Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dangerous Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making good use of the if-no-one-hears-the-tree-falling-in-the-forest theory, Japan’s mainstream media managed to drop the story. It was an election day in Tokyo (the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected) and moreover, that Sunday was the most beautiful weekend day for hanami, cherry blossom viewing. After the protest I took the train to Yoyogi, Tokyo’s largest park and site of the biggest parties. Arriving just after the sunset, it was surreal to see this forest of pink flowers in twilight, where tens of thousands frolicked, wasted on good sake and cold beer, pleasuring against all arguments to be somber and self-restrained. I couldn’t blame them.

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

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


  1. Great photos and a thoughtful piece.
    If you are waiting for the 'sakura revolution' though may I suggest not holding your breath.

  2. Ditto. Excellent article, awesome photos. Thankyou!

  3. A pleasure to read, as usual, and very informative to boot. I was a friend of Jennifer and have been following your blog posts for some time although I have fallen somewhat behind lately (as you can see). Anyway, I'm just writing to let you know I appreciate your writing.
    Take care,