Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ikanago Season

Well, although recovery in the Tohoku district of Japan is just beginning, and will be ongoing for the next five years, and the nuclear situation is festering, in other areas of Japan, life goes on.

It's 'Ikanago' season in Japan now. What does ikanago mean? Well, 'ikanago' is Japanese for "stinky little fish". Makes more sense than the real name: Sand Lance fry or minnows (What can I say - I don't know fish. I'm from the North Fork of the South Platte River, where we only have 2 kinds of fish: rainbow trout and sucker fish. Oh, and canned tuna).

Every spring, ladies throughout Japan buy pounds of these small fry (hee-hee), then boil them in a pot with soy sauce, mirin and sugar (many people add fresh ground ginger, as well), and send them to friends and family throughout Japan. A few ladies I know buy as much as 15 pounds, which they post through the mail in 1- and 2-lb packets. We've received 3 packs so far, and my kids are ecstatic (and I'm in another room...) eating them with rice for breakfast, late night snack, pretty much any old time.

This year there is a bumper catch, and people are buying and cooking more than usual and sending them to friends and relatives throughout the Tohoku region as well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"It's the water, and a lot more!"

For you old fudders out there, do you remember that jingle from Olympia Beer? "It's the water, and a lot more."

Well, that couldn't be truer in the Kanto plain, home of more than 35 million people in and around Tokyo, Yokohama, Chiba, Shizuoka and the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Water at one of Tokyo's water purification plants tested positive for radioactive Iodine 131 a few days ago, and warnings have been issued to parts of the population.

Here are some of the warnings I've received from the Embassy recently:

March 24, 2011

Warning For Parents and Caretakers About Radioactive Iodine Detected in Tokyo Drinking Water Supply
March 24, 2011

The Tokyo metropolitan government on Wednesday, March 23, 2011, cautioned residents that infants should drink only bottled water because radioactive iodine exceeding the limit for that age group was detected in water at a purification plant.

The U.S. Embassy in Japan suggests U.S. citizens who live in Tokyo follow these recommendations. In addition, women who are pregnant or nursing should also follow these recommendations and drink bottled water. This guidance is consistent with the guidance that the United States Government would provide to Americans in the United States under similar circumstances.

(for those of you who don't trust the Japanese government...)

U.S. citizens in metropolitan Tokyo can take the following steps to safeguard the health of infants (aged 0-3 years):

• If giving water to infants, use only bottled water.
• Use only bottled water to mix formula, cereal or other infant foods.

Health experts say that changing the water source for infants from tap water to bottled water should be adequate protection from exposure to radioactive iodine. No additional medication, such as potassium iodide (KI), is necessary at this time.

Good to know, I suppose, but how do you suggest we get bottled water out to the guess-timated nearly 1 million households with infants or pregnant women?

This next bit gave me a bit of a jolt...

The Japanese standard for Iodine-131 in drinking water is 100 becquerels per liter if the water is to be consumed by an infant (0-12 months) and 300 becquerels per liter if the water is to be consumed by an adult. The current reported contamination of 210 becquerels per liter is therefore about twice the permitted level for infants and about two thirds of the permitted level for adults, under Japanese regulations.

--What is the U.S. standard?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s published standard for Iodine-131 contamination in drinking water is 3 picocuries per liter, which is equal to about 0.1 becquerels per liter.


However, the assumptions underlying the EPA standard for continuous exposure do not apply to the current situation in Japan, which is a temporary exposure resulting from an accidental release. In addition, the science of radiation protection has advanced considerably since the EPA standard was published in 1974. If one uses the latest science and makes the adjustments in the calculations underlying the EPA standard in order to make it applicable to the temporary exposure occurring in Japan, one obtains a figure practically identical to the standard that the Japanese authorities are applying.
Whoo! Had me going for a bit, there....

And then on March 26, it starts to feel a little like "The Day After"...

U.S. Embassy Warden Message to U.S. Citizens: March 26, 2011

Availability of Potassium Iodide Tablets
As a precautionary measure, the U.S. Embassy is continuing to make potassium iodide (KI) tablets available to private U.S. citizens who have not been able to obtain it from their physician, employer, or other sources. We do not a recommend that anyone should take KI at this time. There are risks associated with taking KI. It should only be taken on the advice of emergency management officials, public health officials or your doctor. For more information about KI, see this fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control,, or contact your doctor.

At this time, the tablets are available Monday through Friday (until further notice) at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo... ...and at the New Sanno Hotel... ...On Saturday and Sunday (until further notice) there is also distribution at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo from 12 noon – 4:00 p.m. Allotments of KI tablets will be provided only upon presentation of a valid U.S. passport. U.S. citizens may obtain an allotment for each family member’s valid U.S. passport presented. If you do not have a valid passport, please contact the U.S. Embassy at 03-xxxx-5000. An allotment of tablets will also be made available to a U.S. citizen for his/her non-citizen immediate family members upon presentation of satisfactory evidence of the relationship.

I don't even have to exaggerate for effect with messages like this. I wonder if people there are starting to feel a little bit like a character in Nevil Shute's "On the Beach"?

Earthquake Update and Musings

Boy, the Tohoku Earthquake adventure continues. 11,000 confirmed dead, with 17,000 more officially missing and presumed dead. Firefighters and police volunteers from all over Japan are coming home with PTSD, unable to deal with memories (thankfully not shown in the press) of bodies draped over tree limbs like clocks in that Dali painting, or buried in wreckage, with just the occasional hand or foot sticking out of the mess. Fukushima Power Plant No 1 has surpassed Three-Mile Island and is fast closing on Chernobyl as worst nuclear accident of all time.

And yet, the Japanese people remain incredibly stoic. No post-Rodney-King-trial LA-style riots. No looting of any kind. There are no signs saying that "Looters will be shot". Indeed, the Self-Defense Force members are completely unarmed. The people dig through piles of debris that may have been their home 2 weeks ago, and make 2 piles of useful possessions: their own, and "others". Even though useful, they don't keep what they find. They just bend over again, grimace at yet another shafting, and continue searching for the life they have lost.

I'm sorry, but I shudder to think what the LA basin would be like right now if it had been the "Santa Catalina Quake and Tsunami". Half of LA would have been flattened by the tsunami, and the other half would be on fire by now, with gangs, survivalists and just plain old folk fighting over what remained. The National Guard would be patrolling the streets (the few not in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is), armed to the teeth, and at war with all the shit-wits. It would just need Snake Pliskin to sort things out.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Living in Dali-land

Not Dali-land as in Spain, but as in continually surreal.

It's been a week now since the quake and there have been some interesting developments. I'm proud of the quick reaction of the US: the USS Ronald Reagan and task force steamed full speed to arrive commendably quick off the east coast to provide aid and logistics to the Japanese. Some of their task force will have to change the area of operations due to the radiation crisis, but they delivered 17 tons of food and other supplies on Tuesday alone.

I just opened my email tonight, one week after the quake, and received my first notice from the Embassy's disaster hotline since 9-11.

I mean, I'm glad they are arranging transportation out of Sendai for US citizens and all, but it's been a week. Prompt action, guys. I also like the last bit: "passengers will be required to sign a promissory note to reimburse the U.S. Government for the normal bus fare from Sendai to Tokyo".

If your home washed away, I doubt you have the change. Not to mention that the people who need this service the most probably don't have internet access to receive the message in the first place.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Faux News

I love to watch FOX TV here in Japan. It carries most of the US content that I like, including: Bones, NCIS, American Idol, SYTYCD, Ghost (AXN for Big Bang Theory, Battlestar, etc). We have FOX Mystery channel, FOX movie channel and FOX Life channel as well. But no FOX news.

What I hear about FOX News doesn't really make me miss that lack very much. Actually, I prefer that news reporting be as neutral as is humanly possible, and that editorial content be clearly differentiated from actual news, so I wouldn't want a "liberal" news program either.

But, is FOX News as inept as they appear?

Let's play a game:

Look at the following map. Open Google or Yahoo map in a 2nd tab, then search for each of the nuclear power plants listed. One is in the wrong place, another is not there at all.

Ready? Go!

Did you find the mistakes? Sure, you did. Because you actually looked.

The first is unbelievable, simply because all the earthquake news over the last 4 days has come from around this city. Sendai, shown on this map on the southern island of Kyushu, was damn near ground zero for the quake and tsunami which struck eastern Japan last Friday. The BBC, CNN, MSNBC and others have reporters on the ground in Sendai, fanning out during the day to report on the surrounding devastation. I have this image in my mind of FOX's reporters interviewing farmers and fisherman and wondering where the fu-- all the damage is.

I certainly can't imagine Japanese or any other country's news putting New York City in Central Oregon after 9-11.

Did you find "Shibuyaeggman"? Probably not. OK, try this search: "shibuya (space) eggman" Lots of gobbledygook. If you could read the kanji, you'd find a nightclub/live venue house in Shibuya called "Eggman". And around page 5 of the search results, you'll find an English page for a band called "Shibuya Eggman".

This is pretty funny/ridiculous. I don't expect them to know Japan intimately, not at all. But I do expect professional quality from a news program. Open a friggin' map, for Christ's sake! A web search took less than 5 minutes. Regardless of your politics, wouldn't you expect the same?

Strange news

You know, even in a monster earthquake, there are things to laugh about.

The Japanese love their uniforms, including helmets, and wear them whenever possible. Politicians put on coveralls whenever there is a disaster, and you can find numerous images of Prime Misnister Kan wearing his as he supervises the reaction to the nuclear situation... from his office.

And what really cracks me up are the TV reporters. I can understand wearing safety helmets when in rubble-filled areas, especially just after the tsunami, when you didn't know if there'd be another or not.

But in the news studio? In your $1000 suit? And nobody else in the studio is wearing one except for the anchors? The last guy can't even get his helmet on straight...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Earthquake aftermath...

Unless you've been living under a rock, by now you've all seen the horrific images of the damage the Tohoku quake/tsunami wrought: whole neighborhoods floating out to sea with the retreating seawater; cars bobbing around like plastic models in a bathtub used by an incredibly dirty child; the awesome film of the tsunami advancing out over farm fields, black water burying the new plantings, greenhouses collapsing like punctured balloons.

And of course, you've seen the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Currently rated 1 level above Three-Mile Island, but 1 level below Chernobyl... "Chernobyl on Steroids", says one American nuclear tech. Stupid ass-covering administrators, delaying requests for equipment and aid desperately needed by the hard-working engineers until it was too late to salvage the situation. The discussions on TV on how to protect yourself from radiation, made doubly surreal when you consider that the people who need this advice the most, those near the radiation, don't have power, or TVs, or, in many, many cases, even homes to watch in....

But what about the day-to-day things? A lot of what happens probably doesn't make it on the international news.

All trains in the Tokyo area were shut down for nearly a day, and most still run reduced schedules. My sister-in-law's husband walked home from Tokyo to their home in neighboring Yokohama - 8 hours! At least she knows he loves her and the kids, eh?! A student's 74-yr-old father walked 6 hours to get back to his home in northern Tokyo. Stores throughout Tokyo, Yokohama, Shizuoka and all of the earthquake zone are stripped bare. My sister-in-law reports that there is no food, no water, no toilet paper to be had right now, and this is in the capital of the 2nd largest economy in the world!

Cell phone service was down across the country on Friday night, with only patchy service and fractured, nonsensical emails delivered after long delays (I got one that said "OK 10 oclo" and that was all).

Tokyo Disneyland is closed, liquifaction in the reclaimed areas of Chiba Prefecture where it lies has turned the streets into stinking mud holes, cracks and splits running across neighborhoods.

Schools throughout most of the Tohoku area are closed for the foreseeable future, of course, but so are most colleges from eastern Tokyo to the northern tip of Honshu. Most have even cancelled their entrance examinations, a true shock in the country which invented the term "Examination Hell". Students can't even qualify to attend the next school year, which begins in April. They will decide on Friday whether to hold the annual Spring Koshien High School Baseball Tourney, which one of the local high schools qualified for, or not

The entire eastern half of the country is undergoing rolling power outages, and the only reason the western half isn't is because the frequency of the current is 60Hz instead of Tokyo's 50Hz.

Even the kids are affected, with TV showing earthquake news 24 hours a day, so they can't even escape into their favorite cartoons.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The other side of Japan's Three-Mile Island

Boy, as if the folks up in Tohoku don't have enough to deal with, what with a 9.0 quake and tsunami an' all, now they can look forward to glowing in the dark, as well.

I'm pro-atomic power. I would live down the street from any properly-run, modern reactor. I would even store properly-processed nuclear waste in my basement, if I had one. And I do understand that the chain of events at the Fukushima DaiIchi plant is a direct consequence of the tsunami. I also respect the workers on the ground there, striving to bring a scary, dangerous situation under control at great personal risk, immensely.

It's the Keystone Cops management that pisses me off. When things started going caca, they hemmed and hawed and finally caved in and told part of what was going on. The Japanese press is going apeshit, slinging in all directions, furious that they are only being told part of the story. There was a press conference an hour or so ago where the 4 talking heads at the front table couldn't answer a question - they all looked aimlessly through their notes to see if the answer was written anywhere or the question on their approved list, while absolutely not looking up at the audience. It was like looking at my youngest when he tries to lie to me, and the one place he refuses to look is in my eyes.

Put the damned engineers in charge of the plants, and get the obfuscating, CYOA paper pushers away from the radioactive materials, please. It's the management that made an unofficial training manual a few years back which recommended workers mix uranium slurry in buckets, and which led to Japan's largest leak with the death of 2 workers back in 1999.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tohoku Earthquake

Wow. What else can you say?

I've been in Japan for 21 years now, and sat my way through a fair number of earthquakes. The Kobe/Hanshin quake threw me around the floor on my futon, I walked the streets of Kobe just after, looking at the burned out sections, the office buildings which had pancaked to the point where you couldn't tell how many floors there originally were, stood and looked in awe at the bank building which leaned out at a drunken 40 degrees over a 6-lane road. Walked into my friend's apartment block, which had sheared in half along an expansion joint, forcing you to jump over an 18-inch crack, 11 stories up.

And that was nothing, absolutely nothing compared to this one. I live 900km away, and my house moved; my dining room light swayed in 2-ft arcs while my inner ears protested that, yes, something really was moving.

This country is the most disaster-prepared place you can think of. New buildings are engineered, some even mounted on great rubber gaskets to damper and control the motion transferred from the jittering ground. Nearly every Japanese family has disaster kits, with flares, space-blankets, water purification kits. But how do you prepare for a 32-ft wall of water?

I think what rattles me the most is not the ruins lying around, it's the areas that have been just wiped clean, squeegeed right off the map by the scouring action of meters of water dragging everything; picking up houses like styrofoam toys, tossing cars like empty boxes. It's the video of the fields behind the Sendai airport, with planes and cars buried in piles of debris, looking like they were part of the environment, ancient dinosaurs uncovered after aeons underground. It's the nuclear-power plant with a giant brown smoke cloud billowing away.

It's the four missing trains. The 3 large freighters in one piece of film, sliding on their sides toward the homes and apartment buildings on the other side of flooded fields. The 10,000 people currently reported unaccounted for in the town of MinamiSanriku. 10,000? From ONE TOWN? A town of 17,000?

Do something for me, will you?
Hug your family. Rejoice in the fact that you are hale and hearty, and not picking through rubble for loved ones, not eating dry ramen as is because there is no safe water. Teach your loved ones about disaster preparedness (because there is no such animal as 'disaster proof').

And donate food stuffs and money to your local Red Cross to help out in the recovery efforts.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spoiler Alert! of a different sort

Last night we ate okonomiyaki, kind of the bastard-child of a pancake and a pizza. Take a cup of flour, add an egg and some water, and mix. Then toss in various cut seafood and lay a circle of fatty pork on the griddle and pour the mix over it and cook it like a flapjack. Pour Okonomiyaki sauce over it (you can get it at most Asian groceries), sprinkle on some powdered seaweed and shaved bonito (dried fish, not freshly barbered!) and enjoy. Pretty tasty, actually.

This morning I went to take care of my duty to Mother Nature, providing nutrients for future generations of vegetables, and...

Call in the HazMat team boys, we got us a stinker!

Sorry to be indelicate, but it's something no expats mention that can really freak you out. You eat something exotic, and either enjoy it or grimace in the imitation of a smile until you can excuse yourself and drive the nearest porcelain bus. What you don't take into account is the morning after...

Totally different food chemistry makes for totally different... ...used-food chemistry.
Number 1 or Number 2.
"My shit don't stink?" Even that's cultural!

I used to think that the Japanese had different bodies than us Amerikunz, 'cuz the men's John (is that supposed to be capitalized?) smelled so bad. Then one day my body did an imitation, and I had to go get some Western food. Hit the John at the same time as your friend (who happened to be named, you guessed it, John...), and you can play "Guess the Dinner!" from the urinal smell.

I even know one girl who thought she was sick and took a day off work to go to the hospital. Talk about mortifying. Go to the hospital, then add the stress of talking about an embarrassing subject to the stress of communicating with a doctor who may or may not speak English when you don't really speak Japanese very well yet, if at all, and then be told, "Nope, that's just the normal end-product of soy sauce and mayonnaise."