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.