Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Return to Business as Usual

Never thought I would be so excited to see Japan fall from the headlines and demonic scrutinizes of the international media. The triple-header tragedy of the quake, tsunami, and power plant melt down (these rumors were more exaggerated than anything I could ever have dreamed of) really put Japan in a bad emotional hole. To have so many things happen in such a short time put many people on edge, but what made that edge infinitely scarier was the flood of highly overly sensationalized news which read (from the point of view of this person living in Japan looking out) like the reporters were writing for ratings rather than to report honestly. HOWEVER, tragedy and sorry have flared elsewhere and the world has turned it’s eyes to other, fresher smelling, disasters in need of publication. The relief effort continues in the north. It greaves me to say that today they officially found the first American English teacher to perish in the tsunami. She was here with her family from Virginia (specifically Richmond I believe). My heart goes out to all those who have suffered losses.

Yesterday was a national holiday, and my friends Michelle and Kavita took the long weekend to really buckle down and get some ground covered on our 88-temple hike. Due to bad weather (and the fact that Michelle is a 5th year jet leaving in 4 months, I can’t tell you how that saddens me!) we decided to drive various portions of the trek this time. Driving the longest parts gave us a very different experience of the temples. For one, it allowed me to take more time to photograph all the various nooks and crannies of the various sacred spaces we found. It was a wonderful trip filled with beautiful temple grounds, quite wild life preserves, and crowds of bus tour Buddhists praying for the victims of the recent disaster. We went to a total of 11 temples this weekend, and finished Tokushima Prefecture and are now well into Kochi. Kochi is the longest stretch of hiking with the fewest temples. I am really looking forward to it! Most of the hikes in Kochi are along the coast (and oh what a beautiful coast it is!)

The mood of Sakemura sensei (the man mentioned in my last post) has improved steadily as the power plant in Fukoshima begins to look more and more under reasonable control. Thursday of last week he surprised me by asking me to take a half-day and spend the afternoon with him in a professional potter’s studio who lives just a 50 minute walk or so from my apartment in a very scenic bay used to cultivate oysters. This potter has been in Kochi for 30 years, and was a professor of ceramics at the Tokyo institute for fine arts and crafts (it has a full Japanese name, that I am sorry to say I don’t remember, and the interweb lists three potentials.) His house, his work, his studio, and everything about that afternoon was just magical! After the tour we sat in his studio and sipped green tea while talking (all be it brokenly) about the difference between creating traditional forms and just doing open sculptural work. He told me he felt so connected to Japan’s tradition in ceramics that he had a very difficult time deviating from traditional functional forms. It was a wonderful talk. His wife speaks very good English, and is just a charmer. They then took us into their home for coffee, and many questions about America and how I was liking Japan. They also enjoyed telling me stories about their two gay cats. The day ended with her giving me recipes (I told her of my interest in cooking) for traditional Japanese pickled radish greens) and he even gifted me a bowl of his (which is ridiculously exquisite. I hope to make it back to their home to watch him work one day. Two weeks of no students to go. . . . in my battle for sanity I am still winning.

My love to all of you, and my thanks to any who worried over me (please do not mistake my scolding of the international media as anger with you all for caring for my safety). Be assured that I am safe, and very well. Things continue to move ever forward, and tomorrow the sun will still rise. Be kind!
More to come.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thoughts for the morning, and a letter from a PA

Written this morning:
Sakemura Sensei is one of the Japanese gentlemen on the later side of middle age who speaks with me frequently. His slightly thinning hair is always combed back, his sport coats are not the flat black overly formal business suits of the other younger teachers at my school (he opts for the more scholarly tweed) , he smokes like a chimney, collects old books, reads poetry, speaks remarkable English, possesses vast knowledge of Japanese cultural traditions, and is refreshingly always honest and direct when we speak. He frequently asks me questions like, “Andrew, American politics. You, think they make sense? Always fighting. Why?” or last week on Wednesday, “Do you know Japanese nationalists? They want foreigners to leave Japan. I dislike their idea. How do they make you feel? Offended?” His delivery of these challenging questions is always afloat with a big smile and a slight chuckle. I have never seen him flustered, tired, or not busy about his job of being the office renaissance man of mystery and intrigue, until last Friday.
Today, upon walking into my teacher’s office I found most of the teachers bustling about their various red tape encrusted duties. They scurry through the morning meeting I never understand, and then they all dash back the their desk consumed by grading and rustling papers. Sakemura Sensei remains slouched at his desk, were you to casually walk bye him you might think he was napping. His eyes glued to his Iphone’s news feed. He reads for twenty minutes and then rises to heavily rub is hands about his temples. They shake with strain, as though he was straining to push the very thoughts from his mind. He turns to me and says, “I cannot see Japan’s future. If it was just earthquake, or just tsunami we rebuild easy. But all of this,” he looks about for the right English words. “All of this, maybe we cannot export from the north, we cannot repair because of radiation. I cannot help. Maybe Japans history there will stop. It’s unbelievable. We can do nothing.”
I tell him we can hope. I see him search through the English vocabulary he knows, and nod his head in understanding. He returns to his Iphone news, and looks to me and says, “Today I don’t want my job.” Some students come to the door and skip in, the other teachers about the office laugh, and the day continues on.
Japan is used to living with the threat of great disaster. Being one of the most geologically active areas of the world there is a constant potential for natural disasters. In 1923 the Kanto quake decimated the Kobe. A quake like it is predicted to happen every 70 years along those fault lines. Kochi itself lives in the shadow of the Nankai quake. Guessed to happen every 90 years (it would be an 8.0 or higher quake guessed to last for at least 100 seconds. The 9.0 quake that just occurred lasted for 150 seconds.) Their answer to this known fear is preparation (I have never seen footage of such organized, polite, and restrained evacuation and panic). This country has an amazing capacity to rebuild. Look to the scars of World War II – Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Tokyo. Huge parts of these cities decimated by the fires of war. Now, each city thrives (this is a strange comparison but the best I can draw). To visit them is to look in disbelief that miles upon miles of city that was once reduced to rubble and ash. I have never doubted Japan’s capability to cope with tragedy on a physical level. They set about their work immediately. Rebuild and continue to live while remembering what was lost, but what of Sakemura Sensei’s unusual candidness with me. How do the Japanese process tragedy and loss as individuals? How well does consoling translate?
These are all things I’m still searching through. I like to think all the JETs are dealing with and looking for ways to cope with the tide of disastrous news and best provide aid to those in need in this country. At the moment donating to the Red Cross seems to be the first most helpful step. I have been told attempts to organize trips for the relief effort were shot down as bad ideas, and until a clearer path opens up the best and only thing to do is think of those in need. My classes are over . . . so I have free time. I have been following the news a lot. Keep Japan in your thoughts. Donate to the Red Cross Relief effort in Japan (I believe there is a way to specify I am still searching through those channels I will post a link once I find the correct ones to go through). In times of great disaster there must always be hope. Never forget that. Be kind, donate if you are able, and stay connected.
More to come.

Posted this afternoon by Steven (a P.A. who translated a fantastic article on the situation here)

Translated at 2pm, 15th March 2011
Based on info from the Science Media Centre of Japan updated at 2:48am, 15th March 2011
The following is a summary of the topics mentioned in the original Japanese article, with references to the English article. I do not guarantee the validity or accuracy of the original information.
About radiation exposure
  • Even if only a few dozen to a few hundred radioactive atoms are attached to the skin, Geiger counters are sensitive enough to detect it.
  • The radiation levels reported to be released into the atmosphere right now is of no significant concern for wildlife/fish in the area. Many substances that release radiation exist naturally in nature.
  • At this point, there is no significant contamination to vegetation and crops in the area.
  • Right now at the No.1 Reactor the core is intact and it is releasing small amounts of radiation.
  • Crops in the surrounding area will have to be tested for future consumption. However we need not be afraid of the food grown there if it were to be deemed safe for consumption. Normally we consume trace amounts of radiation in our food on a daily basis.
  • There is no threat to surrounding fish and marine life at the moment.
  • The process of radiation transferral for marine life are such: 1) first the small amounts of radiation has to dissolve into the sea, 2) it gets thinned out by the ocean, 3) then trace amounts may be ingested by the marine life. By then the effects would be miniscule.
  • On the evacuation zone: please follow the guidelines issued by the government and local municipalities, and not to trust internet sources or hearsay.
  • On whether it is safe or not in Tokyo: Fukushima and Tokyo are 200km apart, so taking into consideration exponential thinning out of radiation by air the farther it is from the center, there is no reason for alarm in Tokyo.
  • At the incident on Three Mile Island similar to this one where the core stayed intact, the risk was contained within a 16km (10mile) radius
  • For the exposed people in the area, a change of fresh clothes and washing hands and face with soap will take away most of the radioactive particles attached to them.
  • In order to release pressure from the core reactor, vents have been opened and inevitably some radiation was released into the atmosphere.
  • The level of risk is at “level 4” right now (level 8 maximum), but it means that there is no major breach of the core surface. Some radiation has leaked into the atmosphere, but not at a harmful level. At Three Mile Island the level was 5 and the evacuation zone at Fukushima is based on that higher level. For more information on International Nuclear Event Scale:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Nuclear_Event_Scale
  • Iodine 131 is heavier than air, and if the wind is not strong it wouldn’t go very far. Half life is a short 8 days.
  • Half life refers to the time it takes for the radioactive substance to reduce by half. Iodine is 8 days, Xenon 137 is 3.8 minutes, and Cesium 137 is 30 years.
  • The shorter the half life the more radiation it emits in a short span of time. The longer the half life, the more stable it is and less radioactive. However whether slow release of radiation over a long period of time has any significant effect on health will have to be studied further.
  • Xenon 137 has a half life of 3.8 minutes but can mutate into Cesium 137 which is 30 years.
  • The reported number of people “exposed” only had minute levels detected on sensitive equipment. Their health is generally not at risk, especially after cleaning of their hands, face and clothes.
  • Advice on evacuation: keep calm, and do not act alone. Because accidents can occur out of panic. At the moment the radiation levels around the plant are lowering, so no special measures need to be taken. To be on the safe side you may want to wear masks.
  • Iodine 131 vaporises easily and can be absorbed into the body. However it is used in the treatment of thyroids and there has been no evidence in past treatments that it would lead to thyroid cancer.
  • With the exception of iodine products labelled “stable iodine preparation”, other products should not be consumed as it may cause more harm than good.
About cooling of the reactor core and the recent explosions
  • A hydrogen explosion occurred but the containment vessel (fourth wall) has not been damaged. Check out the diagram of the construction here:http://www.kepco.co.jp/bestmix/contents/16.html
  • Hydrogen gas is produced by fuel rods in the reactor vessel and leaked out, reacting with the oxygen in the housing around the reactor, causing an explosion. This is not the same as a hydrogen bomb explosion and is simply a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce water.
  • The core is protected by 5 walls, explosion happened in the space between the 4th and the 5th, rupturing the 5th. Because the 3rd and 4th walls are intact, there is no major risk of large amounts of radioactive substance leaking into the atmosphere.
  • The reactor is filled with nitrogen so it’s unlikely that a chain explosion can occur without oxygen.
  • A “runaway nuclear explosion” that occurred at Chernobyl refers to out of control nuclear fission and is different to this situation. At Fukushima, the nuclear core has stopped operating, but it is still necessary to cool the reactor down.
  • The Chernobyl reactor is based on the RMBK (Russian acronym) model and different to the one at Fukushima which is the BWR (Boiling Water Reactor). RMBK’s flaw is that if control rods are inserted output automatically increases and becomes unstable, eventually building up to extraordinary levels. The BWR does not have this problem, and will not increase output exponentially like the RMBK does.
  • At Chernobyl there was no containment vessel and on top of that the core was damaged and exposed. The Fukushima Reactor is currently within safe levels, with the core and containment vessel still intact.
  • At Chernobyl there was not adequate monitoring of the levels emitted and it wasn’t until cancer and other resultant harm was discovered that the extent of the disaster was known. At Fukushima continuous monitoring is being undertaken.
  • There is no risk of the disaster seen at Chernobyl because the core is still contained and the nuclear chain reactions have stopped. There is no risk to surrounding countries as of now.
  • As long as the fuel rods are fully covered with water the cooling can be sustained and there will be no risk of a meltdown of the core. There was an incident where sea water pumped to cool the rods was halted due to a lack of power to the pumps on the 14th March, but the water cooling process has resumed since then.
Based on information provided by Ryugo Hayano, Professor at the Physics Department of University of Tokyo.
Content is subject to change so please refer to the original for updates.
Updates plus more detailed explanation at the following links:

Friday, March 11, 2011


I had another post ready and written, but it seems rather unsubstantial right now.
A massive 8.9 earthquake struck off the coast of northern Japan yesterday at 2. It sent a 10 meter high tsunami rolling towards coastal cities carrying away cars, homes, and lives. I am fine! Kochi has been on tsunami watch since yesterday. I live on some of the highest ground in my city, and it is also a major evacuation sight for the city. The photos and video being streamed are otherworldly. Destruction on a scale I have trouble comprehending. Your thoughts and hopes need to up north where the damage was so terrible. Japan is perhaps the most prepared country in the world to deal with a quake of this magnitude. This country’s response to this disaster has deeply impressed me, and my JET community in Kochi’s response, support, and constant contact with each other reminds me of how lucky I am to live with such a great adopted family. As I spent the night telling my friends all over Japan, stay warm, stay safe, and stay connected all my love.