Inspiration has been low these past few weeks. However, I’m now recommitted to blogging and I’m going to talk about some of the issues that have affected us recently, from the food shortages to the nuclear crisis.
As I mentioned in my post on the actual earthquake, one of the first things I noticed was that people were buying up bread and onigiri from the convenience store a few hours afterwards. What I didn’t really expect was for it to continue.
Very soon, all food was gone from the shelves. We’ve been told that it was partly a result of fuel shortages, partly a result of stockpiling and partly a packaging shortage. Either way, stockpiling begat more stockpiling.
Restaurants haven’t been affected much (except for yoghurt desserts), just because it’s harder to tell someone face-to-face that you’re buying up all their hamburg steaks because you’re scared.
I’ll admit it. I missed two days of work since the quake. The first was the Monday directly after, when there was just no getting there. I don’t know if the trains were down or not, but the station was filled wall-to-wall with black-suited businessmen just waiting for the ticket barriers to let them through. The line (such as it was) never moved.
With the trains either down, unreliable or just plain overcrowded, bicycles were selling out fast though. See the photo showing bicycles almost sold out at Don Quijote — they don’t have many left (although I should have taken the photo further back to show that).
I also missed a Friday. On Thursday, the usually calm and rational British Embassy announced that British citizens should consider leaving Tokyo. I was perplexed and a little scared. What happened? What had changed? They had been an official voice of reason up until that moment, so the switch was worrying. I approached my direct boss and explained that the advice from the British embassy had changed and they were telling us to think carefully about leaving Tokyo. I wouldn’t be at work on Friday, but I hoped to return on the next working day once I’d figured out what was going on. She seemed surprised I was still coming to work at all and was great about the whole thing.
An aspect of my Japanese language ability had come full circle. Years ago, I had started out with “Japanese For Busy People” and my very first words had been bengoshi (lawyer) and taishikan (embassy). I had finally used one of these in a real conversation.
The mainstream media has failed us. Our 24-hour media culture has produced an unending stream of worst-case scenarios, sketchy experts and retweets across the globe. The people who have left us most informed are nuclear experts who have been consulted directly by the Japanese government and interpreted via amateur translation, along with nuclear physicists with their own blogs. Meanwhile, over in the US, they hire a anti-nuclear string theorist for their broadcasts and guest blog posts. Nuclear reactor safety ain’t rocket science… it’s nuclear reactor science.
I’ve also seen news stories that relied on a single frightened foreigner as their only source. That’s how we get front page headlines from The Sun describing Tokyo as a “CITY OF GHOSTS”. You can still get a pizza delivered in under thirty minutes in this ghost town though.
In the weeks that followed, I became addicted to Twitter. I would’ve been better off developing a crack habit. I’d check to see if there were reports of plumes from the reactors before doing anything. The answer was frequently ‘yes’, but with no follow-up tweets to say that actually it had just been a regular fire with no radioactive material and had been put out twenty minutes later. That news doesn’t travel fast, if at all.
My solution was to follow more direct sources (@bosai_tokyo, @mextjapan and @OfficialTEPCO) and those translating from direct sources or retweeting using common sense (@DailyYomiuri, @TimeOutTokyo, @YokosoNews, @makiwi, @stevenagata, @Matt_Alt, @martyn_williams, @tokyotimes and @gakuranman). I suppose I should be vaguely concerned that the same government department who created Eigo Note is the same one advising us on nuclear safety. Oh well.
I have since successfully left my apartment for activities other than going to work, such as the Tokyo Comedy Store’s Tsunami Benefit Gig and to see Ghost In The Shell S.A.C. Solid State Society 3D.
When I first heard about the blackouts, I was fine with them. I wouldn’t be able to use the CD player during English lessons or my computer in the evenings, but I understood it was necessary to help those up north. Bye bye to “Hello Song.”
Ironically, the blackouts have killed more people than the radiation so far. By shutting down the traffic lights, road accidents increased. I also believe that the blackouts contributed to the feeling of unease and may have promoted stockpiling. There is nothing like walking home in silence by the light of a fading sunset surrounded by traffic police officers with flashing red batons at street crossings. If there was ever a time when Tokyo lived up to the description of “apocalyptic” as applied by US media, that was it.
The blackouts have more-or-less stopped now, although they may return with the increased electricity usage that comes with summer. The reason for this is worth thinking about for all of us. Convenience stores and other major chains have dimmed their lights and stores in central Tokyo have turned off their music and advertising. In doing so, they have reduced electricity consumption by roughly the same amount as provided by a nuclear power station.
I’ve noticed a lot of hatred for foreigners leaving Tokyo who have been dubbed “flyjin” by their fellow expats. It’s understandable that they should feel that way. By denigrating others for their ‘cowardice,’ we incidentally render our actions as ‘brave’ in comparison. And, as has always been the case, no one is so publicly abusive to gaijin as other gaijin.
But one thing I have to take issue with is the description of “flyjin” as “not a real word.” This is in my field of interest as I have a joint degree in linguistics and teach English in Japan, which is a rare kind of synergy. Anyway, a word that is used and understood in conversations (both online and offline) is a perfectly valid word, regardless of source. Specifically, it’s a neologism, or ‘new word’. Doesn’t matter if only one person coined it (that’s usually how these things start); if it gets picked up and used enough to be noticed as flyjin clearly has, then it’s a real word.
It may come as a surprise, but I’m not against nuclear power. What is clear, however, is that we’re doing it wrong. As workers fight to stop Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant from exploding, a whole range of TEPCO screw-ups has been revealed. Everything from not anticipating a very big tsunami in a country renowned for very big tsunami to ignoring engineers who came forward years ago to say the whole design was a mistake. Clearly humanity is too stupid for nuclear power… yet.
Pro-nuclear folks have talked about safer reactor designs (e.g. reactors with passively safe checks in place), so let’s research that. We also need more oversight, for all of us close enough to the reactor to worry and who have bet our lives on our Google-achieved understanding that the radiation won’t affect our area and who can now see how we would have handled it differently had we been in charge.