Tuesday, March 29, 2011

We are not going to die.

Today the news is dominated by the 'radioactive water' story.  Radioactive water is continuing to leak from reactor number 2, although the exact source is not clear.  Increasingly, it appears the water may be coming from pipes around the reactor itself, due to damage or partial meltdown of the rods.  The immediate focus at the plant is preventing this radioactive water from entering the sea.  In addition, plutonium was detected in soil outside the reactor, which also points to damage of the reactor.

All the reactors are still being cooled however, to various degrees by various means.

It's increasingly hard to be objective about all this: is there genuine danger for people outside the plant or not?  Like everybody, I was concerned when the nuclear accident was first reported on the news.  The very phrase 'meltdown' taps into a vague but colossal fear sourced in the unconscious.  It's almost impossible to be rational when thinking about concepts such as 'radiation' and 'meltdown'.  And what do I know about nuclear power or nuclear reactors?  But information, all the information you want, is available from Wikipedia or other reliable sources.  And when it comes down to it, there is negligible danger for Tokyo residents.  I'm more likely to incur health risk from the McDonald's meal I ate yesterday than from all the radiation reported in Tokyo thus far.  This knowledge, coupled with a healthy skepticism of mainstream media, has led me to believe there is actually...no danger at all.  No danger except, perhaps, for the workers at the plant.  No real reason for 20-50% of foreign residents of Tokyo to have left.  No real reason not to come back.

Yeah, I'm thinking about another McDonald's meal.  That Manhattan burger was pretty good.

Monday, March 28, 2011

So...is it safe or not?

Well, the storm of excrement that is the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues.

Today massive amounts of radiation were reported in water around reactor number 2.  This seems to be coming from both the pool containing spent fuel rods and the reactor itself.  Although the risk of meltdown seems to have been averted, as all reactors are now being flushed with fresh or sea water, this new radioactivity is dominating the news.  Nobody seems quite sure where it is coming from or how to deal with it.  Personally, I'm not that surprised that a damaged nuclear reactor is leaking radioactive water: I mean, what else would it do?  But it's becoming a regular shitstorm for the media, especially as yesterday there were conflicting and terrifying radiation reports (one report indicated radiation levels were 10,000,000 times normal) about the water.  Eventually Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) admitted it had screwed up about yesterday's reading, but serious damage was done to its reputation and this has only fed the media feeding frenzy.

Even the pro-nuclear sources on the web are indignant with Tepco, for screwing up radiation levels, exposing their workers to radiation, and not releasing information.  The information vacuum is especially damaging, as it is likely to be filled by the dire imaginings of the press.

Slowly it seems people seem to be trickling back into the Tokyo area.  It's a difficult thing to decide it is safe to return.  On the one hand, it is likely to be some time before the situation in Fukushima is totally resolved.  On the other hand, an objective review of the situation suggests there was little need to leave in the first place.  In that sense, it is not safer or more dangerous in Tokyo than it was ... two weeks ago.

The death toll for the tsunami itself is still rising.  There are 11,000 confirmed dead, and over 15,000 still missing.  26,000 people is a huge blow, a massive disaster.  It's difficult to see how this will impact on Japan in the long term, but impact it certainly will.

The three workers who received high doses of radiation have been released from hospital, according to tonight's news.  As yet, they have shown no symptoms of radiation poisoning, but may experience burns on their legs 'similar to sunburn'.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Soon we will have nothing to Drink! Oh, wait.

Today the government lifted its advisory against babies drinking Tokyo tap water, as today's measured levels of radioactivity were below those considered 'safe'

Tokyo mothers responded by having a 'Let's Give Our Babies Tap Water' party and held parades and danced through the city, guzzling tap water as they swayed through the streets, singing and laughing.

Okay, that party bit was made up.  Why does my version of how the world should be always differ to the reality?  I just can't work it out. 

In any case bottled water was unobtainable today.  If things continue like this, the only thing left to drink will be ... human blood!

Workers up at the plant have connected power to all the reactors and are currently trying to understand what systems are damaged.  Water spraying operations are continuing.  And for the first time, 3 workers were exposed to 'dangerious levels of radiation' when they slipped into radioactive water.  They were taken immediately to hospital for treatment.  They received 170 millisevierts of radiation, which according to The Japan Times is much less than can cause any symptoms.  However NHK news is talking about 'burns' so I am not quite sure what is happening there.

I have also heard an explanation as to why the Japanese are hoarding tissue and toilet paper, though like many Japanese explanations it leaves one feeling somewhat unsatisfied.  Apparently paper products 'require petroleum in their manufacture' and are likely to disappear in times of oil shortage.  This happened during the 'oil shock' of the early seventies.  Hence the locals are stocking up on toilet paper.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today minute traces of radiation were detected in seawater off the coast of Fukushima.  You can add this to radioactive water in Tokyo, vegetables in Ibaraki and milk from Fukushima.  The Japanese government assures us that none of this really constitutes a problem, as the levels are too low.  You can hardly blame people for having their doubts though.

I suspect we will be in this realm for quite a long time: are trace amounts of radioactivity in food, far below levels reported to be dangerous to health, acceptable?  For example, is it okay to eat broccoli, that, if consumed everyday, would expose you to as much radiation over a year as a tenth of a chest x-ray?  The commonly repeated refrain by many is that 'there is no safe level of radiation' but only a cursory reading of scientific literature will give you doubts about this.  For example, if normal 'background radiation' is not safe, then 'safety' is actually impossible.  In fact, some serious sources (e.g. Wikipedia) even suggest that very low levels of radiation may be good for the body.  It's hard to know what to make of such an idea, as it goes against everything I've been taught, but if I came to believe this it wouldn't be the first time I've been diametrically opposed to popular opinion.

Up at the Fukushima nuclear plant the battle continues.  They now have electricity linked up to all the reactors, and what remains now is to test the cooling systems before turning everything back on.  In the meantime, cooling has continued by vehicle, and now they've brought in these huge machines with 50- meter hoses attached that are designed to spray concrete, and they are using them for precision water spraying.
Some cautious optimism seems appropriate here.

Japanese Self Defence Forces are now combating Radioactive Zombies

Monday, March 21, 2011

A friendly chat

This morning I got a call from a young woman named Jenny.  She was calling from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Japan Crisis Centre in Japan.  Nice lass.  We had a little chat.  She told me that the Australian government was now recommending that Aussies leave Tokyo.  I told her that I wasn't thinking of it at the moment but that I was prepared to follow the lead of Japanese authorities.  She told me that was fine.  She seemed very young, and to know very little about Japan; for example, she didn't seem to have heard of Yokohama and asked me to spell it.

General radiation levels are down slightly at Fukushima but there was also unexplained white smoke coming from reactor building number 3.  Still no detectable radiation levels in Tokyo.

I sent my family to Kagoshima today, mostly because of the nagging from my mother-in-law.  And I learned one thing today.  Even when they are fleeing from nuclear radiation, Japanese women do not neglect to put on their make-up.

T.V. is full of reports from the workers up at the plant and how much radiation they are receiving.  The highest amount so far admitted by the Japanese authorities for workers there at the moment is 27 millisiverts, apparently not a danger to human health.  Contrary to some reports, especially in the foreign media, that the workers at the nuclear plant are basically on a suicide mission, not one as yet has received a high dose of radiation.

These chips were 70% off today, I wonder why.  Taste good but.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Of Salt and Spinach

Aunt: Just keep away from the spinach and the milk, okay?  They're poisoned with radiation!
Me:   Really?  That's probably why they're so cheap.  The spinach pie was great tonight.

No definitive word on when the nuclear crisis will be over.  Workers today sprayed reactor number 4 up at Fukushima, and radiation levels continued their slow decline.  However nothing will really settle down until if and when power is linked up to all the reactors and the cooling systems fully restored.  Meanwhile spinach and milk from the area has been irradiated.  I genuinely feel sorry for the dairy farmers of Fukushima; nobody will ever buy their milk again and in many cases their life's work is ruined.

Life in Yokohama has pretty much returned to normal; or should I say, stabilised at a new normality.  The new paradigm includes daily press conferences on disaster relief, as well as a nightly radiation level report following the weather.  Just something to think about when you're planning your next picnic, I guess.  'Great, it's not going to rain, but what about insidious poison levels?'

Nowadays there is also communication between the sexes.  These days, if you wife says, 'Where's that blue jacket?", you don't pretend you didn't hear her because you're reading the newspaper.  Instead you help her find the blue jacket because she is packing an emergency bag that will you need in case you have to flee nuclear contamination.  Sharpens things up a bit, I can tell you.

The overseas press is currently diverted by the war in Libya, but there are still reports of Japan burning sinking and exploding in a radioactive cloud.  Be assured if the radioactive mutants start massing I will report it.  Kind of looking forward to it, actually.

The sensationalist reporting has already resulted in unnecessary suffering.  For example, there are worldwide reports of people overdosing on iodine tablets and requiring hospitalization.  You could argue that people so stupid as to overdose on iodine thousands of kilometers away from radiation danger should be in hospital anyway. However, I wouldn't be one to argue that.  Would I?

I also read that in China everyday iodised table salt is sold out in supermarkets as it is being hoarded by people who believe (incorrectly) that it can protect them against radiation poisoning.

Those wacky Chinese.  They probably think they're going to be the world's next superpower.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Radiation battle continues

Efforts today continued at the Fukushima nuclear plant, this time with a massive unmanned water truck continuously spraying seawater onto reactor number 3.  That is either 'effective in keeping the temperature down' or 'as useful as using a water pistol on a bonfire ' according to which website you read.

For a sober and accurate summary the British embassy website is the best I've found:


Long-term hopes are pinned on continuing work aim at restoring power to the plant and thus utilising existing cooling systems.  Power has already been restored to reactors 1,2, 5 and 6.  3 and 4 are proving the most troublesome.

In overseas media criticism of the Japanese government continues.  Maybe I just like being contrary, but far from being critical, every day I am more and more impressed.  My sense is of a government doing the best it can under extraordinary circumstances.  The Kan Naoto administration is coping with a recalcitrant media, sensationalist foreign government reports and a paranoid public.  Not only that, there is also an actual disaster that they are dealing with, the humanitarian disaster caused by the tsunami.  But press conferences are frequent and to me anyway seem well-informed.  And today it was announced that trace radioactivity had been found in spinach from Ibaraki and milk from Fukushima.  This is actually extraordinarily reassuring, as the government is not hiding anything from us.  Bad news is not too bad if they tell it how it is.

Indeed this is the kind of stuff Japanese authorities are good at.  There is a dedicated and professional bureacracy.  A huge well of self-sacrifice and good will in the public.  Well-developed transport and logistics systems.   When you compare the tsunami disaster to what happened in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina you can't help but be impressed.  Where after Katrina you had looting, shooting, rape, car-jacking and murder, in Fukushima you get communal rice cooking and face mask distribution.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Geiger Counter

By the way I found this link to a geiger counter in Chiba, one prefecture closer to the nuclear plant than Tokyo.  I understand a normal level is about .16


To go or not to go?

"What are we going to do if there's a blackout?"
"Let's make the best of a bad situation.  We'll put the baby out on the balcony until he's glowing, then if there's a blackout we'll put him in the centre of the living room and use him as a lamp."

That's when my wife started looking up flight times to Kagoshima on the net.  Was it something I said?

Seriously folks, still no need to panic.  Radiation levels are slightly down both in Fukushima and Tokyo.  That is, a health risk actually inside the plant, and completely safe outside the 30km exclusion zone.  There's some cause for cautious celebration as water trucks are being used to hose down reactors 3 and 4.  Now this is not news that a week ago anyone in the world would have thought would be cause for optimism but there you go.  Not only that, work is continuing on restoring electrical power to the plant, which would significantly improve the situation.  Even in the worst case scenario, with a total meltdown of one or more reactors, radiation would be local and serious levels would never reach down to Tokyo.  Even if the equivalent of Chernobyl were to occur, which is impossilbe, Tokyo would be okay.

So they tell me ha ha.

I understand in overseas media 50% of Japan has sunk underneath the sea and the other 50% is overrun by radioactive zombies.  That explains why expats are still fleeing in droves. 

As for the Japanese themselves, at the moment they seem to be more concerned with stocking up on tissues.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan - The place to be during a disaster.

Efforts today continued at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima to cool down the reactors that are in danger of meltdown.  Helicopter drops have continued throughout the day; but due to radiation they are keeping quite a distance away; even the casual observer would doubt that they are having much effect.  The new approach has been to use high-pressure water cannon trucks from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, water cannons that are presumably kept for possible use in ... riot control!  The drivers are said to be using radiation suits and safety equipment on loan from the self-defense force.  For good reason.  According to Yukio Edano, Chief Cabinet Secretary, "It has been difficult to make a decision to spray water from the ground, due to the radiation."  Then on the 7pm news it was announced that police had given up the water cannon operation because of high radiation and were 'seeking shelter'.  Luckily I was wearing brown-coloured underpants at the time, because that idea seemed to be last hope.  Then finally, just a few minutes ago they announced that operations had in fact started, and that water was being sprayed upon the reactor.  Only time will tell how that goes.

I would suggest one thing.  I'm guessing those workers are getting overtime pay.  Maybe even time-and-a-half, huh?

Meanwhile the atmosphere in Yokohama is one of high anxiety.  In my workplace several teachers have already left or are in the process of leaving the city.  Myself, I think I'll stay and watch the show.  At least until I start glowing.

Japan is certainly the place you want to be during a disaster.  Courtesy remains the rule rather than the exception.  Supermarkets are full of orderly queues and issue profuse apologies about their bare shelves.  With few people under the age of 50, there's nobody to loot.  Convenience stores are open during blackouts, going through the transactions by hand while the staff apologise for being unable to offer you a receipt and say 'there is no excuse for our terrible behaviour'.  Not only that, but the public is cooperating with the authorities.  For example, for the last few days there has been a request to cut down on electricity use to minimise the possiblility of blackouts, and the public actually seems to be doing this.  Stores and restaurants are only half-lit, while my wife has refused to use the heater today, while outside there is a noteable dearth of well-lit houses.  It's impossible to imagine such civility back home during a crisis; in Australia it is every man for himself, and as for America, demonstrations are so common you are allowed to riot if your football team wins. 

Japanese people wearing the latest 'nuclear radiation proof' facemasks

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


According to the French government that is what the Fukushima nuclear plant troubles amount to.  They've sent an emergency relief flight to airlift all their citizens out. 

Why is it always the French who are first to retreat?

Certainly there are grounds for concern.  Today the number 3 reactor, which everybody had assumed was under control, started spewing radioactive smoke.  Not only that, but reactor number 4 had another fire, which apparently burned itself out.  The reactors seem to be taking turns daily to scare the bejesus out of the population. 

The government responded by sending in self-defense force helicopters on water-bombing missions, only to...give up a few hours later out of fear of radiation.  So much for that idea.  Then it was announced on the news tonight that attempts will be made to cool down the reactors using "water cannon cars", possibly starting tonight.  Not sure how that will go, they seem to be resorting to desperate measures now.

However it's important to remember that dangerous levels of radioactivity have been recorded nowhere except at the plant.  They haven't even been recorded in the evacuated 20km radius outside.  As for Tokyo, levels of radiation are higher than normal but way under the level deemed a health risk to humans.  Radiation is being constantly monitored by Japanese authorities.  Not only that, but the American ambassador announced tonight that the American authorities will be making independent measurements.

That hasn't stopped the local population here in Yokohama responding with anxiety approaching panic. You have to remember that the Japanese have advanced degrees in paranoia.  Even in normal times it is common to see women walking down the street with gloves up to the elbow, broad-brimmed hats, thick sunglasses and full-face visors over face masks.  This is for protection against sunlight.  How the Japanese psyche may be responding to nuclear radiation can hardly be imagined.  That's why people I know are already fleeing to the countryside, buying 300 rolls of toilet paper and preparing to eat each other.

So far not one person has been reported ill from radiation poisoning.  Meanwhile, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami has reached 3,700 and is still climbing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Whatever You Do Don't Panic"

Huge queues in the supermarket today, although deliveries seemed to be arriving as usual, so the only outcome there seems to be huge profits for the supermarket.  Unfortunately there are still no supplies of the things you would want in a blackout - batteries, candles etc.  The Japanese seem to be anxious about the oddest things: at the drug store I saw over a hundred people lined up stoically, almost all of whom were buying large packs of...toilet paper.

The big news is of course the continuing problems at the nuclear plant at Fukushima.  At 6 am there was yet another explosion, this time at reactor number 2.  Details are not clear, but it seems as if some fuel rods are still exposed to the air there, and there is a partial meltdown.  It is a serious situation.  Reactors number 1 and 3 had already had explosions and been flooded by workers with seawater.  They seem to be stable.  However at reactor number 4 there was a fire today.  Reactor 4 was not actually being used, it was undergoing maintenance at the time of the quake. The cause is not fully known, and it is this fire that seems to have resulted in serious radiation leakage for the first time.

In response the government imposed has asked everybody within the 20-30 km radius to stay indoors.  This is a serious decision, affecting 130,000 people.  Not only that, but people are expected to seal doors and windows, turn off ventilators and air conditioners and so forth, basically avoid any exposure to the outside.  Nightmare stuff.  For people as generally anxiety-prone as the Japanese, it must constitue a challenge to their very sanity.  I can imagine them huddling in tiny corners behind piled-up furniture and trying to breathe shallowly.

No wonder they're buying up the toilet paper around here.  They're expecting to be told that they can't leave their apartments for the next 3 months.

Today radiation was detected as far south as Tokyo.  Indeed it was measured in Shinjuku as 22 times the normal level.  This is still much much lower than a radiation level that is dangerous to human health, but it is still something to be aware of. 

Some people have been questioning whether the government reports can be entirely trusted, or even suggest  they might be directly lying e.g. about radiation levels.  I doubt this.  There are many many places reporting radiation levels, and the coordination required to pull off such deceit seems to be prohibitive.  The entire world is focused on this, and if the government was not completely honest about the whole thing the backlash would be immeasurable.  My feeling is that they are trying to deal with a very difficult situation as best they can.  The ad hoc nature of the frequent press conferences oddly enough gives me confidence: whatever else this is, they are not putting on a show.

Siege Mentality

My local bakery today.

Shopping today was like ...well, shopping after a disaster has struck.  The stuff that people look for in such situations is gone - bread, pasta, milk, rice, batteries, flashlights, bottled water.  Just empty shelves.

Don't worry we haven't started eating each other just yet.  We have enough food and essentials (lucky enough we seem to have dozens of candles) to last quite a while.

There's no serious reason for Tokyoites to be concerned; the real food shortages are up North where the tsunami struck.  All we are dealing with here is an understandable human urge to stockpile in times of uncertainty, it's the siege mentality.  And I was happy to notice that trucks still seem to be delivering to the supermarkets and convenience stores.  It's the threat of rolling blackouts that has done this.  Without electricity people can't see at night, can't cook, can't keep warm.  The Japanese, anxious at the best of times, appear to have been driven to near-hysteria.  My wife was so happy when I managed to come home with some more nappies that she jumped up and hugged me.  Very strange behaviour indeed, at most I get a 'Welcome home' and at times merely a surly grunt, ah the romance of marriage.  And frankly a lack of electricity doesn't bother me that much.  I've lived with dodgy power supplies for extended periods before, the hardest thing is filling the evening hours; if this terror goes on for a long time people may start doing drastic things like reading books.

In any case so far the promised blackouts haven't arrived, though I understand tomorrow may be different. 
Meanwhile the trains are unreliable, some lines are running, some are not, huge queues everywhere, two hours to get on your train.

Of course in the media back home it seems as if the whole country is being engulfed by another Chernobyl.  It's true there was another hydrogen explosion at the #1 Fukushima plant, this time reactor #3.  Efforts are being made to cool down all the reactors involved by pumping sea water into them, so far with limited effectiveness.  However there is no danger as yet of radiation drifting outward of the current safety zones, and Fukushima is a long way away.

The prime minister and cabinet have taken to wearing  these absurd cheap blue uniforms that make them look like school janitors.  It appears particularly unsuited to the normally fashion-aware Renho.

In the press conferences they are now talking about 2,000 confirmed dead in the tsunami and an incredibile 15,000 missing.  Some of those will turn up alive but there is no doubt that this is an incredible tragedy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Grim Days for Japan

Well, the death toll just gets higher and higher.  Now they are talking about 10,000 or more people unaccounted for.  Those people won't all be dead, but many will be.  The television is showing absolutely incredible scenes of destruction and devastation.  With those scenes, I am surprised that any people survived at all in the towns hit by the tsunami.  There is also scene after scene of people telling stories of horror: a mother holding her daughter by the hand until the child was torn away by the waves; a man who rushed into a neighbour's house just to see them swept away; people desperate to find their children.

The Japanese broadcaster NHK put on an hour-plus news conference with the Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.  I was impressed with this news conference; the mood was sober but confident.  The reporters asked difficult questions and the pollies answered as best they could.  The reporters pressed the hardest - and who could blame them? - on the topic of the nuclear reactors.

Two nuclear power plants in Fukushima are in serious trouble.  The first plant seems to be the most concerning and a 20km radius around it has already been evacuated.  Of the 3 reactors at the plant, the first one already exploded yesterday, destroying the concrete containment shell.  Temperatures are rising at the other two and pumping in sea water seems not to be working.  The first reactor was completely flooded with sea water.  This was reported in the Australian media as 'a desperate measure', but a more measured scientist was reported in New Scientist as saying 'It's textbook practice of what to do with an accident of this type'.  Who knows what will happen with that.  Meanwhile, the second nuclear power plant in Fukushima also has several reactors whose temperatures are rising dangerously.  A 10-km radius has been evacuated around that one.  Rough times.

I'm cautiously optimistic about this.  The Japanese government has been guilty in the past of covering up the severity of nuclear accidents, but the stress of the current situation and the worldwide publicity surrounding this incident allow little room for deception here.  They seem to be doing everthing they can.  Personally, I'm in favour of nuclear power, and you can't blame Japan for wanting to diversify their energy sources.  It's not Japan's fault these plants got hit with a magnitude 8.9 earthquake followed by a 10 meter tsunami.

There's a general atmosphere of seige in Yokohama.  In the shops, batteries are sold out and there has been a run on staples.  Meanwhile, electricity generation has been damaged and rolling blackouts have been announced, starting tomorrow.

Friday, March 11, 2011

That was genuinely scary

I never want to have to live through something like that again.  Here in Yokohama, we are very far from the worst hit areas up in Miyagi prefecture and Sendai and in no danger from tsunamis, but it was bad enough.

We were outside at the time, at a fruit and veggie shop, when the lights went out.  At first nobody could figure out what was happening.  The fruit seemed to be trembling.  Then somebody said 'jishin'.  Then came the shaking, which just went on and on, getting worse and worse.  Outside, telephone lines were snaking and waving above the street like an octopus's tentacles.  It was hard to stay on two feet, and we leaned against walls and a fence.  Bottles fell from shelves and produce from baskets.  I thought we could just wait it out, but it went on and on.  I was genuinely scared.  I huddled with my wife and child.  People around us were looking at each other, faces white and shocked.

Finally it stopped.  We were not far from home, so we checked to see if our apartment was still there.  My wife didn't feel safe inside, so we wandered up to the main street.  Others were doing the same.  Everybody was trying to use their mobile, but there was no reception.  Some people were running, I guess to get back home to loved ones.  I could understand how they felt, was very glad I was with my family.  In the main street some shops had broken windows.  In one, a water pipe had burst, flooding the street outside. 

At the train station people stood aimlessly, unable to get home.  They milled slowly outside the ticket gate in semi-darkness, silent and grave.  The convenience store was still open, with huge lines.  I felt for these people.  If the trains didn't come back on line, they faced a night in the cold and the uncertainty.  Outside the train station there were huge queues for the buses.  News updates poured out from a radio in a van at the kerb.  Led by their teacher, a line of schoolchildren snaked by with foam helmets on their heads.

We walked some more.  There was a terrible aftershock and we sat down on the ground, watching a wooden house across the street waver and shake, wondering if it would go down.  Further on, on a train line, I saw train staff helping to evacuate people from a train left stranded between two stations.  It had grown colder and it was even snowing slightly.  I walked past the shopping centre and saw the cracks in the foundations and pavement.  Outside the centre for aged health near our home, patients had been evacuated into the street and sat there or lay there on their beds.

Overall I feel better about Japan tonight.  The coldness between people has softened a bit.  And I don't doubt that tens of thousands of people are working right now to the best of their ability to rescue people, get things working again, fix the power and the gas and the trains, organize shelter for those stranded, and keep the public informed by megaphone, television, radio, and the internet.

There are still aftershocks now but it has got to the point where they are hard to recognize, because my stomach and body feels like they are moving all the time.  I feel slightly nauseous to think of it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Japanese Foreign Minister Quits - DPJ is screwed

A sudden and altogether ridiculous politcal scandal claimed the scalp of foreign minister Seiji Maehara on Sunday.  Maehara, one of the Democratic Party of Japan heavyweights and a potential successor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, was forced to resign because he unknowingly accepted political donations from a foreigner, which is illegal.

It's thrown the already floundering DPJ into further despair and hopelessness, the latest in a line of scandals that have seen Kan's approval ratings drop to 19%.  They are almost certain to be destroyed in the next election, and Kan himself is seen as doomed sooner than that. Last week 16 members of the party aligned with rebel faction leader Ozawa boycotted the government vote for the budget, and there is increasing pressure on Kan to resign.  He probably will sometime in the next few months.  If there is a new PM soon,  it will be the sixth in 6 years.

Why the DPJ couldn't sit this out is beyond me; Maehara's department made a mistake, but their fuck-up shouldn't result in the destruction of a cabinet member.  It's not as if he did anything wrong; somebody who was doing the pen-pushing in some office just didn't know the rules.  If the government can't stick out such attacks what hope have they to do the really hard stuff: revitalise the country and deal with the incredibly difficult things that must be done?

By the way, this 'foreign national' is known to be a Korean zainichi; that is, her family was taken here from Korea during the war or earlier.  She owns a restaurant and donated about $500 a year for five years.  She's hardly a threat to national security.  She speaks Japanese, was born here and has lived here all her life: and she should have the right to make donations to any party she likes in Japan.  She's about as foreign as kaiten zushi.  But in Japan it's the letter of the law (even an unjust absurd law) that counts.  Form over substance again.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Aicezuki arrested

14 police officers shot and killed in shootout as cornered cheating ronin student goes down fighting

Okay, I made up the second line again.

A nineteen-year-old cram school student, Aicezuki was arrested peacefully on Thursday.  He is reported to have told police, "I wanted to pass the exams."

His technique was to conceal the phone beneath the desk between his knees and text away.  Apparently he also managed to use a scanning function, as many observers in the media were surprised that so many long maths questions were posted so quickly.  During the maths exam he posted 6 maths questions at 5-10 minute intervals. 

Still no mention of mental illness in the Japanese media.  Assuming he was actually trying to get through these exams, he's a pretty resourceful bugger.  I say he should be given a free entrance to Kyoto university just for challenging authority and successfully subverting the dominant paradigm.  If I remember my Star Trek accurately, James T. Kirk was the only person to pass the last Captain's exam at the Starfleet Academy - by cheating!  And he was the best captain ever.  The more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes.  Graduates from even top Japanese universities are said to be unable to solve complex problems, lack motivation and initiative, and are unwilling to challenge the status quo.  They need this guy.  He's a winner!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Mobile Phones used to cheat in exams - A real news story?

A couple of days ago an interesting story broke in the Japanese news.  Apparently a student taking university entrance exams had posted questions online during the actual exams, seeking and receiving answers about specific test questions.  The only way he could have done this is by texting emails from his desk during the exam, an extraordinary act to perform and get away with.  And not just once; there were four places involved, including the prestigious Kyoto and Waseda universities.

I was intrigued because it seemed to be an actual, genuine news story.  Someting interesting was happening, a novel event compared to the usual headlines of 'Prime Minister in trouble' or 'Politician in Money Scandal' or, I kid you not, 'Snow in Winter'.

The reaction of the Japanese media and educational establishment has been shock and dismay.  A raft of anti-cheating measures are being implemented or considered: exams are now being held in smaller classrooms and invigilators are being trained to be extra vigilant; mobile phones are now placed in special envelopes and kept by staff during exams; and companies that provide equipment that can block mobile transmissions are being contacted.  Footage of South Korean exams with metal detectors at the doors is being aired and the possibility of something similar being introduced is being discussed.  In addition, at one university all 4,898 "English literature" exams are being examined to see if specific answers are worded exactly as the answers posted on the web.  All in all, a huge amount of stress is being created and money wasted.

It took one of my students to let me know what isn't being reported on the news.  What you can see if you actually go to the site in question.  The student who posted during the exams, who posts under the handle 'aicezuki', did not only ask questions about mathematics and English.  Before the exams Aicezuki posted other questions.  He asked for information about mental health hospitals or clinics.  He also said that he wanted help to committ suicide.  It seems that English literature is not this guy's biggest problem.  My student was also of the opinion that, given the number and length of questions posted, together with the probable difficulty of doing so without being seen, online access would have been more trouble than help during the exam, taking up too much time to actually be useful.  My student expressed the idea that Aicezuki's online postings were not intended to help him through the exam, but were instead ...an attempt to gain attention? A cry for help? A gesture of defiance?  A giant 'Fuck You!' to society?  Something not exam related, anyway.

It is telling that none of this has been reported by the Japanese media; the reality of the situation, that this is about one student with mental health problems, has not been addressed at all.  Instead we have this hysterical overreaction and these draconian countermeasures.  Cheating will not actually be prevented, because no real cheating has been taking place.  Instead, this scandal will just create strife and pain where none is necessary.  But that's okay, as seemingly the very goal of Japanese society is to make life difficult for its members.  So, essentially, this is not a real or new news story after all.  Just the Japanese being predictably nasty to each other.  Nothing new here, move along folks. 

As to how Aicezuki feels about the media frenzy he has created, whether he is aghast or delighted at the consequences of his actions, it is difficult to say.  Perhaps he is consumed with shame and shock; or perhaps he views his actions as testament that the individual can still make a difference in society.  I get the feeling we may find out, as it looks likely that they will track him down.  For punishment they may just jail him.

Or if they're feeling particularly vindictive they may make him sit the exams again.