Entries in Tohoku earthquake (9)


God's Orphans

   Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the Tôhoku earthquake and tsunami which claimed 15,854 lives. 3,155 people, including many children, are to this date still missing; their remains may never be recovered.

   As was to be expected, there were a number of specials on TV in remembrance of the disaster and as I watched them I found it hard to keep the tears from falling.

   A few days later, I was talking to a student of mine, a rather somber but kind-hearted psychiatrist, about the tsunami. He asked an age-old question: why does God let bad things happen to good people.

   “That question assumes a number of things,” I replied. “One, that there is a god, whatever that means; two, that he, she, or, it actually cares about us humans; and, three, that he, she, or it has the power to prevent things like tsunami.”

   Personally, I’ve never seen evidence for any of those things. People often claim this or that miracle happened, but what they are in effect saying is that something highly improbable occurred. A patient suffering from a rare and deadly form of cancer survives; a man trapped in his car without food or water for over two months lives to tell the tale; an infant is found unharmed among the wreckage of a commercial jet that has crash landed, killing every other passengers. All true, all highly improbable, but miracles? I doubt it.

   Incidentally, one thing I do find worthy of the word “miraculous” is life itself. I was a biochem major in university, and the diversity, majesty and complexity of nature awes me. (It always strikes me as odd that people who consider themselves good Christians—I’m thinking here of Republicans back in the States—have so much contempt for the environment.) I don’t know what the odds are that a species could evolve to become as intelligent and sophisticated as humans—I would argue that most of us still have plenty of room for improvement—but I do know that mankind has only been on this planet for 0.00348%, or a mere 1/28,750’s of earth’s 4.6 billion years. Seems Mother Nature has had quite a bit of time to slowly tinker with life.

   No, I find it better to assume the worst and hope for the best. The worst being that this is all there is: there is no Heaven, no Hell—aside from the lives so many of us are forced to eek out day-in and day-out on this planet—no Purgatory, and no God who cares for all of our suffering and anxiety. Once you've assumed that, you can start treating your fellow humans with more respect, and you can start behaving morally without needing a carrot or stick to motivate you. You’ll also begin to accept that bad things happen to good people because that, unfortunately, is the fickle nature of luck.

   As for the best? That we might be completely wrong; that when we die, all of us, God’s orphans to a man, will be taken into the bosom of Heaven. And at the Final Judgment, it will be God himself who is judged; and that the remorse he shows for having abandoned us will be sincere enough to comfort even his greatest victims.


Lights out, Fukuoka

   Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, concerned citizens throughout Japan have demanded that the nation's nuclear power plants be shut down until the safety of the reactors can be determined. In Kyûshû, where some thirty percent of electricity production comes from nuclear power, this has meant residents, businesses, and governmental bodies have been asked to conserve energy by 15% during the summer months when demand for electricity peaks.

   Efforts to lower demand can be seen everywhere. Public offices have raised the thermostats on their air conditioners to 28℃ (82.4°F), and turned off the air conditioning completely in half of the city's subway stations. Interior lights on trains (pictured above) and university hallways have also been turned off.

   In a country where an abundance of illuminated billboards and flashing neon lights ensures that it is bright enough for a person to read a newspaper outside in the middle of the night, this new darkness will take some getting used to. 



Beacon 2

The Beacon of Rebirth Poster project (復興の狼煙、Fukkô no Noroshi), offering messages of hope, inspiration and determination to the victims of the Tôhoku earthquake and tsunami.



   As I was riding the elevator up to my favorite Sri Lankan restaurant I couldn't help but notice a poster that had been taped to the wall. It showed two young men, dressed in work clothes and standing on a muddy road with piles of debris stretching as far as the eye could see into the background. At the bottom of the poster was a resolute promise: mae-yori ii machi ni shiteyaru (We'll make this town even better than it was).

   More than three months have passed since the Tôhoku earthquake and tsunami which claimed more than fifteen thousand lives and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of countless others. Nearly eight thousand people remain missing.

   It's easy to turn the TV off, to close your eyes to the news, and lose yourself in quotidian struggles. But while we grapple with mundanity, there are people who are facing once-in-a-century challenges with admirable courage. We should never allow ourselves to put them out of our mind. And, as the posters say, we shouldn't feel sorry for the people affected by the natural disaster, we should do everything in our ability to help them move forward.

   For more information on the Beacon of Rebirth Poster Project, please visit their homepage. 



Yesterday the incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was raised to a level seven - the maximum - on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), putting the accident on a par with Chernobyl. Earlier in the day, the government expanded the evacuation area around the crippled nukes and created a two-kilometer zone that is off-limits to all but those engaged in disaster relief. All grim news, indeed, but how serious is it? While the Fukushima accident is now rated at the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, in which 64 people were confirmed to have died, in terms of casualties and effects on the environment, this accident is far less significant. So far. The Economist posted the following of nuclear incidents.


A week and a half ago, the AFP and Air Photo Service released a dozen photos, bird's eye shots of the crippled Fukushima power plants, taken by an unmanned drone that show the extent of the damage to the nuclear reactors.


 Photos by AFP/Air Photo Service


Sleepless in Tokyo

   Every December first, U-CAN Inc., a publisher of correspondence courses and educational software, releases a list of new and popular words which capture the zeitgeist of the year. In previous years, winners of the top honor have included: "revenge" (リベンジ) coined by Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1999 when he lost to the Chiba Lotte Marines and vowed to get ribenji; "manifest" (マニフェスト) in 2003 which has since come to mean campaign promises; "around forty" (アラフォー) originating from a TBS drama of the same name staring the former Takarazukaactress Yûki Amami, and in 2010, iPad.

   This year edaru (枝る, edaru) must surely be the favorite to win the prize in 2011. Meaning "to work without sleep or break" (不眠不休で働く) or "work to the extreme of exhaustion (極限まで睡眠を取らないこと・寝る間も惜しんで働くこと), the word is derived from the name of Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Kan government, who by some accounts went for more than 100 hours without sleep as he dealt with the twin crises of the tsunami and subsequent explosions at the Fukushima reactor site

   The frequency of Edano's appearances on television was cause for concern not only for viewers in Japan but in neighboring Korea as well, inpriring Twitter users to post messages of encouragement and pleas to get some sleep. The Twitter hashtag #edano_nero" (from the imperative word for sleep!) and #edano_go_to_bed were at one time trending in Japan.


Don't Tweet This

   A rumor has been going round that due to the dramatic upsurge in use of the micro-blogging service Twitter following the Tôhoku earthquake, the social networking site would be indefinitely restricting tweets in Japan to 17 characters in order to prevent overloading the telephone lines.

   The blogosphere went wild over this. People tweeted, "17 characters? WT . . ." One blogger suggested that an efficient use of the newly truncated tweets could be the following message of encouragement: "がんばれ日本!いつも応援してるぞ." (trans. Hang in there Japan! We're always rooting for you!)

   This was of course nothing more than a prank beautifully executed by Japan's answer to the satrical news organization The Onion, The Kyokô Shimbun

   With everything from toilet paper and batteries to instant ramen and mineral water in short supply these days, it was only natural the gullible public felt that the precious babble of tweets would eventually be rationed as well.


Light Out, Tokyo

   I had an interesting conversation the other day about electricity, of all things, with a man who used to work for Kyûshu Electric (Kyûden), our local power company.

   The scheduled electrical power stoppages in the Kantô area had been in the news that day. The power outages, which were a result of damage to nuclear reactors in Fukushima after last week's horrendous tsunami had begun earlier in the week and were causing great disruption to people's lives. For one, it wasn't always clear when and where the black outs would occur, and just because TEPCO had announced that a particular area was going to go dark from, say, five o'clock that evening didn't necessarily mean that every portion of that area would have its electricity cut off at precisely that time. Thanks to this confusion, there were 122 cases of people getting trapped in elevators. One elderly woman who was stuck for three hours in her apartment building's elevator told a reporter that she nearly went mad. "It felt as if the compartment were getting smaller and smaller and smaller." (I think I could deal with the claustrophobia, not being able to pee for three hours . . . )

   As is only natural, the black outs had unforeseen consequences, one of which was that power cut off from, for instance, Group A ended up affecting the water supply in Group B. A businessman whose office is in Group C couldn't contact a client in Group D, and so on. Train schedules were also thrown into disarray.

   So, I asked the former Kyûden engineer, "Instead of these silly, seemingly random 3-hour-long blackouts wouldn't it make much more sense to turn everyone's energy off from 12pm - 3pm? That way everyone would know when the power would be out and could manage their lives around the outage."

   Sounded reasonable to me. But then again, what the fuck do I know about electricity?

   "Electricity can't be stored," he answered. "Either you have it or you don't."

   He went on to explain that the area supplied by TEPCO, a sprawling regions that produces 40% of Japan's economic output, had a peak energy demand of some 45 million kilowatts. With the Fukushima nuclear reactors out of commission, TEPCO's energy capacity had dropped some 25% to 38.5 million kilowatts. By comparison, Kyûden, which supplies the island of Kyûshû with power, has a capacity of about 14 million kilowatts. There was no way to boost energy production in a major way, so all that was left to do was reducing demand. Hence, the black outs.

   "What about Kyûden? Can't regional power companies like Kyûshû Denryôku step in?"

   "Yes, it can," he replied, "but only to an extent."

   When the electric grid was first being laid in Japan, the Tôkyô Electric Lamp Company purchased an alternator made by the German company, Siemens, and another electric company located in Ôsaka bought one from GE. Thanks to those two purchases, Japanese power plant frequency would forever be divided--60Hz in the west and 50Hz east of the Fuji River in Shizuoka Prefecture.

   In order for Kyûden to supply the Kantô area with electricity, the company must first sent power to Chûgoku Denryoku which will then pass it on to Kansai Denryoku, and from there to Chûbu Denryoku, where, I believe, it will be converted, and finally provided to TEPCO. All that work for an extra million kilowatts of power, which brings us back to the knotty issue of the scheduled power stoppages. 

   In recent days, however, an appeal by the government for the public to curb their consumption of electricity has had the effect of lowering demand to about 30 million kilowatts, just shy of TEPCO's present capacity. If citizens can continue to be convinced to conserve energy--if not out of a desire to avoid causing trouble for others (meiwaku) then by higher fees for electricity--further black outs might be unnecessary. 


Oh, Grandpa!

   Outspoken Tôkyô governor, Shintarô Ishihara put his foot in his mouth once again when in response to the horrendous earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tôhoku region of Japan last Friday told reporters, “Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism. We need a tsunami to wipe out the egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over time.'' Adding, “I think [the disaster] has been divine punishment (天罰, tembatsu).”

   Oh, Grandpa!

   The old man has said some silly things over the years, but this takes the cake.

   In spite of the controversy his comments created (Gramps issued a rare apology the following day) Ishihara has signaled his interest in running for a fourth time in the gubernatorial race.

   Oh, Grandpa!

   Ishihara is clearly suffering from the early stages of senile dementia. Best to give the old man a tender pat on the back and ask him if he needs his diapers changed.

   Speaking of egoism, if that truly were the cause of Tôhoku’s suffering, then Ishihara had better buy some pretty damn good earthquake insurance because the epicenter of the next biggie will without a doubt be located directly below the governor’s mansion.