If you have been watching the news, you know that yesterday Japan experienced one of the largest earthquakes in recent history. First, on a personal note, let me say that Ruth and I are fine. The epicenter was off the northeast coast of Japan and the part of the country most severely affected is roughly 200km northeast of where we live in Yokohama. We were were lucky, severely shaken but not scarred. The same is not true elsewhere. 

 

We have little to add to the horrific images from the northeast to add about what is going on in that part of Japan. I don't know how much you will have seen about other things that are going on. In order of increasing distance from us: The entire rail and subway transport system on which millions of commuters in the Tokyo metropolitan area depend to get around was paralyzed. As I write, at 8:30 a.m., JST, it is mostly back up again, albeit with reduced service on many lines. All those millions of people were stuck. Lucky ones got into hotels. Many camped out in stations or other facilities. Substantial crowds hiked home, up to 20 km in at least one case I know of. Having a car didn't help. Roads and highways along the coast, including the arterial expressways built there to avoid built-up areas, were closed. Traffic jams were huge. Convenience stores sold out of rice balls and bento (box lunches) before midnight. 

 

Truly terrifying for many was the crashing of the cell phone network by what was, in effect, a huge denial of service attack as everyone tried to call family and friends and the same time. An additional weakness was revealed as many areas were without electric power. As the night wore on and batteries died, the devices on which everyone now depends to stay in touch dropped off the net.

 

Other social infrastructure problems include the explosion and fire at one of Japan's largest oil refineries, located across Tokyo Bay from us in Chiba. It is still out of control. Adding to anxieties are news of what still appears to be a minor nuclear accident. A nuclear power plant's automatic shutdown system turned off the reactor, but the system that was supposed to cool the nuclear fuel failed, creating what might have been a Chernobyl situation. Radiation leakage has been minor so far but residents within a 10km radius of the plant have been told to evacuate the area. We can only hope this is a sensible but unneeded precaution.

As I said before, however, Ruth and I are in good shape. No damage to person or property. Since our office is only five minutes walk from home, we were able to have one of our associates, who would otherwise have been trapped by the train stoppage, spend the night with us. 

Got up this morning to news that in the northeast 1,000+ people are dead or missing, and the scenes of the destruction on the TV are appalling. We feel very lucky, indeed.

 

 

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UPDATE: The trains and subways are back to normal in Tokyo metropolitan area. But government has requested companies and households to do whatever possible to reduce electricity consumption. In Yokohama, station illuminations are off, many businesses closed at 6:00 p.m. Convenience stores have turned off their neon. Tokyota, Nissan, and Honda shutting down operations at several auto plants—that may, however, be partly because the tsunami wrecked a major auto export terminal in Northeast Japan.

 

At my chorus practice today, there was nervous talk about the nuclear reactor problems in Fukushima. Some had family or friends who were contemplating or already had moved south to the Kansai. On the other hand, one cheery tenor stood up to remark that he has a geiger counter attached to his PC and is posting readings on his website. As of this morning they were perfectly normal. 

UPDATE:  What will emerge when the shock and euphoria of the first days recedes is hard to say. We are wondering about that this morning since the big news last night was that TEPCO, the power company that owns the nuclear plants in Fukushima and has used them to supply a lot of the electric power consumed in the Kanto plain has announced that it no longer has the capacity to meet full demand. The government has launched a program calling on businesses and households to cut back on electricity usage, and TEPCO itself has announced a series of scheduled blackouts, expected to last at least through the end of next month and, at this point, affecting what are mainly suburban/exurban residential areas. City cores in Tokyo and Yokohama (which includes us!) are unaffected.
How millions of housewives, schools and their students, and neighborhood businesses will respond is going to be a very good question, indeed. Some convenience store chains have backup power supplies and plan to stay open. Others are pondering what they can do with dry ice. A lot of the business at both depends on ready-to-eat food in refrigerated cases. On the modern conveniences front, three hour long power outages are going to mean that 24-hour access to the Internet and ATMs will also be disrupted. How everyday life will be affected is a very interesting question.
UPDATE: If you are interested in close tracking of what is going on in Japan subscribe to Majirox News. Catherine Makino, who runs it is an ace reporter and is doing what seems to me a terrific job.
In our household, BBC World has become a regular standby. My wife is Swiss and she can't bear the stupidity of French boosters for their nuclear export industry. More than that, she is less hardened than me and deeply moved by the human costs of the catastrophe. Even my 8 year old is gripped. I am glad you and Ruth are safe, but who could avoid being caught up in this tragedy at such close hand? This is another universal moment, as if we needed any reminding in 2011 so far.

UPDATE: Ruth and I just came home from a walk downtown. The situation around Yokohama Station is eerie. Everything in the Diamond underground mall on the west side of the station (our side) is shut down. The Takashimaya Department Store is only open from 10:00 to 6:00. Yodobashi Camera has signs at the underground entrance saying that it is sold out of flashlights, battery rechargers, radios and other emergency equipment.

In the Porta underground mall on the East side, some businesses are operating. Many are not. The big Sogo Department Store has kept its basement level food floor open. Lots of fancy pastry and ready-to-eat gourmet items still available. Bread shop shelves are empty. We picked up some groceries in the small, fancy grocery at the very back, which still had nice looking fresh fruit and vegetables on offer. On the way home, we pass the big Daiei Supermarket, which is closed. Also passed a convenience store with a sign on its window apologizing for the lack of food items on its empty shelves. Remembered that, as of last night, Seven-eleven had been restocked. Clearly there is a difference between the bigger chains and the smaller ones in how prepared they are to deal with these kinds of contingencies. 

As we walked to the station, we saw a few cracks in the sidewalk, mostly at the corners of older buildings where the building's shaking appeared to have broken the concrete.  One of those older buildings houses our doctor's office. A hand-made sign apologized for the water tank on the roof's having collapsed, which put all of the toilets in the building out of service. 

The most likely explanation for the complete shut down on our side of the station is that the station building is scheduled for renovation to start at the end of the month. A decision may have been made to go ahead and shut down now. The East side shopping mall is newer and accessible by car. It may also be run by people with different ideas than those who run the Diamond complex on the West side. Sorting all this out would be a major ethnographic project. 

While the Japan Railway lines are all shut down for the rest of the day, some of the private lines are still running. The rotating blackouts announced last night by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co) were suspended for most of today due to less than expected demand. We have just heard, however, that they may begin again this evening. A lot of systems are jostling against each other and taking time to settle down. 

Finally, this story from Majirox news reminds me that, given the interconnectedness of the global economy, what happens in Japan doesn't stay here. Korean electronics firms are scrambling to make up for  shortages of key components currently imported from Japan. 

John, I have been struck by the difference in tone between your reports and those of the western media. You write calmly about minor disruptions to life in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, whereas our news plays up the chance of a nuclear catastrophe and emphasises the severe disruption to normal life, especially in the areas most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The German magazine Der Spiegel has withdrawn its long-term reporter from Japan and says it will cover the story from Bangkok!
This could, of course, reflect the advice given on page 1 of my copy of The HItchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't panic." Or the relief that concentrating on the mundane in Yokohama provides a bit of relief from the horrors just a couple of hundred miles northeast of us. Or a habit--useful to both adman and anthropologist-- of looking for what is being ignored....No, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that has to be it.
John, I'm glad that you and Ruth are safe.  Prayers ascending for the people of Japan.

UPDATE: Things are looking a big grimmer on the nuclear reactor front. As far as I can make out, the hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3 took out several of the pumps that are supposed to be pumping the seawater into reactor No. 2, where the fuel rods remain exposed, the temperature is rising, and there may be a crack in the containment vessel.

 

That said, I would still like to pass along this analysis from a genuine expert. The author is my daughter's MPP thesis adviser at Harvard and in her usually spot on judgment "wicked smart."

UPDATE: From this morning's, March 15, 2011, Japan Times (an English-language paper that normally stays close to the government line on breaking news). Note the number of feedback loops implicit in this description of the current situation in Tokyo. Note, too, that the rotating blackout plan has been structured in such a way as to push negative consequences away from the city center and out to peripheral areas. That said, the transport grid, reduction of train and bus service, wholesale markets, etc., affect everyone and create a chaotic situation for the millions whose usual routine involves commuting to and from the center.

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People are concerned that the unprecedented rationing of power by Tokyo Electric Power Co. will cause a massive upheaval in the capital in coming days.

 

Among these is the Toei [Metropolitan] subway and bus operations, which may be cut back

 

Water is available, although the metro government expects supplies to be cut off, reduced or become muddy in some areas. Sewerage systems will be operating on an emergency power supply, but the metro government said it might be difficult for the system to cope with the event of torrential rain.

 

Metro hospitals will be run by emergency generators and public welfare facilities will be maintained, where available, by changing their operating hours and using emergency power, the metro government said.

 

It also said the central wholesale markets will open, but that some operations may be suspended and road tunnel drainage systems will have to run on emergency power. Most street lights will be turned off.

 

Metro schools may be open when power is available. However, the metro government said that as of noon Monday, the freeze on public transportation prompted the closure of 160 metropolitan and 158 municipal schools. 

 

Metropolitan sports facilities would be closed at night or for the whole day, the metro government said. It also said it was informing residents of public housing that their elevators may be grounded and water supplies cut off. 

 

It also said it was having trouble gathering its officials because train services have been either reduced or suspended. Emergency power systems will meanwhile have trouble securing stable supply of fuel, it added.

Residents were handing out rice balls to rescue workers. One woman, who declined to be identified, said all the people in the area are victims of the earthquake and the food is a gesture of gratitude to the relief workers.

Kanno, the Tohoku Electric worker, said the people of this region are fortunate compared with many of those in northern Japan. His wife’s family remains out of contact in Kesennuma, north of Sendai. “I will have to leave the family to my wife and focus on this mission, to bring essential utilities to these areas,” he said.
To me, these paragraphs from a report on relief efforts in northern Japan bring an ache to my heart and a tear to my eye. I think about the fundamental decency of the people of my adopted country. I think, too, of that everyday communism to which David Graeber introduced us.

Nikos, it's an idea we have thought about. But the fact is that this is where we have lived for 31 of the 41 years that Ruth and I have been married, the city where our daughter grew up. It wouldn't feel right, packing up and leaving just now. Even if the reactors blow, that's 200 miles northeast of us and even a Chernobyl size event won't kill us. If another big 8.0-9.0 earthquake made a direct hit on the Tokyo metropolitan area, like the big one in 1923, things might get a bit rough. But that's been a possibility for all of the years we have lived here. We have our emergency kits prepared and, since we live on top of a hill, it would take a much bigger tsunami than the one that hit Sendai to reach us. 

 

Despite this bravado, we will leave Japan this Thursday for a long-planned trip to Seoul, Korea,  where Ruth will be running the election of new international officers for Democrats Abroad and we are both looking forward to meeting our OAC friend heesun hwang. If air travel isn't interrupted we will fly out on Thursday and fly back the following Tuesday, unless some gigantic catastrophe occurs in the meantime.

 

Call us crazy. We are in our mid-sixties and have led rich and interesting lives. What a story this will make for the grandkids, when we spend another three months in the States caring for them this summer.

 

 

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