Saturday, March 26, 2011

Profiles of Those Who Have and Have Not Been Evacuated

Evacuated: Residents in the “no-go” zone near Fukushima reactors who can afford to rent a place, who have gasoline to drive, or who have a relative or friend’s home to go to. These people are undergoing voluntarily evacuation as suggested by the Japanese government.

Not evacuated: Residents in the “no-go” zone who don’t have facilities or resources and are forced to stay in local evacuation centers in the danger zone near the Fukushima reactors or live in makeshift housing along the coastal areas.

Evacuated: Domesticates whose owners can find evacuation centers that take pets and those who have been found and rescued.

Not evacuated: Domesticates who couldn't evacuate with their owners. Just as in Katrina many owners were forced to make a choice between staying with animals or giving them up.

Evacuated: Aquarium mammals in damaged tidal wave zone aquariums.

Not evacuated: Fish in damaged tidal wave zones aquariums.

Not evacuated: Various animals and insects belonging to 130 land mammal species, 600 bird species, 73 reptile and amphibian species, 190 kinds of dragonflies, 300 kinds of butterflies, some of whom lived in Fukushima and are examples of movable nature. Any of them can potentially move across arbitrary boundaries, including out of the “no-go” zone. They potentially carry radioactivity.

Not evacuated: Ocean-going mammals and fish in the ocean near the Fukushima plant where TEPCO is dumping or leaking radioactive water. They are examples of movable nature that move through the water. They could be near or far from the reactors now.

Evacuated: Nuclear reactor workers with burns. So far only three workers have been admitted by TEPCO to have been hurt. They were evacuated under cover by large blue tarps carried by fellow reactor workers to the National Radiology Hospital because they have received more than 10,000 times the limit of radiation.

Not evacuated: Nuclear reactor workers with no burns. Takashi Hirose, Author of Nuclear Power Plants for Tokyo and Genpatsu, The Time Bomb spoke on the reactors thusly. “. . . it’s a complete mess inside, and when I think of the 50 remaining operators [now 47], it brings tears to my eyes. I assume they have been exposed to very large amounts of radiation, and that they have accepted that they face death by staying there. And how long can they last? I mean, physically. . . . All of the information media are at fault here I think. They are saying stupid things like, why, we are exposed to radiation all the time in our daily life, we get radiation from outer space. But that’s one millisievert per year. A year has 365 days, a day has 24 hours; multiply 365 by 24, you get 8760. Multiply the 400 millisieverts by that, you get 3,500,000 the normal dose. You call that safe? And what media have reported this? None. They compare it to a CT scan, which is over in an instant; that has nothing to do with it.” (Counterpunch, March 22)

Evacuated: Hundreds of US military families in Japan and their pets.

UPDATE March 27, am:

Evacuated?: Workers at the plant. It appears that workers are being evacuated from reactor 2. Late March 26th (US time), at an on-going press conference, Tepco employees said they detected radioactive Iodine 134 in the water pool in the turbine room that was 10 million times beyond the normal level and they couldn't measure the level of radiation because the instrument they use which can measure up to 1000 msv/h went beyond the limit. This is a level of radiation that can kill a man. According to the World Nuclear Association, 100 mSv a year is the lowest level at which any increase in cancer is clearly evident. Absorption of more than 500 mSv can depress white blood-cell levels, etc. See below:

250 mSv Allowable short-term dose for workers controlling the 2011 Fukushima accident.
350 mSv/lifetime Criterion for relocating people after Chernobyl accident.
1,000 mSv cumulative Would probably cause a fatal cancer many years later in 5 of every 100 persons exposed to it (i.e. if the normal incidence of fatal cancer were 25%, this dose would increase it to 30%).
1,000 mSv single dose Causes (temporary) radiation sickness such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, but not death. Above this, severity of illness increases with dose.
5,000 mSv single dose Would kill about half those receiving it within a month.
10,000 mSv single dose Fatal within a few weeks.

Moved: US crew members and the US navy's 7th Fleet, stationed 100 miles offshore, has retreated and moved after 17 crew members' bodies were treated for radiation exposure (which essentially means they were cleaned with soap and water and their clothes thrown away).

We’re all in this together.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Young and the Old--An Update

I have a son who can barely stand to touch his dirty toe to bathwater, so for a second I was caught by surprise at seeing on Japanese TV a child so happy to wash his face. But, of course. At the elementary school where he’d been evacuated, he finally had running water. Those in evacuation zones are finally starting to get a clean water supply after living elbow to elbow for nearly two weeks with very little water. Pipes are being fixed and the young and old are happily wiping down their bodies with wet towels and washing their hands and faces.

Many of the evacuation centers are in schools and while thousands now eat, sleep, and wash in them, just a year ago, at this very time, the schools would have bustled with graduation events. The school year in Japan runs from April to March, with March heralding the happy conclusion to elementary school, or junior high, or high school years. But here many children were living in a state of emergency when their ceremonies were to be held, so principals and teachers in various evacuation cities have hobbled together graduation ceremonies. At one school a photo of a schoolmate lost in the tsunami is displayed while the graduating class president bravely struggles through his graduation speech with the wrenching emotion of a survivor strong in his face.

Exchange students who had been living in Japan have been recalled to their home countries. One bus of 150 Chinese girls tearfully left for home. My university recalled more than half of its students in Japan home. One American girl was not so lucky. She never made it home, but her mother spoke on American news of how much her daughter had loved Japan.

When I lived in Sendai, I experienced my first quake and when I ran to my host parents’ bedroom the night it happened and waited impatiently for them to respond to my knocks in the middle of the night, they waved me back to bed. That is how common quakes are in Sendai and the rest of Japan. There was faith in the anti-quake measures the country had taken even then. The next day my homeroom classmates, having heard from my host sister about my fright, spent the rest of the day shaking my chair and shrieking "It’s a quake! It’s a quake!" When the lamp on the ceiling of our classroom swayed that day from aftershocks, the girls giggled when I glanced up at it nervously as it swayed back and forth.

In one devastated town, children have created their own volunteer help boards where they answer questions that other evacuees have deposited in their homemade Q and A boxes. They read the questions, research them and then hang detailed responses complete with maps, prices, hours, phone numbers and so on, on a large bulletin board near their volunteer desk. Questions include things like “when will the local bathhouse be open again?” or “where is the nearest temporary housing available?” There is no question too simple or complicated.

Children who experienced the Kobe earthquake were interviewed and most of them remember their post-quake days as almost giddy days of volunteerism. It is perhaps no different for the children in northeastern Japan now. One volunteer group posted a hand-written sign at their volunteer station “You’ll never walk alone.” They deliver food to old folks. They give them shoulder massages. They deliver water to them, make them tea. They give the old folks hot water foot baths. It makes all the difference.

And the old folks, for their part, with thick blankets wrapped around their vulnerable old bodies, watch on with tears in their eyes as the local children walk through their makeshift graduation ceremonies. Many of these kids don't know where they will go to school next year, but for now they celebrate one hurdle.

In the aftermath of the quake, so many of the elderly lost their prescription medicine and have no idea what they were taking. The medical volunteers are not quite sure how to proceed. Bottled water is now being doled out to those in affected areas, but one must present a ration card to get it. And one must have an infant in the family to get it. The water is given to families with infants for drinking and making formula. (The bottled water in Tokyo has been bought up by those who rushed to the stores the quickest. The coastal towns have no stores).

Some old folks surviving on the coast in makeshift shelters comb the seashore for packaged food that has washed up. And they go back to the old tradition of collecting shellfish. One elderly woman seemed embarrassed to admit that they’d have fresh scallops tonight. ‘It seems luxurious but we found them on the shore’.

It seems to me that the small luxury of the sweet soft flesh of a scallop may be just what these old folks deserve.

We're all in this together.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Radioactive Spinach and Biomagnification

Given recent events, Japan observers might be excused for overlooking important news from March 22. A decades long battle between Chisso Corporation and three groups of Minamata disease victims in Kumamoto and Kagoshima reached an agreement in a class action suit. 2492 people in three groups agreed not to file further damages or apply for official recognition as mercury-poisoned victims of Chisso Corp’s dumping of methyl mercury in the water in exchange for lump sum payments. The disease was first recognized in 1956 and half a century later victims have little time left to fight for the official recognition they deserve. The mercury that poisoned their bodies was carried through fish they ate. The toxins accumulated up the trophic tiers in a process called biomagnification through which a persistent poison concentrates as it moves up the food chain. Organisms at the top get the most poison, and consequently, in Minamata thousands were left with nerve damage.

Meanwhile toxins meander through the veins of a common food source in Japan—spinach. But not just spinach. On March 23rd, the government restricted the consumption of various greens from Fukushima prefecture including kakina, broccoli, cabbage, komatsuna, kukitachina, santona, parsley, shinobu fuyuna, kosaitai, cauliflower, chijirena, aburana, and others. Today Fukushima prefecture is also limited from distributing the same greens and turnips. Ibaragi prefecture may not ship spinach, kakina, or parsley. Tochigi and Gunma prefectures may not ship spinach or kakina. Gunma, Fukushima, Ibaragi and Tochigi prefectures supplied 60 percent of the greens to Tokyo in 2010.

Greens are more susceptible to radiation absorption than other fruits and vegetables and have been found to exceed normal radiation limits since the radiation leaks at the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, though the data varies according to source.

While Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano determines that “there is no immediate harm from temporary consumption,” he also says the long term effects are not clear. Therefore, consumers are asked to limit consumption of these greens and farmers are blocked from selling their vegetables. One farmer who has just seeded a new crop a week prior to the reactor accidents stands to lose 2,000,000 yen on his crops. One farmer of kakina had just missed harvesting by a mere day or two and has consequently lost an entire crop. At distribution centers, greens from Fukushima and Ibaragi are marked with signs saying “return produce.” Shop owners in Tokyo complain that consumers now won’t even buy vegetables from prefectures lying outside the no-distribution zones.

Milk: Fukushima and Ibaragi prefectures are also asked to halt milk shipments.

One farmer draining milk from his cows to the drain lamented that he must “throw away milk like garbage.”

Toxins are stored in fatty tissue of bodies and the biomagnification of toxins up trophic tiers means that milk brings with it a greater accumulation of toxins in our bodies, just as fish did for human Minamata denizens. It should be pointed out, however, that toxic substances can concentrate in higher levels in water than on land because food chains are longer (Sandra Steingraber, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood). This is why Minamata fishing communities suffered the effects of mercury poisoning so radically. It makes it doubly important to watch radiation levels in the ocean off of the coast of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

What is a food chain anyway? Who is at the top? We usually think of a “man” at the top of a food chain but Sandra Steingraber illustrates that it is not “man” but a fetus that stands to be most harmed by toxins and following the fetus is a breastfeeding infant. Placenta can magnify levels of toxins. And about the breastfeeding child and biomagnification Steingraber writes “After the tuna sandwiches and glasses of cow’s milk are all consumed, there still remains one more chance for the contaminants they carry to magnify, and that takes place inside the breasts of nursing mothers” who add a trophic tier to the human food chain. Increased toxins from veggies and milk are potentially harmful for mothers breastfeeding since they transfer toxins to infants through the milk that contains chemicals trapped inside milk fat globules, at least 60% of which are from long-lived fat-soluble contaminants from a lifetime burden of contaminants in the female body. These are even transferred to her through the milk of her own mother (Steingraber).

One woman interviewed in Tokyo says she can handle the radioactivity in water and milk but worries about her infant. The fact is that the mother will pass on toxins to her breast-feeding infant in inestimable quantity. And the sadder truth is that nuclear accident-produced contamination may be the least toxic contaminant in the mother’s body. The persistent toxic organic pollutants in human breast milk makes it the most contaminated of all human foods. One reseacher writes in 1996 that “Breast milk, if regulated like infant formula, would commonly violate FDA action levels for poisonous or deleterious substances in food and could not be sold.” Steingraber writes, On average, in industrialized countried, breastfed infants ingest each day fifty times more PCBs per pound of body weight than do their parents. We have DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, fungicides, wood preservatives, termite poisons, toilet deodorizers, cable-insulating materials, gasoline vapors, dry-cleaning fluids, chemical pollutants of garbage incinerations, and other contaminants in breast milk.

With the recent finding of radioactivity in the water supply in Tokyo, we have added yet another contaminant to the water supply. So while Edano says that levels of radioactivity do not pose an immediate threat to health or when researcher Matsumoto Yoshihisa who is a radiation science and molecular biologists says he, his children, and his family will gobble up Fukushima vegetables and milk, one wonders if a breastfeeding mother understanding the process of biomagnification would. Emeritus professor of Waseda University, Professor Ootsuki Yoshihiko, also known as a television “talent,” says “Send me the stopped shipments [of spinach and milk] and I’ll gladly eat them.” Prof. Ootsuki ends his blog on March 21st with the statement “Cars are not safe but necessary. In the same way, nuclear power is not safe but necessary.” I end my blog here asking, “Should we be so sure?”

We’re all in this together.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Aquariums and Holding Tanks

Along with aquaculture, aquariums notoriously lie along beaches. Reports of damage to aquariums has been almost nil in the press, but JAZA, the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums, has provided some detail.

The aquarium that has been hit the hardest has been the Fukushima Kaiyo Kagaku-kan or “Aquamarine Fukushima” in Iwaki city. People living in the area reported watching the tsunami waves roll over the building. The most widely reported story (though a mere pebble in the bucket compared with stories about humans) is of two seal lions, 15-year old Ichiro and his one-year old female sidekick Hama, both of whom have been moved by truck to new facilities. Their emergency evacuation was to Numazu city’s aquarium “Izu-Mito Sea Paradise” in Shizuoka prefecture. Photos show Ichiro sitting up pertly (for a 500-kilo giant) in a white iron cage.

Stories of the death of smaller creatures in the aquarium are hard to come by. This is because like the sudden appearance of an ocean-going bearded seal in the freshwater Tama River in Tokyo in 2002 who brought thousands of humans to the river shores, brought long-term hikikomori or “shut-ins” out of their homes and rooms, inspired on-line art and poems dedicated to Tama the seal, and started an environmental awareness campaign in the ward, large ocean mammals are a great source of fascination for humans. The mammals in Aquamarine Fukushima were quickly moved out, but fish and invertebrates won’t survive. Hundreds of fish species will soon or have already died because it has been impossible to maintain the temperatures needed for their survival without electricity. There were emergency generators in place should the electricity go out, but there was no fuel for them after the tsunami and no fuel was later provided. Fish were exposed to colder temperatures and quickly weakened. Refrigerators had no power so the feed in them went bad. In total there were at Aquamarine Fukushima 450 species of fish numbering 44,000; 240 vertebrates numbering 156,000; 500 types of plants numbering 20,000; 18 mammals, 27 birds, and bugs. 220,000 fish, invertebrates, and plants will die. One specialist in the prefecture said that “with gas and oil resources scarce, while it is sad, human life is the most important” (Mainichi Shinbun, March 17). Those to be moved to new environs in Chiba prefecture’s Kamogawa Seaworld and Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo are 3 stellar sea lions, 2 seals, 2 walruses, two pelicans, 5 gulls, and one otter. In Matsushima’s Marinpia park, 2 beavers have died.

Then there were the dolphins about to be shipped to new “sea worlds” from Taichi Japan who have disappeared. Taichi Japan in Wakayama prefecture, known globally for its dolphin harvesting through the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, lost 13 dolphins when the quake caused damage to the tanks holding them. Fishermen had planned on selling these dolphins to various sea zoos and will see monetary losses of 14,900,000 yen. Marine entertainment centers, especially in the western world, use language for their facilities that emphasizes how such centers “save” wildlife and “educate” citizenry through their facilities but there is no denying the big money that can be made from the export of live dolphins by fishermen and the global sea world entertainment industry.

Taiji began expanding its business in dolphin export relatively recently. It created tanks for dolphins so that sea world buyers can pick dolphins for sea zoos. Bottlenose dolphins are also held in sea pens at the outer edge of the harbor to be trained and prepared for shipment reportedly to places like US, Holland, Hong Kong and Israel. Other export markets include Korea, China, Mexico, Tahiti, Taiwan, and Thailand. The covert nature of these sales makes them hard to track. Dolphin harvesting in Japan gets falsely touted as national traditional culture or as a fishing practice. In its current form, it is not. The biggest losses to the Taiji fisherman is from selling live, rather than processed, dolphin.

The captivity of dolphins and other mammals is a worldwide billion-dollar industry. Not counting the Russian and American military dolphins, there are over a thousand captive dolphins scattered around the world. They can be found in amusement parks, dolphin-swim programs, zoos, roadside shows, and even shopping centers and discotheques.

And the thousands of fish that will die as a result of no electricity or back-up generators? They're yet more victims of the tsunami. But the cruel irony here is the image of saltwater fishes being killed by a wave of salt water. Such is the unnaturalness of their captivity.

We're all in this together.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Guest Post by Brett L. Walker -- In recent days, film footage of dogs has heightened the emotional intensity of coverage of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. One video clip features a restless, obviously agitated dog guarding its injured companion in a flooded, ravaged neighborhood. The Japanese reporter remarks on the dog’s defense of its injured friend, but, frustratingly for viewers, appears to offer no immediate aid. Then, Mr. Kenn Sakurai, a supplier of dog food in Japan, announced on Facebook, perhaps fishing for “likes” from his “friends,” that he rescued the two dogs. But Sakurai’s unwillingness to post pictures of the now globally famous canines has left many wondering whether Sakurai is in fact a fraud. Another bloodcurdling clip features a dog trying desperately to flee a swirling, bubbling stew of shattered homes and mauled cars, only to be consumed by the killer waves. In different ways, these clips, by depicting the suffering and death of Canis familiaris, our most faithful animal ally, evokes fresh agony from the devastated northeastern shores of Japan.

Dogs suffer and die, and they may even elicit misplaced Facebook “likes,” but they also work and rescue and respond to human emotions. A twenty-five member Swiss rescue team with nine dogs was the first to enter Japan after the quake and tsunami, only to be snared by Japan’s strict regulations regarding the transport of dogs. In countries where rabies has not been eradicated, such as the United States and, apparently, Switzerland, Japan requires information such as microchip identifiers, exact dates of rabies vaccinations, documented rabies antibody levels in the animal, and proof that the animal underwent a 180 observation period in the exporting country. If not, then the animal undergoes the 180 observation stint in a cage in Japan. Such was the initial fate of the Swiss dogs. The South Koreans sent a five-member team with two dogs. Four dogs were dispatched from a Gwyenedd rescue team, including a stray Labrador from the streets of Caernarfon, Wales. The Search Dog Foundation in the United States dispatched six rescue dogs: Pearl, Cadillac, Baxter, Riley, Hunter, and Joe. Many of these high-strung, active dogs had clawed their way to rescue-dog status after being passed from owner to owner, and shelter to shelter. Some of them, such as Pearl, Hunter, Joe and Cadillac, are veterans of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and other serious disasters. They bring with them loads of experience.

Dogs evoke powerful emotional responses in people – viewership of these video clips attest to this fact – and we, through facial expressions and other forms of emotional projection, trigger strong emotions in dogs. We have coevolved together; dogs are artifacts of our values and cultures. Human rescue workers desperate to find victims in Japan’s drenched rubble no doubt conjure strong emotions in their dogs. The photos of these dogs in the rubble, their sheer intensity, make this fact clear enough. As for the homeless dog and its injured companion, it is hard to know what collective human emotions they sensed in northeastern Japan’s tattered landscape. We are often cautioned against projecting human emotions onto dogs, this is the specter of anthropomorphism. However, we were most moved by the dog putting its paw around the shoulder of its companion. It’s hard to mistake the dog’s compassion and its profound unease in the wake of the tsunami.

Even across species lines, we are all in this together.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


When I was fifteen, my mother and I decided that living overseas might be the best thing for me, a high school girl tired of the American high school ways. Rotary was kind enough to take me on as an exchange student from the state of Oregon and with the promise that I wouldn’t be “loud,” I was allowed to attend an all girls’ high school in Sendai—Miyagi prefecture’s Third Girls’ High School. I’d requested Japan as my host country because I wanted to live near the sea.

Sure enough, from a window of my first host family’s home, I could strain my neck and (with a telescope!) see the sea. I looked forward to going to the nearby Matsushima, ranked as one of Japan’s “three great views.” Matsushima is comprised of about 260 tiny islands, some of them barely big enough to hold a pine tree.

Matsuo Basho made the Matsushima islands famous through his haiku poem in his Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689). Upon seeing the islands, he claimed to be unable to do anything but repeat the place name:

Oh Matsushima! Matsushima ya
Ah Matsushima! Aa Matsushima ya
Oh Matsushima! Matsushima ya

But the islands, it was reported yesterday, have not remained unscathed. Parts of islands have fallen into the sea. One of the larger five meter arches famous with tourists for the belief that by traveling through it your life will extend by three years, is gone. The smaller islands near it have disappeared. Parts of missing islands have been spotted elsewhere. Kokeshi Island named for the hand-painted armless wooden dolls of Sendai is a quarter of its size. A cynical Japanese blogger suggests that the islands' new shape is only bad news for the tourist industry. Another suggests that the islands can be renamed for their new shapes.

And yet, some of the islands with their sturdy pine trees held tight through the tsunami with their tree roots gripping the earth for all they were worth, tree roots like tough little knuckles popping out of rocky protrusions.

The worst news is that some of the islands are strewn with the tools of aquaculture. An island popular with tourists, Niojima, is wound with one of the many nets from the aquacultural industry loosed by the tsunami. Nets and buoys from the seaweed (nori) aquaculture are caught on the islands.

The beauty of Japan's coastline is at stake not for the damage of the tsunami to nature, but for what humans will do to the remaining natural landscape in its wake. Japan's northeastern coastline is both beautiful and horribly over-engineered. Japan, perhaps understandably, is bound and determined to already begin rebuilding in the wake of the tsunami to assert national control over a devastating disaster. I hope that this time the coastlines, the beautiful sea rocks, the blue of the warm sea can remain unscathed by human development. I hope they don’t rebuild. At least not too close to the sea. Let’s leave the beaches for the shellfish, for the sea urchin, the abalone, the sea cucumber, the surfers, the beachcombers. We're all in this together.

Dispersion of Radioactive Material and the Disbandment of Communities

Yesterday on NHK television, a guest on the national channel provided suggestions for avoiding radiation contamination while waving a pointer at a bulletin board: (1) Move around by car (2) Wear long sleeves (3) Wear a mask (4) Don’t get rained on. Then a television drama began to be aired—a historical drama complete with silk kimono clad women, tear-stained faces of samurai men, and cherry blossoms floating amidst a background of blue skies. The Japanese Twitterers were confounded. Surely this isn’t the time to pretend that things are back to normal by airing a television drama?

And today, it’s just been reported that precipitation is imminent in northeastern Japan today. If Fukushima sees rain, then, it’s suggested, it is best not to go out in the rain. But if you do, cover up!

And now the milk and spinach from the radiation zone is found to have enough radioactivity to stop sales. This reminds one of the Tsukiji fish market when the largest fish market in the world banned fish products from Isozu village which was across the Suzuka River from the Yokkaichi petrol chemical company. The fish from that area smelled so badly that mongers in Tokyo refused to peddle their fish and the village wilted into nothing. The milk and spinach from Fukushima are no longer being sold and people living in Fukushima are being asked not to drink or eat their own milk and spinach.

The dispersion of radioactive materials is being tracked across the seas on planes flying into Seattle and elsewhere but for now the only risk seems to regard the locals who must stop selling and eating their own locally grown produce.

Locals would like nothing more than to be able to survive on local produce and medicines. But, in fact, they have little. Minami-Souma residents are finally being bussed out of the area for lack of food and medicine. Another elderly man has died at the age of 82 for lack of care. Even with medicines in the cabinets, there are no nurses in Minami Souma to administer those medicines. So 40 busses from Minami Souma take the aged to Saitama prefecture where they will be fed and have care administered.

And yet, the elderly—a large percentage of the population in northeastern Japan—are in no hurry to leave their homes. They admit that once leaving it is unlikely that they will ever have a home to come back to. Far beyond getting food and medicine, this is their primary concern.

On the other hand, it is the aged in these communities who have brought some slight semblance of normalcy to devastated areas. In one town, an elderly man provides haircuts in the streets; in another a retired woman decides to reopen her shop to serve the locals. Out of his shop an elderly gentleman repairs bicycles—the only transportation in use for now in devastated areas—since they get frequent flats for the junk in the streets.

It is especially the elderly who cannot choose to stay who feel the pain of evacuation the most. Be a yokel, buy local . . . unless you live in Fukushima.

We’re all in this together.

Tides and Coastal Barriers

Japanese see in the moon a rabbit pounding rice cake. With a full moon this week, the rabbit will be more visible than usual and she brings with her higher than normal tides. The water will rise from the sea onto the beaches an extra foot or two. This tide may bring up even more corpses. Bodies have been washing up since Monday and coroners have been overwhelmed. NHK shows families seeking out wooden coffins of their loved ones, draped with white chrysanthemums and a plastic bag holding the shoes the victim was wearing at the time of his or her death.

The Sendai airport is a mere 6 to 7 feet above sea level. People in the airport at the time of the tsunami ran to the roof and the control tower. 1400 were saved. Those at lower levels weren’t so lucky. A heart-wrenching youtube video shows a dog racing madly to avoid being sucked into the tidal vortex of the receding wave and failing.

This week’s tides will be flooding at 1.46 meters on average. At Shiogama near Sendai, for example, the highest tides will occur between March 19th and 24th, with highs at 1.44 meters and above. Tides will flood above 1.44 meters or 4.7 feet twelve times. The average flooding is 1.1 meters or 3.6 feet, so for that week the coast will experience flooding that is about a foot above normal. This may not sound like much, but when your international airport is six feet above sea level you need every foot you can get.

How is it that Japanese people living in the alluvial areas can protect themselves from this? Most major metropolitan areas in Japan are on alluvial plains. 73% of Japan is mountainous and living there is difficult. 14-16% of land is arable and much of this arable land is covered in concrete and prone to flooding.

New Orleans was in an even worse situation lying 6.5 feet below to 20 above sea level. Katrina hit New Orleans hard because its protective wetlands had been eroded by development. The draining of the wetlands for construction of roads, condos, and marinas has shrunk the coastline. Louisiana loses 25 miles of coastline every year to construction (Independent, September 2005). Levees and dams have been built to protect the city from hurricanes and floods but they’ve had the kind of side effect we see in Japan. The coastlines cannot build up natural barriers. Japan’s coastline is highly engineered with man-made barriers to stop tides and tetrapods to presumably stop erosion. The engineered coastline and waterways cased in concrete essentially funneled water into towns and cities. The saltwater islands and coastal marshes that used to buffer the coast from weather events now no longer do.

We’re all in this together.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Workers Under the Moon

While Tokyo dwellers go about their business in a seemingly defiant act of soldiering through daily routines, a few hundred miles away thousands continue to wait for assistance. While the Tokyo power company is hell-bent on getting trains running with no planned stops in the Tokyo metropolis and succeeded in doing so just today, global and local groups are trying to figure out how to get packs of food and energy to those in the tsunami and quake areas who are hungry and cold. There are complaints from some Japanese that the world is attentive only to the fate of the nuclear reactors. Perhaps this is not surprising because the fate of this particular nuclear plant will indeed have a global impact, both on the health of the planet and on the future of nuclear power. We are in this together.

The prime minister speaks of the life-threatening position in which reactor workers have placed themselves, not to mention the fire-fighting forces at the site out there from 12:30 am this morning, for twenty minutes, pouring yet more water on the roof of Reactor 3. They are called the “Hyper-rescue unit.” They are doubtlessly doing their jobs well and with great injury to self. But, contrary from much of the western reportage from Time Magazine (“How Japan Copes with Tragedy: A Lesson in the Art of Endurance”) the NYT, and elsewhere, this is not about “being taught as a youth the importance of the collective” (NYT, March). My colleague is right to say that it cheapens their situation and their efforts to frame their selflessness in the ways that the NYT has when it publishes phrases like the “Japanese are raised to believe that individuals sacrifice for the good of the group” (NYT, March 15). I would add that it makes those workers sound like robots. And it is ignores the real anger that is out there in the evacuation zone. And it aestheticizes the suffering.

Now the moon has added another level of danger to the situation. The coastlines are about to experience extremely high tides, the depths and times of which are continuously reported on the national NHK station. Fishermen and others who work the coasts are asked to “be especially careful during the hours preceding and following the high tides.” CNN reports that we in the US will have the largest full moon in twenty years. With the ground literally lower than it was before the quake and tsunami, an unusually high tide is the last thing that the coast needs. But the trains roll on.

We’re all in this together.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gas Stoves and Feminine Napkins

Today’s NHK morning show, Asaichi, teaches women living in the resource-scarce evacuation centers how to make feminine napkins. In response to multiple write-in letters from those in evacuation areas asking for tampons and diapers to be sent, the television program provided detailed instructions on how to make feminine napkins by cutting off the sleeves of a shirt, stuffing cotton into the sleeves and using tape to make it stick. These instructions were followed by further instructions on how to make diapers from cotton towels. It didn’t take long for Japanese Twitterers watching the show to respond with the rather obvious point. If the evacuees had towels, they wouldn’t be begging those outside the crisis area to send tampons and diapers.

One thing that all will agree on: those in the evacuation centers need heat. They need gas, kerosene, and oil to heat the evacuation centers in schools and public buildings. For those who have not lived in the northern regions of Japan, the reliance on kerosene for heating may be unclear. Schools and a large number of homes in the north are heated by kerosene and gas. Homes may use portable units or have gas outlets in various rooms to which portable units connect. Kerosene and gas units have safety features that automatically cut off the fuel supply when the heater receives a shake from an accident or earthquake. They also shut off after two or three hours at night to prevent carbon monoxide fumes from building. The fires following the quake and tsunami could easily have been started from domestic kerosene tanks and loosed connections catching fire.

The most frequent complaint of those in the evacuation centers is of cold. Families sleep together to stay warm. Evacuation centers in the most devastated areas talked today of having only enough kerosene left for the night. Kerosene and oil are in such short supply that even the now famously “non-looting Japanese” have been found to have looters in the ranks. Kerosene has been stolen from elementary schools.

Trucks have driven oil and kerosene up from the south, but the lack of gasoline to keep delivery trucks running has meant lengthy lines that take seven hours to get through or no gasoline at all for these delivery trucks.

Without heat, those with influenza have increased. 21 people have died in evacuation centers in Fukushima from the lack of heat, food, medicine, and medical help; 14 of them in Ishinomaki city. So, while those evacuees in Ishinomaki’s Minato elementary school speak resignedly of having such a dearth of water that they no longer urinate, or that food that is delivered for twenty people that must be divided among twice that amount, or that medicines have been completely wiped from the shelves, or that they must pass buckets of water from the school’s swimming pool up multiple flights of stairs to dump into toilets in order to flush them—despite these complaintslikely the biggest concern is whether they will be warm tonight.

Those in Tokyo are forced to deal with rolling blackouts and train schedules through which TEPCO tries to save energy, but hardly 200 miles north of them, great wave victims wonder how long their heat will last. They are down to only days if not hours now.

Are we all in this together?

Place Names

The idea that this tragedy marks a moment through which the nation has proudly come together, as writer Azuma Hiroki has suggested in a recent New York Times piece (March 16, 2011), has already been squelched. Those people sequestered in towns and cities in Fukushima’s exclusion zone are finding little help from the outside as power and food supplies are rapidly depleted. Elderly Japanese have already died from lack of medicine and heat there. As reported in the LA Times and by BBC, those asked to stay in their homes in Fukushima are feeling sickened at their abandonment by the government. Japanese and foreign aid workers are reluctant to enter a zone that may likely be contaminated, and the government brings no relief supplies even as it asks them to stay home. One group suggests that the government asks them to stay indoors not for their own safety but to make their whereabouts traceable. Mayor of the town Minami-Souma in the exclusion zone, Katsunobu Sakurai, said on NHK television, "The government is demanding that we don't go out, but it isn't bringing us anything . . . Truck drivers don't want to enter the city. They're afraid of being exposed to radiation . . . . If the government says we're in a dangerous area, it should take more care of us!"

Traditionally, Japanese place names resonant with powerful histories. I am told that Minami-Souma has had an annual festival that commemorates the Souma clan capturing, training and offering wild horses to shrines of Souma. “Uma” means “horse” in Japanese. Commemorative battles of Japanese men (and more recently including women and children) in samurai garb sitting atop meticulously brushed horses are held in late July every year. Now, instead of being known for these festival events involving the place name of horse, Souma will be one of a number of areas linked with the disaster in Fukushima.

Sometimes those place names can have ominous associations. Minamata in the south now has a global association with methyl mercury poisoning. Fukushima will likely be forever linked to nuclear contamination much in the way that Minamata is forever remembered for the mercury contamination of its waters when the Chisso corporation began in 1932 to manufacture acetaldehyde, used to produce plastics, there. Mercury was essentially dumped into the water for decades but it was not until 1959 that the Chisso plant was found responsible for the pollution. It took ten more years for Chisso to finally stop production of acetaldehyde in 1968. Sociologist Akira Kurihara called the poisoning of the Minamata Bay a species-crossing genocide. It left hundreds of humans and millions of organisms dead and left thousands permanently impaired with devastating illnesses. Minamata is a name that is forever associated with industrial pollution and the fishing communities who contracted mercury poisoning. The disease they contracted, Minamata-byo or “Minamata disease,” is named for that place. Those with Minamata-byo were heavily ostracized and disparaged for fear of contagion.

Those living in the exposure zone of Fukushima are already linked with “hibakusha” (“explosion-affected people”)— those who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Postwar hibakusha and their progeny, like the survivors of Minamata, have faced tremendous discrimination in Japan for fear of contamination directly by exposure or hereditarily—by having children with them. Rumors of the prospect of a similar stigma now worry some of those in and around the Fukushima plant. A 65-year old retired engineer from Sugagawa City, 30 miles from the plant who wished to remain anonymous was quoted as saying, "I am worried about the future . . . There could be some rumors that the people from this area are contaminated by radiation, and that people should not get close to us."

We should recall that decades-long fears of contamination from hibakusha or those with Minamata-byo were groundless. And there should be a way to get goods to the good people of Fukushima. Given the strong associations between place and disease in Japan, however, one shudders to think what the symptomatology of “Fukushima-byo” will be.

We’re all in this together.

PTSD and Children

Middle school and high school gyms have become essential spaces for maintaining basic daily activities like eating and sleeping in the aftermath of the quake. At Takada middle school in northern Japan, junior high students wrote and painted signs in bright yellows and reds meant to give hope to the hundreds camping out in their large gym. “Everyone in Takada. Let us be glad for our lives!”

The psychological costs of this tragic event are already playing out in the behavior of children, the most vulnerable. A report by psychologists who have entered Sendai states that because there has yet to be any care for children, these children are already showing signs of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. The appearance of dead bodies on the beach, corpses washing ashore in evening darkness bring nightmares even to the adult. The loss of one’s parents is an unfathomable loss. These exposures and losses must be addressed within a week, according to experts, or the effects of the traumatic stress these children are experiencing will be long-lasting.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Boats and Buoys

For those who have traveled to northeastern Japan, one familiar site
in normal times is decaying hulls of fleets of fishing boats, piles of
unused nylon netting on the beaches, and lone Styrofoam buoys strewn
across beaches. They seem to signal perhaps a less than vibrant
fishing culture. But some of the most enduring images after the great
wave have been of large boats that belie the degree to which coastal
dwellers depend upon their sea catch.

Japan has long had thriving coastal and pelagic fisheries. The country
itself averages more than 4.4 million metric tons of the world’s
catch, ranking number four in the world. Their fishing waters have
been greatly extended in the 21st century beyond the coastal waters of
Japan to the China Sea, the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the coasts of
South America and beyond.

It also has a vibrant fish culture at home. Sendai fish farmers raise
scallops and catch loads of squid off of the coast using bright lights
that lure the squid in only to be caught up by revolving fishhooks.
The squid is barbequed for a local dish called ika poppo! on a stick,
which I remember eating as a teenager on the Sendai beaches. While
the devastation to these local fisheries has yet to be fully
understood, surely these local fishermen have suffered great losses
not only to their boats, but to the poles and thick threads from which
aquacultural scallops hung.

One report, by Robert Wyre, suggests that fishing off the coast of
northern Japan accounts for about 20% of all seafood caught in Japan.
Japan’s northern fishing fleet was picked up by the tsunami and
scattered as far away as 10 kilometers from the beach. Wyre writes,
“Few, if any, of those ships will ever be re-floated. Most have
sustained too much damage, while others are too large and heavy to
move back to the water, and yet others have lost all their crew
members — with no hope of replacing them. In effect, Japan has lost
its entire North Pacific fleet in the disaster.”
Irreplaceable fish brokers, tremendously skilled at their trade, were
also killed.

That the fleet has been rendered derelict is not going to be welcome
news to the Japanese consumer who eats three times as much fish
protein as an American according to numbers from 2003. However, it will
probably give the North Pacific fish population some time to recover.
In 1990, according to NOAH observers, 74 Japanese vessels from Japan’s
northern Pacific fleet caught 7.9 million squid, which was the target.
Also, the bycatch was 82,000 blue sharks, 253,000 tune, 10,000
salmonids, 30,000 birds, 52 fur seals, 22 sea turtles, 141 porpoises,
and 914 dolphins (Richard Ellis, The Empty Ocean). Ecologists have
observed how in contaminated areas with low human impact the fauna
tend to recover. Much like the DMZ, or Chernobyl for that matter,
which have had a tremendous wildlife recovery with low human impact in
those areas, the northern Pacific may as well.

We all need to be concerned with conserving our ocean resources, and
we need to be concerned about honest fishing folks in Sendai. Japanese
fishing villages, which have traditionally been on the periphery
socially in Japan, will suffer tremendous losses.

We’re all in this together.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Elderly in the Wake of the Quake

The ticker tape of the names of the deceased glided eerily
effortlessly across the television screen after the massive tidal wave
hit Japan’s northeastern seaboard. The ages following the names reveal
a common demographic trend in Japan. High school graduates have left
the rural regions for college and work in Tokyo for decades now,
leaving the aged people in many cases to fend for themselves.
According to John Knight, 41 percent of farmers in Japan now are over

Various services have appeared in the wake of these annual migrations
including daily service centers where the elderly can go to bath and
eat. But the destructive power of the wave has caused power outages
or the purposeful shutting down of power plants and, as a consequence,
such centers have been closed. Footage of one such service center in
Aomori prefecture, showed unused bathing equipment and empty dining
chairs. With shutdowns of local power plants, these service centers
for the elderly, now without heat and power, are unable to run.
Traditionally, three generations had lived under one roof, but now it
is not uncommon to find many of these elderly people living alone so
one wonders where they will find these services.

We’re all in this together.