Archive for March, 2011

The effects of the March 11 tragedy have proven more severe than anybody imagined.  The death toll. The death toll is now approaching 11,000 with the total number almost certain to top 20,000.  Just to put this in perspective for Americans, the total death toll of both September 11 and Katrina was less than 5,000.  This is an incredible national tragedy for Japan, certainly the worst since World War II.

Added on top of this is the effect of the ongoing nuclear reactor problems in Fukushima.  Workers at the plant have suffered from overdoses of radiation, and those who live in the immediate vicinity of the plant are in jeopardy as well.  Many have been forced to relocate at great social and economic cost.  Just to give one example of the terrible impact, one organic farmer who lives near the plant has already committed suicide due to the loss of his farm and livelihood.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis is having broader impact as well.  Power rationing is occurring in much of the center and north of the country, and, though it will lessen soon due to moderate spring weather, could pick up again in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

All that being said, life is gradually returning to normal in Tokyo.  Aftershocks have become less frequent, and radiation readings in the air and water are within the normal range.  Exports of milk and vegetables from Fukushima are being restricted, but we have had no problem finding things we need on grocery shelves.  Stores usually limit milk purchases to one liter per person per day, but if you need more you can simply go to another store. People who have left the city out of caution are steadily returning, and attendance at schools and workplaces is on the rise. Universities, which have been on scheduled break the last couple of months, are scheduled to reopen in April, though some have pushed back the start date to later in the month to allow time to more fully prepare.

We are set to finish our year here in June and return to the United States.  We considered leaving early, but in the end saw no reason to, since aftershocks have subsided and radiational levels here are normal.  Keiko’s family lives in far western Japan, which offers another safe haven in the unlikely event we would need it.  We are looking forward to enjoying our last couple of months in Japan as we continue our research and our children’s schooling.

I can say that for me, the entire experience has been an incredible eye-opener.  I have learned more about Japanese culture in the last few weeks than I had in the entire 17 years my (Japanese) wife and I have been together (and I can even say that I better understand and appreciate my wife because of this deepened understanding of Japanese culture).  I continue to be amazed by stories I read of sacrifice here as well as of social organization before, immediately following, and after the earthquake.  I look forward to witnessing and learning more about the quiet strength of the Japanese people as they rebuild their country in their own way.


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I arrived back in Tokyo on Thursday, March 17.  Sailed through customs and immigration.  Fastest train from the airport wasn’t running, but plenty of others were. Made it home easily.  Great to see wife and kids.

Life in Tokyo is much calmer, and safer, than what is being portrayed in the media.  Here’s a basic overview of how Tokyo has been impacted by events of the last two weeks.

Earthquake: The 9.0 earthquake 230 miles away shook things up pretty badly in Tokyo.  Buildings swayed back and forth for 5 or 6 minutes, and lots of things fell on the ground.  However, there was not much structural damage.  No buildings fell that I am aware of, and, it appears that only about 6-7 people died in the city from the earthquake.

Aftershocks continue, but I haven’t found them that disruptive. One has woken me up at night and I’ve felt a few others in the daytime. Perhaps other people find them more disturbing, after having experienced them so intensively the first few days after the major quake.

There remains increased danger of future earthquakes, since the earth has been shaken up in this area.  However, the high engineering of buildings in Tokyo and the strict enforcement of rigorous earthquake codes is reassuring.  Our own building, for example, has a special safety feature built into the elevator, so that in the event of an earthquake or power outage it will automatically proceed to the next floor and open its doors.

Tsunami: It is the tsunami, of course, that caused such extensive death and destruction in coast areas a couple of hundred miles north of Tokyo.  The situation is still severe in that area with large numbers of people homeless, short of basic supplies, etc. Tokyo, however, was unaffected by the tsunami.

Nuclear Reactor: As the whole world knows, the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, in Fukushima, Japan, has been badly damaged. The Fukushima Daiichi plant is about 175 miles north of Tokyo, right on the coast.  It is about 50 miles away from an area that my family and I have vacationed in twice.

The earthquake alone did not damage the plant in a way that would pose any risk, but the combination of the earthquake and tsunami accomplished that, with the earthquake knocking out some power systems and then the tsunami flooding other systems. The destruction of the power systems means that it is now very difficult to keep the reactors and stored nuclear rods cool by pumping water into them.  The Tokyo Electric Power Company and Japanese government are taking a variety of steps to try to get water in to keep things cool.  (It’s important to note that the plant itself is some 30 years old.  Newer plants no longer require maintenance of a power supply for cooling).

The leakage of radiation from the Fukushima reactor poses risks to people in the plant itself, of course, and lower risks to people in about a 10-20 mile radius.  The U.S. government has taken a very conservative approach and recommended that Americans within 50 miles of the plant leave the area.  However, there is no credible threat to Tokyo, 175 miles away.  The Fukushima plant is built differently than the Chernobyl plant, where the graphite core exploded sending radiation 10,0000 meters into the air where it then spread a wide distance. In contrast, the Fukushima plant does not have a graphite core and its nuclear material is all in containers. As the UK’s chief scientific officer explains, in a worse case scenario, radiation could go about 500 meters in the air, but then dissipate within 20-50 miles.

Japan of course has great sensitive to nuclear issues due to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Nevertheless, the people I’ve spoke too in Tokyo feel calm about the matter, though everybody of course wants the situation revolved as quickly as possible.

Power Shortages: Nuclear reactors supply about 30% of Japan’s electricity, and about 20% of nuclear capacity is supposedly down, thus resulting in a 6% decrease in available electricity in Japan.  However, this loss has to be absorbed in one part of the country, because, due to historical legacy from the 1800s, different regions of the country produce electricity at different cycles per second. This has resulted in a serious power shortage in Tokyo.

The government is encouraging voluntary reduction of power use, and there seems to be a great response to this.  People and companies are doing whatever they can to reduce power.  Because of this, train service in Tokyo has been cut back by about 20-30%. Most all lines appear to be running, but not on their usual schedule.

In addition, scheduled rolling blackouts of several hours a day are taking place throughout Tokyo.  I am certain these must be very disruptive, especially when they take place in the evening.  Toko is divided into 23 wards, and, to keep the economy going, blackouts are not taking place  in wards with major commercial districts.  Since we live in Shinjuku, which includes one of Tokyo’s major commercial centers, we have not been subject to these scheduled blackouts, which has made life easier on us.

Finally, there is also the danger of unscheduled blackouts in case demand exceeds supply, but these have not occurred yet.

A severe power shortage is likely to continue until April, when whether warms and demand for electricity is just reduced.  Moderate problems might continue after that.

Shopping and Supplies: Produce and supplies are down in stores for a variety of reasons, including problems with deliveries and people wanting to stock up. In particular, I’ve heard of shortages of safety supplies, such as batteries, and some basic commodities, like bread and milk.  Ready-made food at convenience stores is also in short supply.  I went to two stores yesterday and found most of the groceries I was looking for, with the exception of milk.  We recently (post-earthquake) bought powdered milk and soy milk at stores, so that is not a problem. We also have a number of other ways of getting food and supplies besides going to stores.  We belong to a local coop which delivers food and supplies to us on a weekly basis and has continued to do so since the earthquake; got a full delivery yesterday of produce, fish, etc..  We also buy online from Japan Costo through a local supplier with an English-language website; we just received a case of bottled water from them yesterday too. Finally, Keiko’s family lives in southwestern Japan, and they have sent us a box of stuff.

In summary, while life in Tokyo is more inconvenient than previously, we are not suffering any hardships.  I lived in the Soviet Union right before it broke up and — whether in securing food and supplies or having reliable access to electricity — life there was much more challenging than Tokyo is experiencing now, and there was not even a natural disaster then.

Mood of the People: I have been back a short time and have not spoken to a lot of people, but, at least in my neighborhood, I get a sense of calm and normalcy in daily life.  I took my kids to the local playground yesterday and there were more families there than usual.  Kids were swinging and jump-roping, parents were relaxing and chatting.  The streets are relatively quiet in my neighborhood, but it’s hard to know if that’s due to the situation or simply the fact that nearby Waseda University is in its annual February/March break.  (Our apartment building is quite empty as many of the visiting scholars who live here have traveled back to China or Korea temporarily, but our apartment is certainly not typical in that regard.)  People in Tokyo are saddened by the death and destruction from the tsunami and anxious for the nuclear reactors to be brought under control, but they take satisfaction in how they as a nation and people have withstood these multiple tragedies.

Due to the burst of the bubble economy, Japan has been in a malaise the last 10-20 years, and some are beginning to speak about how the current tragedy can point the nation in a new direction.  Japanese writer Ryu Murakami put it most eloquently:

Ten years ago I wrote a novel in which a middle-school student, delivering a speech before Parliament, says: “This country has everything. You can find whatever you want here. The only thing you can’t find is hope.”

One might say the opposite today: evacuation centers are facing serious shortages of food, water and medicine; there are shortages of goods and power in the Tokyo area as well. Our way of life is threatened, and the government and utility companies have not responded adequately.

But for all we’ve lost, hope is in fact one thing we Japanese have regained. The great earthquake and tsunami have robbed us of many lives and resources. But we who were so intoxicated with our own prosperity have once again planted the seed of hope.

I have nothing to add to Murakami’s poignant words.

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The situation in Japan is certainly much more dire than when I wrote my report from Tokyo last week.  Though Japan’s earthquake defense system proved magnificent–not a single building tumbled in Tokyo and there is little evidence of buildings falling even in the areas close to the epicenter–the tsunami proved deadly and destructive.  The death toll has already climbed about 3,000 and is expected to be more than triple that.  Tens of thousands more are suffering from lack of food, water, medicines, or shelter.

On top of the double whammy of earthquake and tsunami, Japan faces its most serious nuclear threat since World War II.  Due to the strong safety measures in place and the heroism of workers at the nuclear plants, radiation leakages so far have thus been limited. But, coming at the same time as earthquake and tsunami relief have barely begun, the nuclear crisis adds to the tremendous strain the country is under, and has special meaning for the only country so far to have faced massive nuclear destruction.

Reports from my wife and others in Tokyo suggest that, while people there are facing no immediate danger, life remains seriously disrupted.  Many trains are not running, preventing some people from going to work.  Enough teachers are absent from our children’s kindergarten/day care center  that they are encouraging families to keep their children home if possible. Aftershocks and power rationing disrupt the day, leaving both homes and offices scrambling to manage cooling and heating systems.  People spend time going from store to store to look for necessities, which are in short supply due to delivery problems and everyone’s natural desire to stock up.

Thankfully, Japan is probably is in better position than any country in the world to respond to these challenges.  It has a low degree of poverty and a highly educated populous.  It has great scientific and engineering prowess, including in the area of disaster management and relief, due both to its own history, including the Kobe of 1995, and also due to Tokyo’s role as a major aide donor to developing countries, such as after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  Most importantly, Japan has a stoic, hard-working, and self-sacrificing populous, who are amazingly cooperative with authorities and with each other.  The people of Japan are not looting, stealing, wasting, violating orders, or complaining. They are putting the noses to the grindstone to save their families, their communities, and their nation.  They deserve not only our sympathy, but our deep admiration.

After 12 days in the U.S., I will be flying back to Tokyo tomorrow where I will see my wife and children for the first time since the earthquake.  We will then have our first real chance to discuss our plans.  With few obligations in Tokyo (we are both on research sabbatical or leave from U.S. universities through the end of June), it would certainly be easier for us to relocate, either within or outside Japan, than for most people.  However, any decision we take will not be made lightly.  We are not just temporary interlocutors; we are a bilingual, bicultural family, four of whose members hold Japanese passports, and in full cognizance that Japan may well be going through a defining moment in its history. Whether we decide to stay or go, we do so in awe and honor of experiencing humanity at its finest.

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Report from Tokyo

Our family (American husband, Japanese wife, three children ages 5, 5, and 6) are living in Tokyo this year.  I  was in L.A. for a short visit when the earthquake hit (and still am).  It took me a while to reach my wife, but I’ve communicated with her several times since then by Skype, Google phone, and email and can share my family’s experience.

Keiko was alone in her 9th floor office at Waseda University in the center of Tokyo when the earthquake hit at 2:46 pm local time on Friday.  She crouched under her desk and experienced several minutes of severe shaking. A cabinet in the room fell and she feared the worst.  Fortunately, after several minutes, the shaking subsided and Keiko was able to run down 9 flights of stairs to the outside.

Keiko first ran to our apartment building 5 minutes away and ran up 6 flights of stairs to our apartment where our 6-year-old son was with a babysitter and with Keiko’s mom.  Danny was quite scared and was comforted throughout the entire earthquake by the babysitter.  Things had fallen in the apartment but there was no structural damage.

They all walked down the 6 flights of stairs to wait in the lobby while Keiko ran to the kindergarten/day care center where our 5-year-old twins were.  When she arrived, the teachers were upstairs getting all the kids ready to be evacuated.  Keiko had to ring the buzzer for a long time before they heard it and let her in, due to the commotion.  Kids were in pajamas and bare feet having awoken from their naps. The teachers were getting their shoes on and getting them ready to evacuate the building and go to a nearby open space.  Keiko took the twins and walked home with them.  We suspect that the teachers and many of the children ended up sleeping at the school last night because, with trains shut down in Tokyo, parents may have been unable to arrive from work.

All the family–Keiko, three kids, grandma, and babysitter–walked back upstairs to the apartment. Surprisingly, power, water, and local phone service were working fine.  Long-distance phone service was not available.  The babysitter, who lives far away, was stranded due to the trains not running.  She spent the night at our apartment in one bedroom and the other five huddled together in the other bedroom.  With aftershocks occurring every few minutes–some the size of good-sized earthquakes themselves–it was pretty difficult for people to sleep.

It’s Saturday morning in Tokyo and the family is still in the apartment.  The babysitter will have to stay until the trains are running, and they don’t know when that will be.  They’ve been a couple of times the the local convenience store but all the food has run out.  We live right next to a university campus and many students were stranded there and bought food at the store. Fortunately, we have enough food at home to last for a while.  Elevators are still not working.

The kids are doing well today, though they are disappointed that their favorite Saturday morning cartoons have been usurped by 24 hours news broadcasts.  The family is trying to decide whether to remain hunkered down all day in the apartment or venture out to a park and playground a few blocks away.

Compared to other people in Tokyo, we are very fortunate to live within walking distances of our offices and our kids’ school.  In contrast, a large amount of people who rely on public transportation were (and many remain) stranded.  One person told me that, in crowded office districts of Tokyo, there was so much pedestrian traffic right after the earthquake that it took a half hour to walk 100 meters.

We are praying for the many people in the northern coastal areas that were more badly affected by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  The earthquake was so powerful — 8.9 — that it was felt very strongly in Tokyo, 231 miles from the epicenter. Very fortunately, though, only a few people died in Tokyo, a metropolitan area of 35 million people.  I am extremely thankful for the excellent engineering and safety standards in Japan.  Otherwise, it is virtually certain that buildings would have collapsed in Tokyo, killing large numbers of people.

Let this be a reminder to everyone to update your emergency disaster plans and stock up on recommended emergency supplies. And thank you to everybody for your thoughts for us and, especially, for the people in the more hard-hit regions of Japan.

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The New Cool

Robotics has all the elements of education that everybody loves—problem-solving, team-work, hands-on learning, and mastery of technology, all in the service of authentic projects. Unfortunately, robotics is typically offered on an extra-curricular basis, and thus available only to small numbers of students in places where there happen to be either volunteer teachers or commercial classes.

Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school engineering teacher in California, approached robotics in a different way—not as an “extra,” but as a key element of curricular transformation. He has integrated student participation in a year-long robotics competition as part of a remarkable interdisciplinary public school program in the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy he founded.

I interviewed Abo-Shaeer extensively in relationship to a new book I’m writing on digital media and learning that will appear this fall.  I believe his approach—of integrating hands-on project based learning with a very rigorous and demanding curriculum—is the exact philosophy needed for transforming our schools.  In the book, I will discuss the particular challenges that he has faced in redesigning a California high school curriculum in the face of standardized testing demands and other possible hurdles and how he creatively overcame them–and what lessons that has for broader educational reform with technology.

In the meantime, though, for those wanting an in-depth look at the experiences of Abo-Shaeer and his students, there is a terrific book just released called The New Cool. Journalist Neal Bascomb set off to cover three robotics teams and write a book about the experiences of the students.  However, mid-way through his research, he decided that the story of Abo-Shaeer and his students was so compelling that that story should become the centerpiece of his book. Bascomb brings to life the experiences of Abo-Shaeer and his robotics team in fascinating detail.  For those who are interested in what passionate educational reform can mean for transforming the lives of youths and helping them realize their full potential, The New Cool is a must read.

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