Thursday, March 17, 2011

With the caveat that I may not actually know what I'm talking about

I was chatting with a friend recently, and we mentioned how as soon as the news broke about the earthquake, everyone back home immediately needed to know if we were okay.

“Geography, people,” he said with a shake of his head. Well.

Kind of. But who knows anything about Japanese geography, other than those of us with a really compelling reason to know? When I got posted to Hyogo, my friend Manderines said “Oh, that’s where Himeji Castle is.” “Oh, yeah,” I said, feigning understanding. I had no idea what Himeji Castle was, or where in Japan that might be. I’m sure I’d heard of it at some point, but nobody knows where anything is, unless it’s Tokyo, and maybe Okinawa, and Hokkaido on a good day.

It’s not just a question of geography. The news didn’t say “Massive earthquake strikes Tohoku region” (largely because no one would know what the hell that meant), it said “strikes Japan.”

Let's have that map again (I need it too, yes still; get off my back):
 Recently, by way of breaking my New Year’s Resolution not to add any more tasks or responsibilities to my list of crap I do in my free time, I’ve signed up a new e-mail account which I call “JET-information-gather” to a bunch of prefectural newletters. The aim was to collect info on various events going on around Japan in which JETs have some involvement, then digest the info into short lines for the reposted consumption of mostly JET alumni who want to have some vague notion of what JETs are doing these days.

I’d managed to sign on to two major regions, and then got hit with The End Of The School Year, so the only emails flooding that box come from those two sections of the country: Shikoku and Tohoku.

Shikoku is the island just below Hyogo, in the west half of Japan, and south. They were barely affected by the recent problems, although I think they experienced a very small tsunami surge on the eastern coast of Kochi prefecture.

Tohoku is the northern end of east Japan, where Iwate and Miyagi (also Fukushima – though the danger for Fukushima is now a bit more nuclear in nature) are among the prefectures suffering most intensely. The eastern side, and tip top Aomori, seems to be more or less intact. JETs there are doing things like cobbling together van runs into the deeply affected areas to pass out extra blankets, water, anything that Aomori can give. Japan has largely been transformed, it seems, into two distinct camps: those who need, and those who can give.

West Japan JETs are signing up for couchsurfing crisis Japan, inviting strangers, JETs from across the east side to sleep on their couches and floors and extra futon until they can get back. They’re participating in Man Up for Japan, the campaign to donate ichi-man (100,000) yen on payday to the earthquake relief. Most events planned in the west are going along according to plan, with the change that most events that were not fundraisers now are, and fundraisers for other countries are now being either partially or wholly directed toward earthquake relief. I have to decide very soon what to do about my own fundraiser, the spring Pepy bike ride from which all proceeds are earmarked for education in Cambodia.

…Yeah I know I said I would have nothing to report, but I guess I was misinformed about my own proclivities. I’m notoriously bad at following the news under normal circumstances. My TV is not even near the cable jack. I don’t read newspapers. I don’t read internet news either, really. The only reason I know anything is because my info-gather project is signed on to two regions, and because my personal account is connected to my embassy registry and my own prefecture’s listservs. And also facebook, and everyone’s walls. I get more email every day from the JET organization, from fellow JETs, and from the US embassy updating me on the news of the situation and commenting on news I haven’t heard.

 I want to caution you all that I’m not really an incredibly reliable source. No one is totally reliable. But I will tell you what I know. I realize that it’s scary; you’ve never seen my town, and you don’t know what might have changed. All you have is my word that the big deal today is that it snowed like 5in (wtf St. Patrick’s Day?) and the 6th graders are nervous because today is the day they go to the middle school to be shown around. This area was much more affected, I think, by the Hanshin-Awaji quake which laid the smackdown on Kobe about ten years ago.

Someone has mentioned that the US news might be sensationalizing just a bit with what happened or is happening. I’m not at all saying they’re making mountains out of molehills. What happened in Iwate and Miyagi was most definitely a mountain. More like a volcano (no wait, that’s down in Kyushu..). But here in my little cluster of molehills, I really am okay, and I really am checking my e-mail every forty seconds (when I’m online).

I don’t think the embassy or JET or my PAs or people have much reason to downplay the severity of things. They, like me, want to continue to conduct a safe and happy life. If they downplay, they’re just trying to reduce panic. If someone plays up, they’re trying to keep your attention. When getting news, always consider the source, and what they want from you. If they’re making it seem like I am in a totally dire situation, it’s likely that they don’t know you have a contact in Japan, and want to draw more attention to the situation in Tohoku so you’ll send money to Japan, which I support, or so you’ll keep watching their news. Everyone has a motive for what they say and don’t say; that’s not a bad thing, that’s just how it is. I know you all think I’m a minimalizer and maybe it’s so (like that time I totaled the car and called home to say I’d “had a bit of an accident”), but I’m responding partly in this case to my own judgement of the materials I’m getting and reading, and partly to the atmosphere around me. My coworkers are not worried, my bosses are not worried. So I’m not worried. Try not to worry. ^_^

Japan is on a huge fault line. It’s why we have so many mountains, and it’s why we have so many volcanoes and hot springs. Japan has to deal with earthquakes. I feel like they ought to know better than I do what they are doing when it comes to that. Being earthquake inept in Japan would be like living in the Midwest without a basement or fraidy-hole. Still, it’s unsettling sometimes when I look at the houses I pass each day out the bus window. None of those farmhouses or corner stores would hold up in a real shaker. I don’t know why more buildings are not built to a stronger code.

Well, yes I do. Some people don’t have the time, space, money, etc. to build for exigency. Some people live in the Midwest with weak walls and no basement because it’s better than no walls somewhere else. Or because they think they’ll only be there for a short time, and what are the odds?

On the upside, the construction on the new school building is supposed to be done this summer (whee! Newer is always better.. I used to think old meant it was tough enough to have lasted this long, but now I just think newer means better techniques and reinforced concrete!). 

Volunteering is still a no-go, because it’s still too big of a mess out there.

The other concern is the nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Some radioactivity was in fact leaked, and the area surrounding the reactor is under close monitoring and advisory. I think something like a [edit in here: I thought it was 12 miles.. that is the radius from Japan's goverment; US citizens have been sent from 50] 50 mile radius of the plant has been evacuated or advised to stay indoors to avoid contamination. Beyond that, right now, we’re not affected. Or, I personally am not. Fukushima is kind of closer to the middle of the east coast of Japan. If they clear out the whole area (and I have no idea where they’ll put the rest of Tokyo, because God knows there isn’t even space IN THAT CITY for that city) I may have a houseguest in the form of college pal Sagramore. We’ll do a podcast from my little inaka home; it’ll be awesome.

Insofar as I want to make generalizations, I want to mention that from what I’ve heard, Japan is terrified of the nuclear. If I remember right, there was some resistance to nuclear power plants earlier on, which might have been easing as time goes on, memory and generational turnover being what it is. If Japanese officials are downplaying danger, and I don't want to think they would, this might be a reason. Also if they freak out more than necessary, this might be a reason. It goes both ways.

But as Sagramore pointed out, the mountains protect you. They do indeed; I’m lucky to be in the middle of nowhere-really.

As of now, I find the threat of aftershocks something to brace for (I'm actually making an kit! An incaseofshit kit) and the nuclear power plant a troubling thing. Mostly the plant. Fukushima is far away, but that is one thing that hasn't gotten any better... and has actually gotten worse since the weekend.


  1. Thanks for the multiple shout outs. Especially the mountain quote, since it makes me sound deep. I am a sage. Another good post, by the by. I really enjoy reading your blog; you write in a really personable, friendly style. It's like warm coffee in letters.

    Later days,

  2. I too enjoy your blog. Warm Earl Grey tea, mmmmmmmm. And as your Tante, it's my job to worry about you. As Nanny Em said, "I just don't want her to be having babies with six heads." And I, "and flippers". So there. But I'm glad you're in touch via email with the US embassy. What are they telling you?

  3. Six heads are better than one. Smartest. Kid. Ever.

    But right now, they are offering evacuation services to areas in Asia from which people can then make arrangements to get back to the US.

    I've heard that Dr. Sanjay Gupta has gone to Akita, which is much closer to Fukushima than I am. (

    Right now, I read that levels are higher than normal in Tokyo, but not enough to impact health.

    But Sagramore is coming to visit..! ^_^