Archive for April, 2011

Going beyond your safe zone

On Friday night, I was standing in front of Hombu talking to a visiting sempai about the disaster. My sempai asked me what I thought about the safety of people coming to train, and I outright said, “No, it’s not safe.” To my surprise, my sempai agreed with me, and went on to say that, before you come here, you have to educate yourself and be aware of the risks.

Saturday evening, I was catching up with my sempai at the sushi shop in Kashiwa’s front street, and while we were deep in conversation, we didn’t notice the 6.0 aftershock that rocked the area. The effect was slight enough at ground level that we didn’t notice it, but earlier in the day, at Hombu, I noticed a sensation like a buzz in my feet, and looked up to see the framed pictures above the kamidana move slightly. We’ve been warned about aftershocks, and we must be vigilant as we may see quakes as big as magnitude 7.0.

Now, some people think it is exciting to experience an aftershock of the Tohoku earthquake, but each time I feel one, I realize that we are far from the epicenter where people’s lives are in danger, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant workers’ efforts may be interrupted or even set back. The big April 11th aftershock, a 7.0 magnitude quake,  killed some people near Sendai. At that time I was on a Kashiwa-bound bus, stopped at a traffic light, when the bus began to rock side to side, and then the main force of the quake struck, and the ground seemed to roll for a long time. My first thought was of the people of Sendai City who were remembering the one month anniversary of the quake and now living through this major aftershock. I nearly cried, knowing that so many people grieving were experiencing yet another violent shake.

And then there is the nuclear disaster. Yes, it is a horrible disaster, with consequences that will last for lifetimes. The 20 kilometer no-go zone has been delared around the Fukushima plant, and radioactive water was dumped in the sea. The economic and evironmental consequences of the nuclear disaster are not entirely known, but all the same, devastaing.

But I think that the reality of environmental radiation has been overblown for areas outside the Fukushima area under the conditions we experience now. You can see Tokyo’s low radiation, measured in microsieverts indicated here on the Japan Times website, and you can read about water radioactivity here. None of this stuff is threatening right now. However, it is important to keep in mind that the Fukushima reator shutdown plans will take six to nine months, and I can’t tell if those projections take into account possible major aftershocks or tsunamis. Things could change.

So, no, it isn’t safe here. Not for a while, anyway, as the aftershocks subside, the economic consequences of the disaster recovery are realized, and the nuclear issue continues.

When we wrapped up training on Saturday, Oguri Sensei turned to me and said that we human beings tend to go where it is safe, operate within known limits, and do things that we find we are comfortable with. He said that we don’t need to train things we already know; we need to train on things we don’t know well, and go places we don’t feel comfortable going. He says please practice what you are not good at, what feels uncomfortable.

Isn’t this where discovery happens, where people find answers to what they don’t know, by going into the unknown out of a need to push limits?

Keep going.

To keep up to date on the aftermath of the disaster, see Japan’s Times earthquake news updates and watch NHK World English.

Read Full Post »

This week, the cherry blossoms in the Kanto region were spectacular. Last Sunday night, some friends and I gathered on the porch of the Kannon-do temple at Ueno Park with the pink petals outdoing the vermilion of the facade. Nice. Many people are exercising 自粛jishuku, which means self-restraint. The park was mostly dark, and there weren’t nearly so many parties of people as in past years. The atmosphere was subdued. While it is understandable that people practice jishuku, it is greatly damaging t othe economy because people aren’t spending money. BBC documented the result of jishuku on a brewery in Tohoku.

On Monday, we marked one month since the earthquake and tsunami with a minute of silent prayer and reflection at 14:46, the time when the earthquake struck. My coworkers were silent even after the PA announcement finished, and I wondered what to say to get us back into the routine of work. So I asked them to honour the dead by living to their utmost, and we got back to business. On Monday morning and early evening, we experienced two aftershocks, both over 6 magnitude.

Today, TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company, says it will take 6-9 months to get the nuclear power plant situation under control.

What does this mean for our training?

The numbers are beginning to pick up at Hombu, and I greeted many visiting members. For a while there, it was very quiet at dojos. For us locals, we are seeing our offices and companies understaffed because foreign employees left and didn’t return. The trains are run without lights and shops are turning off their exterior signs, which is a relief, really, as they are blindingly bright. Some goods run out in the shops, but if you come back, you’ll find those things restocked – yoghurt and beer and a few other things are in short supply at times. Most of all, the change in consumption and the lack of panic at large shakes are the most noticable differences now. After the 3.11 quake and its aftershocks, people don’t get excited. Once the shake stops, it’s back to business, as long as there is no tsunami warning associated with the earthquake.

My sempai on Saturday at Hombu said in Japanese something that took me aback, hearing such a sentiment from a Japanese person for the first time. She said,, “It’s like it is not the same Japan.” Nope, it sure ain’t. My hope is we can make a new Japan.

On Saturday night at the pub, we raised a glass to a Japan Self Defense Force member at our table, and two Tokyo firemen dropped in and poured drinks for us. They were so grateful for the presence of the world community in response to the disaster, and they were so glad to see our foreign faces at the table. I thanked them for their hard work and wished them well.

Mainichi Shimbun on Friday ran this article in its Perspective column, thanking the world community for help in Japan’s time of need.

Read Full Post »

Japan Tsunami documentary

This documentary includes news video footage that we watched live, and much that was recorded by people and surveillance cameras all over Eastern Japan. The scientists explain the enormous tectonic forces that caused the earthquake and tsunamis, and the effects on the land and people.

The earthquake that shook my house caused a deafening roar in my neighbourhood, things fell and broke around me, and I heard the neighbours screaming. I held the doorframe because the violent shaking made it hard to stand up. People ask me how long the shake was. I had no idea of time. We experienced five minutes of violence according to the seismic data.

Read Full Post »

Damage and Nukes
On the approach to Narita Airport on Monday afternoon, I thought I could see large irregular shapes in the ocean off Kyujukurihama, not whitecaps, and it looks like what I saw was wreckage. This morning, CBC reports that a large quantity of debris is headed for Hawaii and the west coast.

The Japan Times quotes a Kyodo News wire story that the disaster has resulted in over 80,000 job losses, but says that’s a conservative estimate. The rebuilding process of course, may offset this situation, but must be devastating for business owners and workers (and families) in the region.

The nuclear crisis, too, is unsettling, but when viewed with an eye for scale, it is obvious that the effects are widespread but complex for the immediate region around Fukushima and for Tokyo, which partially depends on produce, goods and electricity from that region. MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering keeps a nuclear incident blog where they log the latest news and put it into context. In Vancouver, the trace radiation levels are decreasing. As a local scientist remarked, detectable does not mean dangerous. The instruments used to measure radiation levels are sensitive to trace amounts, indicating the presence of radioactive particles at a level that has no significant health effects for human beings.

The Japan Times posts a daily update on the radiation levels measured in milisieverts in eastern Japan. While I’m not thrilled to be irradiated, the level I’m exposed to in northern Chiba is negligible. To get a handle on the effects of doses of radiation measured in sieverts, have a look at xkcd’s radiation dose chart. On an intercontinental flight, you are exposed to magnitudes more radiation than you are standing on the ground within the evacuation zone in Fukushima. At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend sticking around there for long, as the dosage per hour has a cumulative effect.

So, yes, it sucks that Fukushima is exhausting waste water into the Pacific in order to make room for yet more contaminated water, and TEPCO is going to have to concrete over the nuke plants, and Fukushima, Miyagi and parts of Iwate Prefectures will only be fit for growing flowers for the next 20 or so years. The radiation won’t get us, but the economic and social fallout is going to going to tax Japanese gaman, the fortitude and endurance of the Japanese.


Then there are the aftershocks. Thursday night, I had retired to the loft. I live in a wood frame building and the loft during a quake waves like the top of a tree, pretty whippy. The first jolt woke me, and I rolled over, and then the shaking got stronger, so I climbed down the ladder and Skyped home to tell my family that the quake was dramatic but not dangerous for me. USGS says it was a 7.1 magnitude quake. Sadly, some people in Sendai were killed. My family worries about me unnecessarily because they don’t have perspective on the local conditions or the scale of the map and distances from epicenter. I’m far from the action.

Culture and Change
I thought it was just me being sensitive, but I detected a deep social change here. I thought I saw more omoiyari between strangers. Omoiyari is a sense of acceptance and respect for others that often comes out in gesture or action, and sometimes words. In the town, out shopping, talking to neighbours, I felt there was more kindness and patience extended to others. At the pub last night, some local Japanese guys said that their neighbours look out for each other more than ever before. I meet eyes with people more. Japanese people are warm-hearted.

There is ura and omote to Japanese culture, and my girlfriend Eri has noted this. So many disaster survivors show great gaman, endurance, and smile through incredible hardship. She says that western media show these hardy survivors and may give the impression to foreign audiences that things are better than they seem. Those tough people won’t crack, and hold their grief in, showing calm, composed faces to western media. Don’t mistake, she says. There is so much pain there, and people need help.

How to Help

Students' messages of encouragement for Japan

In Vancouver, where I fell back to break out funds, see family, and train with home dojos, I volunteered for 7 days at the University of British Columbia (see the university’s bulletin), my alma mater, where the Japan Society had a booth on the student union building concourse to raise awareness of the disaster, and collect funds for Red Cross. The students, many Japanese and Japanese-Canadian, were in need of comfort, and encouragement to go to classes. We had the assistance of many clubs on campus, and vendors who donated part of their sales to the disaster relief fund. Across the city, theaters, restaurants, and businesses are holding fundraising events.

Here in Kashiwa City, Fukushima survivors and their children are housed in public buildings. A handful of children have been welcomed by the schools.

There are many ways to help inside and outside Japan. See Japan Times How to Help page for a huge list of organizations and networks.

Are you holding a fundraising training seminar or is there some local activity you are involved in ? Please post in the comments.

Read Full Post »

Watching from afar

I’m watching the MIT nuclear information hub blog. They are far away from the action, as am I. And I won’t be that close when I arrive at Narita on Sunday.

I’m looking at Japan from the outside today. Sensei says we need 神眼 shingan, the eyes of god, to discern truth from falsehood, and to see where the opportunities and pitfalls wait for us to notice them.

Besides the eyes of god, I’m praying for the Fukushima plant workers, the nuclear refugees, the people who’ve lost their homes. I want to cry, but if I do, I can’t see what I’m doing. No cry, just preparation for work, training and lifre on the ground in Kashiwa City.

Read Full Post »