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: From cross-posted email

Hi Everyone - Thought this update from the British Chamber of Commerce would help allay peoples fears about radiation:

BCCJ Members Update on Japan’s Nuclear Power station situation

At 5pm Tokyo time (Tuesday 15th March 2011) an telephone briefing was given by Sir John Beddington the UK’s Chief Scientific adviser and Hilary Walker Deputy Director Emergency Preparedness at the Department of Health.

“Unequivocally, Tokyo will not be affected by the radiation fallout of explosions that have or may occur at the Fukushima nuclear power stations.”

The danger area is within the 30 kilometer evacuation zone and no one is recommended or will be allowed to enter this area other than those people directly involved with the emergency procedures currently being undertaken at both Fukushima 1 & 2.

Sir John went on to answer a series of questions including a comparison between Chernobyl and Japan. He said “they are entirely different, Chernobyl exploded and there was a subsequent fire with radioactive materials being launched 30,000 ft into the air.” The maximum height of any Fukushima explosions would be no more than 500 metres.

“The radiation that has been released is miniscule and would have to be orders of 1,000 or more for it to be a threat to humans” This was confirmed by Hilary Walker.

He went on to say that the Japanese authorities are doing their best to keep the reactors cooled and that this is a continuing operation. All workers on site dealing with the emergency are being fully decontaminated at the end of each shift.

When asked on how reliable was the information coming from the Japanese authorities as to radiation levels he said “this cannot be fabricated and the Japanese authorities are positing all the readings on the recognized international inforamton sites which they are obliged to do. Independent verification shows that the data provided is accurate”.

In answer to a specific question from the Head of the British School in Tokyo, Sir John Beddington and Hilary Walker said that there was no reason at all for the school to be closed unless there were other issues such as power outages and transport problems.

David Fitton, First Minister at the British Embassy in Tokyo moderated the teleconference and confirmed that a transcript of the briefing will be available on the Embassy website later today.

BCCJ members are encouraged to regularly check the Embassy website as well as the Chamber website and Facebook sites for the latest information.



John, needless to say quite a lot of this resonates with me after the last two months in Egypt. The significant differences being obvious, I know, if nothing else because of the underlying causes.  I would love to get away for a few days, but my passport expires in less than six months and there's no place I could go.  If only I had known ...  Have a safe trip.  Thanks for your reports.

UPDATE: The following is a quick translation of a message sent by anthropologist Keiji Maekawa, who works at Tsukuba University, to the members of the keieijinruigaku (business anthropology) group based at Japan's National Institute of Ethnology. Tsukuba is in Ibaraki Prefecture, 70km north of Tokyo, well inland, away from the coast.


We are OK. The shaking was awful, lots of books fell off the shelves. The speakers on top of the shelves also fell off. Luckily, neither at my office or home did the shelves themselves fall over, so we didn’t have to deal with broken glass. The shelves in the office of another professor in the same building did fall over.


For people who lived in apartments or residences on the upper floors of high-rise buildings the shaking was terrible; glass was scattered everywhere. The rooms were a mess.  That day, met one of our graduates, who was was helping an old lady in a wheel chair get to a nearby open area [probably a park designated an evacuation zone]. Our  graduate, who was living on the ninth floor and was nearly in tears herself, was doing what she could for the old lady. (That was impressive!)


There are areas still without water or electricity, but our place is near the center, so the water was only cut off for a short time. 


The supermarkets reopened on Monday morning, just as we were about to run out of food. The biggest problem now is gasoline. Only a few gasoline stands are open and the lines are a hundred cars long. We are also a little worried about radiation from the reactors coming our way.



Wednesday, March 16, 2011


UPDATE: Quick translation of a message from Izumi Mitsui, who teaches at Nihon University, to the business anthropology group. 





Since the earthquake, things have been pretty bad in Tokyo, too. On the day, I was at our university attending a meeting with around 50 people present. We were shaken pretty hard three times, and the trains were completely stopped. Around 200 students and faculty spent the night at the university. Some of our buildings were opened up for ordinary people who weren’t able to catch a train home. Books were thrown all over our offices. PCs fell on the floor. Water was spurting from the next building. I was able to walk home,  but Hakusandori [a main thoroughfare] was packed with people (including some who disappeared into bars along the way...). In my seventh floor apartment, some of the books and kitchen ware and been thrown about, so I set to work cleaning up the mess.


In the last several days, we’ve had the nuclear reactor accident and the rolling blackouts. People have been stuck in traffic or wound up as tsukin nanmin (commuter refugees). With people buying up stocks of food and everyday necessities, Tokyo supermarkets and convenience stores are running short. This sort of madness of the crowds is terrifying. In all sorts of senses we are getting a real taste of the fragility of the city. Perhaps the business anthropology group’s next topic should be “Business anthropology in exceptional times.”


The TV reporting is like that we see in panikku eiga (disaster movies). We have to maintain our individual perspectives as we continue our participant observation. I wonder if there will be any graduation ceremonies this year (Several private universities in Tokyo have already canceled theirs). Will we be able to admit new students? These are the immediate questions we face.


While tou (Eastern Japan) is in such an awful state, we have to ask sai (Western Japan), which is still in good shape, to support us.


Should the worst happen, I will flee to Kansai. Yoroshiku, onegaishimasu (Please...).


Izumi MItsui

Nihon University

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I am shocked by the news from Miyagi region and that entire devastated towns. Thank you, John, once again, for telling us about your feelings and impressions; for the news and opinions. Good luck, good trip. Thank you for being the great person you are.


John great to have found this site on News from Japan. Thanks! Short sighted me only saw it this morning! I saw you writing and responding in other pages so knew you were OK but hadnt found this one and I thought it was strange you werent making any references to what had happened. Glad to know your family is safe and well. I think this is a humbling moment for everybody... 

Ruth and I are home, safe and sound, in Yokohama. Just as we were unpacking, we experienced a tremor (Richter 6 at epicenter, somewhere offshore). No big deal. Just life in the big mikan (Japanese tangerine). One notable social phenomenon in the last few days has been a proliferation of criticism of foreign media reports in the foreign resident blogosphere, of which this one, "Why I stay in Tokyo" by German resident Axel Lieber is particularly good.


The latest Majirox News update on the nuclear reactors in Fukushima leaves me cautiously optimistic that significant progress is being made. 

This morning, we experienced another small tremor. Turned on the TV to catch the announcement (all channels overlay regular programming with alerts and descriptions of scale and epicenter location). Found myself watching a program on progress in getting food to people left homeless and isolated in Japan's Northeast. Once again, I was impressed with the amount of detail in the information provided and the expert commentary on it; this was at least a hour-long program and the panel included experts in diet and nutrition as well as relief operations and addressing psychological issues. 


What most caught my anthropological attention was the importance assigned to providing hot food. The context here was combination of (1) interrupted gas and power supplies that motivated calls just after the big quake and tsunami to contribute food that doesn't need cooking and (2) the bitter cold of the Northeast Japan winter. The bit of film that caught my eye and moved me deeply showed a place where 130 people are gathered on a ridge between two valleys devastated by the tsunami. A concrete building, it seems to be a warehouse,  is standing in the background. The camera moves inside and we see women carefully peeling the plastic wrapping from onigiri (rice balls, like those sold in convenience stores) and then rewrapping them in aluminum foil. These are then carried outside and laid on top of a wood burning stove, then carried piping hot to those waiting for their dinner. The panelists call this subarashii (terrific!) and note the importance of chotto shita kufu (a bit of clever thinking) in providing hot food, which does much to raise the spirits as well as nourish the bodies of these refugees from disaster. 

P.S. Great Boing Boing interview with Matt Alt.


This is a forty-minute interview but, in my view, well worth investing the time.

Cross-posed from EASIANTH.


Dear Colleagues

First of all, let me thank you for your concern and compassion for the
victims and survivors of the 311 earthquake in Tohoku and Kanto Japan.

I have not been able to fully follow the discussion on this mailing
list, so I may not be responding in a proper way, but as a resident of
Sendai, the center city of Tohoku region and as a professor of Tohoku
University, I would like to briefly report the situation here.

The most devastated areas you probably see through media and web images
are mostly from tsunami-hit towns and cities on the eastern coast of
Tohoku region.  Their damages and casualties are grave indeed but the
inland cities such as Morioka and Sendai are not severely damaged.

It will take years maybe decades to rebuild the tsunami-hit areas and we
will be asking your help for that for some time to come.  A lot of
people who lost literally everything require prolonged evacuation and
they are now relocated to different parts of Japan.

However, prefectures on the western side of Tohoku such as Akita and
Yamagata are more or less OK although they too face shortages of some

And most importantly most universities and colleges in Tohoku are
located in relatively undamaged and safe areas.  Most faculty and
students escaped the disaster.  We are now in the process of assessing
damages, cleaning up, and restoring damaged facilities.

We are in the spring brake now, and students of our university are
ordered to return home if they can.  The transportation system is still
not fully functional but as far as I know students of my university
managed to leave Sendai and safely returned home.  They are told to stay
home till the university resumes in late April or early May.  And I
gather other universities and colleges are taking similar measures.

It is unnecessary and practically impossible to relocate students
overseas.  I personally received such offer from my colleagues abroad
and really appreciate their assistance but most universities in the
disaster area plan to reopen and start classes in late April or early
May (after the "golden week").  Lots of universities outside Tohoku are
now offering freshmen a choice of starting this April or September or
April next year, and some are offering financial support as well.

Some of my students who went home are now helping others as volunteer
workers.  Both faculty and students are doing whatever necessary and
possible to help each other through this unprecedented difficulty.  And,
we are--I would like to emphasize--managing the situation at hand.

We still face shortages of food and other basic necessities, fuel in
particular, even in a large city like Sendai, but relief supplies are
coming in and transportation is gradually improving, so things will be
better in a few weeks.

We are concerned about the failed nuclear plant in Fukushima, but in my
opinion media frenzy about the nuclear crisis is overblown both in Japan
and abroad.  The situation is still tense and unpredictable but so far
the worst has not happened and it seems that the troubled reactors are
"contained" so far.  An anthropologist like me of course is no authority
on nuclear physics but my judgment as a "reasonable man" is that we in
Sendai, about 100km away from the plant, are safe let alone those in
Tokyo, more than 250km away.

As Donald Wood reported, we Tohoku people are calmly and rationally
responding to this crisis, carrying on our everyday lives the best we can.

Thank you again for your warm consideration and warm support.


Ichiro Numazaki
Professor of Cultural Anthropology
Tohoku University, Sendai Japan




A relief to hear you and Ruth are okay. Without wishing to downplay the terrible disaster that has befallen north-eastern Japan, I agree with Keith about the extraordinary tone of some western media reporting. Some of it has, I think, been wholly irresponsible in manufacturing panic (although, Japanese outlets haven't been free of it - most notoriously the Fuji television network).

I was in Paris last week for 24 hours, and the news channel I ended up watching featured a computer graphic of a massive cloud of radiation, floating across the pacific towards America, with the suggestion that it would eventually reach Europe. The next morning's Le Figaro newspaper actually carried a survey in which people were asked whether they were concerned about radiation emanating from Japan. 




While the world's attention is riveted by the nuclear reactors at Fukushima No. 1 and the devastation of Japan's northeast seacoast, for those of us outside the immediate disaster/danger zone, the impact of the earthquake-tsunami is having dramatic, if less severe, effects on everyday life. I have written about the reduced train service and rolling blackouts. You may have also read reports of panic buying of staples and prohibition of sales of milk products and leafy green vegetables produced in northeast Japan. We see the results in store shelves empty of milk, butter, cheese and, thanks to the latest scare, bottled water as well. Also, oddly enough, processed meat products, ham, bacon or sausage. Turning on the TV last night, we found ourselves seeing an endless stream of pro bono commercials with the theme 皆ができることやれば、大きい力になる "If everyone does what we can, we will become a great force." Some urge us to turn off lights, unplug electrical appliances when not in use, and reduce email and phone usage. Others, featuring Japanese athletes, proclaim that we're not alone. Japan is one big team, and if we all pull together... Today, however, I was reminded of problems that have been off my radar but are affecting large numbers of people on the other side of the Kanto plain from Yokohama. Browsing the Net I see a headline,

Urayasu covered in mud / Kanto residents struggle with own damage in quake aftermath

I am reminded of how much of Japan's largest metropolitan area is built on landfill that may liquefy in large earthquakes. I wonder how folks in Christchurch, Newe Zealand, are doing, now that their earthquake is yesterday's news.

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