Hi everybody. Just wanted to let everybody know what is going on regarding the major catastrophic events that has besieged my second home of Japan. It must hard to get an accurate picture of the whole thing by simply watching CNN, especially since I know many of you have never even been to Japan. As I watch both the international and Japanese news, plus the fact I was in Tokyo at the time of the disaster and still am, maybe I make a decent source of information in regards to this whole mess. This will be a long read by the way (I’m writing it while riding the bullet train to Osaka, a two and a half hour journey so I have plenty of time). It will take a while to get through the whole thing so you might want to get yourself a coffee or beer before you get started.
A lot of you assumed that I was in the middle of the earthquake and tsunami and had water pouring in my fourth floor window. I appreciate your well wishes and worries but besides getting a bit shaken up and not being able to get home because of no running trains and damaged roads, I was never in real danger.
Let me also tell you that I am in no immediate danger from the reactor problems in Fukushima. Although I have been to Fukushima maybe a dozen times in my life, I now keep an apartment in Tokyo about 150 miles south. The earthquake was off the coast of Sendai, where I lived at one time and is a bit north of Fukushima. Sendai is actually the next stop from Fukushima on the bullet train heading north, taking about 90 minutes from Tokyo Station.
The earthquake was simply massive, even in Tokyo. Yes, there was a lot of damage in Tokyo including fires and a few deaths as well but Tokyo fared much better than Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate. As you have undoubtedly seen on the news, the tsunami that followed shortly washed away whole towns and villages. The Japanese are well rehearsed and therefore prepared for any disaster, including this one, but it proved impossible to get everybody away from the four story wave that engulfed everything for a few miles or so inland. Men who volunteered for ringing the warning bells in their towns died ringing those bells, never giving up their duties. Many people didn’t want to escape, because being the middle of the day, family members were separated and couldn’t leave thinking that their loved ones might be heading back home after the earthquake. Others couldn’t leave their elderly parents. Some people tried escaping in cars and on bicycles but couldn’t outrun the water. Other’s tried to climb to their roofs but the water was too high. One man was found alive in his house floating nine miles out to sea.
As many victims were dragged out to sea as the wave receded, I’m not sure we’ll ever know how many people died but I’m guessing it will be near 30,000. Anyway, it was tragic and there are hundreds of thousands displaced in makeshift evacuation centers with little food and in many cases no electricity while it snows outside.
Unlike you see in most tragedies, the Japanese haven’t turned into thugs, thieves, looters or rapists and I hope that if any good is to come of this disaster, it will come in the form of a lesson on how civilized people behave in the face of dire circumstances. Americans should reflect on our own behavior during the Katrina tragedy and ask ourselves what morals have we been taught and teach our children. The Japanese have showed us that compassion for others and a good moral compass should not be traded for anything in any circumstance.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami has been underscored by the reactor problem just south of Sendai in Fukushima. You see, when the electricity was knocked out by the earthquake, the cooling system in four of the six reactors was knocked out as well (the other two had already been in shutdown mode for other reasons before the earthquake). You have to understand that the uranium enriched rods they use to generate steam and consequently electricity have to be kept at a certain temperature and if left unchecked will melt down or burn and create all sorts of nasty byproducts, ones that cause cancer and radiation sickness. These byproducts have very long lasting power, some in the spans of decades and others centuries (maybe millenniums). That’s why 25 years after the Chernobyl Disaster, nobody, still to this day, is allowed within 30 kilometers or the plant and won’t for hundreds or possibly thousands of years unless scientists or engineers figure out some sort of solution. Anyway, when the electricity and cooling system got cut off, these rods began to heat up. Fortunately, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) was prepared for this problem and had diesel generators set up to take over when electricity failed. Unfortunately, the generators also failed when the tsunami obliterated them. Nobody assumed that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake would ever take place much less a forty foot tsunami. So there you have it, four reactors racing to meltdown, the water surrounding the rods boiling off and once the rods are exposed, will catch fire and basically become poison factories. So with no other choice, TEPCO had to use seawater in place of freshwater, which they couldn’t get anymore. There is some conjecture that TEPCO was slow in coming to this conclusion because saltwater would ruin the reactors making the plant unusable. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors?
As of today, the problem is still not under control. Probably at least one of the reactors is leaking water because the casing around the reactor has probably been damaged and the chemical compound in the leaking water shows that the rods have been damaged as they were assumed to have been uncovered by water for some period of time. They have also found plutonium on the site. Plutonium is a byproduct of nuclear fission and is much nastier than uranium. On top of that, the leaking water is a meter deep in the basement of the reactors and is in danger of overflowing possibly into the ocean or seeping into groundwater.
What is going to happen is anyone’s guess. My guess is that they will eventually cool the rods, get rid of the water (where they will put it, I have no idea), and eventually clean up the area at the cost of billions of dollars. I also think that there won’t be anyone living within ten or twenty miles of the reactor for a while. As I mentioned, nobody lives within 30 kilometers of Chernobyl so I imagine this to be somewhat true of this disaster as well. Unfortunately, Japan is a pretty small country with a pretty large population. On top of that, the majority of Japan’s produce comes from that area. So this could have enormous consequences for Japan.
What does this mean for your pal Chris Juergensen and his life 150 miles south in Tokyo you ask? I’m not sure really. But I can tell you that so far my life is not miserable, more inconvenienced if anything. I hate to say that I’ve learned something at the cost of all the ruined lives and deaths but I have. It is a little lesson really. I’ve learned to appreciate what I have and not to moan and bitch about things. I can’t get milk for my coffee, no yogurt for breakfast, eggs were a challenge for a while. I had to get up pretty early in the morning to get toilet paper. The government has banned milk and many other things like spinach that were produced in that area because of unsafe levels of radiation so farmers are screwed. That’s right, no milk in my coffee but not that bad compared to the farmer who killed himself two days ago. Or the other people within the evacuation zone who refuse to leave their cows, fields or bedridden loved ones. No telling what is going to happen to them.
Should you give money to Japan? I think you should give a little as a symbolic gesture. Why symbolic you ask? Because Japan is a very, very rich country. It is the third wealthiest country in the world by GDP standards and as far as personal wealth, it certainly is wealthier than its number two GDP rich neighbor China. Almost everybody in Japan has money in the bank and if the Japanese people not affected by the disaster reach into their pockets, they can financially take care of this problem themselves. As I’ve earned most of my income over the years from working in Japan, I’ve contributed myself out of a responsibility to the Japanese people and as a role model to other expats living in Japan. But you, as a non-Japanese, as a symbolic gesture, give a little bit but remember that there are people starving all over the world in countries that do not have the resources like Japan to take care of famine or other similar disasters (Haiti comes to mind). If you really want to help someone, donate money to the Red Cross who allocated resources to the most needy.
What Does This Mean For Japan? I can’t be sure. Japan had its fair share of problems before the earthquake. They have enormous debt and an aging population with minus population growth. The Japanese are, or at least were know to be resilient. I mean, they rebuilt a completely ruined country after World War 2 and turned it into a superpower unmatched by only the USA. In all honesty, the Japanese have become quite apathetic over the last two decades so maybe this will wake up the 20 something generation. It could be a wake up call but only time will tell.
Anyway, that’s my take on things here in the land of the rising sun. I hope it was a good read and thanks again to everyone worrying about me.