Ten Years Later

I cannot believe that it’s already ten years since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In Japan we call it usually the “Great East Japan Earthquake” 東日本大震災 (higashi nihon dai shinsai)。On March 11th 2011, the earth shook at 14:46 local time with magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale. Worse than the earthquake itself was the ensuing tsunami, which reached heights of up to 40 meters and reached up to 10km inland. Some 18,000 people died, over 2500 of them are still listed as “missing”.
The tsunami famously also caused the level 7 meltdowns of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

I’ve re-read my first three blog entries from back then right now, starting with this one in case you want to read it too. There are plenty more, which I wrote in the days and weeks after the big quake and they are all still on the blog.

Now, ten years later, we got reminded again of this big quake with a magnitude 7.1 on the Richter scale on the 13th of February, which was yet another aftershock of the big one. There have been some 14,000 quakes, which are registered as aftershocks of the 11th of March 2011 quake.

Interestingly the quake was one of the things that influenced my decision to stay in Japan. I got my permanent residency four years after the quake. You don’t turn your back on the place you love if there is trouble. You face the trouble and help each other to get through it. People show their true colors when there is trouble and I liked what I saw back then and felt connected to the place and I have not regretted the decision to stay for a single moment.

I hope that we don’t have to go through another such major disaster in our lifetimes. There’s no guarantee for that though when you live on the ring of fire. We can only hope it won’t be too bad every time the ground shakes… My thoughts go out to all the people who died ten years ago, as well as to their friends and families that they left behind.

Six Years Later

Today is the 11th of March and it happens to be a Saturday, which is the usual day for my blog post. It feels kinda weird to ignore the date and to post happy heavy metal memories from the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, so I shall post them next weekend instead.

The Great East Japan earthquake happened at 14:46 six years ago and I was just in the Lalaport Yokohama shopping mall today during that time and was pleased that the moment did not pass by unnoticed, but that Lalaport made an announcement and conducted a minute of silence. Most of the people in the busy mall observed the minute, myself included, and it was touching and spooky at the same time to have most the people around you stop walking and close their eyes.

Six years ago our lives here were shaken up and about 18,500 people, including those who are still listed as missing, have died, mostly from the tsunamis that followed, not the actual quake.
It’s quite unbelievable that it happened already six years ago. It was a Friday and I got stuck in the Tokyo office I worked at at the time until 1 in the morning, because also in Tokyo buildings shook massively and all train services stopped for a while.

The wounds of the earthquake and tsunami are bad enough, but what will remain with us for many decades to come is the crippled and melted-down Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant.
Six years on, they are trying to send robots into the melted down chambers to see what’s going on there and to maybe figure out a method how to remove the nuclear mess, but even the robots’ circuits get fried after two hours in radioactivity that would kill a human in two minutes. Nobody knows yet what will become of this stuff and how to deal with it and this story will continue beyond our lifetimes.

I am not categorically against nuclear power but the lessons learned must be: do not build nuclear power plants on the ring of fire next to the ocean……..
I hope that the remaining nuclear power plants in Japan will never get online again. In wikipedia it says that there were 11,450 aftershocks until March 2015… We still get the occasional aftershock in the region. In the meantime it rattled massively in Kyushu last year. On average there is a small quake in Tokyo that you can feel every month. I’m not even tweeting about small earthquakes anymore, it’s a part of life here.

I only hope the Fukushima region does not get hit by a big one in the next 50 years or so that would crumble those concrete chambers where the molten nuclear fuel sits… what a madness.
Still, my opinion from six years ago remains the same, the world cares/cared too much about Fukushima and not enough about the 18,500 who died and the hundred thousands of lives that got destroyed by deaths of loved ones and by displacement because of the nuclear disaster.
My thoughts go out to the victims and to those who were left behind alive but forever damaged.

My Friends’ Account of Kyushu Earthquakes

The island of Kyushu is a good 1000 km away from Tokyo and the trouble there has so far no influence on us here in the Kanto area. However, I have a special relationship to Kyushu, since I studied at the University of Kyushu in Fukuoka for a year and two months with a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education. I have come to love Kyushu a lot and the great time I had there was one of the factors for why I thought to want to live in Japan for a longer period of time.

I still have two close friends in Kyushu, one is living in Fukuoka, one is living in a town called Isahaya in Nagasaki prefecture. I am in frequent mail and also phone contact with them now.
Isahaya is only 85 km west of the epicentre of the quakes in Kumamoto, if with water in between, the Isahaya and Shimabara bays. Fukuoka lies 120 km north of Kumamoto.

My friend in Isahaya has two small children of 4 and 2, a boy and a girl. They are yet too young to understand what’s going on but were panicking and crying when the first quake hit out of the blue on Thursday evening local time. It shakes heftily in Isahaya, but so far there is no damage to houses or people. Funnily, I “fled” the great East Japan earthquake of 2011, commonly known here as 3/11 because it happened on the 11th of March, to Isahaya and stayed a week there with my friend, who was pregnant at the time.

My friend in Fukuoka has more trouble despite being farther away from Kumamoto. Also in Fukuoka there is no house or people damage yet, but… My friend has two boys of 12 and 10 years and those two know what’s going on. It shakes frequently all over Japan, but it’s the first bigger quakes experience for the two boys. While the older one plays it cool, the younger one is freaked out. There have been over 250 quakes since the first one on Thursday night, many of them big. On Friday night, the younger boy was sitting in the bathtub when it shook again more significantly. He panicked, jumped butt naked and dripping wet out of the tub and ran crying through the apartment looking for his mother. His older brother, still playing it cool, is now teasing him with that… the poor kid! My friend has her hands full with getting the boys under control.
Then, last night, there was a huge quake of more than 7 on the Richter scale at around 1:30 in the morning. My friend was still up and scared, but guess what, the two boys slept (thankfully) through that one!

So, even where there is no destruction, people are stressed, on edge, and kids get traumatized.
I dearly hope that things calm down quickly now in Kyushu so that people can start taking care of the damage and move back to normal, but alas, they are predicting some sort of spring storm for Kyushu tonight with heavy rains and high winds, what will make the situation for many much more miserable. I hope the storm is not getting too bad and that the shaking finally subsides and that Mt. Aso doesn’t freak now too. Mt. Aso is one of the many very active volcanoes of Japan. Even before the quake it was puffing along and you were not allowed to get within a mile of the crater. I’ve been at the crater during my student times, but got sick from the sulphur smell after five minutes and stumbled gasping down the mountain…
We truly are sitting on the Ring of Fire here, yes, we all know that, but nevertheless it’s hard when we get so many reminders of just how alive the Earth under our feet is, which, by the way, makes Japan also a very beautiful place. I hope my lovely Kyushu will calm down soon!

Fearing the Wrong Things

This is a very interesting topic in my opinion and people far more knowledgeable than me have written articles and whole books about it. I don’t claim to know anything about the topic but nevertheless I dare to have an opinion.

There are a ton of things humankind wrongly fears. One classic example is shark attacks. Maybe a dozen people die every year from shark attacks – but how many die from smoking? Car accidents? War? And and and? Not a single death from smoking makes it into the media, but shark attacks are big news. – why? Because shark attacks are rare, scary, and sudden, whilst dying from smoking is a long-term process.

Which leads me to the statement that we fear short-term, sudden things, no matter what they are, much more than long-term, creeping, and slow things, while actually it should be the other way round. This fear of sudden things like a shark attack is juicy for the media and they ride it out for a few days until the next big news happens, which is again short-term, and so forth. Thus our focus shifts from what we should really worry about, long-term creeping stuff to short-term catastrophes.

One great example for that is climate change, which doesn’t happen overnight. Other great examples are smoking or alcoholism. Stuff that destroys you over years and years seems far less scary than it should be.
What triggered thinking about such stuff was an article, which I forwarded around in Facebook, about the health problems in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. In that article they stated that nobody had any problems with radiation, but people died from being suddenly evacuated or from suicide triggered by losing their homes, social networks, jobs etc. People all around the world went bonkers when Fukushima happened, as far as Germany, which is 10,000 miles away. Even four years on, I hear ridiculous comments about babies being born with three ears here because we are all radioactive, while natural background radiation in the south of Germany is three times higher than radiation levels in Tokyo. I do not wish to say in any form that what happened in Fukushima wasn’t/isn’t dangerous and terrible. I think it’s crazy to have dozens of nuclear reactors operating in one of the seismically most active regions in the world. But just how many people who believe that we are all radioactively contaminated here smoke and/or drink…?

I think that our media reporting and our desire for scandals, big events, and big news is distorting reality. Short-term, sudden events get much more media coverage than they deserve. What really kills people and what really affects the future of our planet, slumbers in the background and doesn’t get enough attention and that could prove to be a fatal mistake, quite literally.

Four Years After 3/11

It’s already been four years since Japan got shaken through by the great Tohoku earthquake, the ensuing tsunami and the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

In Tokyo and surroundings earthquake activity is continuing to decrease, but there are still quite a number of aftershocks, especially in the Tohoku area. Well, M9 was one big quake…
In Tokyo itself all’s back to normal for quite a while already. The last aftermaths you can find in some subways lines that still run with half their in-cabin lights to save energy. Other than that, the office I work in, for example, is hopelessly overheated this winter – no trace of energy saving there.
We all received an emergency rucksack in the office containing batteries, a flashlight, gold-foil to keep you warm, gloves and other essentials. We store them now under our desks together with our helmets. Kinda funny it took 4 years to get those (they were distributed this January), but better late than never.

Personally, I keep a lot more food and water at home than before the earthquake and can easily survive for two weeks or so, should my apartment not collapse. I am finding myself already obliged to eat some of this stuff, since its expiry date is coming near and I am gradually replenishing it with new supplies.

The news were full of Fukushima stuff these days. In the not radioactively contaminated areas rebuilding has progressed quite a lot, as I also saw myself when I visited Higashimatsushima city in December for the company’s Santa Clause charity event.

In the contaminated areas things look of course still different. Most reports were about displaced people who cannot return to their contaminated homes and how they cope or rather not cope with the extended refugee life.
The reports were all rather teary with many elderly people whining to sad background music they want to go home and cannot. What struck me most was an elderly couple who returned to their house 9km or so from the nuclear plant to retrieve some stuff, and discovered that the wife’s expensive kimonos have been stolen. So… somewhere on the used-kimono market are radioactive ones… also, their house was ransacked by wild boars… the only mentioning anywhere that of course animals roam the abandoned areas, eating contaminated plants and digging in contaminated soil.
I didn’t sit in front of the TV for hours, I have only seen bits and pieces but they make you wonder…

While there was no more talk of tsunami wreckage – has it all been taken care of? There was talk of sacks upon sacks of contaminated soil and what to do with them and where to put them. While Japanese TV showed orderly lined up sacks of soil, one Facebook friend posted an article from a non-Japanese news site showing abandoned sacks of such soil on a beach, plunging gradually into the ocean…

Other programs focused on the Fukushima plant itself and philosophized about clean-up taking more than 40 years… One of the three melt-down reactors is now covered in a house, the others are still too hot to send workers close? I didn’t catch the details. 300 tons of radioactively contaminated cooling water is added per day. Kilometer-wide nothing but water tanks. Where to put all this stuff? I do not envy the people who have to deal with these problems.

On the surface all is back to normal – as long as it lasts. The next big quake could happen tomorrow. Below the surface? The waters are deep, that’s for sure and no clue what lurks beneath. I am still not buying any vegetable produce from Fukushima prefecture, I must say, but I don’t know where the salad I eat in the company’s canteen comes from. I don’t know where their fish comes from, or the meat, or the mushrooms. But still, I think we live healthier here, even if we might glow a bit in the dark, than vast parts of environmentally polluted China for example… I do not practice a head-in-the-sand kind of lifestyle, but on the other hand I also think it’s unhealthy to worry day and night and to fall for conspiracy theories. Thus my major concern is and remains the next quake rather than Fukushima… I just hope very hard that we’ll be spared a big one for the coming forty years or so…

Shaken But Not Stirred

Last night we were rattled again quite good in Japan and let me attempt to describe how that feels like for those lucky ones of you out there who’ve never been through a major earthquake.
It was Friday… again Friday. The big one happened also on a Friday, the 11th of March 2011. The big one happened at around 14:30 in the afternoon, yesterday’s quake happened a bit later, at 17:20.
In both cases I sat in the office. A year ago I was still in the 13th floor of our 17 floor office building, in the meantime I moved to the 15th floor.

Fridays is our “no overtime day” and we are allowed to leave at 17:35 and I was already wrapping up things at 17:20 when suddenly an upward jolt that let me utter a “whoa”. Let me add that it of course largely depends what the quake feels like on where you are when it happens. Office building is not like office building. I bet it feels different in every office building in Tokyo, depending on the size, width, age etc. of the building.

So, where I sat, I felt this sudden upward jolt and knew of course immediately – earthquake, since I have been through a hundred or more by now. They’ve become so normal for us since March 2011 that usually nobody’s writing home about all the aftershocks anymore, by the way.
Upwards rings immediate alarm bells, since a “tate jishin” = standing earthquake = up and down movement is NOT good. Potential damage is much worse during a tate jishin than a “yoko jishin” = side to side earthquake. Kobe was destroyed in 1995 by a tate jishin when a minor fault decided to break.

After the first upward jolt there was an uncomfortable, lingering up and down trembling. Meanwhile the whole floor was on alert and one colleague went to our security door to open it. I am currently sitting in the HR section which has special security doors, because we have confidential documents inside our vault. There are two doors to our little prison. I followed the Japanese colleague to the door and we held it open and waited. Our security door has the annoying habit to give off a beeping alarm when it is opened for too long and the door started to beep. My colleague and I decided to close the door, thinking it was over, but opened it immediately because it was far from over yet.

Yesterday, the up and down tremor was only the starting point of the real quake. The all too familiar side to side = yoko jishin swaying started and it swayed pretty badly east to west. That east to west movement already indicated that this is similar to the March 11 big one.
While my colleague and I stood in the open door, our HR boss opened the second one down the corridor and held that one open. Quite a number of colleagues dived under their desks.

I had no desire to return into the closed off room and to my desk and next to tables the second best thing to be during a quake is under a door frame anyway. Since the March 11 quake I have lost a bit of confidence into our office building. It is rather old and if a big one were ever to hit Tokyo I have that horror feeling in my guts that our building won’t make it and break somewhere and tilt.

The swaying continued for an awfully long time, but I was beginning to relax a tiny bit, since I could judge by the amount of noise that it was not as bad as the 11th of March. We have blinds in front of our windows and during quakes they swing of course too and clash against the windows and their swaying and impact noise was considerably lower than on March 11th. Also the remaining building sounds of what reminds me of bellows or the folds of an accordion was less loud and strained than on the 11th of March.

Another colleague rushed to meet us, coming from the bathroom. She latched onto my arm and said the Japanese equivalent of “the fxxing quake caught me with my pants down!” I share the feeling. The magnitude 8 something aftershock of March 11 caught me with my pants down on the toilet as well and that’s NO fun.
Since it takes a while for the building to calm down swaying again after the actual quake is over, I think we got into the 17:30 magnitude 6 aftershock without much pause and swayed some more. It took an awfully long time for the building to calm down again. Since all in all the swaying was much more moderate than on March 11, I was not that freaked out, but admit to wobbly and shivering knees.

When it was finally over, I returned to my desk and checked the Internet for the thing, because we of course all knew that this was something major again. 7.3 in more or less exactly the same spot as the March 11 quake and thus undoubtedly an aftershock to the big one. It triggered a small tsunami which hit some thirty minutes later, but that luckily remained under one meter and caused no damage.

A major concern after a quake is of course traffic, but when I eventually left the building at 17:45, Tokyo’s trains were running as usual. We had a felt magnitude four in Tokyo, in contract to a “five strong” on March 11.
Tokyo, very much used to quakes now since March 11, shrugged the felt magnitude four off and life went on as usual.
Some more things that struck me. I totally forgot and did not bother with the helmet under my desk. That said, none of my colleagues whipped out the helmet. There are some twenty people in that HR section vault and I think all of them have smart phones, I’m also pretty sure that all of them have one or the other earthquake alert app on their phones, me too. None of the apps reacted. Proof yet again that earthquake prediction is bogus. Maybe people will be able to predict quakes in a hundred years or so but not now.

This time we got off with a little shock and some wobbly knees and half an hour later life was back to normal, as so often and as always I hope it’ll stay that way.
Here a link (in Japanese) to the quake from yesterday with a nice graphic of epicenter and a buckling Japan. On March 11 the map looked a lot pinker and redder…

One year and 5000 earthquakes later

I am sure many people will share my feeling, that it’s hard to believe that already one year has gone by since our near dooms day here in Japan. A year ago today our world was turned upside down at around 14:46 in the afternoon when Japan was hit by its first M9 quake on the Richter scale. Half an hour later something even worse happened, the tsunami, which then caused the sadly famous nuclear meltdown disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which had withstood the quake, but not the 14 meter high tsunami that hit it.

If it had just been the quake, things wouldn’t actually have been that bad. Sure, a few buildings collapsed and a 1000 people or so would have lost their lives I presume, but the consequences would never have been so devastating if there had been no tsunami. In total about 19,000 people lost their lives. I guess more or less every paper in the western world and any TV station will write something, show something about Japan’s triple disaster of 2011, so I will leave the official line now and rather write something personal.

How do I feel one year on? Pretty much normal under the circumstances, except for the fact that I have become a bit hysterical about the building I work in. To have felt it swaying at a felt magnitude of “5 strong” on the Japanese “felt intensity” scale was no fun at all and every time it shakes now a little bit, which still happens some, one, two, three times a week, I am getting heart throbbing. I am pretty un-phased anywhere else, though that is probably naive, but I don’t mind being at home or outside or wherever when it shakes, only the company building freaks me out. Guess that is because I was there when it happened and because I have this underlying fear that the building will collapse if anything stronger than a felt “5 strong” hits us in Tokyo one day. The fine cracks in the building’s stairwell have been plastered over and my trust in that building is gone. I don’t know if my fears that it will collapse when something worse than “5 strong” hits us are justified but the fear sits deep and I don’t like it to be in that building when it shakes.

As mentioned before it shakes on an average of two times per week and this is amazing proof that you can live with a lot of earthquakes. We had more than 5000 all over the Japanese islands since the big one. It’s not pleasant and there is always the fear that it gets worse, but under felt magnitude 4 nothing even falls and in principle you can shrug a quake like that off and that is what we all do. Even felt magnitude 5 is not really bad, it’s scary but usually nobody gets hurt. It’s the big one that we all fear that is said to hit Tokyo one day. Sitting on the edge of a tectonic plate there is no doubt that a big quake will happen again: the question is when not if. There are a lot of predictions, panic etc. going on as to when that will be. Many a scientist is calculating through earthquake prediction models but so far they have all proven to be bogus.

I thought about leaving to Japan to go somewhere else, but where? There are frequent earthquakes along the entire ring of fire from my beloved New Zealand over Indonesia, Taiwan, to my beloved Japan, and across the entire coast line of Northern and South America. There are earthquakes in China in Turkey and Italy and so forth. I don’t exactly feel a desire to live in the Saharan desert… hey, India doesn’t have many earthquakes, I have never been to India yet, maybe I should travel there and see if I like it. The essence of that is: it ain’t safe anywhere in the world and I’d rather live in fear of quakes than in fear of being shot or raped as I would have to fear in many other parts of the planet.

Now, do I think about Fukushima? Much less than about earthquakes, not at all really. Radiation in Tokyo is less than in Berlin, haha! I drink tab water. I do not avoid produce from Fukushima prefecture. I am not seeking it out, but when there is no other choice, so what. I feel very sorry for the people who have been uprooted by the nuclear disaster. There are many ghost towns now around the power plant.

Japan is a first world country after all and meanwhile everybody who lost his or her home lives in makeshift houses etc. and does not have to starve. At the moment people in the northern areas of Japan are suffering worst from joblessness. Many companies, especially in the fishing industry have gone out of business with their facilities being swept away by the tsunami. I saw a statistics recently: out of 4600 businesses in the tsunami affected area still about 1500 have not resumed operations. Gambling (pachinko) and drinking are major problems in the north now, because people don’t know what to do with their time.

Towns that have been wiped of the map are contemplating whether to rebuild, there are talks about rebuilding on higher ground = in the mountains. But Japanese mountains are young and steep and it would be a major undertaking and have a lot of environmental impact to ablate some of these mountains to rebuild towns. As for the area around the power plant… that land is dead for the next thirty years or so. Nobody died from the radiation and I don’t think anybody will, but nevertheless many many lives have been destroyed by the nuclear disaster.

So, I just changed jobs within the company and that means I have committed myself to another at least two years in Japan. I don’t know what will happen after that. One advantage of my new job is that I am traveling a lot = the time I spend in the company building gets reduced, I like that!
The atmosphere in the company has eased too. Many expats have left and did not return, some returned for a short while but tried hard to get assignments elsewhere and are gone now, but some new “brave” expats have arrived too and the Japanese colleagues are friendly and forgiving and say stuff like, well, agreed, the Japanese expats fled New York after 9/11 too.

All in all life has long returned back to normal for the people outside the tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster area and I hope it’ll stay that way for a while and I hope the lives of the people in the affected areas will also get better soon.
I wish you well, Japan, and a few peaceful years ahead.

Tsunami Disaster Relief Volunteering

The company I work for is organizing volunteer trips to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake region, to help with the tsunami disaster cleanup. The main factory of the company in Japan is in a town called Higashimatsuyama, which means as much as East-Pine-Mountain town. Because of the name similarity (I don’t know if there are any other reasons) Higashimatsuyama has a sister city called Higashimatsushima, which means East-Pine-Island town, which happens to be in Miyagi prefecture, which, together with Iwate and Fukushima prefectures is the prefecture worst hit by the tsunami after the huge earthquake on the 11th of March. Since the sister city was badly effected by the tsunami, my company’s relief effort is concentrated there.
Every two weeks, the company organizes a weekend trip to Higashimatsushima city. The employees give their time and workforce, the company provides and pays for the bus trip there, and also pays for the hotel and our food. The trips start on Friday afternoon, consisting of the bus ride to Higashimatsushima collecting employees from our various offices along the way. On Saturday is one full day of work, directed by the disaster relief center of the area. Locals affected by the tsunami can apply to the disaster relief center and describe what kind of work needs to be done and the center distributes the jobs listed by urgency between the available volunteers. On Sunday its work in the morning, back to the hotel for a bath and then six hours by bus back to Tokyo.
The bus route takes us some sixty kilometers past the now world famous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The power plant lies 220 km as the crow flies north of Tokyo, our destination Higashimatsushima is another 110 km further north.
We were 34 people this time and left Tokyo in the middle of a big thunderstorm.
The plan was to help a farmer with cleaning up his vinyl greenhouses – steel frames with vinyl over them.
We arrived at the hotel, the Hotel Taikanso in Matsushima at about 10 in the evening. Matushima is famous for its hundreds of small pine-tree-covered islands and it’s a major sightseeing spot in Japan. Compared to former times, the major city of Sendai a few kilometers south was much less lit than before the quake and the world looked pretty dark around us. The hotel is great, a bit old, but in good shape and its wide marble entrance halls are lit up bright as if nothing had ever happened. They have an excellent public bath with a rotenburo (a bath under the open sky) looking out over the Matsushima bay with its many tiny islands. The night of our arrival we of course didn’t see much yet.
They put four to six people into one room and I was in the room of the three foreign women of the team plus one Japanese lady.
Looking out over the bay in the morning, made the impression as if nothing much was wrong. In fact the many tiny islands and the shape of the bay fended of the brunt of the tsunami and the damage in Matsushima is minor.
We started at 7:45 on Saturday morning and a city official of Higashimatsushima city joined us for the tour. The gentleman has lost his wife and daughter (and his house) to the tsunami. Only he (he was at work) and his son (who was in Tokyo at the time) survived. Just five kilometers or so north of the Matsushima bay the picture looked completely different. HIgashimatsushima has no tiny pine tree islands and its wide open bay faces the wide open Pacific ocean. The land is flat and there was nothing much to stand in the tsunami’s way. It advanced inland for some five or six kilometers. I posted a few photos of the damage on Flickr.
The city official gave us a tour around the worst hit areas before bringing us to our point of work and all the photos are taken from inside the bus. Much has of course already been cleaned up during the past five months, but much is also still destroyed, as you can see in the pictures. I found the huge mountains of debris among the most impressive. It will take years until all that debris is being taken care of.
Flooded rice paddies cannot be used for three years, the city official informed us, the soil needs that long to regenerate.
At around 9:15 or so in the morning, we arrived at our place of work (pictures are again on Flickr). This spot is three kilometers inland and the tsunami was some two meters high at this point…
We spent the whole day cutting down the steel skeletons of the greenhouses dividing our group into three – the steel cutters, those who bring what they cut away, and the “mud team” to which I belonged. We were shoveling the way free for the rest of the crew and separated the debris into earth, wires, steel, vinyl and wood. During the process, we dug up a cartwheel and a drum with a water hose around it. Those items were completely covered with soil before we found them.
It was sunny and hot and we were sweating after ten minutes. I have heard from other volunteer clean up groups that in town the worst thing to handle during the clean up is the smell. Another group from our company cleaned up an elementary school in July. There, in town, all the sewer systems were flooded and of course the shit literally came out and spread over the surface. I had hoped that, since we were working in a field, not in town, the smell might not be so bad and indeed, it didn’t smell foul at all and I didn’t wear a mask the first day. Though at the end of our working day much dust had crept into my nose, which I noticed when I blew my nose – I guess you get the picture. Since more or less all of us are desk jockeys and we are not used to hard physical labor, we took breaks every half hour. Nevertheless, also due to the heat, all of us were exhausted and covered in sweat from head to toe, when we finished working at 15:30. We managed to cut down most of the steel frames but there was still a lot of work to be done and some parts of the vinyl houses, including their vinyl and steel beams are sunk a meter deep into the new soil that the tsunami left.
I am again and again amazed by the fact that the actual damage from the earthquake, which was after all some 7 magnitude as to what has reached us on the ground is negligible compared to the destruction the water caused half an hour later. Nothing much could withstand the force of water, it wiped everything away with the force of a bomb.
I never before enjoyed a Japanese bath so much as after our full day of toiling. What a contrast to sit just a few kilometers away in a rotenburo and have a nice view over the peaceful and idyllic Matsuhima bay with its islands.
The next morning we already started at about 7:30 and arrived at our workplace at 8:30 and started to toil. Beautiful weather, not many clouds in the sky and already over 25 degrees Celsius. I was kind of happy that on this day we would only work in the morning and sit on the bus home during the hottest early afternoon hours. We worked until about 11:00 and during our two days of work, we managed to dismantle the skeleton of the vinyl house and finished this workplace. Shortly before we left, the owner of the farmland came to thank us.
There are some bowing degree rules in Japan: from merely nodding your head over 45 degrees to 90 and he did the 90 degree bow, he also gave us a present, beer and soft drinks for the whole crew. The owner said he would now be able to call in some machinery to dig up the rest of the debris and to refill it with soil and he intends to grow vegetables again on the land. He promised to send us some vegetables, once stuff grows there again. It was touching to see the person we had worked for in person and it felt good to know that what we had done had helped someone to get back into business. We returned to the hotel, got a “public bath ticket” (since we had of course checked out in the morning), and at around 13:15 we started the long way back to Tokyo.

On the way back we stopped at a service station on the Tohoku expressway called Adatara, which is some 60 km as the crow flies from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Many of my Japanese colleagues bought cartons with fresh peaches at the service station, since that area of Fukushima is famous for its peaches. They looked good, but I must admit not having bought some. There is more and more of a defiance reaction in Japan. Many people try now to support the area by for example buying local produce.

Though lots of muscles hurt that I didn’t even know I possessed it was a great experience that I don’t want to miss (despite traffic jam on the way back and the whole bus tour taking some 9 hours in total…) When I have the time, I will go again as long as my company organizes these trips. As the tour through the destroyed area on Saturday morning showed, there is still a lot to do and the number of volunteers is steadily sinking. It will take years until the aftermath of the tsunami will be repaired and in Fukushima it will take decades because of the nuclear disaster. But I am sure that one day Tohoku will be again what it was thanks to the spirit of its people.

Summer and the consequences

So… the rainy season is now officially declared over for Tokyo by Japan’s weather frogs and we have entered cruel summer. This year, that summer is indeed a bit weird, starting from working hours. Some industries have shifted the weekend to Thursday/Friday, others to Monday/Tuesday and they are working Saturday/Sunday instead. Big companies are requested to save 15% of energy this summer. The company I work for is in the Thursday/Friday off slot. Our factories stand still on Thu/Fri but run on Sat/Sun. As for our offices, half of them run on the new calender, the other half on the usual one. I’m on the usual one, but many of my colleagues are not, so now we are having 7 days a week operations and today, in half an hour, on a Saturday, I have to participate in a telephone conference from home, grumble…
Another consequence of this summer made it into the program “close up gendai” (gendai meaning “current times” or “the now”) that is a regular NHK program on weekdays at 19:30. It was about power savings and heat-stroke. Many people are suffering from heat-strokes now, since they exaggerate the power savings and leave their air-conditioners off… not good! Some expert guy in the program said that in the evenings and at night we do have enough juice, so guys/girls, please turn on your air-conditioners to stay cool, be able to sleep and to avoid heat-strokes. We have to save energy most of all in the peak hours between noon and four/five p.m. but outside that period we are “allowed” to switch the air-con on. And that’s what I’m doing… and luckily, so far, there is no sign of serious beer shortage yet…

Glowing Beaches?

With the summer and bathing season coming up, the Japanese authorities have started to measure the radioactivity of sea water at some major beach resorts all over Japan, as NHK reported this week. Funny thing is though that nobody knows what to do with the measurement results. Let’s say the authorities measure XX Becquerel in Chiba, what do these XX Becquerel tell us? At the moment nothing much, since nobody ever measured before and knows whether the XX is a lot or not. There is also no standard for how much is “safe” or “unsafe”. Standards will have to be established and “experts” will decide what the standard is for the future. It’s eye-opening to realize that the present has no meaning without a past.
And isn’t the entire Pacific ocean anyway more radioactive than it would naturally be, thanks to the numerous atom-bomb tests done by the French in the Moruroa and the Americans in the Bikini atolls?
I have the feeling as if the NHK news are changing a little bit, they show now anti-nuclear protests in Japan, report on the popular vote in Italy that said no thanks to nuclear energy, and they dryly commented on the “nobody knows what to do with these beach measurements and there are no standards in existence”. Another news station reported about a farmer in Fukushima who committed suicide because he saw no way out anymore (his produce is contaminated). The sensational news period is over, but the “little” things that effect our lives here so much more will continue for many years to come…
And oh, yes, there was an aftershock Tuesday night at exactly the same spot where the epicenter of the big one was, 5.9 on the Richter scale. What reached us on land was only a magnitude 1 to 3 but the earth is still shaking and shaking; in New Zealand as well and everywhere else along the Ring of Fire and it won’t stop the next million years or so… no choice but to live with it.


Last night one of the top news in NHK’s News Watch 9 was that 13 tourists from China dared to set foot onto Japanese soil again. What a sad story. They were being welcomed at Narita, or was it Haneda, with fanfares and TV cameras. Must have been odd for them… Though the whole scene seemed pretty pathetic on second thought it’s maybe good news – the world has become nicely interdependent. No matter how much the Japanese and Chinese might disagree about certain issues, they need each other! So let’s hope the flow of tourists to Tokyo and the rest of Japan will increase again from now on.


We got a first taste of what the summer will be like in the office on Friday. After a mini typhoon the weather was hot and extremely humid (as always after a typhoon that brings humid tropical air to Japan). In the course of the day, the temperature in the office rose to 29 degrees (with 65% humidity inside). Because of energy-saving the air conditioning of our building was more or less switched off (at least I didn’t feel a bit of air con). Since we sit in a high-rise building our windows cannot be opened. Makes you ask yourself whether the way we build buildings is really the best and smartest way… We opened the doors to the two emergency staircases, but that didn’t help much either. Everybody was complaining that they couldn’t work because it was too freaking hot. Several people phoned the building administration but they refused to turn the air on because we must save energy…
Stepping outside of the building at 18:00 was amazing, it was cooler outside than inside… (usually it’s cooler inside than outside in summer). Wonder what it’s going to be like when Japan’s REAL summer comes with outside 35 Celsius…


Am back in Japan after two great weeks in Europe. It hasn’t been noticeably shaking in Tokyo since my return! We are making progress I hope. Yesterday, a little demonstration took place in Shibuya. Anti-nuclear power. Maybe one hundred demonstrators flanked by 50 police men? One of the snitbits I overheard was that the Japanese shall stop making “gaman” being patient and endure. Yeah! Their main song was: Genpatsu iranai – we don’t need nuclear power.
Go go go!
I find it odd that the government asked Chubu Electric to shut down Hamaoka Nuclear Power plant. Makes you wonder whether something is wrong with the thing already or whether it’s just “only” the awful location of that plant between Tokyo and Nagoya right where they think the Tokai earthquake will hit. They are predicting this one for years already and has it happened there? No, it happened 500 km further north. In my opinion earthquake prediction is pretty futile. But I agree that it would be a damn good idea to shut Hamaoka down…
There are new products in the stores – electricity storage units for example that can supply juice to for example refrigerators during a power outage in summer. Trouble is such units cost 800,000 yen (10,000 $ or 7000 Euro) and more, haha… So far I only bought a solar battery charger, this little thing can be charged via a computer, the normal network or via solar cells and then can feed your phone and even (and that’s the important thing for me) your iPad, now ain’t that cool – powering your iPad with solar energy. That little device cost 7000 yen (90 $ or 60 Euro). So I’ll have no ice cream this summer but at least Internet…


Narita airport yesterday was the spookiest thing ever. I’ve never seen Narita airport so empty, nearly deserted. On the plane too, in my section between the galley and the bathrooms I counted sixty seats and only nine were occupied. They didn’t board economy class according to rows but just all together, due to lack of guests. I had a whole row of four to myself, nice, and yet a strange, spooky feeling. Japan is yet far away from normal. Normal is a crowded, lively Narita airport and packed planes. As convenient as it was, I prefer things normal and packed and hope things will return to the way they’ve been soon. Unfortunately though, while I sat on the plane another M6 hit and that right there in Chiba. Hope the damned earthquakes will calm down soon. For the moment I am enjoying non shaking European grounds for 12 days…

No Beer?

How bizarre when it feels odd that NO earthquake you can feel happened the past 24 hours. The latest bigger one we had Saturday morning at 11:19.
Luckily I’m not a big fan of beer but many are – therefore here some shocking news – we might face beer shortage in the summer:
They’re just having some Tepco press conference live on TV, saying that it’ll take 6 to 9 months to achieve a cold shut-down of Fukushima Daiichi reactors.
Otherwise I’m fighting with another unseen enemy – pollen! Jeez, this year the hay fever is bad… I’m sneezing my head of and scratching my eyes out, damn it…and antihistamines make so sleepy…