Earthquake Day 21

The buds are plumping here in Tokyo ready to burst forth in their frothy cascade of pink and white effervescence, evanescent impermanence, tantalizing with their bouquet. The days warming, the nights still a little chill, but one of 3 bedcovers are folded up.

OK, OK, too poetic. But you get the idea. Spring has sprung. Or is about to.

The winds are now favoring us, but as the counts of sieverts (a German scientist) and bequerels (a French scientist) make me wonder how the Europeans measured, the Americans built and used, then spread the nuclear tool to countries like Japan. A worldwide concern, but in our back yard. We have the radio on most of the day, but pay little attention any more. It is easier for me, with the announcements in Japanese.

I scoff at the Goldman Sachs employees, so well paid, ready to flee, having to be ordered to stay here in town. No loyalty, only raw Darwinian economics, self-interest at the core. Did you know Adam Smith wrote a companion volume to his economic masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations? In a prequel, designed to lay the groundwork for Wealth, he set the stage with The Theory of Moral Sentiments. They should be read as a pair. The Goldman people, indeed many economic schools after Keynes have ignored the moral element of economics.

But enough of abstracts. Three weeks after the earthquakes, organizations like the 3,000 strong JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) has been able to find about three fourths of its 250 members in the quake affected area. Many groups are mounting donation drives, aware that as the media attention subsides, so does the money. This is slated to be the most costly disaster on record, in economic terms. The loss of life is only now hitting home here.

The biggest news for those of us in education is the change in schedules. My daughter goes to 6th-ranked Hosei University, and will have her spring vacation extended until after Golden Week, the break we take the first week of May. Many other schools are doing the same. Not mine, though. We start tomorrow. Some part-time teachers without as much anchor here have left, so there is a scramble to fill empty slots at the absolute last minute. I expect to have my class load increased. I don’t mind, but will have to watch that this not become an excuse for adding permanent responsibilities. Already there is talk of using the disaster to increase consumption taxes from 5% to 10%.

Fear and uncertainty are making everyone jumpy. I don’t look forward to the first day back.

Earthquake Day 17

Blackout coming in about an hour, got to get this off, and eat dinner a little early, another dark evening with the Kindle and flashlight. A little warmer makes it nicer.

Magnitude 3 Stupidity
Dread yesterday, followed by wonder this morning. The newspaper reported radiation ten million times the normal in the water off the nuclear power plant. Fear lead to a kind of social shock here. Then today, the power company TEPCO announces they made a mistake in the measurement, off by 3 orders of magnitude (1,000x). The wonder this morning is how they can screw this up so badly, and still be able to fix the problem.
The rolling blackouts are having a pronounced effect on business. Especially entertainment or non-essentials, like restaurants. In the area most frequented by foreigners (Roppongi), it is starting to look like a ghost town.
The only good news is that Anri is having a great time. I am going to copy an email she sent to me because it sounds like a typical teen. Remember that English is not her native language. I am guessing she will probably kill me for this…
hi i just wanted to let you know what we’re up to in portland OR. I rode the air plane by my self for the first time, and it was way easier than I thought! The signs were really clear so i ever got lost and I just chilled in Mcdonalds till the plane got ready. The frontier plane was super new (4-5days old) and shiny. there WERE TV screens but they weren’t installed or whatever so we couldn’t watch them which was a bummer… but i met a family who were sitting next to my seat and we had a nice talk on the plane. i met Chrissy and Jeff right after I left the gate and we went to the Saturday market to look around town. We tryed going to a Theater to watch the Black Swan but they we’re all 21 or over so we just ended up having Taco Bell (first time for me!) and going home, and watched Shaun of the dead. This morning we woke up early and headed up to Seattle (3hrs). I met Chrissy’s friend Bruice, who is an hippy artist. He was a really interesting guy. We met up with Sasha and her Boyfriend Dan for Lunch and went to The Pike place market. I got a lot of pictures so check facebook out and i’ll e-mail you soon again. Chrissy nor Jeff dosn’t have skype but I’ll try to find a way to call mom,but if not, ill just e-mail you everyday.

Earthquake Day 15

Really windy today, cool too, so that means the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. People have asked how we manage not to stress out here with all the doomsday scenarios. With typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mudslides (rivers with steepest vertical drops), tsunami, forest fires, sandstorms (yes, we do have a place for that), blizzards, ice storms, and suffocating summer humidity, Japan is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.
We deal with it in two ways. Prepare and lower expectations. When I arrived here, I thought the maniacal attention to detail, obsession with insurance in every aspect of life, from double bagging groceries that are already wrapped in cellophane to my triple coverage on my job loss due to incapacitation, was unwarranted. But when you see redundant systems popping up all over, and those being tested by nature and man-made disasters like nuclear leaks and poison gas terrorists, you start to see why working a little harder, and taking more precautions than you think necessary is a prudent investment in your future.
The lower expectations is demonstrated in the popular phrase “shou-ga-nai” which means “it can’t be helped”. Some rail against this as a form of laziness in Japan, but I see it as healthy. People are not as insistent on heroic measures for the infirm elderly, preferring a quiet dignified passing with the knowledge that the end would come soon anyway, and there is nothing to extend a quality life. This “letting go” allows people to focus on things they can prepare for.
So we have a country that follows the AA motto without even thinking. (Serenity to accept the things I can’t change, strength to change things I can, wisdom to know the difference).
This has all gotten mixed up with the book I am reading, David Brooks’ The Social Animal. It’s main thesis is that the rational conscious mind is build on top of the unconscious affective mind, and that we need to learn more about the foundations, which requires new tools to understand. He is persuasive in his arguments that the rational French Enlightenment is inferior to the British Enlightenment which makes room for emotion. He goes through a lot of scientific literature on the brain and neurology to make his point. He wraps it in a story of a couple that grow up in different situations, meet, fall in love, and become happy leaders.
Japan has always paid a lot of attention to feelings, unconscious, and has been trying to balance that with the rational. Every culture seeks a balance. I see a lot of psychological capital wasted in the US with frustration, expectation, fear and loathing. I see that here too, but focusing on our relationships is not something, it is the only thing.
Sadly, Japan’s remarkable economic rise has lead to a decay in this priority, and while we are all comfortable, many are adrift, lost in technology, materialism, or simply ignorance of the social aspect of living. Some see these disasters as a time to rectify those priorities. We will see a hit on economic health, but the fraying of the social fabric will cease as we knit together the country again. Japan is girding itself as we speak to repair the destruction and in the process learn to live better.
Sorry to get all preachy there, but these are things that have been running around my brain. Back to the day-to-day.
Our department decided to do a small graduation ceremony in a small hall on campus tomorrow, but without a party. Not as much pomp and circumstance, but more intimate. I am looking forward to it.
We were scheduled for 2 blackouts today, but the 5 groups were subdivided, and our smaller group (5D) is exempt unless there is an emergency. People have been voluntarily reducing usage (we haven’t used our living room since the earthquake) so that these emergencies are not realized.
Excerpt from US Embassy letter to expats in Japan:
Availability of Potassium Iodide Tablets: As a precautionary measure, the U.S. Embassy is continuing to make potassium iodide (KI) tablets available to private U.S. citizens who have not been able to obtain it from their physician, employer, or other sources.   We do not a recommend that anyone should take KI at this time.
Safety of Tap Water: …the water in Tokyo is safe for drinking.
Julia is off to work today and tomorrow. Watching American Idol we realized an interesting progression in birthdays: Stephen Tyler March 24, Dexter the cat March 26, Julia March 28 and Anri March 30. Stevie Wonder sang for Stephen Tyler, Dexter gets a double portion of cat food. We will take Julia to an Outback after shopping tomorrow (Starbucks and Kindle for me). Anri will be in Portland for her birthday, with Chrissy and Jeff, who know how to have a good time.
Julia will be a teen for only 3 more days, then will become an adult. She went to a ceremony at city hall for all those turning 20 this calendar year. But now she went to get her picture taken by a pro, and here are a couple of shots of the results. Last night she went out with friends to a drinking place. Precocious as always.
Can you tell I am avoiding preparations for the new school year which starts next week?
Categorized as culture, Japan

Earthquake Day 14

Short one today, only 9 minutes left before midnight. The specter of radiation escaping in the water has everyone worried. More than before. Bottled water is scarce again, and the government is pleading for people to remain calm. I underestimated the number of foreigners leaving. It is 8 times the normal rate of 20,000 a month for last year. I don’t know anyone that has left Japan because of this, but all my friends really consider this home, as they have been here at least 20 years (26 for me, and 33 for our longest-termer). We are starting up the new school year on Friday (the Fool’s day). We have hired 3 new part-timers. Wonder if they will show up.

Chihiro Graduates from TokyoKevin on Vimeo

Today we had a greatly curtailed graduation ceremony, with the 200 from our department only, and in a venue for 600 instead of 3,000. The ceremony was mercifully short, only 45 minutes instead of the bladder-busting marathon of 150 minutes (2.5 hours).

Oddly, I found it much more intimate, relaxed and fun. The students were enjoying seeing each other and they didn’t have megaphoned cattle herders yelling at them for pictures and the like. We broke down into seminar classes, which are small, and said our goodbyes. I only had one student this year, a real firecracker, and she said, “Let’s hang out when I come down to Tokyo.” She lives about 100 km (60 miles) away from the Reactor, and lost her job because of the earthquake. She landed on her feet, though, and snagged one that paid better and had less hours, with more chance for advancement in the long run. Nimble pays.

The other negative feeling is the energy situation. There simply isn’t enough electricity to go around. All of the non-essential escalators have been turned off. Lots of ad signs are being darkened, and the rolling blackouts are having a big effect on business. The scheduling of the blackouts is getting better, but people know things will change soon, but not for the better. The electric bill we now pay had a hike in the rate (I think it is 15%), and they are looking at using daylight savings time. Did you know there is a whole line of wind generators right next to the Fukushima nuclear site? They swayed in the earthquake, slowed, and automatically stopped. They a few minutes later automatically started up again (except for the one nearest the plant). That is not being advertised a lot here. Geothermal is another resource.
Nuclear, though, is, overall, a very safe source of energy. Much safer than coal per btu. Kind of like airplanes and cars. But the focus in the near future will be on conservation. I teach all my classes in a computer lab. I wonder if I’ll have to start sharpening up the chalk and banging erasers [shudder].
The steak at Outback’s defeated Julia, but she finished her dessert. Last day of being a teen. She is ready to move on. Making the application to Leeds is proving to be more difficult than expected. The university makes her do all the forms, then confirms with Leeds that she was accepted and then pays the tuition. So she has to read something very carefully, and with big consequences. That increases comprehension tremendously. She has chosen a very light schedule, which I think is wise. Best place to learn is outside class. She saw a video of a prof there, and could not understand a word of his accent. She is wondering what she got herself into…
My sister Ginger took my daughter Anri to the airport in Denver, and put her on a plane to her cousins in Portland. Haven’t heard from them, so it looks like she made it.

Earthquake Day 13

For now, some bits and babs.

Woke up this morning and almost got shook out of bed by another earthquake. Late afternoon, another small shake. Learning to live with this daily wobble is difficult. The shake this morning put the kitchen door out of whack, so it won’t close. Have to get the sander out and shave down the door. Maybe that is what got Maki stuck in the bathroom while I was gone.
Good news is that the radiation level in the water has dropped so babies can drink from the faucet (but only if they can reach it). We were supposed to have 3 hours blackout this afternoon, but that was cancelled (yeah!). But it is looking like these blackouts will continue for at least a year. Summer is going to be really sticky…will have to plan to be at school. The grid is being refined now for the blackout groups, with the number rising from 5 to 25 so they can manage to keep energy use up to capacity. So I guess we will be having, along with the daily weather forecast and radiation/pollen count, a blackout map.
The slightly derogatory term for a foreigner here in Japan is “gaijin”. A little more formal, and a little more neutral, “gaikokujin” (outside-country-person). New term in the foreign community is for residents that left the country and are now coming back: flyjin. Your language lesson for the day.
Had a good laugh when somebody told me my picture during the blackout made me look like Qaddafi. Green hat and scarf matched, and I am working on the putty face. Just wish I had somebody to dictate to (hmmm, students?…I’m getting some ideas here….).
Our graduation was rescheduled, and now cancelled. I feel sorry for the students. Lines for gasoline and other products have disappeared. Only milk is hard to find. And bottled water. I bought in haste 12 days ago, and we served sparkling water to the cat by mistake. He wouldn’t drink it. The rest of the bottle we mixed with crystal light to make a weird soda-pop.