Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas to all of you, and my very best wishes for happy, healthy, prosperous, exciting holidays for you and yours!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where's the Dessert?

The end of the year approaches and my posts have been much less frequent than I had intended. Several readers have attempted to encourage me to write more, for which I am very grateful. I'm not going to apologize, but I will offer a sort of explanation. I could claim factually that I've been very busy seeking more sources of income, and even that the few jobs that I did find occupied quite a lot of my time. Factually is not necessarily the same as truthfully, however, and it would be more truthful to say that I have merely been insufficiently motivated: priorities shifted over this past year.

Many of my friends have heard me say that life is all about desires and priorities. You have more or less desires of various kinds and go about your life shuffling the priorities you attach to each, and--with luck and whatever skill you can muster--acting to fulfill them accordingly. The tricky part, of course, is that the time and effort required for each is rarely a good match for its place in the hierarchy. Too often, the lower-priority desires take less time and effort than the higher-priority ones. This entails a risk of devoting one's life to fulfilling one's desires in reverse priority order, and in the worst case scenario running out of time altogether before ever getting to the ones highest on the list.

Attempting to entertain my readers and informing them of what I've been thinking about is relatively easy and consumes little time. That's true of many other items on my list of desires...particularly the ones of relatively lower priority. In an ideal world, I could set in motion whatever is necessary to achieve the really important, time-consuming ones, use spare/free/dead time to accomplish some of the ones lower on the list and easier to accomplish, and have them all done, like a holiday dinner prepared by an accomplished chef, at the same target time.

I've been concentrating on basting the turkey, so to speak, to the detriment of preparing the dessert. So, to those who have been asking for more posts: I'll try to  improve my time management and efficiency next year.

I'm an unrepentant carnivore, but I, too, appreciate a good dessert now and then.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I freely admit--before relatives and friends from those days point it out to me--that in my much earlier youth my Spanish grandmother occasionally used to call me "sinvergüenza"...meaning "shameless".  Well, perhaps it was more often than "occasionally". She meant it in the sense of "rogue" or "rascal", and typically I had earned it by attempting to talk my way out trouble by a combination of feigned injured innocence and of tortuous reasoning. It rarely if ever worked: she was much too sharp to be taken in by chopped logic and equivocation.

For pretty much all of my adult life I've been living in a culture in which shame is a very important factor in social behavior and personal interaction. Although identifying cultures as shame-based or guilt-based is not nearly as popular among social anthropologists as it once was, and although some of the books that popularized the view of Japan as a shame-based culture (e.g., Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) have been strongly criticized, it is impossible to live here without observing how shame is used to, for example, control children. You won't hear "Stop that, it's bad!", but you will hear "Stop that, people/the other passengers/that lady/whoever will be angry". Even among adults, there's a great deal less of, "Stop being such a jerk", and a lot more of "Think of what the neighbors/your colleagues will think".  You're more likely to hear "What if someone I know sees me doing this" than you are "This isn't something I should be doing".

It's easy to carry this too far, and to conclude that in Japan the only sin is getting caught. That's not exactly true: there's plenty of both regret and remorse among the Japanese, although perhaps rather more of the former than the latter. I realize that generalizing about an entire population or a whole culture isn't a sensible pursuit. There is, however, a case to be made for "shameless" being considered essentially equivalent to "antisocial", and certainly to "irresponsible".

All of which is a rather long-winded attempt to put into perspective why even I--the sinvergüenza--am enraged by the news that so much of the budget that was supposed to be used for reconstruction of earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku has in fact been spent on projects that only bureaucrats vastly more shameless than I could characterize as related to their original purpose.

Even as far back as last December, some people and organizations---not surprisingly including Greenpeace--as Philip Brasor mentions in his Japan Times column, took exception to the use of reconstruction funds to find ways to defend "research whaling", with the rationale that whaling was an important part of the economies of some of the towns in the affected area. More recently, as Mr. Brasor mentions, national broadcaster NHK looked into just how the money is being spent, commissioning an outside (i.e., neither government nor NHK) expert to investigate.

Keep in mind that 10.5 trillion yen of the 2011-2015 budget is supposed to be funded by a 25-year increase in individual and corporate tax increase, and the remainder by government spending cuts

A reasonable--or naive--person might expect that the government would be careful to use the money efficiently and in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. That is, someone with limited experience of the various ministry bureaucrats' typical behavior might expect so. Instead, as indicated in Mr. Brasor's article, in this article in the New York Times, and in this article in Japan Today, money has been spent on or earmarked for such projects as vocational training for inmates of Saitama and Hokkaido prisons, construction of a seawall in Okinawa, an overseas exchange student program, renovations for Tokyo government offices, promotion of the Tokyo Skytree, and (4.2 billion yen worth, with another 4.8 billion worth requested for 2013) research into nuclear fusion

I'll bet that last one went down really well among the folks living in temporary housing in Fukushima or forced to live elsewhere in Japan, many of whom will never be able to return to their homes inside the contaminated exclusion zone. Or among the fishermen who watch reports on continued contamination of fish. Or among the people who used to raise cattle in Iitate.

A combination of vague wording and acquiescence by the ruling DPJ party to demands from the (notoriously pork barrel-prone) opposition LDP-led coalition for making the reconstruction budget available to a more general "reinvigorating Japan" purpose facilitated  this situation. There's plenty of shameless behavior to be seen in the endless obstructionism by the opposition for political advantage (i.e., forcing an election that they are now likely to win) instead of actually cooperating or at least discussing with the ruling party measures sorely needed for the country in general and Tohoku in particular.  Unsurprisingly, though, it's the ministry bureaucrats who, true to form and without a shred of decency, have been avidly pursuing their own agendas to try to get their pieces of the pie that was supposed to be used for Tohoku reconstruction.

The rationalizations they've used to try to justify even the most tenuous of connections between their pet projects and reconstruction of Tohoku would have elicited nothing but disdain from my grandmother.

"Shameless", she would have called them, and shameless they are.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deluge and Distribution: Minamisoma Redux Part 3

Up early on Sunday morning, we were ready to return to Odaka, but Saturday's  warm fair weather had been replaced by a steadily worsening rain. Learning that the weather caused outdoor work to be cancelled, Andrew announced a change in plans: we'd be helping with food and water distribution in five temporary housing areas around Minamisoma closer to where we were.

By the time we'd made the short drive to the local volunteer center, it was raining so hard that everyone headed for the nearest convenience store to buy vinyl raincoats. I'd brought along a "water resistant" hooded windbreaker, but it resisted the rain for about the first 20 meters from the car to the shop. Even the L-size raincoat I found was designed for someone a lot smaller than I am, but it did at least serve to keep my wallet dry, and the double hood kept cold water from running into my collar and down my back.

We waited a while for the truck to arrive, then began the process of distributing supplies. The first housing area was nearby, just a short walk from the volunteer center. The remaining four areas were relatively short drives away, and the same basic  method  was followed each time. Many of us already knew the drill from previous occasions, once for me last May, several or even many times for some members of the group. 

It's pretty simple: set up several folding tables, break out some wheelbarrows, unload the various items into sections on and beneath the tables, distribute X amount of Y item depending on how many people each resident in the queue is picking up for and how may of Y have been allotted per person or residence (two liters of water, one bottle of soy sauce, three potatoes, two oranges, and so on), keep replenishing the cases of vegetables, fruit, water, etc., from the truck as they're emptied, either collapse the empty boxes or hand them to the residents for carrying the supplies.  

A couple of people in the truck pull cases from palleted stacks and hand them to those outside, who in turn move them to the tables or below them to speed replacement up a bit, others count and hand the items to the residents. The elderly or infirm who are unable to line up have their allotment delivered to them by still other volunteers using the wheelbarrows.

All of this is made considerably more difficult when it's done in a deluge. Reserve cardboard cases quickly turn to pulpy sludge if they're set on the wet asphalt ("wet" here meaning "flowing in a centimeter-deep sheet of water"). That's assuming that the boxes haven't come apart in your arms on their way through the meter or two between the truck and the tables. Wet cardboard boxes don't stack worth a damn, either, nor do they hold up well as containers over even a short wheelbarrow journey. Wet hands and slippery oranges and onions lead to inadvertent juggling and chasing. Communication becomes difficult and efficiency drops as discomfort rises.

[Drenched volunteers. Photo courtesy of Miyoko Ito.]

Very quickly, rigging a big grometted tarpaulin--the ubiquitous "blue sheet" found in construction zones and on trucks everywhere--became a vital first step in the process, strung up from whatever was handy, to provide shelter for the area between the truck and the distribution line. Sometimes finding suitable anchor points, and ways to prop up the sagging center that always threatened to become a pond and collapse the tarp and/or drench someone even more (one guy stood for a half hour or so holding up an umbrella to keep the center of the tarp raised and the water flowing off it), provided quite a challenge. 

But the job got done, and done relatively quickly  Everybody got soaked, but none of the volunteers, I'm sure, even considered complaining: what's getting wet compared to having to live in temporary housing, with few prospects for work, often with family or friends' tragedies still fresh in mind, possessions crushed and/or washed away, and sometimes with the knowledge that your property is behind a no-go barrier, maybe one that will be there for decades.

After we visited the last area, we visited a community center where some of the volunteers from Osaka cooked up some Kansai specialties, takoyaki and okonomiyaki, and we gratefully snacked on those, some fruit salad, cakes, and bitter green tea that had been donated by local organiztions. We were extremely grateful, too, to the local company that donated dozens of towels for the volunteers to dry off with. After this, we were offered a late lunch/early dinner of curry and rice at another nearby center, but our group elected to pass on that in favor of an earlier return to Tokyo. We made a brief stop at the spa again for a shower. I passed on that and took a short nap instead...the prospect of getting nice and clean but dressing again in soaking wet jeans didn't appeal, so I made do with changing into a dry T-shirt and socks, and dozed a bit before the return trip.

Going back wasn't bad, actually. The traffic wasn't as heavy as I'd expected, the rain and fog in spots was a little heavy but not a big problem, there were no more than the usual number of incompetent drivers to be avoided (tailgaters and weaving trucks, mostly), and I was highly motivated by the beer waiting at the end of the trip.

Back in Meguro after six hours or so, I let off a couple of my passengers at the station near which I'd parked, visited the Black Lion with Jeremy Wilson, the last of the crew from my car, met Andrew to settle up expenses--serious kudos to his company en world for subsidizing fuel and toll costs!--had a couple of beers, went off to sleep for a couple of hours, got up shortly before the crack of dawn, and drove back to Saitama.

It was a long weekend, and I put around 1000 kilometers on the car, but it was a very rewarding one, too, and I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to visit Fukushima.

Calamity and Clearance: Minamisoma Redux Part 2

Until this last April, the area we were heading for had been within the radiation exclusion zone, and the residents―many of them elderly--have only recently been able to return and try to deal with the results of the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Unlike the relief supplies delivery/distribution trip at the end of May, this time the plan was to help with clearing debris and cleaning up. After a brief stop at a 7/11 to get food and drinks for breakfast and lunch, we drove to the volunteer center, arriving just in time for the registration process, briefing, work assignments, and gear/tools issue. 

I didn't count, but there were probably several dozen volunteers, some locals and some from at least as far away as Osaka. When the leaders of each group were asked to come up and  receive their assignment descriptions and map packages, I was surprised to see that one group of a half dozen or so were wearing Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) uniform work clothes. Whether this contingent from the infamous TEPCO were motivated by individual desire to help clean up the mess after the long delay for which their company was largely responsible, or by orders to demonstrate the company's commitment to help, I had no idea. I also had no confidence that asking one or all of them would get me a believable response: having seen too much prevarication and obfuscation from TEPCO already, I wouldn't believe them whatever they said, which probably says a lot about just how bitter and cynical I can be. I was impressed that nobody, including the local volunteers who have far more reason than I to be bitter about TEPCO, exhibited so much as a glare or angry mutter.

After the work assignments were distributed, the various groups gathered what they'd need from the stocks at the center. Our group, augmented to 14 people by some other volunteers including local foreign residents Sarah Jones and Kate O'Berg, had been assigned a combination demolition and debris clearing job. We were to go to a house a few minutes' drive away, owned by an elderly gentleman. Located on slightly higher ground and somewhat farther from the shore than some of his less fortunate neighbors, he'd been spared tsunami damage, but the earthquake had destroyed most of a concrete block wall surrounding his property, as well as producing a lot of assorted debris such as broken roof tiles, crockery, garden tiles, and the like. We were to finish the demolition of the wall that nature had mostly destroyed, and move the debris to a common refuse pile a few hundred meters closer to the ocean, for later permanent disposal. We loaded up a small pickup truck with wheelbarrows, sledge hammers, picks, shovels, and other gear, and drove over.

[From upper left, our group of volunteers with the house owner center front; Andrew Coad; truck label "Revive Fukushima! Minamisoma!"; clearing debris; refuse pile. Photos by Kate O'Berg]

That wall had been built well. Breaking it into smaller chunks took a lot of effort. So did loading the concrete pieces and twisted rebar into our truck and another small pickup the property owner provided, driving to the refuse pile, and throwing the debris onto the pile...over and over again. With 14 of us working at it, though, and efficiency increasing with experience, we finished the job right down to removing the gravel, by four or so in the afternoon, with an hour break for lunch. The owner was ecstatic: he hadn't expected to be able to get the place cleaned up until next year.

[Demolition and debris clearing. Photos by Jeremy Wilson.]

It was tedious work, but directly rewarding. While we were at it, we were sobered by the vistas of devastation left by the disaster. From the refuse pile all the way to the sea virtually everything had been washed away. Across a narrow road from the pile was the shell of a house that had been wrecked but not quite washed away; another crew was clearing up around that. 

At one point,  a couple of us had to drive back to the volunteer center to get a pair of heavy bolt cutters to snip rebar-and-concrete chains into more manageable sizes. We ended up taking a very long route around, because we mistook the closest road for a one-way going in the wrong direction. When we came back, we realized our error: it only seemed to be a one-way road, because most of the lane going the other way had collapsed and been washed away. Having seen hundreds of meters of mangled guardrails, many patches of peeled-away asphalt roadbed temporarily replaced with gravel, and several vehicles--some barely recognizable as having once been cars--deposited in fields or in the middle of wave-scoured areas that had once been paddies or residential areas, I suppose we should have guessed.

[Scenes of devastation around Odaka. Photos by Jeremy Wilson.]

Once we'd returned the tools and truck, we went to a spa further back in the mountains for a shower, then to a Korean barbecue restaurant near where we were staying, for dinner and drinks, then on to small bar for a few more drinks and some karaoke. We were joined there by another volunteer, Florian Valiente, who had just arrived from Tokyo, and before long went back to our accommodation to sleep in preparation for the next day's work.

Boar and Border Guards: Minamisoma Redux Part 1

Last weekend I had another opportunity, courtesy of Andrew Coad, to make another volunteering run to Minamisoma. Truck drivers for relief supplies had already been secured, but it turned out that my car and I could be of service in getting some of the Tokyo volunteers to Fukushima and back. Andrew and part of the group would meet in Ginza near his office, and the rest of the group would meet me at the Black Lion in Meguro. Departing separately at 17:00 Friday night, we'd rendezvous at the Adatara Service Area near the end of the expressway part of the trip, then I'd follow him to our lodgings for the night.

Except for a stuck disk rendering my car's CD player unusable, everything went pretty smoothly, considering. Considering that getting out of Tokyo by car on a Friday night involves getting stuck in traffic moving at glacial speeds until one passes the point where most drivers head east toward Chiba and west toward Saitama. That was expected and inevitable, however, and we made rather good time to Adatara.

We met the rest of the party, ate a late dinner (or in my case smoked numerous cigarettes and drank a lot of coffee), and headed off around 22:00 into the mountains of Fukushima. We'd be driving on dark, winding, up-and-down roads to get to our overnight accommodation in Kashima about 60 kilometers away, and the plan was to leave early the next morning for the volunteer center in Odaka, about 40 minutes' drive to the south.

We'd originally figured on about two hours for this leg of the trip, reasonable given the road conditions and the frequent patches of heavy fog scattered throughout the mountains. A navigation glitch got us on the wrong road for a while, but given the direction was more or less the same it didn't seem to be a problem. At one point just after Andrew paused at a stop sign at a deserted intersection, a wild boar charged out of the underbrush at the side of the road, skittering and gazing at Andrew's taillights to his left and my headlights to his right, and then charged off cross the road and vanished. He was fairly big, but not quite fully grown, I'd guess. A teen-aged boar, perhaps, surprised at the unexpected late-night invaders in his neighborhood.

We kept on, making fairly good time and more or less on schedule, until we encountered a police-manned roadblock. We had inadvertently reached the edge of the exclusion zone, and the police were politely adamant that we would proceed no further, but must turn back and take a different route. By this time fatigue was beginning to set in after seven or so hours on the road, but we retraced part of the foggy mountain route, got onto a viable new one, and eventually reached our destination around one in the morning.

The vending machine beer nightcap tasted great, and the futon-on-tatami bed was comfortable, indeed.

I surprised myself by waking an hour earlier than necessary, and in much better condition than I had expected. The others were soon up and ready to go, and we set off for Odaka.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Freezing in the Bright Light

I don't necessarily want to see a return to last summer's draconian power saving measures. Removing a third or a half of the lights in train stations wasn't a bad thing, in my opinion: they were too bright for my taste anyway, and are again now that they've returned to "normal". Shutting down most of the escalators in stations  was a different story, though, and contributed--particularly in some of the deeper underground station areas--to a lot more crowding in already crowded rush hours. Riding a crowded train with no (or only very little) air conditioning was not a pleasant experience, either, in the muggy Tokyo summer.

I'll grant that the confusing scheduled blackouts were not a palatable alternative. I sympathized with businesses, especially small ones, that were disproportionately affected by power outages and for which they were a real hardship. Shutting down a lot of the neon and garish display lighting was not a bad thing, though, and I wouldn't have minded seeing that continued in a lot of cases. It was taken a little too far in some, maybe many, of the train stations, though, and on the trains themselves, at least for a while. When trains are delayed while heat stroke victims are treated or taken to hospital by ambulance crews, power conservation has been carried a bit too far.

This morning I was almost wishing for a return to those days of sweltering trains, however. Even at a little after six in the morning, it was getting hot outside. The temperature was moving inexorably through the high twenties into yet another 30+ morning. People were walking around the (now eye-achingly brightly lit again) station, fanning themselves and wiping sweat from their faces and necks. But on the train, the air conditioning was evidently set to "arctic". Passengers--rather few at that hour, particularly on the train going out of Tokyo--were using their handkerchiefs, and newspapers, and brief cases, and even their spread fans, to shield themselves from the blasts of icy air, huddling in hunched horripilation.  That sweat that accumulated while shuffling along in the stifling heat of the concourse and the platform was now freezing over, or so it seemed, and I remembered Jack London tales of Yukon adventurers fearing over-exertion that would kill you when your sweat froze.

You can't open the windows on most trains these days, and even an uncrowded train becomes oven-like with no air conditioning at all during the heat waves that our summers lately have become. That doesn't mean, however, that a rolling refrigerated car is the best alternative.

I freely admit that none of my friends would hold me up as a champion of moderation. Nevertheless, I'd like to see the train A/C set to "cool" rather than "Fimbulwinter".

Monday, July 30, 2012

Beneath the Burning Sky

The local government disaster prevention authorities are once again broadcasting their cautionary message: "Avoid going out under the burning sky". Entenka (炎天下), as I've mentioned before, means "beneath/under the burning/blazing sky/heavens", and while poetic, is a distressingly accurate way of describing the weather in the latest heat wave. The announcement goes on to exhort citizens to drink plenty of liquid, get enough salt, and use cooling equipment.

Temperatures have remained high nationwide for the eighth day in a row, the Japan Meteorological Agency has reported, and are expected to stay high through at least early next weekend. On Sunday, the highest temperature was 38.4 degrees in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, up from 37.1 there on Saturday. The mercury rose above 35 degrees in more than 130 locations across Japan over the weekend, with temperatures over 35 recorded at 61 of the 927 observation stations across the country as of Sunday afternoon. I'm writing this on Monday, and I expect that similar data will be reported throughout the week.

Five people died and 1,525 were hospitalized for heatstroke on Saturday, and at least three more died and 900 were hospitalized on Sunday, according to reports from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency and Kyodo News.

On Saturday, the presumed heatstroke victims included an 87-year-old woman  found collapsed in her home in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture, a 43-year-old man working at a gilding factory in Isezaki, Gunma Prefecture, and an 84-year-old man farming in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture. On Sunday, they were an 80-year-old woman in Kashima, Saga Prefecture, a woman in her 70s farming in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, and another 80-year-old woman found dead in her bedroom in Yamatokoriyama, Nara Prefecture, according to local authorities.

I understand that the Fire and Disaster Management Agency is urging elderly people to check that their air conditioning units have been changed from heating to cooling, since several elderly heatstroke fatalities have been found to have had their A/C units still set on heating from last winter. I'm still looking for further details about this, since I don't see how even thermostats set for heating would run the temperatures up beyond the high-30s outside temperature, and I would expect the people to have set the units' temperature controls to somewhat less, such as 28 or so even if they were trying to save energy. That would indeed be warm in winter, but considerably cooler than the days have been lately: last Friday it was already 30 or so at eight in the morning in Kumagaya, which still shares the record for high temperatures (40.9 on 8/16/2007) with Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but even high-end winter heating settings on air conditioning units would most likely be below ambient daytime temperatures lately.

The elderly seem to be especially at risk, for various physiological and psychological reasons, but at least one of the weekend victims was relatively young, and many of those hospitalized but surviving have been children, many of whom collapsed while engaged in athletic events. For example, two baseball players from Gifu Commercial & Business High School were hospitalized for heatstroke symptoms after helping their team win the prefectural district elimination round for the National High School Baseball Tournament. Far from being frail elders, these are high school kids in excellent physical condition.

The high school athletes  also almost certainly have been trained to get lots of water and keep their salt levels optimized. Sometimes good physical condition, knowledge, and training just aren't enough, though. I was in excellent physical condition and well aware of the risks and countermeasures surrounding dehydration and heatstroke many years ago when I nevertheless collapsed while camping. That was entirely my fault, though, since I carelessly drank a lot of beer and iced coffee instead of water, and the combination of diuretics and high temperature provided the consequences that I should have expected.

Theory and practical implementation aren't at all the same, and having been "burned" once, I've been extra careful since then. As we all should be, when we're beneath the burning sky.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Minamisoma Trip,: the Second Day, Part Two

We left Minamisoma around three in the afternoon (Sunday, 27 May) intending to return the truck by 20:00 if at all possible. Rather than retrace our route from the previous day, we set out to take a shorter and hopefully faster way back, entering Tokyo via the Joban Expressway rather than the Tohoku Expressway we'd used coming to Fukushima. This required us to use another set of mountain roads more to the southwest, in order to skirt "no go" areas and avoid being turned back at roadblocks. The idea was to use local roads until we could enter the expressway beyond the exclusion areas that still blocked part of it.

I was concentrating on driving, again leaving the navigation to Andrew, and things were going so smoothly that I cannot remember exactly what sequence of roads we took. The route was somewhat trickier than the previous day's, but it didn't present any real problem. The weather was holding up well, too, and it should have been a very pleasant drive. And it would have been, except for some of the scenery.

 In the morning, we'd traveled through farmland with some scattered pastures, from the northwest and north. We'd seen some signs of abandoned fields and farm buildings, and some earthquake-damaged buildings in and around the town, but nothing that could really be called devastation; that would have been very different had we been closer to the beach, of course. The saddest thing that I had witnessed so far was the conditions under which so many people--especially children--were forced to live in the temporary housing: adequate (just) but cramped and, while new and neat, hardly cheery and comfortable. Now, however, we were going mostly southwest and were passing through an area that had been in the path of wind-born radioactive particles in dust and rain that had blown toward the northwest from the Fukushima reactors. Here the scenery--though in a beautiful natural setting of valleys among forested hills--showed a very tragic sort of devastation if you knew what you were looking at, and how it should have looked.

Even though the area was now outside the exclusion zone--indeed, I believe parts of it had always been, despite "hot spots" that had been discovered here and there--it had incurred sufficient contamination that nobody could grow crops or raise animals in the area. I've lived in both very urban and in pretty rural areas of Japan, so I'm familiar with the way that a fishing village or a farming community usually looks at various times of the year. In particular, having spent many years surrounded by them, I know what rice paddies should look like at the very end of May (if you don't, this may be instructive).  While going through what I believe to have been the southern part of Iitate Village, north of western Namie Town, we were seeing something very different. These fields had been abandoned completely, utterly, kept company only by silent buildings beginning to show the evidence of neglect, and the occasional metal roadside sign, gently rusting, advertising Iitate beef that is very unlikely to be seen in markets anytime soon. We did pass one cattle farm that, judging by the aroma, was still functioning, but whether out of the owner's hope, or sheer stubbornness, or desire to save the animals, or lack of alternatives, I have no idea. Passing all those abandoned fields and pastures, thinking of the lost livelihoods that they represented, was very, very grim.

Eventually, we left the rural roads, and most of the mountains, behind us and came eventually to the expressway. Once again we encountered brief rain in one of the passes, and then it was a straight, uncomplicated run beneath mostly fair skies, and twilight fell a few hours later as we entered Tokyo.

As often happens at the end of a weekend with good weather, the returning traffic slowed dramatically to near-gridlock speeds once we got into town, and by the time we reached Roppongi the limited legroom and frequent braking was beginning to give my knee grief. I was pleased we were in the neighborhood, and only needed to fill the tank and return the truck.

I was less pleased when the first gas station we tried was closed (early closing, I guess, on Sunday evening), and much less pleased when an open one told us we couldn't get gas because the station was too full...of expensive cars that had been left for washing and later pickup, obviously to avoid paying parking fees during their owners' night out. You'd think that people who can afford to buy a Mercedes Benz could afford parking fees. We eventually found an open station that hadn't been turned into an impromptu parking lot, filled up, returned the truck, and went to the Black Lion, where we met with most of the others who'd gone along on the trip, had a few drinks, and finally finally went our various ways home.

It's good to know that we did something useful, and it was good to meet so many people looking out for one another in  whatever ways they can. It was saddening, and it was educational; it was disheartening, and it was encouraging.  I left the weekend behind me wishing I'd been able to do more, and looking forward to the next opportunity.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Minamisoma Trip: the Second Day, Part One

I had been a little dubious about getting up in time to depart by 06:30, especially because it was around 02:30 when I went to sleep. I needn't have worried, though, since I woke up at 04:30 feeling surprisingly refreshed, with plenty of time to take a shower and saunter down to the lobby to meet the rest of the crew. We left on time, cheered by beautiful weather, and headed for the first major waypoint for the day, Soma, to the east.

Andrew continued to navigate, using the GPS "navi" function of his smartphone in combination with his previous experience of the area and its roads. We made a smooth transition from the relatively flat area around downtown Fukushima City into the mountains, and soon I was driving on winding, up-and-down roads though beautiful vistas of wooded slopes and gorges, with here and there a glimpse of fields, mostly rice paddies with the occasional stretch f what looked like pasture. It would have been a great road for motorcycling, and I made a mental note to come back someday on a bike.

The truck handled reasonably well, though I wasn't able to devote as much attention to the scenery as it deserved: the road required much of my concentration. This was the first truck I'd driven with an automatic transmission, and it wasn't long before I was missing the ability easily to use lower gears for engine braking. The legroom was adequate but not generous, and since the brake pedal was three or four centimeters higher than the gas pedal, my right knee got a lot of exercise being drawn up and back to brake. I was driving very conservatively; the traffic both ways was very light, but some of the slopes were fairly steep, and there were enough  curves to keep things interesting. If you want to get an idea of the terrain, try Google Maps and look at Route 115 from Fukushima Station east toward Soma.

When we got closer to the coast and into the outskirts of Soma, we turned south and proceeded to our first rendezvous point of the day, in Minamsoma. Here, shortly before 08:30 and still on schedule, we met with a group of local volunteers, with another truck that had come from Yamagata with Daniel Kahl driving a full load of fresh Yamagata spring water, and with a busload of other volunteers who had come up from Osaka (!).  After introductions all around and a briefing on the days' planned activities, we got back in our various vehicles and followed a local volunteer's car to the first of five temporary housing areas.

After a short drive, we arrived and started the process that we'd repeat at each of the spots on our route. First find a place to park the trucks, not so close as to be in the way but not so far as to make unloading/reloading inefficient. Next, pull a couple of folding tables and some wheelbarrows out of a truck. Then, unload approximately enough of the supplies to fit the distribution plan for this area's residents/households, open crates,   set the stuff out on the tables arranged by item type, ensure someone is at each spot to count and hand out the predetermined amount, and start the distribution.

Most of the residents, with help from the local volunteers, were lining up as the setting up was done. When all was ready, each person came up, they gave the number of people for whom they were receiving food and water, handed in their pre-arranged slip, and walked along the the tables collecting the appropriate, pre-determined  number of oranges, potatoes, carrots, onions, soup mix, small and large bottles of water, etc., with the help of those handing them out and of other volunteers assisting with wheelbarrows, empty boxes, or sacks, and carrying the supplies to the homes of those unable to manage the weight or bulk.

As boxes emptied, they were put into service for carrying by the residents, or broken down and flattened to get them out of the way if not usable. As the stock by the tables depleted, more cases were unloaded from the trucks and opened. Meanwhile, everyone made an effort to engage the residents in conversation as much as possible, especially the children. Once everyone had received their allotment, everything was loaded back onto the trucks and  the little caravan of vehicles drove off to the next area.

This process was repeated four times, for little temporary settlements containing groups of people varied in numbers and demographics: some had more kids and a younger average age, some seemed composed mostly of senior citizens. The total for this run was a little over 800 people in a little over 300 households, and they all  impressed me with their cheerfulness and positive attitude. I didn't see a single glum face, young or old, among any of the residents of the adequate but cramped housing, nor among any of the local or "imported" volunteers.

We all gathered in the early afternoon for a quick lunch prepared by local volunteers, chatted a bit, and then departed for the return journey, a little before three.

Stay tuned for the final installment, covering the return journey and the aftermath, in the next post.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Minamisoma Trip: the First Day

Last weekend, I had an opportunity to do something I had been hoping to do for some time. Some friends of mine, patrons of the Black Lion pub in Meguro, have been doing volunteer work in Tohoku, most recently in Minamisoma, Fukushima, and this time I was able to go along. Previously, I'd contributed some time and money to help fund the project, but I'd been told that they sometimes need truck drivers, and had offered my services to do something more direct. I finally got my chance.

Early Saturday afternoon I met Andrew Coad, the expedition leader, at the Nippon Car Rental facility in Roppongi, where we got a two-ton truck, and then quickly set out to get it loaded and on the road.  The first stop was Metro Cash and Carry in Tatsumi, where we got about half a truck full of vegetables and fruit and several cases of snacks for kids. This part was relatively easy, since most of the stuff was on pallets and the warehouse workers got them quickly into the truck using hand-operated wheeled jacks (think man-powered forklifts).  The very energetic Andrew alternated between filling in gaps with loose cases and checking counts: in order to ensure fair distribution, it's necessary to have a good count, so getting numbers on, for example,  oranges (1680 of 'em) and the average number of carrots or potatoes per case was as important as confirming the number of cases. New to the game, I helped as much as I could, but I wasn't terribly useful in comparison with the warehouse pros and the indefatigable (he had spent the previous day/night moving, and had returned what was probably the same truck just a few hours before!), efficient Andrew.

Then it was off to Second Harvest in Asakusabashi, where we met Philip Duncan, who is in charge of distribution logistics for the Save Minamisoma Project, which in this case meant that he had arranged for the truck and he helped Andrew and me to transfer enough cases of assorted food and beverages from a truck parked nearby to fill up ours. It was a warm day, and he must have been less comfortable picking up and passing heavy boxes in a shirt and tie than we were in casual clothes. He was still smiling, though,  when we finally locked the truck up and set off for Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the rest of our group had left in two private vehicles from  Meguro, to go up separately and rendezvous with the truck at our destination for the day, close to Fukushima Station.

The first leg of the journey was easier than expected. The weather was good for most of the trip, and the roads were less crowded than I'd anticipated. We took the Tohoku Expressway once we'd cleared the Shuto (Tokyo Metropolitan) Expressway and its environs, and made good time for the next 250-odd kilometers, with relatively little traffic all the way, and just a flurry of rain in one of the passes close to our destination. We reached Fukushima Station and the nearby Grand Park Hotel  at just about the planned time, virtually simultaneously with the other two vehicles. Here, in trying to park the truck in a lot designed for rather smaller vehicles, I had an unfortunate altercation with the awning of the lot's payment machine, bending it pretty thoroughly and creasing the top of the truck's cargo compartment.

The rest of the evening was spent in checking in, going out for dinner and a few beers, parceling loose kids' snacks into individual plastic pouches, and, eventually, talking to the local police--one of whom turned out to have relatives in Minamisoma--and to the owner of the parking lot...who also owns the hotel, and who was an astoundingly nice fellow, very decent (almost apologetic) about the damage to his awning, and who even gave us a cash donation for the project! After a nightcap or two, most of us turned in relatively early; the plan called for a 06:30 departure.

Stay tuned for a description of the rest of the trip, in the next post.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Losing to Fate and the Weather

This last Golden Week, eight climbers died in the Japan Northern Alps. The weather during the holidays was very volatile even in the predominantly flat Kanto area, and except for a day or two when it seemed to be suddenly summer, overall it was pretty cold and gloomy. Some of the deceased climbers were described in the media as being "experienced", yet many or most were wearing only T-shirts and light windbreakers, with no gloves.

It's not charitable to say so, but to me that's gambling with Fate without sufficiently understanding the rules of the game.

I've written about this kind of thing before. It's always sad to hear these stories, and there seem to be more of them in the last few years. Perhaps that's simply because the graying of society is raising the average age of folks on the mountains.

Mountain weather is very changeable, particularly this early in the season, although I've seen some sudden and drastic changes even in mid-summer. It's always better to be over- than under-prepared, if you intend to descend the mountains alive.

I suspect that some of the people who were mentioned as having  experience in, for example, the Himalayas may have been taking the Japan Alps too lightly, believing them safe by comparison. I can understand the reluctance to carry a tent or heavy coat on what is planned to be a fairly easy trek, but a good down jacket, while bulky, doesn't weigh that much, and it could save your life. The same is true for warm gloves and a knit ski cap or the like, neither of which add that much weight or bulk. Even a couple of negligible-weight, super-compact "space"/survival blankets added to your rucksack or stuffed into a pocket "just in case" might well be the difference between dying or surviving.

I'd really like, for a change, to start hearing more stories about climbing groups whose "just in case" preparations enabled them to survive and return safely even when the unexpected struck.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Thunderstorms with a Twist

Ibaraki and Tochigi experienced considerable damage from last year's Tohoku earthquake, including collapsed houses, but got much less exposure in the news than other prefectures did. The scale of the destruction and loss of life in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima was much greater, and the scenes of liquefaction in Chiba provided very dramatic video as well as cautionary tales about what disaster insurance would and would not cover.

The two northern Kanto prefectures are receiving plenty of attention now, unfortunately, because of the tornados that ripped through them. The damage was considerable, including the death of a boy whose house, foundation and all, was picked up and set down upside-down. That was in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, where as many as 200 homes had their roofs blown away. In Moka City and Mashiko and Motegi Towns in Tochigi, 300 or so homes were damaged. Broken utility poles, debris strewn wildly about, broken glass, and crushed cars have figured prominently in the news since, along with human interest stories with interviews of people in homes with no walls or roof, waiting for power to be restored. I saw one particularly poignant interview with a fellow whose house was half-demolished...he'd moved there not long before after losing his home in the Tohoku disaster. 

The storms caused hail damage in Mito, Ibaraaki, too. One video clip I watched described and showed the first examples I've seen of roof tiles broken not by falling, but by being hit by hailstones.

Other prefectures were not entirely spared by the storms accompanying the twisters: long-suffering Fukushima had 20 greenhouses blown away and four homes damaged "by gusts", a farmer was electrocuted by lightning while on his tractor in Toyama, and a family walking their dog were struck by lightning in Okegawa, Saitama. The mother and her 11-year-old daughter were hospitalized; the mother has since recovered consciousness but the daughter still has not.

I may have seen that lightning strike, since I was standing outside not too many kilometers north of Okegawa at the time, watching the sudden and very violent lightning storm taking place around that area in the middle distance, glad that the storm had mostly moved away from me. 

By the standards of countries where tornadoes are more common and  often more severe, these were relatively mild. The Meteorological Agency is saying that they were probably F2 on the Fujita Scale. Tornadoes are unusual in Japan, however, although they seem to have been becoming more frequent in recent years. In a quick search, I could only find records of 16 since 1881; half of them have hit since 1964, three of those since 2006. 

It's possible that there have been more: in the last few years some reports of sudden, violent "gusts" were blamed for damage that looked very much as if it had been caused by a tornado, and I've heard a lot of news reports describing such phenomena as "strong gusts appearing like tornadoes". I assume that  the media--and probably the Meteorological Agency--are reluctant to pronounce them tornadoes without clear evidence that they're not downbursts or sudden really violent gusts but not exactly tornadoes. That's the reason for the quotation marks above, since I'd bet that was a tornado in Fukushima, too.

Yesterday, the tornadoes in Tochigi and Ibaraki were being called by that rather tentative term. Today's news stories, after all of the amateur video clips of them had been repeatedly aired, were calling them tornadoes unequivocally. The victims have, I'm sure, no doubt what they were.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Justice and Mercy

I've been spending a lot of time lately attempting to find a way to secure an adequate source of steady income, having had the final mooring line loosed from my erstwhile long-term employer a year ago. I've also been spending a lot of time on multiple visits to multiple government offices, gathering and distributing forms and acquiring stamps of approval and permission, speaking with various clerks and their supervisors in a series of inter-related vignettes that--if it weren't for the almost universal courtesy, decency, and helpfullness I've been pleasantly surprised  to find among the bureaucrats--even Kafka would find too bizarre.

I've also been spending quite a lot of time in clinics and hospitals undergoing various tests, examinations, and conversations with doctors.

All of this activity, including many hours of waiting, can hardly be called fun. It's all necessary for one reason or another, though, and it's all connected in the overall plan of trying to acquire enough income to keep myself fed, housed, and amused, and trying to ensure that I'll live long enough to spend it.

So far, although the income part is going to require more effort and more time, the health part is looking good. Considering much of my lifestyle over the decades, and the fact that as of today I'm two years into what I choose to consider middle age, the results to date are so astonishingly good that I'm sort of living proof that there's no justice in the universe. There's a considerable group of bemused doctors, nurses, and technicians out there looking askance at me, and their number grows with each set of admirable test results.

G.K. Chesterton said,“For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” I haven't been a child for quite a long time now, and I'm damn sure closer to the wicked than to the innocent end of the scale. I'm unaware of having done anything much to deserve mercy, and don't really much believe in a source for such mercy anyway, but I'm certainly not complaining.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bonfire of the Inanities

Several TV news programs yesterday ran video clips and stories about a test conducted to determine how resistant to fire a three-story wood-construction school building would be. The test building, costing 300 million yen and incorporating the latest safety features in its construction, was designed to simulate the sort of school that some educators, architects, and government officials have been recommending building if the current ban on three-story wooden schools were to be lifted.

Reasons given in most of the half-dozen news stories I saw for going back to wood construction from the current fero-concrete structures included reducing students' stress and instilling in them appreciation of nature and the ecology. My second suspicion was that the schools contemplating wood construction are looking at reduced building costs more than at students' spiritual welfare. One story, however, confirmed my initial cynical suspicion: the Forestry Agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is attempting to find a way to revive Japan's lumber industry. Interviews of officials and industry representatives predictably featured lots of moaning and whining about competition from overseas suppliers and the poor condition of the uncut--and unsold--cedar plantations that dominate Japanese mountainsides. Building bigger schools with domestic cedar could, they hoped,  help turn the industry around, and clearing the tall, scrawny, closely-packed cedars out would allow for less crowded future stands of more robust, more competitive trees.

Yes, those are the same cedar plantations that the government's post-war reforestation policy produced, and that led to the annual epidemic of hay fever misery. I wrote about it here (sorry, the links seem to be dead, although you might be able to read the article in The Times if you pay for a subscription). You can try here, instead, for the basics.

Judging from the results of the school fire test, the folks who want to sell cedar lumber for wooden schools will have to wait a little longer.

A fire was started in the simulated school staff room on the first/ground floor, virtually exploded into a ball of flame within two minutes, and within 10 had gushed staight up to the roof, pretty much destroying between a quarter and a third of the building. Much of the structure was engulfed within 20 minutes, and the entire "school", high-tech safety features and all, was essentially reduced to cinders in a little over an hour.

I was astounded to learn that the Waseda University professor heading the research team claimed that the test confirmed the building's fire resistance.  If that conflagration was indicative of fire resistance, I have to conclude that the comparison was to to a building made of nitrocellulose, or maybe "Canned Heat".

Several of the news stories mentioned that evacuating all the students from such a school is expected to take 10 minutes. My admittedly limited experience with fires in buildings, and with children, and with educators here, leads me to believe that this is optimism verging on the criminal. I very much doubt that most school teachers/administrators could/would react that fast, and I really doubt that school kids--panicked, screaming, amidst gushing smoke and flames--especially on the upper floors, could be evacuated in anything near that amount of time. From what I saw of the test, I'd expect half or more of the students and staff to be incinerated.

I'm not an engineer, nor a fire marshal either, but I also doubt that smoke detectors or sprinkler systems would do a lot toward reducing the casualties if such a building caught fire, particularly during the typically dry winter season in many parts of Japan. I definitely don't believe it would be worth the risk for the very dubious (except for the lumber industry, of course, and the MAFF) potential benefits.

It wasn't clear to me exactly who funded the test. I hope that my tax money wasn't used (although I suspect at least some of the funding came from taxes, at least indirectly). I would have been happy to save them a lot of money and--perhaps for a small consultant's fee--explained that building a three-story pile of wood, with lots of air spaces in it, and setting it alight is going to result in a big, fast fire.

It was clear that another attempt will be made within a year or so, incorporating whatever lessons were learned from this test. I would much rather that the money--nearly US$4 million--had been and would be spent on rebuilding in Tohoku instead.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Survival Manual

A friend sent me the following message after reading my last post:

I would add one item to the main survival kit; a copy of the US Army Survival Manual. It is available for download to an iPad or Android device, as well as in hard copy (which may be more useful in an actual emergency.)

That's brilliant advice! You can, as he said, find it in several varieties, including PDF format for printing out, illustrations and all. It has easily understandable advice and directions for surviving in all sorts of situations. A very quick search of the 'net will provide many links to it, and you can download the one(s) that you think would best suit you. I'd recommend both an electronic version and a printed one (you're liable to run out of battery power sooner than you'd expect and much sooner than you'd hope).

Some of the advice is for situations more severe than any that I hope you find yourselves in, but it's always better to be more prepared rather than less. I highly recommend that you find, acquire, and read it, and the sooner the better. Then keep a copy--preferably both electronic and printed--where you can access it when you need it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Semper Paratus

Perhaps it's because I was born and raised in temblor-prone San Francisco that I've never been awakened by even rather strong earthquakes. At least, I don't think I have; there have been a couple of times that a rather strong quake hit within minutes of my eyes opening in the morning, so maybe the earliest waves did wake me up. Either way, one of those times what jolted me from bleary pre-coffee semi-wakefulness to wide-awake fight-or-flight tense hyper awareness wasn't the shaking, it was the sound of something exploding in the next room. At least, that's what it sounded like to me. Getting up to investigate, I was puzzled by a layer of what looked like crushed ice covering several  square meters of the room's carpet, next to a refrigerator. 

The freezer door was closed, though, and I couldn't come up with a scenario that would dislodge and spray that much ice from a frost-free freezer, and close the door, regardless of any conceivable shaking pattern. I'm glad that I stood still and thought about it instead of rushing into the room: the "ice" was the disintegrated remains of what had been a large, heavy, lead crystal vase that had been on top of the fridge. I regret the loss of the vase, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

That sparkling carpet of crystal shards was between me and the apartment door. Escape from the building in the event of a really serious quake would not have been made easier by starting with a barefoot walk over broken glass--glass that I might not even have seen had it been midnight with the power out, rather than early morning. Now I don't put potentially dangerous things where they might be knocked down, and I know very well why it's a good idea to keep footwear with strong soles near the bed. However, I might still have that vase if I'd given earthquake preparedness the careful thought it deserves, a lot earlier. 

Some things one ought to do, such as keeping a flashlight near your bed or trying to situate the bed away from windows that might break in a quake (or in a typhoon, for that matter), are pretty obvious, and may not require much effort. Securing furniture so that it's less likely to topple or disgorge contents (crockery, for example, or your wine or whiskey collection), may involve more trouble and expense but is nonetheless worth it for the damage you can avoid to yourself and your property. Wedges to place under the front edges of wardrobes and bookcases, or hardware to secure them to walls, are inexpensive and easily available at do-it-yourself shops or hardware stores. This is particularly important if you're unable to situate such furniture away from where it might fall on you...small rooms limit the placement options, but "crushed by a chest of drawers" isn't what I'd want for an epitaph.

Computers, TVs, and other items of electronic equipment are certainly expensive enough to justify the rather small investment in time and money required to prevent them from being knocked off your desk or racks (and don't forget to secure the racks, too).  Speaking of computers, if an earthquake strong enough to damage the hardware despite your precautions hits, it's probably not going to do the data on your hard drives much good, either; you should consider backing up and saving really important data somewhere else entirely, whether in a different physical location, or in the "cloud" somewhere.

Since everyone's situation is different, I'm not going into any further detail about securing possessions. The important thing is to take a few minutes, look around at your home (and at your workplace, if you have any say in what can be done there), imagine what might happen if it all were given a thorough shaking, and decide what you can do to make it safer for you and for your stuff. There's a lot of information on the 'net if you want detailed advice.

As we have seen too many times in the last few years, Japan is prone to earthquakes that are really destructive, enough to wreck buildings  and infrastructure, and rearrange large swathes of landscape, causing many deaths and injuries and displacing thousands. Predicting them isn't practical and may never be, and a few seconds' advance warning--if that--is about the best that can be hoped for in the foreseeable future. There are some good sites around the 'net with advice on what to do before, during, and immediately after an earthquake, and if you have any doubt at all--or even if you don't--you should go read them, and then hold practice drills, particularly if you have a family. A small sample includes one from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, one from the US Embassy in Tokyo, one from FEMA in the US, and one that's part of a very good overall disaster preparedness site from the Provincial Emergency Program site of British Columbia, Canada.

Those of you who work away from home should also consider what you'll do when a quake strikes while you're at work, or on the way to or from your workplace. I started writing this post last night, but by coincidence this morning's Japan Times Online ran an article about a newly discovered 200-km-long active fault off the Kii Peninsula, a story that for some reason had an additional piece appended to it about what people working in Tokyo during the 3/11 quake did about getting home. It says, in part:

Some 34 percent of people walked home from their workplaces or schools in Tokyo's 23 wards after the March 11 earthquake without waiting for train and other public transportation services to resume, a survey by the Railway Technical Research Institute showed Saturday.

For those who walked, it took an average three hours and nine minutes to get home, excluding time for breaks, the survey said They walked an average distance of 13.4 km, with 11 respondents walking more than 30 km.

Only 5 percent of those surveyed "went to accommodation facilities or stayed  with acquaintances", but the earthquake struck in early afternoon on a Friday. Had it not been the beginning of a weekend, I'd bet that many more would have stayed in their offices. I heard of one unfortunate individual who attempted a long walk home from near Tokyo Station to somewhere in western Tokyo but dropped dead along the way, probably the victim of a heart attack. Less tragic anecdotes from the time indicate that many people lacked clear knowledge about the walking route home, and few were well prepared for a hike of more than 10 km, much less 30+. 

That's a long walk in high heels, for example, or even in men's business shoes, and relying on convenience stores being open and still stocked with water or food along the way was a chancy thing. Planning for such a walk home when the next train-stopping quake hits might be a good idea, and keeping a manageably small but thoughtfully stocked disaster kit at your workplace certainly is, along with a pair of comfortable and sturdy shoes.  A wise commuter would habitually keep at least a small bottle of water, a bar or two of emergency food, and one of those emergency blankets that fold up smaller than a pocket tissue packet, in their purse, briefcase, day-pack, or whatever, in case the quake hits while in transit.

Easily portable disaster kits for the home and car, along with less portable but potentially useful gear and supplies for what may be a long wait until necessities become available, should be planned, purchased, and stored where they will be easily accessible both for post-disaster use and for regular checking and replacement/replenishment. Dead batteries or spoiled food aren't going to do you much good, after all.

There are plenty of sources for advice on what to include in disaster kits, including those sites above. Some sites concentrating on survival may at first strike you as a bit extreme, but I encourage you to at least skim through anything that you find that looks even remotely useful: you can find some gems in unlikely-seeming places, including instructive first-hand accounts like these (read the entries by "Joe" and by "Expat D" from last March and April, for example). 

There are also lots of sources on the 'net for emergency gear and supplies (some military surplus gear, by the way, can be ideal). You may find that ordering online gets you better quality, more variety, and lower prices than shopping at the neighborhood DYI store's "disaster goods" corner. You may also find that things like canned tuna (I'd get oil-packed, myself, because the oil's usable for cooking other things) or corned beef (which might be too salty if your water supply is too limited, but tastes good as is) can be bought on sale at the local supermarket and may be much more palatable than typical emergency food. I wouldn't be happy on a kanpan (Japanese hardtack) diet for long.

If you're in the Tokyo area, you can find shops that sell  inexpensive--by Tokyo standards--imported canned and bottled food in relatively large containers that are likely to be cheaper than what you can find in your neighborhood supermarket, and maybe tastier, too. A kilo of ground coffee for under 1000 yen, for example, or Spam for 300-odd yen or sometimes less. The Kaldi Coffee Farm chain shops scattered around town, or Kishi Photo in Togoshi Ginza spring to mind. I gather that Costco would probably be a good source, but none of their stores are convenient enough for me to have visited them. The Flying Pig is an option, too, for some things, but they're not exactly cheap; they are convenient, however. The Meat Guy is a great source for meat, cheese, and the like, which isn't what you'd think of as very suitable for emergency food if your power is out, but he offers some very good canned, bottled, and dehydrated food as well, and runs his operation very pleasantly and professionally.

Dehydrated food has the advantage of being light and easy to store for a relatively long time. You can find some pretty fancy and tasty items, including more-or-less complete meals, many intended for campers and hikers, some specifically selected and packaged for emergencies, but keep in mind that water may be in short supply for at least the first few days after a sufficiently severe disaster. You may have to look around a bit to find an online supplier that will ship to Japan, however. One of the well-known suppliers is Mountain House, but they don't ship to Japan and appear to offer only a sadly limited range of products through their local agent. Cabela's, however, does ship to Japan, evidently including some Mountain House products. It's worth doing a little research while you plan how you'd survive in relative comfort for up to a week or two without shops, power, or running water.

If you're much of a hiker or camper, you may already own some gear that would serve you well in the days after a major disaster; try checking and updating it, maybe relocating it if necessary to have it immediately available: the tent and sleeping bag in the back of your closet under the collapsed roof won't help you much. You might want to add water purification tablets/gear if you don't already have them, and if you really want to get fancy, you might consider something like this.

In any case, the time to get your act together is before, not after, the next disaster. Please give some serious thought to what you have, and what you might need. Plan carefully, and then act on the plan. I personally think that anyone in the Tokyo area who survives when a really big earthquake strikes had best prepare for at least a week--probably more like two--of living very rough, and a lot of discomfort after that.

 If you own motor vehicles, by the way, I strongly advise keeping the fuel topped up all the time. It took a long time for fuel supplies to become available after 3/11, and it could take much longer depending on when and how the next disaster hits. Expressways and main roads are likely to be impassable--even if intact--for a while, but you might find that you have to rely on your own wheels as an ambulance, or to get to where you can acquire, say, firewood or water.

This has been very Tokyo-centered, because I live more or less in the Tokyo area and because I believe that a big quake hitting Tokyo is likely to foul up rescue and recovery efforts much more than it would in most other areas. Being always prepared, as the title of this post suggests, is a good idea regardless of where you live, and that's true whether you're more likely to encounter earthquakes or hurricanes or tornadoes or floods, or whatever other slings and arrows Nature might send your way. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Chance of a Roll

The Tokyo area infrastructure, particularly public and private transportation, doesn't hold up very well under stress. Typhoons that pass over too closely; the increasingly common localized, violent "guerrilla rains"; or even a few centimeters of snow are likely to cause disruption, and often the degree of disruption seems disproportionate to the cause. The number of people living and working in a relatively small area, and the distances that many of them have to commute--I've seen averages figures of 26 km and 68 minutes claimed for people working in Metropolitan Tokyo--contribute greatly to this, as do many other factors including road conditions and the layout of the city. Even a single slightly delayed train, along with a certain amount of ripple effect, can inconvenience a lot of people if it's anywhere around rush hour, for example, and if the delay demands switching passengers to buses, the already chronically congested streets don't make things any smoother.

Yesterday's first snowfall of the season was the heaviest in six years, but it only amounted to between two and six centimeters around Tokyo and caused fewer train delays than I've seen in the past. Nevertheless, there were at least 53 people taken to hospitals with snow-related injuries (mostly pedestrians who slipped and fell), 393 traffic accidents in Tokyo, and well over 1000 traffic accidents if the immediate surrounding area is included. There almost certainly would have been more trouble if the snow had started falling more heavily and earlier: many people seem to have managed to start for home in time to avoid getting stuck, and much of the snow fell after the commuters and their trains, buses, and cars were mostly done for the day.

Earthquakes, being destructive as well as obstructive,  obviously can be even more disruptive, as those of us who have lived here for awhile already thought we knew, before last March's catastrophe demonstrated to us just how much nature can interfere with civilization. I think it's safe to say that most Tokyo or Southern Kanto dwellers tended to think of Tohoku as being pretty far away, even while being intellectually aware that Sendai is only two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen. The direct, and indirect--and continuing--effects of the 3/11 disaster have disabused us of that notion.

Now a team of University of Tokyo researchers has published a report saying that a Magnitude 7 earthquake (I believe that's roughly comparable to the 1906 or 1989 earthquakes that struck my home town of San Francisco) has a 70% chance of striking Tokyo within the next four years. The Japanese government's previous claim has been a 70% chance within 30 years. Earthquake prediction, even when old records are considered more carefully and less skeptically than they had been, is a very inexact science. It's also not the only branch of science that doesn't really lend itself well to speaking of percentage chances over time...likelihood can be a tricky thing to quantify. Still, the Meteorological Agency reports that an average of 1.48 earthquakes per day ranging from Magnitude 3 to 6 have occurred in and near Tokyo since last March's quake, roughly five times as many as before it. The increased seismic activity is thought by at least some researchers to increase the likelihood of a big quake striking Tokyo, sooner than was previously expected.

Depending on the time of day, on wind velocity, and on the season, the casualties and damage that would be caused by a Magnitude 7 quake hitting near Tokyo would be huge. Even pretty conservative estimates suggest between 7,000 and 12,000 deaths, 6.5 million people unable to return home, and something between a half and 1.5 million buildings destroyed completely by earthquake, liquefaction, and fire combined. It doesn't require too much imagination to see how the disruption of Japan's highly centralized national government and financial/adminstrative/communications center would affect rescue services and the logistics of getting essential services back up.

Personally, I would want to be neither in one of the deeper subways nor in a high-rise condominium or office when a quake of that magnitude or larger strikes Tokyo.  Both are likely to be fairly quake-resistant (at least the newer ones), but neither offer very attractive options for getting to any other relatively safe place with food and water available in the short term. I concede that either might be safer than, for example, being caught riding my motorcycle under the expressway or a railway trestle, but I think I'd prefer the probably illusory feeling of freedom that being at ground level with my own vehicle would give me.

I'm also well aware that a 70% chance of a massive quake within the next 30 years or within the next four means that it could be tomorrow either way. That's not a thought that anyone wants to dwell on very much, including me. That shouldn't prevent us from doing what we can to prepare as much as is practical for the eventuality, however. Next time, I'll go into some of my thoughts on that.