegiance. They carried large wooden staves to battle riot police, right-wing students trying to break up the blockade, or rival factions. It all ended in an inevitable last stand at Yasuda Hall, which held out for two days in the face of over eight thousand riot police. Eventually the cops smashed through and reached the top. The dispute had lasted a year and became the exemplum for Zenkyōtō groups at other universities and colleges all over Japan.

So far, so very passionate. But the loose organizational structure of Zenkyōto all-campus movements and the umbrella-like nature of the individual Zengakuren sects and the student councils meant that students were often unaware of the causes for which they were fighting. They might be told just to muster at a certain place in their gear – and to do battle. It is frequently remarked upon that the original controversy from which the University of Tokyo strike originated became harder to extricate and resolve as the dispute escalated. Many of the people fighting inside Yasuda Hall at the bitter end were not even students from the university.

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals

東大全共闘 1968-1969, Todai Zenkyoto 68-69 © 渡辺 眸 Watanabe Hitomi

The Yasuda Alamo reached its finale in January 1969. In July that same year a Japanese university student tried to attack the American Secretary of State William Rogers on a visit to Tokyo. Before we debate the merits of such an attack, let us look at the choice of arms here. Writers have long boasted the pen is mightier than the sword, but it would take a very precise assassin to do damage with a pencil. The would-be assailant’s disadvantages were not merely matériel. When he launched his attack he managed to go for the wrong man and Rogers was left not only unscathed, but completely untouched.

Yet more than foreign dignitaries, the student radicals were attacking each other in brutal dogfights that peaked in the Seventies but continued for years after. Particularly violent was the fighting between the Kakumaru and Chūkaku groups. Some forty people were killed in the years immediately after the main student movement dissipated, including the infamous 1970 case of Toshio Ebihara, who was tortured and murdered by Chūkaku radicals on the campus of Hosei University.

This in-fighting was curiously christened uchi-geba, an intriguing portmanteau partly Japanese (uchi – or “inner”) and married with an abbreviated German loanword (Gewalt, or “force”). Nearly 2,000 violent internal disputes arose between the dozens of factions that split off from the original Zengakuren Bund. Uchi-geba was a perpetual, ingrained problem but actually predated the Zenkyōtō campus movement. The original split in Zengakuren over a decade before 1968 was another example of uchi-geba, where the student councils were permanently rendered between those supporting the JCP and those against it. Though the later factions would prove more adept and brutal at killing each other, the pro- and anti-JCP sides also still managed several memorable scraps during the Sixties. Once at a 1966 assembly of the federation of student dormitories the arch enemies fought with staves, pipes and stones, but the most eye-catching element of the skirmish must surely have been the massive tree trunk that was used to invade the hall, so big that it required five people to carry it.

However, the 1968-1969 campus strikes added fuel to the fire, especially at Yasuda, where Kakumaru was accused of abandoning the citadel to the police. Before things degenerated into totally unpleasant depths, there was still time for absurdity. The graduation ceremony at Waseda University in 1969 was interrupted by non-sect radicals, who burst into the auditorium throwing firecrackers, smoke bombs, eggs and even live, flapping chickens into the air. Not so much revolution, it was bedlam.

3 – Ashita No …?

Send In The Clowns - Absurdity and Japanese Radicals


As we now know, though, the antics became something much graver and strange over the coming years, with dozens of notorious lynching incidents as the New Left self-destructed. Were the Sekigun-Ha reading “Ashita no Joe” while hijacking Flight 351?

The hard-core were sincerely attempting to ignite a revolution as had happened from the grass roots in China and Cuba. The Sekigun-ha, or Red Army Faction, in particular launched an infamous series of small-scale bombings around Japan in 1969, before a police dragnet arrested many of their foot soldiers while training in the countryside. Later their leader was also caught but that did not stop other members from pulling off their most dramatic stunt: Japan’s first hijacking, that of JAL flight 351 in March 1970.

No one was hurt. No planes blew up. The hijackers were even complimented for their courtesy by the passengers after they were released. The band of Sekigun-ha members, armed with Japanese katana swords and the occasional pipe bomb, directed the Fukuoka-bound plane to be flown to North Korea, where they hoped to fly onto Cuba. It was intended as a highly symbolic act that would kick-start a revolution in Japan in the Cuban mode and it was genuinely shocking at the time. The hijackers expected then to be able to return to their homeland one day and assist in the uprising. Their plans were optimistic to say the least.

Getting to Cuba by hijacking is a novel way to travel and had actually been suggested in jest by a young Cuba Embassy staffer when the Sekigun-ha approached him. The Japanese took him at face value. Of course, the North Koreans did not let them fly onto Cuba, despite being “comrades” in the struggle – in fact, they wanted them to stay and help train spies in their missions to abduct Japanese citizens. The Sekigun-ha had unwittingly bought their own one-way ticket to the most closed state in the world.

They left a “departure announcement” that they published in their paper. In between a few banzai-s for the world proletariat it ended famously with their rally cry: “We are Ashita no jō!” Ashita no jō (Tomorrow’s Joe) was a comic about young boxers popular at the time; the Sekigun-ha hijackers were trying to tell people how “normal” they were. And yet the only impression it springs to mind is that, in between their large doses of Marx, Takaaki Yoshimoto et al, the radicals were reading manga. The critic Hiroki Azuma also once in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals made a teasing comparison between New Left extremists and the ardour we see in fans of Japanese subcultures. Were the Sekigun-ha merely the otaku of their day?

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This is Part 1 of Send in the Clowns: Absurdity and the Japanese Radical. Read Part 2, by William Andrews, a writer and translator based in Tokyo. He is currently working on a book about postwar Japanese radicalism and counterculture.

On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground

Many friends have suggested I try to write about my experiences since the events of March 11th. Living in Tokyo, I would be a poor candidate for such an endeavor. The ongoing catastrophe is about two hundred miles north of the city and I have not yet experienced any hardship, save the frazzling of multiple aftershocks and concerns over elevated radiation levels. My good fortunes aside, there are many with a deeper background in seismology, nuclear energy, and Japanese political history—journalists, researchers, writers— devoted to the task of chronicling, analyzing, and piecing together what this calamity means for Japan. My larger personal concerns are not what has happened but what shall come to pass.

The changes in Tokyo are more superficial than substantial. Shibuya is no longer a flaming candle, streetlamps are off, and the subdued lighting in train and subway stations is a dingy hue that might lead to a revival in pickpockets’ fortunes. Everyone dreads the summer when rolling blackouts will make it very difficult to overcome the humidity. Air conditioning will once again acquire its luxurious quality. Tokyoites have been asked to conserve energy. Self-restraint is not a problem in brilliant spring weather. But these inconveniences are banal when set against worst-case scenarios—that is, the inevitable monster shake known as the Tokai Earthquake that happens in the Shizuoka region just west of Tokyo with some regularity every 150 years. The last quake was in 1854.

It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world. Click To Tweet

On Dangerous Ground

As tragic as this year’s triple whammy of earthquake-tsunami-meltdown has been, it may pale when measured against the consequences of the inevitable Tokai Quake. Not only may it lead to another tsunami and an eruption of Mt. Fuji (which is seeing some activity for the first time in a long while), but perhaps worst of it all is that Japan may have to deal with the fallout of yet another nuclear crisis that would be much more detrimental to Tokyo— the meltdown of its nuclear power plant at Hamaoka, built almost directly above what is believed will be this disaster’s future epicenter.

Essentially, it does not seem sound judgment to build a nuclear reactor on top of a historically active fault line, especially when your country’s preeminent seismologist argued against the hubris of such an undertaking before construction even began. Dr. Kiyoo Mogi has long argued for the responsible application of nuclear technology on Japan’s vulnerable territory. Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the manmade disaster of Fukushima (residents, farmers, fishermen) Dr. Mogi’s good judgment has been vindicated. The authorities at Hamaoka swear that the plant can withstand a major quake, but the same corporate suits made the same fail-safe promise at Fukushima.

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

It seems then in the court of common sense, the government should have taken a proactive role in shutting down the nuclear plant at Hamaoka weeks ago. Already global public opinion is mixed on Japan— there is sorrow for the victims and their families and bitterness at the country’s mismanagement of the crisis. Radiation leaks affect all of us, more or less, since we understand the ecosystem to be something shared by all of us, from the air we breathe to the fish on our plates. It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world.

Every human drama needs a villain, if only to lash out our frustrations and humiliations. The fact that there has been lying, mismanagement, deliberate cover-ups, and general incompetence on the part of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has led to some consternation on the part of the international community. What would conventional wisdom make of Japan should a similar if not more catastrophic meltdown were to occur in short succession? I am helplessly reminded of the aphorism reserved for the gullible: “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

Being a foreigner, it is hard to know exactly what the public’s sentiments are. Most people would like to be let alone of the issue and trust in a benevolent fate. The Japanese are trying to go on with their daily lives and in this beautiful spring weather it is easy to forget the carnage of the north and the direness of the near future. Only occasionally do the aftershocks rattle us into reality, returning the fear that trembles our hearts. But even these, frequent as they are, subside easily enough into the mundane elements of more trivial pursuits.

the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected Click To Tweet

But many Japanese have been politicized for the first times in their lives. Like Middle Easterners uprising against their governments the Japanese are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to organize. On April 10th a major demonstration in the Tokyo neighborhood of Koenji drew at least ten thousand protesters. It was a very Japanese affair— more like a parade than a protest: wonderful costumes, peaceful inclinations, gentle shout-outs. At the head of the parade, was a simulacrum of a New Orleans jazz band, dressed in razzle-dazzle kimonos and playing popular yesteryear numbers. Some attendees were unironically costumed in radiation suits and gas masks. Most wore sanitary face masks, a usual seasonal big seller for protecting the allergic against hay fever, but now a symbol of our very flimsy protection against radioactivity.

Making good use of the if-no-one-hears-the-tree-falling-in-the-forest theory, Japan’s mainstream media managed to drop the story. It was an election day in Tokyo (the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected) and moreover, that Sunday was the most beautiful weekend day for hanami, cherry blossom viewing.

After the protest I took the train to Yoyogi, Tokyo’s largest park and site of the biggest parties. Arriving just after the sunset, it was surreal to see this forest of pink flowers in twilight, where tens of thousands frolicked, wasted on good sake and cold beer, pleasuring against all arguments to be somber and self-restrained. I couldn’t blame them.

On the 16th this month there was another protest in Shibuya but it was much smaller and I’m worried that the so-called Sakura Revolution might be losing its momentum. That would be a shame since it is the most appropriate week to get out and fight for peace-of-mind. April 20th is Earth Day, and next week on the 26th is the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl.

Understanding Japan’s limited availability of resources, I am not against nuclear energy per se, but am very much in favor of safe and responsible use. It’s bad enough to worry about earthquakes and tsunamis, the sudden catastrophic moment where everything changes. This is more than enough than the average person needs to worry about.

The Specter of Fear

Meditations: After the Quake

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

I’ve got death inside me. It’s just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.

— Don DeLillo (White Noise),

It’s in the air, it’s all around you. You can try and brush it off, but it pervades your body willfully, silently. It accumulates. It makes you sick.

I’m not talking about radiation. I’m talking about pain. They’re checking the soil, the air, the sea for those tiny particles of death, the iodine, cesium, plutonium- but there’s no Geiger counter for pain. Could we invent some complex equation to detect it instead? Is losing your husband ten times more painful than losing your home, and the loss of your child the square of that? And does hunger and cold multiply it all?

Grief can be more lethal than radiation. Widows and widowers give up, slaughtered by sorrow. Mothers, bereft of their little ones, find little point in living any more. What is a lethal dosage of pain? Is it determined by length and intensity of exposure? Is it contagious? And if we could detect it, would the meter whine or scream around Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Kesennuma?

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Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.

– Don DeLillo (White Noise)

We spent the week worried, sleepless, earnest: constantly plugged into the information flow that floated, ethereal and intangible, around us. But gradually, we became blasé. And exhausted: the aftershocks and the endless explosions- albeit 150km away- barely ruffled our sleep, snatched as it was between televised updates from the government.

Thoughts came fitfully, as insolently separate as baubles of mercury. We lurch from panic to calm like a car grating from first gear to fifth. And as the foreign film crews retreat to the Middle East, we’re left with the aftermath, wondering: when will this end?

Their grief is too quiet for television. Stoicism refuses sympathy, and denial delays the shock. After a week of no supplies, we suddenly have images of incredibly organized havens of seemingly ordinary life, with cleaning duties and barbers and hot communal baths.

I feel guilty for all the times I have criticized the way that Japanese people work: slowly, doggedly, by consensus and communally. It can be frustrating when no one wants to stand out by taking the initiative, or to blaze a trail. But watching how the refugee centers have sprung into action, with ordinary teachers and office workers doing a stellar job of rationing, administering aid and giving people a sense of responsibility and self-worth by delegating tasks, I realize the point of this working system. They seem born to deal with crisis, born to persevere and to cope with very little resources. Watching events unfold, I don’t doubt that a team of 70-year-old Japanese women could whip any refugee camp into shape within a week, with shoes off at the door and lights out by ten.

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

Photo © Max Hodges, maxhodges.com

The only shame is that their apparent strength, coupled with the perception of Japan as a rich country (although it is), dulls the empathetic response abroad. Donations from abroad have been only a sixth of those given to Haiti after the same time period, and Twitter is full of ineffectual pleas to “pray for Japan,” rather than the “pay for Japan” that might actually get something done.

The media has several ways of dampening public interest in new stories after they have occupied the headlines for a few weeks. With the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, it was stories of looters and violence: unfair and irresponsible reporting that made hungry and desperate people into criminals for stealing powdered milk. The recent Tohoku earthquake captivated the world for a few short hours before the nuclear crisis stole the front page. And then, as Gaddafi’s lunatic regime notched up its barbarity, the world’s eyes shifted, consigning Japan’s ongoing misery to the secondary, then tertiary, newspaper sections.

—-

The Specter of Fear

The Specter of Fear

Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.

— Don DeLillo (White Noise)

Ironically, even as the seriousness of the situation deepened- it’s in the water supply, the milk, the vegetables, the sea–media outlets quietly closed down their 24 hour live feeds and the public’s panic duly subsided. Some stragglers are tiptoeing back to Tokyo, having run out of clean underwear and things to do in Osaka. They look bewildered at the altered capital: occasionally empty shelves, the shut-off neon signs, and the silence in the streets. I long stopped noticing any of those things. I haven’t felt aftershocks in a few days now. Perhaps I have become immune–or apathetic.

But the scares go on: iodine found at 1000 times the normal level in seawater a mile from the plant, plutonium in the soil, although similar level as those found in the past caused by nuclear testing abroad. But something the foreign media don’t tell us is that The US Environmental Protection Agency would deem soil with this level of contamination fit for farming.

—-

TEPCO chief speaks on NHK

"Since the radiation has already spread, we expect the concentration to lessen quite quickly."

There’s only so much panic we can take. Are we supposed to accustom ourselves to a new reality, in which we tally up glasses of milk until we reach a fatal total, or switch from feeding our children green vegetables to protecting them from them? I don’t think so. Japanese television is quite content to return to normal programming, perhaps relieved to be excused from making plastic models of helicopters and nuclear power stations and wheeling out nuclear experts with bad hair every night. So we carry on working, sleeping, drinking. We turn off our electronic devices and pretend for a few hours that nothing is wrong.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Can the cool heads prevail in the vast sea of Tokyo to help Tohoku

Cool Heads Must Prevail To Help Cool The Rods Updated Response to This Is Not Chernobyl

Note: I decided to revise yesterday’s article, which I wrote in a state of anger.  As the comments rightly guessed, I found it hard to disassociate myself from this situation and write objectively.  The small contingent who haven’t left Tokyo feel the same, I think, and those who are beginning to trickle back from Osaka and other areas have left their fear behind for enthusiasm and a kind of patriotism. For both the Japanese public’s and their sakes, I want to clear a few things up.

Californians buying up iodine. British citizens “starving” in Tokyo. French residents “swamped” by a “toxic cloud of radiation”. Foreigners urged by their embassies to escape.

In reality, everyone in Tokyo is fine. I’ve stopped worrying about filling my bathtub up with water to draw on in case the tap water is contaminated, or wearing a mask for those invisible dregs of iodine and cesium floating through the sky. The level of radiation in the atmosphere today in the capital is 0.15 microsieverts, while normal levels for cities worldwide is 0.2. The only thing I’m worried about getting “exposed” to is the sensationalism in the foreign press that is causing widespread panic.

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

There’s a fine line between reassuring our families and friends abroad that we’re all well, and appearing blithely impervious to the suffering 150 miles away. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds triviality awkward at the moment, or who feels guilty for laughing or enjoying themselves. I do want to stress, however, that life in Tokyo is going on almost as normal. I know from my friends and colleagues battling to convey this to their families that it is difficult to parse this image with the reports on American and European television. The masks are to ward off hayfever, not to protect against radiation. Children are playing in the streets, the shops have re-stocked, and the “ghost town” is a consequence of  the train disruptions introduced to conserve electricity for diversion to the stricken areas.

Looking towards Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures, no one in Tokyo–other than those who have lost relatives and friends–has the right to complain about the inconvenient consequences of the quake, such as blackouts, empty shelves in shops, and disrupted train services. People aren’t exactly having the time of their life in the capital, but they feel extremely lucky to be there rather than in the northeast.

There are two main things I want to make clear. Firstly, while the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant is still not stable, there are several reasons why there will not be a spread of radioactive material significant enough to have health impacts beyond the 30km radius evacuation zone.

Secondly, people have complained that both the Japanese government and TEPCO have refused to discuss a “worst case scenario,” whereas the American and European press have been all too happy to oblige. The supposed lack of information in Japan (or rather the typically Japanese vague manner of speech and expression) has created a vacuum, into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured. We need to evaluate the opinions of experts who actually have a grasp on the numbers and understand what different levels of radiation imply for human health, rather than meaningless figures such as “20 times higher than normal.”

The general public, of course, is rarely rational in its response to such intense and hysterical media coverage. For every event, whether it be a natural disaster or a political crisis, and there is always an extreme dislocation between actual events and the “angle” given by journalists weary of the string of disasters they are made to report on.

In this case, the baseless scaremongering of the foreign press about the risk of radiation poisoning has had significant consequences. Firstly, on an emotional level, it detracted attention away from those really suffering, and made this tragedy about the suffering of Americans who are apparently going to get irradiated because of Japanese incompetence. Secondly, on an economic level, it has put both foreign residents in Japan and the Japanese economy out of pocket, thanks to the astronomical airfares they paid to get out, and the struggling unstaffed companies they left in their wake. Thirdly, on a personal level, it has caused a lot of stress and worry to the families of foreign residents in Japan, who beg their loved ones to come home. As previous Tokyo resident Craig Mod tweeted yesterday, “The inability for the foreign media to differentiate between northern Japan and the rest of the country is deeply troubling my mother.”

I know a lot of my friends have to sedate their relatives over Skype every day, brandishing statistics and rational articles, before their fears are freshly inflamed the next morning by the hysterical TV presenters. I even find myself defending the Japanese government, a body I’ve never had much faith in before, partly as a defensive reaction to the battering they are taking from governments and journalists overseas. Despite the multitude of articles claiming that Japanese citizens are becoming increasingly angry at their government, I can sense no more frustration from the Japanese populace than is normal. Most of those getting “angry” are expatriates.

The few of us who refuse to believe the reports are comforted by the assurances of a few experts. Everyone was relieved to read a discussion with the British government’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor John Beddington that was posted on the British Embassy’s website:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word ‘meltdown’.”

But what does “meltdown” actually mean?

He explained that the worst case scenario was one in which the reactors could not be cooled and pressure in the containment vessel could not be controlled. This is what is referred to as a “meltdown.” If that happened, the reactor core would melt and drop down to the floor of the container. It would then explode, releasing radioactive material that could go up to 500m in the air. But he emphasizes that even this worst case scenario “the problems are within 30km of the reactor.” Even if you had prevailing weather carrying radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo, with rain, there would be “absolutely no issue”.

It should be noted that this man has no connection to either the Japanese government or TEPCO, and likely has the interests of British nationals at heart more than he cares about offending anyone in Japan.

When Chernobyl went into meltdown, material was going up not to 500 meters, but 10 kilometers, and it lasted months. But even then, the exclusion zone was only 30 km, and there is no evidence to suggest that those outside of that zone suffered health problems. The problem was that people continued to drink water and vegetables that had been contaminated through the soil around the site.

In contrast to Chernobyl, where the explosion was nuclear because the fission process ran out of control, the explosions we have seen at Fukushima have been caused by vented hydrogen steam being “sparked” by something. The nuclear fission process was halted as soon as the earthquake hit Fukushima. The problems started with the tsunami, which damaged the power supply that was necessary to cool the fuel rods. Without power, it has been a race to continue cooling the fuel rods and to keep them submerged in water so that they do not heat up and produce too much steam. The first explosion at reactor no.1 happened when both heat and pressure built up inside the primary containment vessel, and TEPCO decided to release some of the steam to avoid damaging the vessel. The hydrogen in the steam escaped into the secondary vessel and was sparked by something, causing a blast.

Once electricity is reestablished and there is a steady supply of water to submerge the cores, we will be out of the danger zone.

(If you want to read a concise explanation of what happened at Fukushima, go here.)

So why has the French and American embassy begun to evacuate their nationals? I would suggest that they are mainly doing it in response to the fears ignited by the media. They want to evade criticism that they are not sufficiently protecting their citizens. France perhaps has reason to feel jumpy, since there were widespread suspicions that increases in thyroid cancer after 1986 were due to radiation from Chernobyl. However, in a 2006 report the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said that no clear link had been made, and that other kinds of thyroid cancer, unconnected to radiation, had also increased threefold in the same period. This case illustrates the kind of fear and paranoia that surrounds radiation.

Nevertheless, this week the French embassy organized two Air France flights from Narita and one from Kansai airport to fly home any French nationals who wished to leave. The United States’ offer was less generous, seemingly designed to dissuade all but the most desperate, since they would be flown to a “safe haven” in Asia where they would have to organize their own accommodation and also pay for the flight themselves. The embassy have stated that they do not believe that current radiation levels pose a threat to public health, but that they will assist people in leaving if they wish.

The British press also claimed on Thursday that the British Embassy was “urging” its citizens to leave because of concerns about the health risks of increased radiation levels, but their actual statement said nothing of the sort. They said: “Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

Although they did refer to the “evolving situation,” they stopped short of connecting it to any health risks posed to British citizens. Instead, they seemed mostly concerned with logistical problems, such as the trains cancellations and blackouts.

What has probably caused some of the confusion and fear is that it has been implicitly acknowledged that the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant will have some impact on the health of the workers who have remained working there. Nicknamed the “Fukushima 50,” from the number of workers on a shift at any one time, 200 workers have bravely volunteered to remain in the plant to cool the reactors. Already recognized as heroes, everyone in Japan is incredibly grateful for their sacrifice. Five workers have died since the quake (none of radiation poisoning, however) and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing.

The government also rushed through a quick change to the regulations, which now allows workers to be exposed to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts per year. The highest level measured so far was 400 millisieverts per hour on Tuesday morning, which can produce symptoms of radiation sickness in a few hours. But levels at the gate dropped later that day to between 0.6 to 11.9 millisieverts per hour, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and down to 0.2794 on Friday March 18, after the Self Defense Forces cooled reactors by spraying water from a truck.

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation is cumulative, meaning that a level of 400 millisieverts per hour would give you a dose of 800 over two hours. People who lived near Chernobyl when it went into meltdown got a dose of 450 millisieverts over several days. To have a 50% likelihood of death within a month, however, you need a dose of 5,000 millisieverts.

The panic in Tokyo was caused by the announcement on Tuesday that radiation levels were 20 times higher than usual. But not only was it still a miniscule amount- 0.000809 millisieverts per hour, or the equivalent of smoking one cigarette an hour- it went down by a factor of 8 to reach 0.000151 one hour later. Since Thursday, radiation levels in Tokyo have remained at normal levels, giving the equivalent of 0.2 millisieverts per year. A single x-ray would deliver a dose of 0.2 millisieverts at once.

Radiation levels at the gate of the plant were just 0.271 millisieverts on Friday morning at 8am per hour, which is very good news for the Fukushima 50 and everyone in the vicinity. Ironically, those who “escaped” Tokyo to go to New York received almost the same- an average of 0.2 millisieverts- just passing through airport security and traveling on a plane.

It may be basic science, but people seem to forget that radioactive material decays and becomes inactive. The two radioactive chemicals that have been detected in Fukushima are iodine and cesium. The amount of time it takes for half of the chemicals to decay is known as a “half-life”. Iodine has a half life of just eight days, while cesium has a half-life of 30 years. Iodine has been associated with thyroid cancer, and cesium has been linked to cancer of the liver, kidneys and the pancreas.

However, the impact of radiation on health, or the correlation with cancer rates, depends entirely on dosage. We are all exposed to a certain amount of background radiation from various sources, including outer space, cigarettes, and even bananas. Like any substance, including salt, vitamin C or even water, it is only in excess that it is dangerous. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, everyone in the United States is exposed to very small amounts of cesium in soil and water because of atmospheric fallout from the nuclear detonations of the cold war. It is odd to see smokers getting panicked about ”carcinogenic” radiation from Fukushima as they puff away on little sticks that are far more likely to give them cancer.

Both iodine and cesium are heavier than air, so even with strong winds blowing from Fukushima towards Tokyo, they will not adversely affect Tokyo, as Geiger counters in the capital have shown in the past few days. It should be pointed out that Three Mile Island, an incident that is being compared to Fukushima, was located just 100 miles from New York, where no health problems were reported. Tokyo, the city from which several countries are moving heaven and earth to “rescue” their citizens from, is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

I have explained why I think the fear of radiation poisoning is irrational and baseless. It is understandable that one feels scared when even embassies begin evacuations, and allows one’s self-preservation instinct to kick in. But where we must turn our attentions is to those who are actually dying at the moment. Four people froze to death in a gymnasium in Miyagi on Thursday night, because they had neither kerosene heaters nor blankets and it was snowing outside. Rescue crews have given up, since they say there’s little chance of finding someone alive in the ice. There are reports of five people sharing a fist-sized rice ball because supplies are not getting through. They now expect the death toll to rise to above 20,000, maybe even more, as the bodies float in on the tide. The shock and suffering is multi-dimensional, and enormous: they’re grieving, starving, and freezing.

I may not be Japanese, but I feel fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country right now. I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.

 

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

***I wrote this in haste because I was incensed about the coverage in the foreign media. However, I realize now that this was a highly emotionally charged response. Read the rewrite here which is more objective, detailed, and to be honest, convincing. ***

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Well-Stocked Supermarket Shelves in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

I think it’s time I checked in with another update from Tokyo to set the record straight. If you’ve been reading the foreign press about the “toxic cloud” hanging over Tokyo, you should know that I’m fine. Everyone in Tokyo is fine. The mask and the bathtub? I’m not so worried about those any more. The only exposure we’re worried about is exposure to sensationalist bullshit printed in the foreign press that is worrying our families and causing panic.

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This morning the British press was alive with the news that the Foreign Embassy in Tokyo were “urging their citizens to get out of the capital.” This is terrible journalism. The profession may be all about making the implicit explicit, but this stretches the truth of the statement too far. The statement reiterated the Japanese government’s assertion that the 30 kilometre radius around the Fukushimi I plant is the only area in which radiation levels might POTENTIALLY damage health. They then said:

“Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

In other words, they are mostly concerned about logistical problems, NOT radiation. They do not state that heightened radiation levels are behind their suggestion to Britons to “consider” leaving. Even the Guardian, a paper I usually trust, totally misreported this with: “Britain, France and other countries advised their citizens to ‘consider’ leaving Tokyo because of heightened radiation levels.”

I understand that anxiety is rising because the Fukushima plant is not stabilizing and is still dangerously overheated. But we need to look at the facts in a balanced and measured way rather than causing wide spread panic. Most journalists seem to have taken “the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility” to mean “ALL BRITS ARE GOING TO FRY IN RADIOACTIVE SOUP AND MUST FLEE AT ONCE.” I exaggerate, but that’s the gist. In fact, the wording of the statement is very careful and emphasizes that the only health risks are within the plant itself and the 30 kilometre radius around it. They seem to be more concerned about logistics and inconveniences such as transport and power cuts.

France’s response has been more explicit, and they have organized two planes to pick up their citizens from Narita. I think one left this morning. The only thing the British Embassy had done by the evening of the 16th was to organize a bus (!) from Sendai to Tokyo. Today they said that they would arrange for flights to Hong Kong for those who wished to leave voluntarily.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

I’ll take a moment to remind you that background radiation levels in Tokyo have returned to “normal” today, at 0.14 microsieverts. Normal background radiation for cities is actually higher, at 0.2. It’s clear that there is absolutely no threat whatsoever in Tokyo as the situation stands, since it has levels lower than, say, New York and even Cornwall. You are exposed to more radiation flying in a plane.

My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about some facts to straighten this out. I think The Economist did the best job of describing the nuclear power plant and the processes go on there, so if you have the time, I urge you to read it.

It is simply too difficult to go into everything that has happened as the situation continues to move too quickly to get a complete grasp of, but here is an excerpt from the very relieving discussion posted on the British Embassy’s website last night:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”.

But what does that actually mean?

What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials … that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area, not, I repeat, not serious for anywhere else. Even if you get a combination of explosions it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing wind taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you added some rainfall to bring the radioactive material down to ground level, do we have a problem?

The answer is unequivocally no.

Except for unnecessary fear-mongering, there is absolutely no issue where I am. The real problems are within 30 kilometres of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres, but to 30,000 feet. It lasted not for the odd hour or so but months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was also about 30 kilometres. And outside of that exclusion zone there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had direct problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people continuing to eat and drink contaminated water and vegetables. That will not be the case here. The real issue, should any news agency choose to report it, is the area itself, the immediate vicinity, and the brave people still working there.

There is no “mass exodus” from Tokyo just yet. The bullet trains are not packed to the brim with terrified Tokyoites. It is true that many expatriates have left the country or gone west or south, farther away from Fukushima. While some Japanese have gone to stay with their families the large majority have stayed. My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media.

Tokyo is not “gripped by panic”. It is quiet and calm. Children still play outside. People go about their daily lives, shopping and going out drinking with friends. People—including me—still go to work. The masks they wear are for hay fever, not to protect themselves from radiation. True, the streets are very empty compared to normal. Though this is largely due to the fact that train services have been canceled or reduced, not due to fears of radiation in the air.

The trains are heavily disrupted due to the rolling blackouts that are necessary to divert power up to the area affected by the quake and tsunami. But this isn’t anything to do with radiation. It’s to do with the fact that the earthquake destroyed power stations and also wiped out any power infrastructure in the north (Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefecture are all entirely or partly without electricity, gas or running water.) As of now, the train service is approaching—but still not quite as bad as—that of London and even upset as it is, it still bests most of the world’s.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Bags of Rice for sale in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

True, since the quake happened the shops have been amazingly bare, and some things—bread, rice, dry goods, milk, eggs, toilet paper—sell out very quickly. Today, shops seemed back to normal, all well supplied. Even when things were at their worst—which was never particularly bad—the shops were never entirely empty. Tokyoites never went hungry, and any accounts by idiotic Brits in the Sun that you read to the contrary are merely sensationalist fictions. Also, when food was short, there were no battles, no raised voices, no evident strife in the supermarkets. I don’t dare to think what would happen in England if the equivalent situation occurred. Probably a few broken noses.

Moreover, if I have to go without eggs for a few weeks, or if it got really bad and I had to live off rice, I could do it. I cannot believe that some people are not prepared to put up with that minute and trivial inconvenience and look further north, where there are reports of five people sharing a single rice ball (the size of a fist) and walking through the snow in the only set of clothes they’re left with.

The real tragedy in all of this is that hissy fits in Europe and America about radiation spreading there is detracting from the very real and catastrophic situation in Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation Exposure Levels

The number of dead might rise above 10,000, but they have only the time to count the bodies and line them up. They are running short of body bags. They have no time or space to identify them. There isn’t enough food or water getting through, and now temperatures have sunk below freezing and it’s snowing.

Reports are saying that aid isn’t getting through. They say that up to 500,000 people might have lost their homes. And not only are they in shock, grieving, hungry and freezing, but they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. No nappies, no toilet roll, no blankets, no coats. If you’re in Japan, please go Second Harvest and make up a box of items for donation. This charity has already gained permission from the government (which is now necessary) to deliver the aid, and will continue to make trips up to Sendai from now on.

I didn’t expect to, but this tragedy has made me fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country, and disgusted at how the rest of the world is presenting it.

Just remember that no matter how hot these fuel rods get, there will be no Chernobyl. There might be more hydrogen-sparked explosions that spread radiation, yes, but they will not affect an area larger the 30 kilometre radius already determined. It’s being likened to the Three Mile Island incident, which happened 100 miles from New York. Tokyo is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

As a closing thought, I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

Copyright

Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

During The Quake

Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

Doing the Improbable - Hitchhiking to Shinagawa © Alexis Wuillaume

Disaster hits in three stages: first local, then national, and finally global. When the room starts to shake like a airplane in horrific turbulence, you don’t think about words like “epicenter,” “death toll,” or “recovery effort.” The room is simply shaking and you are gritting your teeth and hoping that the next second doesn’t bring you to your feet, or the ceiling down on your head.

But when it stops and news begins to stream in, you start to wonder. The screen vibrates with a violently colored graphic of Japan with its coasts painted in glaring red, and you start to wonder.

For me, it happened like this. Two days ago we had a slight tremor that was big enough to make people feel a little shaky. This morning, cycling to work, I entertained morbid thoughts about what I would do were I to find my boyfriend buried in rubble, some limb pinned beneath a piece of our apartment wall. It isn’t unusual for me to conjure up a mental image so graphic, as I use imaginary cycling accidents to curtail my more reckless impulses for speed. But I was struck with a lump in my throat at this morning’s thought experiment, as I realized I would be both helpless and ignorant in an earthquake. I even pondered taking a first aid course. I didn’t really think about how fucking useless knowing the Heimlich manoeuvre or the recovery position would be if your house is dwarfed by filthy, debris-filled water.

I was on the ninth floor of the Asahi Shimbun’s building in Tsukiji, which is next to the famous fish market situated in Tokyo Bay. I was just about to go on my lunch break when a few subtle tremors, similar to those we felt two days ago. My boss, also British, muttered “ah come on, gimme a bit more.” The mood was jovial, light. The earthquake, however, was serious.

They shift erratically and capriciously, these tremors. They dart around like an indecisive musical score making its way to a crescendo. While this one was still simmering the mood was light, though in a forced way—one of my colleagues locked his jaw and squeezed out a hard grin, as if to convince himself he was in control. It then came up to a raging boil and the smiles were wiped off our faces. A woman held, helplessly, onto the corner of a bookshelf that shifted its contents—around 200 books—onto the floor with a crash. Those in the IT section gripped to the boxes that housed dozens of new computers, looking somewhat glad for the support that the corrugate cardboard wall gave them.

Earthquake map Source: Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

Earthquake map Source: Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

It was going up and down, side to side—like a cruel wind over the Pacific when you’re in a light aircraft and the flight attendants are screaming. The office, however, was oddly quiet. I looked at my two colleagues and they looked back at me, our eyes darting around the circle, trying to intuit what emotion was flashing behind our one another’s eyes. It was as if we were trying to protect each other, by not obviously freaking out, by maintaining some of our famous British veneer. I think I asked a few times, ‘What do we do now? At what point do we get the hell out?”, but the tremors were such that even the thought of traversing the office floor, never mind getting down nine flights of stairs, was too much to contemplate.

After about two to three minutes—it’s hard to say since every second seemed insanely long—it started to simmer down, leaving everyone looked like they were clinging to the mast of a shipwreck. And then, with a great deal of aplomb, everyone picked themselves up, started chattering and muttering, “Sugoi… sugoi…” (a catch-all term for ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘incredible’) and turning up the volume on the TV.

“That was distinctly unpleasant, and very far from funny,” said my boss, with typical British understatement.

I felt an urge to laugh or giggle, inappropriate as it was. My heart felt like I’d just done too many lines of cheap speed, beating out of my chest and making my skin itch and my stomach hurt. So much for a lunch break; I felt like breathing in too heavily would make me vomit.

No one could concentrate. There was worried mutters and chatters, everyone turning to the television and shouting out numbers: magnitude, height of waves, populations. There’s something faithful and concrete in figures that somewhat numbs the shock, the feeling of helplessness. We were supposed to get on with editing, but who can concentrate with the screen jolting all over the place? One of my colleagues muttered darkly, “Fuck, they better hurry on and give me the rest of my work for today or I’ll be too fucking terrified to do it.”

There was more humour on the stairs, where people were lugging up crates of beer and tea. By the time they reached the 9th floor, on the way to the 13th, they looked exhausted. “You look tired,” I commented, and they shot back, “Jesus, this is tough,” but with a smile.

I can’t remember when we first started getting the footage from the epicenter in Miyagi Prefecture. The first stills on the TV were warnings of a 6 meter tsunami along the coast, to hit Miyagi as well as Iwate and Fukushima. In actuality, the waves reached 10 meter. The footage was too awful to describe, and the optimist in me kept thinking that maybe all those people were able to escape elsewhere. Maybe all the cars being pierced by debris and driftwood would be open and the people would have already escaped elsewhere. Maybe the van driving down the middle of a rice field as the wave slammed into the paddy next to it…escaped. Now that the numbers are rising, in that foreboding ticker tape that all Tokyoites seem to be plugged into, it seems more likely that my optimism is misplaced.

Out of the window we could see a thick plume of charcoal smoke, emerging from Odaiba, an area constructed on reclaimed land out in Tokyo Bay. The sky was dark at 4pm. The TV screens were even darker, with swathes of black liquid swallowing boats and cars like an insatiable, fictional slime. It was, and still is, impossible to imagine what those people experienced. It is even harder in a world where the images resemble a SimCity game of destruction. Too virtual, too removed, to be real.

The aftershocks started coming, and kept coming. It’s now thirteen hours after it hit- 4am- and they’re still coming, these sickening jolts and hums. You feel seasick in your house. The floor no longer grounds you. Everything else is just something that could fall on you.

It’s hard to describe the mood in the office. The best word to describe foreigners at my desk would be ‘giddy’. Still punch-drunk on adrenaline, reeling from the magnitude of what had occurred, and struggling to get back to normality to try and complete our jobs for the day.

We were told we could go home if we wanted, but all of the subway and overland train services had been halted until further notice. I was on my bike, so able to eventually escape, hoping for a fast ride to try to burn off some of the leftover adrenaline.

A sobering sight - Empty shelves abound © Sophie Knight

A sobering sight - Empty shelves abound © Sophie Knight

I had no such luck. I stopped at a convenience store to buy batteries, and found them to be about the only product left on the shelves. Thousands of people were walking in the street, in a long sombre procession to get home—if their homes were within walking distance. Some people set off to Kawasaki, about 20 kilometers away. Everyone in the line clutched bread and instant noodles, bearing in mind that many people had lost electricity and/or gas and they might not have any way to cook their spoils. Funnily enough, the only thing in lesser supply than dry foodstuffs was booze: the shelves were bare. While I was hoping a manic cycle would swallow the adrenaline, other people were obviously seeking the more direct route. The theme was the same in the rest of the supermarkets I passed.

The roads were hell. Every single one of Tokyo’s 13 million inhabitants seemed to have spilled out in their vehicles. Intersections were jammed with cars positioned diagonally across, having attempted to turn and having found nowhere to go. I had to snake around cars, other bikes, and a massive pedestrian exodus that was relentless for the whole of the 8 kilometers home. Some people were wearing white hard-hats, or helmets, which I think they were issued at the office. No one looked particularly distressed, or shell shocked. This is probably because Tokyo escaped relatively unscathed, but those who have relatives in Iwate, Miyagi or Fukushima might not be so lucky.

UPDATE: Things are getting really weird here. Radiation is now a worry although the govt and others are saying that dispersion means that levels in Tokyo won’t rise. But the minister Edano dodged a question about it in a press conference and wouldn’t give info. I got my hands on a report commissioned by the BBC and they say it’ll take 8 hrs for air from Fukushima to reach Tokyo. Everyone’s fleeing but for the moment I’m taking my chances and staying put.

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1Center for Geospatial Technology at TTU

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

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