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Pass the Ayahuasca, Watson (HESO Magazine)

Pass The Ayahuasca, Watson…

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made…”

— [Genesis 3:1]

Pass the Ayahuasca, Watson (HESO Magazine)

Pass the Ayahuasca, Watson

Where does life come from? It’s a question that has plagued man since the first spark of consciousness emerged. To seek it, people have looked to the sky, opened up sacred books, peered through microscopes, ingested plants, starved and cut themselves, joined cults… Yet despite the disparities between the perspectives thrown up by such activities, there runs a thick seam of parallels. Perhaps the world is just inherently symbolic- or perhaps the structure of the human mind is such that everyone perceives and paints the world in similar colours. If so, it is possible that modern systems of knowledge are merely rediscovering what forgotten cultures knew long ago.

Take the snake, for example. A symbol of deception, trickery, poison, chicanery: he who betrayed us and banished us from the idyllic Eden. In the West, the snake is a tool of the devil, the ungrateful and nasty figure in European folk tales, the nefarious engine of Cleopatra’s suicide. Yet it also allowed mankind to reproduce, propagate and dominate; its role in the creation stories of countless cultures mean it is also seen as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.

But why should this limbless, slithering reptile represent the beginning of life? In Aborigine, Mayan, Egyptian, Aztec and several Amazonian cultures, serpents are often depicted as a pair, forming a double helix and signifying infinity. Spiralling ladders and twins have also been similarly employed in other cultural imaginings. The double helix structures, often a twisted rope, implies communication between the sky and the earth, and it is the means of transport used by the Gods to travel between the earth and the sky.

Banisteriopsis Caapi Vine © Rafael Guimarães dos Santos

Banisteriopsis Caapi Vine © Rafael Guimarães dos Santos

Curiously, these images bear a striking resemblance to what Crick, Watson and the underrated Rosemary unearthed in 1952: the DNA molecule. Despite the fact that they were lauded for their ‘discovery’, what if they had merely re-interpreted what others had known for millions of years, only in their own specific system of knowledge?

Enter Jeremy Narby: anthropologist by trade and ayahuascero by choice, he travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to write an ethnography about the Ashaninca people. What resulted, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, found that their creation myth was also based on a pair of spiralling snakes, and they explained to Narby that he would have to take ayahuasca in a shamanic ceremony in order to understand their perception and interpretation of the world.

Ayahuasca, Caapi or Yage to any beatniks still breathing, is a compound drug, formed of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, from shrubs of the Psychotria genus (although the chemical is also present in human spinal fluid) and banisteriopsis caapi, a vine that grows around tree trunks in a spiral that resembles—yes—a double helix.

Narby’s subsequent experiences of ayahuasca ceremonies motivated him to reject the objectivity so beloved of anthropology and other sciences and embrace a more holistic theory of the synchronicities between modern Western science and ancient shamanic theories. He argued that both molecular biologists and shamans would concur on one point: that there is a hidden unity that underlies all forms of life, and it is only at this level that one can heal. However, his theory was heavily criticized, not least by mainstream science. In the West, scientists tend to fetishize absolutes and reject mysteries and uncertainty. Furthermore, archaic knowledge systems (or ‘shamanic flights of fancy’) are regarded as gloriously irrelevant and loopy as a Merry Prankster babbling gibberish in a bathtub high on acid.

This is for two reasons: firstly, Western science has tended to privilege visual or sensory phenomena above intuition or mere ‘feeling’. Secondly, even in those forms of science that admit that truth lies at a deeper level than what we can perceive, deductive logic reigns supreme. Most scientists, in an attempt to reject the ‘divine plan’ put forth by religions, subscribe to an idea of evolution as unconscious and arbitrary.

"The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge" Jeremy Narby (Georg, 1998)

"The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge" Jeremy Narby (Georg, 1998)

Yet, as Narby pointed out, DNA is problematic because it simultaneously represents mutation and continuity, transformations and transference. For example, enzymes edit the RNA transcript of the DNA script by sending a constant stream of messages to cells, between which they must choose: die, stay alive, divide, don’t divide. Given that the Latin word for intelligence, intelegere, means “to choose between”, the cells’ subsequent decisions actually represent a form of intelligence. Even if this intelligence is of an emergent rather than a top-down form, and evidences no ‘plan’ as such, it is right to say that we are formed of a living language, a code in constant flux.

What level could such structures be perceived at? As Western science tends to regard hallucinations as the product of a dysfunctional mind, rather than as an interpretation of reality in some form, it refuses to recognise shamanic visions as a form of knowledge. Yet in many cultures, hallucinatory trance is seen as a way of communing with the world, in which normally imperceptible information is transmitted. The claims of shamans that they are actually able to ‘see’ DNA seems preposterous to scientists, given that DNA is 120 times narrower than even the smallest wavelength of visible light.

But how, then, are there such synchronicities between the images of double helixes, chromosome shapes and splitting spirals in ancient Aborigine, Egyptian and Amazonian artworks, and the scientific depictions of DNA? Shamans claim that they are able to access a level of consciousness where they communicate with the ‘animate essences’ or ‘spirits’ of things, and they attribute their botanical and medical knowledge to the trances in which they do this. Narby investigated how this might be possible, and discovered that scientists in the 1980s found that all cells emit photons at a rate of 100 photons per second, per square centimetre, making it within the wavelength perceptible to human eyes. Naturally, those photons were emitted from DNA.

If the shamans are correct in saying that they actually communicate with DNA in trance states, it would account for the curious luminescence of hallucinatory visions; all living things are permeated with a bright light that comes directly from the DNA-emitted photons, allowing the shamans to ‘read’ the essences of plants and other living things. The shamans claims that as the form of the banisteria caapi mimics that of DNA itself, it opens up the consciousness of those who ingest it, allowing them to communicate with DNA itself. Absurd as the suggestion may sound, it is this that has allowed numerous cultures to perceive the essential unity the underlies all life forms, and depict it in the form of serpents or entwined ladders, or ropes. Even scientists themselves often describe the movement of the DNA molecule as ‘snakelike’, and are only gradually beginning to understanding the medical knowledge of the shamans in their own terms now. Narby thus arrived at the conclusion that one part of humanity had detached itself from the serpent life principle, in adopting an exclusively rational point of view. Ironically, that part of humanity which has detached itself from the serpent life principle managed to discover it in a laboratory three thousand years later. It seems the scientists can’t see the wood for their petri dishes.

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.

He argued that both molecular biologists and shamans would concur on one point: that there is a hidden unity that underlies all forms of life, and it is only at this level that one can heal.

Burning Questions of London - Class War or Pure Criminality

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

And to these people I would say this: you are not only wrecking the lives of others, you are not only wrecking your communities, you are potentially wrecking your own lives too.

— David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain

There is no future in England’s dreaming
Don’t be told what you want
Don’t be told what you need
There’s no future, no future,
No future for you…

— The Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

On Saturday August 6th, a group of around 200 people gathered outside a police station in Tottenham, in North London, to protest against the police shooting of 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan. According to some reports, the vigil was peaceful until a 16-year-old girl was pushed to the ground by policemen when she approached them to demand details of his death. The crowd erupted.

Two days later, the capital resembled a movie set, a video game, or a dystopian nightmare: take your pick from the similes. London had autoimmune disease: it was attacking itself.

Lawlessness reigned as hooded youths smashed windows, threw bricks, Molotov cocktails and metal road signs, burned shops and houses, and charged at riot police. The disruptions spread from Tottenham to other North London boroughs such as Wood Green, Enfield Town, and Ponders End, then south to Brixton and Croydon (outside of London), then east to Hackney, and to the west in Notting Hill.

Rioting and looting then emerged hundreds of miles away from London, in Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, and Gloucestershire. The death toll is five at the time of writing, with an unknown number in hospital after being beaten. Why did this happen? And how?

The latter is easier to answer.

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

“We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.” – Banksy

Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

It started off as a crowd of 200 people protesting the death of a young black man. Partly because they knew him personally—and partly because he was the latest victim of police brutality and/or racism. Then, in the same way that the L.A. riots turned quickly from a protest with a point to mob rule, the London riots unraveled into an orgy of looting and chaos. The tipping point came when people realised they had outnumbered and overpowered police, that they could do whatever they wanted. And so they did.

The rioters on the first night were predominantly young black males. Yet after that, the rioters—and particularly the looters—could not be boxed in with tags of race, gender, or even age. Young girls, middle-aged men—many appeared to be opportunistic “bystanders” to the violence, who merely wanted their share of free stuff.

The disturbances only simmered to a halt after David Cameron deigned to return from his holiday in Italy and announce that the number of police on London’s streets would be increased from 6,000 to 16,000. Many of the most hardcore contingent were arrested and as people realised they were more likely to get caught, they stopped. And put the stolen iPhones and flat-screen TVs on eBay.

Now to the question of why. The rioters were unable to articulate a coherent justification for their actions: “We’re taking our taxes back… it’s about the rich people, yeah, or the Government, the Conservatives or whoever it is,” as if they’d been reading leftie newspapers for a good line to quote. The responsibility to explain why has fallen instead to the intellectuals, academics and journalists.

The response has fallen into two camps. The conservative right have maligned the rioters as “purely criminal” with Cameron saying they were “frankly sick”. The liberal left have tried to explain the underlying social, economic, political and cultural reasons, inviting derision from some who say they are condoning the looters.

To me, exploring the background context is not an excuse for the horrific attacks on individuals, livelihoods, private property and communities, but rather a question that begs to be asked.

It is easy to romanticise protests. Riots also erupted in England back in 1981, when 2 tone music could dress up aggression as meaningful political protest. But this time, it was not about demands for rights, or political participation, or less welfare cuts, or racial equality. The non-looting public were outraged and disgusted at the utter lack of conscious objective, or political engagement. They were furious that underprivileged kids would willfully destroy the shops of other underprivileged people who had worked hard to get where they were. This was not an attack on the rich, no matter the confused claims of the looters who spoke to journalists.

Those who claim, however, that the riots were merely about mindless greed and violence, somehow miss the point as well. As any historian, sociologist or anthropologist will try and tell you, all events have context and background: widespread criminality does not emerge simply as a result of individual faults.

Countless explanations have been offered already. Is it about broken familial structure, absentee parents, widespread lack of discipline, as those on the right say or social disenfranchisement, relentless humiliation and a lack of hope or future, as the left suggest? Is it the glamorisation of gangster culture, which promises wealth and status through violence and intimidation rather than the socially acceptable route of schooling and employment? Is it a question of race and the inevitable consequence of misguided multi-culturist policies?

Are we asking the right questions?

Building Utopia (HESO Magazine)

Building Utopia © Arnaud De Grave

It could be all of the above, and more. That violent, looting and arson exploded to such a scale suggests that the giddy euphoria of complete transgression—and the crowd mentality that encouraged it—are surely factors. But as it becomes clear that the participants came from myriad walks of life—teachers, millionaires’ daughters, eight year-old kids—and not all were impoverished, desperate, or angry, it also becomes harder to argue that there is one root cause.

For the opposition Labour government, it is convenient to claim that the violence erupted in response to recent austerity cuts, which affected student loans, health care, and youth facilities. For the British National Party and other xenophobes, it is convenient to point the finger at blacks. And for liberals, it is convenient to pin the blame on a consistent underinvestment in deprived areas and the increasingly large gap between the haves and have-nots. Is placing blame getting us anywhere?

It is nigh on impossible to prise apart the threads that knotted up to produce the situation. It would also be patronizing and presumptuous to suggest what the rioters are thinking, or what they have been through, particularly those belonging to the so-called “underclass”. I have never had a confrontation, never mind a conversation, with any of them.

Yet I lived in London for three years. I spent one of those years in a block of council flats in Hackney, where kids tossed Molotov cocktails in the courtyard at Halloween. Like the rest of the middle-class students there, I treated the deprivation and gang culture around me as a form of ersatz danger, as hip and edgy as the exposed brick walls in the local dive bar. I was an agent of gentrification, and the social mix was still impoverished enough to be cool and raw enough to make me feel alive.

But as well as being authentic, the undercurrents of violence, aggression and apathy that run through British life are depressing. Anyone who has lived in London or any part of the UK has been an unwilling witness to the carnage that hits urban centres on Friday and Saturday nights: the gutters awash with blood, smashed glass and drunk girls with their skirts up.

Yet perhaps people like me, who patronize and jeer at the underclass—their accents, their clothes, their limited lexicon—are to blame for their supposed alienation from society. Or maybe not. Maybe their actions last week were unforgivable: poverty is not necessarily a precursor to immorality.

Every article I read twists my arm and pulls me to a different conclusion. One thing I can be sure of is that the riots were not “about race”. Anyone who claims they were means one of two things: 1) since the majority of rioters were black, then all blacks are intrinsically criminal trouble-makers, or that 2) young black men suffer relentless institutionalized racism, and this was their reaction to it.

I think the fact that the participation of whites, even in the first night of riots, renders these arguments nonsensical. It is true that blacks are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police on the street than whites, which might explain why anti-police sentiment is particularly rife among the black community.

Yet it is also true that they are responsible for 70% of gun crime in the capital, which might go far to deciphering some of the institutional racism within the police force and misgivings in society at large. If you agree that race is simply a social construct, born out of environment and culture, then it holds that there is no a priori connection between your skin colour and the likelihood of you being a criminal, shown by the difference between kids brought up in affluent and impoverished environments.

Yet it is undeniable that there is a general human impulse to gravitate towards people who are similar to you, which helps create the phenomenon of culture. We can observe a group of people and say that the way they behave and interact with each other constitutes “black culture,” just as we can for British Indians, Polish immigrants or Blood Sausage connoisseurs. To blame skin colour in itself, rather than environments and cultures, unfairly condemns people by their appearance alone, or their affinity for black pudding and so on.

Of course, you can argue that the elements of “black culture” in Britain that idolize American gangs are responsible for the racism leveled against them. You can argue that young black kids don’t have enough role models, or father figures, but aren’t there as many white and Asian kids who are exactly the same? Doesn’t that prove that it is more about environment than genetic heritage—and that it is more about class than race, as is usually the case in Britain?

It is class that allows people to call the rioters “mindless,” a codeword for thick, which is the British equivalent of dumb. It’s easy to be horrified, to jeer, to demean them as “feral”: base brutes lacking intelligence and morality and deserving of all the force the state can muster against them. But call someone a no-good criminal enough times and they will eventually begin to claim it as an identity. If you want to be fancy you can call it Foucauldian.I can see why the government is keener to talk about punishing them than trying to fix the social and cultural circumstances that led to their disenfranchisement and alienation from society. I too have no solutions to offer. The debate rages on between those who think that only severe punishment will teach the perpetrators to fear authority, to those who think the people who have been systemically abused and humiliated by society actually need help.

While retribution might be necessary, it is not going to solve the root of the problem, and might even spark future unrest. Wandsworth Council has announced that it is looking into evicting rioters who live in council houses (e.g. heavily subsidized rent), and even families of rioters. In addition to the absurdity of a family’s fate resting on a wayward kid (even rich kids go off the rails, remember Mr. PM), such a move is unlikely to cause anything other than resentment, and further potential unrest. If we continue to go down that route, the War on the Underclass might become just like the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror: a battle fought in the vain belief that increasing the forces that sparked the problem will eventually make it disappear.

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?

—-

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.

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.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A Tokyo 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Blonde Redhead performs at the 4AD Evening in Shinbuya

In the interests of journalistic integrity, I’ll grant you a full disclosure: I have never really liked Blonde Redhead or Ariel Pink. Both are bands that I felt like I should like, given my friends’ evangelical fervour for them: they made me mixtapes with them on, played their albums on loops when I was around, sent me links to their videos. I felt like I was missing something, but the only response I could drum up was a resounding ‘meh’. Then when Pitchfork awarded the best single of 2010 to Ariel Pink, I realized my uncoolness required some remedial action. Before I got thrown out of hipster circles, I decided that seeing them live might be the only way to alchemise my indifference into appreciation.

I found Ariel Pink difficult to listen to on record. To me, they were the aural equivalent of bad fusion food, taking the worst of several different cuisines (or musical genres) and then adding fistfuls of cheese. And his syrupy pastiche of old funk and cheesy lyrics- “I want a lady as beautiful as a sunset on a strip”- just sounded like the sad kind of muzak played at an office party in a cavernous bar strewn with streamers and deflated balloons.

But Ariel’s corniness is not what it seems, as I found out. Obsessed with the sound of the radio as he remembered it in his youth, he was an archetypal reclusive artist, holing up in his bedroom to record hundreds of tapes that recreated the sounds of his youth, replete with lo-fi scratchiness and the disjointed, shifting sound you get from flicking through stations. He is in fact a master of memory, attempting to resuscitate the 70s and 80s not through repackaging it for hipsters but by slicing it up and serving it raw.

I realise after a few songs that while they are a difficult band upon first listen, given that they create erratic mélanges of different styles and moods and often segue into something rather unsettling. Their music seems to be organised into songs in the same way that William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is organised into chapters (i.e. arbitrarily), and share that novel’s disjointed, hallucinogenic absurdity, lack of continuity and shifts in time and context.

They flick through sweet surfer harmonies to squelchy 80s saxophone (“Hot Body Rub”), from creepy falsetto to the kind of growly grunge of Bleach-era Nirvana (“Butt House Blondies”). The audience is polite and eerily silent between songs but seem somewhat bemused. Finally a song raises a cheer: “Round and Round,” the first single to be professionally produced, in contrast to their earlier work, which sounded so tinny they could have been committed to tape via a paper cup and string. Although it’s the one song that takes up residence in my head after the gig, I can empathise with the ambivalence that seeps from the crowd as they exit the stage.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Ariel Pink performs at the 4AD Evening

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter mystifies the Tokyo audience

Deerhunter, being both less loopy and more melodic, are easier to enjoy. Melding cheerful West Coast melodies, Conor Oberst-esque shoegazer pop, and layered cacophonous jams, last year’s “Halcyon Digest”, their fourth album, has warranted some pretty heavy rotation. They blast the haphazard noodlings of Ariel Pink away with a solid sound, anchored by driving guitars and big drums. The runaway highlight, “Desire Lines”, begins with a riff suspiciously close to Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion”, and finishes with an extended triumphant jam punctured by the ever more strident twangs of guitar that ring out like a bell. Their sound is punchier, more expansive than on record, and bounces around the room to a beautifully synchronized light show. The intensity is raised on “Nothing Ever Happened,” a fast and punky thrash, and the poetic “He Would Have Laughed,” eight minutes of a hypnotizing guitar riff and plaintive vocals. A dozen different strands of melody interweave and cleave apart like a rainbow exploding. They finish on “Little Kids” from their previous album “Microcastles,” which crescendos on refrain of ‘to get older still’ , until it erupts, the smoke machine chokes the stage, and they walk off triumphant.

Contrarede Presents A 4AD Evening

Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead performs at the 4AD Evening in Shinbuya

Now up with Blonde Redhead, for whom tonight’s gig is somewhat of a homecoming–the lead singer, Kazu Makino–is Japanese. I had found their music a little too frothy and ethereal on record sometimes, not being deep enough to entrance nor catchy enough to remember. Live, however, they are completely compelling. Makino, a spectre in a white dress and hair-covered face, literally vibrates on the stage, sheathed in shifting footlights. Her fragile yet seductive demeanour is thrown into contrast by the more boisterous and determined backing provided by Italian brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace, giving their sound an interesting dynamic. Along with the kind of thick, complex jams popularized by Sonic Youth, patches of minor-key melancholy seep through. Much of the latter comes from after 2002, when Makino was trampled by a horse and sustained severe injuries. She alludes to the incident when she says, “for months I couldn’t sing–nothing came out. Finally… someone helped me to get my voice back, and I want to thank them.” The latest album, “Penny Sparkle,” sounds like she has finally fully regained her strength and positivity. “In Particular” is a high point, with its Gallic-tinged refrain of “Alex, Alex, X X”.

Like Deerhunter, their sound is much bigger and gutsier than on record, and a massive swathe of sound assaults us from the speakers. Makino’s voice is also higher in the mix, and she sounds angrier, even desperate in the closer “Not Getting There”. When they play last year’s single, “Here Sometimes,” her sparse and breathy vocals could pass for Medulla-era Bjork. The audience is evidently captivated, and scream loud enough to win an encore.

Was I won over though? Well, it’s fair to say that I “get” Ariel Pink a little more now, although I still find them too distracting for background music. Deerhunter made me want to scrabble through their back catalogue a little more, and I was so charmed by Blonde Redhead that even their meeker sounding songs are more interesting now that I can hear echoes of their live performance through it. It’s a credit to the venue too that for all three acts the lighting was perfect, augmenting the atmosphere of each act and creating a great visual spectacle. If only every gig was as convincing as this one.

For more information, go to the Contrarede and 4AD Site.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Poor Japan. With its yen soaring and its global relevance in free fall, its hulking neighbour to the West is suddenly getting all the girls. China, like a tubbier younger brother whose discovery of Clearasil and lifting weights has cured his acne and stunted growth, has dramatically emerged out of its commie slumber to swipe his elder brother’s economic crown. Yet while its new muscles might justify its swagger, it has all the petty combativeness of an adolescent. To cap a recent string of diplomatic disputes with Tokyo, it abruptly withdrew all of its films from the festival in protest at the Taiwanese delegation not being introduced as “Chinese Taiwan”.

Fortunately, even with China gone, Tokyo is still hanging onto the coattails of the zeitgeist with its theme of “Ecology” for the third straight year. Despite not commanding quite the same reputation as the big gun festivals- Venice, Sundance- the verdant carpet does differentiate them from the other T.I.F.F. in Toronto. Which is how there were more than a few high-profile films and Hollywood actors in attendance. In addition to the usual Japanese suspects of Tadanobu Asano and Kyoko Koizumi, Catherine Deneuve was there with Potiche, while other premiers featured Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore (Bunraku), Jeff Bridge and Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy), Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, and Wesley Snipes (Brooklyn’s Finest), with Ewan McGregor (The Ghost Writer) and Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) representing the Brits.

I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts “Eco” in the 23rd TIFF

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

“It’s trauma, it’s… the loneliness of being seen by a big crowd.” So says director Saverio Constanzo of the recently released, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. The adaptation of Paolo Giordano’s hit novel, tells the story of two misfits, Alice and Mattia, whose traumatic childhoods push them together in an awkward and compulsive relationship. Mattia is a mathematic genius who rather pretentiously described their relationship like that of prime numbers either side of a non-prime: close, but forever apart and destined to solitude.

Differing from the linear narrative of the novel, the film flits between three different time periods, and aims for a more dramatic, highly-strung atmosphere than the quietly contemplative prose in the book. “We mixed everything to make something more like a rock opera than a silent book.” said Costanzo, adding, “I go to the cinema to be shocked, surprised, to lose my orientation. Not to see what I already know.” It is beautifully and poetically shot, but at times the tension feels inappropriate and somewhat forced.

And Peace on Earth, based in a suburb of Rome, also fails to live up to its pretensions. Although its press release claims the protagonist is a recently released convict who whiles his day away on a bench, more time is spent following a trio of thoroughly unlikeable layabouts, whose mutual contempt for each other is almost as repulsive as the crime they eventually commit. They get into fights, sniff coke, laze in the sun and insult each other. The director is at pains to reflect Rome’s heritage, with long sweeping shots of architecture, a classical score and textbook cinematography that admittedly does throw up some artful shots. But the characterisation is lacking, and the plot so aimless that the central event- a rape- feels tacked on rather than being the crescendo, and one feels little empathy for any of the characters. Despite the director’s professed desire to make a film that reflected the city as they knew it, the mafia scenes are as cliche as it gets: pushed up tits, knuckle dusters, and lots of smoking.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Hot young silhouettes in LED Track Suits: Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)

The gap between the makers’ aspiration and achievement is much narrower for Dog Sweat, an enlightening look into the private lives of young people in Iran. With most people’s impressions of the country formed by mainstream media, from the nefarious President Ahmadinejad and his devious grin to the apparently Twitter-powered “green revolution” last year, director Hossein Keshavarz said “We wanted to do it underground so we could make a film that was authentic, because we wanted to show the energy. There’s such a great energy in Iran.” Yet while politics have an inevitable influence on daily life (the director discloses that making the film after the contested elections would have been impossible), it is also clear that young people are much the same anywhere else in the world. At one point, a guy suggests to a girl that they make a film about Iran. She snorts derisively at the suggestion that they focus on villages, which would merely perpetrate the misapprehension that Iran is full of camels, and suggests that they make it about “what’s really going on- the writers and intellectuals”. No doubt the director was putting his thoughts in her mouth here, although Dog Sweat actually delves into even more controversial topics, such as homosexuality, extramarital affairs and illicit premarital sex.

Keshavarz and co-writer Maryam Azadi vision amounted to, “Well, we’re not all villagers… 80% of Iranians live in cities, 68% of Iranians are under 30 years. So we just wanted to show that there’s a big range of different people in society. And we feel like only a certain range, only a specific range, has been seen of our society.” Shot on handheld cameras, the film is dynamic and energetic, although when obligations begin to encroach on desires, the tone turns melancholy. The lack of freedom and harsh penalties suffered by the characters left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I was also cheered to see how intelligent, eloquent and energetic modern day Iran is compared to the media’s projections.

In contrast, Sketches of Kaitan City only told me everything I already knew about Japanese families: they don’t talk much. Made up of short vignettes focusing on the lives of inhabitants of Kaitan, the film is set by the sea in freezing Hokkaido. The word “sketches” suggests a poetic sensibility, but I found the quiet desperation in each of the stories simply painful to watch. Dissatisfied with his job, a man beats his young wife and berates her stupidity; a young man loses his job and takes his sister up to see the sunrise at New Year, only to disappear afterward; a married woman works in a bar and sleeps with clients when drunk, provoking her husband’s rage. In all, there is a chronic lack of conversation, which made me wonder how anyone can get through life with so few words and so much pain.

The family members in Hospitalité are almost as uncommunicative, but the entrance of a stranger into their lives gets them- and the neighbours- talking. Filmed almost entirely inside a cramped house in a sleepy part of Tokyo’s traditional district, it brilliantly communicates the claustrophobic atmosphere of urban Japanese life. Kobayashi, who lives with his young wife Natsuki and his daughter from a previous marriage, runs a printing business out of the front of his house. One day, an unusually forward stranger, Kagawa, invites himself into the house and deftly inserts himself into their spare room, their business and love lives. It is hard to tell whether his nonchalance is supreme confidence, a hideous lack of perception or simply insanity, but whichever, he manages to ride roughshod over his hosts’ feelings. Using secrets about his hosts’ lives to coerce them, he invites a string of loud, boisterous foreigners into the house, who cause interminable queues for the bathroom, ruin Natsuki’s birthday with a raucous party and generally intensify the petty fears of the gaijin menace in the neighbourhood. While this image does little to dispel the image of foreigners as terrifying, noisy giants that are a threat to social peace, they are portrayed as such from the small-minded perspective of the local anti-crime group. To his merit, Kobayashi scolds one particular busybody for “bad-mouthing our friends” later on in the film, and the end suggests that the alien intrusion actually brought a little excitement and light into their suburban lives.

a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed. Click To Tweet

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

Waterlife (Kevin McMahon, 2009)

Catching one ecologically themed movie- Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife, which examined the ecological disasters unfolding in the five Great Lakes between the U.S. and Canada, was a good choice. Although most people view these expanses of water as benign sites for boating and fishing, sinister health risks lurk in their depths. From the menace of the zebra mussel, which pushed out other species and unbalanced the ecosystem in just a year, to the toxic industrial sludge dropped into Erie by unscrupulous industry, it’s a horrifying story of how gleefully and ignorantly mankind has destroyed nature. With the residues of half of America’s medicine cabinet swilling around the seaweed, deleterious plant estrogens are also wreaking havoc. While the image of hermaphrodite frogs (70% have testicular deformities) might be somewhat comical, it reveals the devastating effect that plant estrogens wreak on the environment, and the food chain. Sure enough, it goes up to humans as well; the ratio of girls born to boys in areas around the lake stands at 2:1. After watching the amount of toxic sludge, both faecal and chemical, and the repeated assertion by scientists that the water we drink, bathe in and cook with is a “soup” of chemicals, I was pushed to question my faith in tap water and consider that “bourgeois” bottled mineral water might just be worth it.

Despite all the seriousness on show, the stand outs for me were all centred around children. Like Iván Noel’s ¡Primaria!, a charming semi-autobiographical look at a primary school in Seville that features the same children that the director actually taught for a year. “Everything in the film is something that happened.” Inspired by his experience, Ivan Noel wrote a script and brought in adults to play the teachers. When asked about the direction of the children, Francisco Alfonsin, who plays Jose Maria, quipped, “Actually, we didn’t have a script at all.” The new art teacher encounters chaos in the classroom, but eventually manages to both control and inspire his new charges, even “curing” one boy’s hyperactivity with art. Another teacher warns Jose Maria that another boy, Carlos, “knows more about you than you know about yourself,” a prophecy that becomes evident later on in the film. Some of the children’s perceptions are communicated with cute Michel Gondry-esque hallucinations (such as toy bugs scurrying across the floor or a group of ignorant parents devolving into monkeys and stuffing their faces with bananas). “[Ivan’s] aim was actually…the celebration of childhood and the celebration of teaching as a profession.” It is hard to describe the humour and joy in the film without coming across as cheesy or contrived, but suffice it to say that it leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Tokyo puts "Eco" in the 23rd TIFF

The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] (Saverio Costanzo, 2010)

The delights of childhood are similarly explored  in Hands Up!, in which a group of friends try to save their Chechen classmate from deportation in Paris. Despite being just into double digits, the child actors are incredibly accomplished, and turn out performances so natural it is a wonder that they were sticking to a script. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is also superb as the feisty mother Cedrine, who takes in the quietly thoughtful girl, Milana, in answer to her son’s pleas, saving her from the claws of the bureaucracy. In contrast to the dark tone that underpins the film, with suicides and a constant police presence, one can also revel in the nostalgia of an idyllic childhood- playing with bows and arrows, making dens, burning leeches with cigarettes, ducking out of chores and establishing biscuits as a main food group. In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that it was the best film about childhood I have seen since my own. However, behind all the charm and romance, director Romain Goupil also manages to criticise a political system that harms where it should help.

Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar is a less rosy view of being little, although it has its moments of innocent magic. Aharon, a young boy in a peacetime 1960s Israel, worries his parents by not growing for three years. His mother, an overbearing and unsympathetic ballbreaker, thinks he is to blame. The family is an awkward and argumentative one, with meal times particularly fiery. Aharon’s sister starts dieting, while his father’s dalliance with a neighbor (who is so obsessed with him that she pays him to knock down all her internal walls in exchange for his company) seems to further enrage and unhinge his mother. Aharon feels disjointed and adrift, stuck physically at age 10 while his peers sprout hair, develop deep voices and tower above him. Judged too dreamy and quiet by the girl he is obsessed with, he takes to bed with lovesickness until he decides to make a dramatic decision. Colourful and funny- although the mother is terrifying- Bergman’s film is slick and well put together, but I don’t think as deserving as the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix as either ¡Primaria! or Hands Up! (their matching exclamation marks seem to be of indignation here).

There were many more that I missed, including the intriguing Bunraku, which is described as a blend of “manga, spaghetti westerns, samurai films, video games” and stars Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Josh Hartnett and Japanese pop star Gackt. Need anymore be said?

Despite not seeing any of the high-profile offerings, I found the collection I did see surprisingly polished and varied, covering all the hot topics: water resources, homosexuality and immigration. Yet while there were queues of people outside every morning, the publicity was surprisingly subdued, meaning that Tokyo has a while to go before it gains enough clout to pull a truly international audience in. Other than via the green carpet, how can this T.I.F.F. differentiate itself from the (first) T.I.F.F.? Perhaps it needs to invite more controversy. While last year saw the Japanese premiere of the dolphin slaughtering expose, The Cove, the piece of film that garnered the most column inches this year was a video leaked onto YouTube of a Chinese fishing boat smashing into the side of a Japanese Coastguard boat. International audience indeed.

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