Monthly Archives: March 2011

Quakebook

I have been incredibly impressed with Twitter since 11 March.  The earth had hardly stopped shaking before friends around the globe were using the service to get in touch, checking that I was still in one piece and sending their good wishes.  Some time later, when it became apparent that the Tokyo transport network was going to remain out of action for a while, and when phone calls didn’t connect and emails (the Japanese version of SMS text messages) were impossible to send, miraculously Twitter was still working.

It was a real comfort to be in contact with people I ‘know’, both in the real-life sense and because we follow each other, as well as to be able to gather essential information such as the location of Tokyo’s emergency shelters and, more importantly, on the tragedy that was still unfolding in northern Japan.

The real-time, verifiable nature of posts on Twitter has been constantly illuminating, with even entities such as the Japanese Prime Minister and the UK Foreign Office now using it.  The latest reports from the Fukushima plant, Geiger counter readings from Tokyo rooftops, news about train stoppages and planned blackouts, calls for volunteers to sort relief packages, donation appeals and more have all been shared between residents of Japan and other countries at a pace undreamt of by the newspapers and magazines.

Then, just as I thought I couldn’t love it any more, being already prepared to fight to the death anyone dismissing it as trivial, last week Twitter upped an already quite high ante.  Galvanised by an appeal from Our Man in Abiko for assistance, an international array of writers, artists, translators, designers and editors has volunteered time and effort to create what has come to be known as #quakebook to raise money for the Japanese Red Cross.

Watching #quakebook move from one man’s idea to reality in such a short time has been an inspiration.  However, now it is time for the real work to begin.  Quakebook needs YOU, not only to buy a copy, but to tell your friends and family, to pester everyone you work with or sit next to on the bus, to spread the word as far and as wide as you can to make sure that loads of people buy a copy of this remarkable book.  It isn’t about ego, or glory, or even about the tale of how it went from one little tweet to an actual thing.  Now it is only about raising stacks and stacks of cold, hard cash for the people affected by the earthquake of 11 March.  So please, get involved.

Abiko expects.

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Rough day

Yesterday was tough.  The first full day back to work since the earthquake was always going to be something of a shock to the system and naturally there was only one main theme of conversation for the adult students.  Where were you, what did you see and exactly how long did it take you to get home?

There was also a genuine curiosity as to how a real live foreigner is reacting to the crisis.  Maybe they have read about the ‘flyjin‘ and are surprised to see that some of us have stayed, but there was also genuine concern for my safety, some checking that I knew what to do during a quake and enquiries as to how my family felt about me still being here.

It felt slightly strange to be providing reassurance that I felt safe, knew that I should open a door and duck under a table, that I had huge faith in Japanese engineering and building technology after seeing how little damage there had been in central Tokyo.  I am not entirely sure if I was trying to comfort those listening or myself.  As students told me that they jumped every time they heard a strange noise in the office, that they were buying bottled water as a precaution for their daughters or that a 30-minute commute home had taken seven hours to complete, I wondered whether we would ever be able to return to ‘normal’.

I also wondered what this was accomplishing, feeling equally powerless to assist in the face of such devastation or a student’s sudden tears.  So I came home, opened a bottle of wine, heard from some amazing people on Twitter and then regained a sense of perspective.  I didn’t have a tough day at work.  It was perhaps a little rougher than usual, but not in any way tough.  If you want to see some people who had a tough day at work yesterday, click here.

The Fukushima 50 are risking everything to keep everyone in Japan safe.  So next time I feel like having a whinge, I will be thinking of everything they are going through and lifting my chin a little higher.

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Are you ok?

So how are you?  Are you doing ok?  How is everything there?  What’s happening?  You alright?

These and other variations on the same theme have been pinging around the world into the inboxes and ears of many residents of Japan since the earthquake of 11 March.  There is no easy way to answer such questions, it seems, because every time I try I come up with something different.

Just as I wrote those words, the earthquake alarms that many people have on their mobile phones sounded, before my table in the cafe shook lazily, almost soothingly, as if a giant foot was somewhere trying to rock a cradle holding Japan to send us all to sleep.  It only went on for a couple of seconds, so can’t have been very big or must have been located far away.  Once I was sure that my cup of tea wasn’t going to spill I returned to my writing.

Such complacency must seem incredible to Westerners, faced with images of the devastation in the North and worrying about us here in Tokyo.  If I stop to think I am also incredulous at how quickly I have become used to aftershocks and alarms, how swiftly I can now calculate levels of immediate danger and decide if they are worth getting out of my chair for.  Similarly, it feels as if we have all become armchair experts on all things nuclear, discussing levels of radiation exposure,  possible side-effects of iodine tablets and the relative impacts of micro- and milli-sieverts in the same way that we once engaged in more idle chatter.

Yet, in spite of the essential rescue efforts still going on in the stricken areas, continuing attempts to save the power plant from meltdown and the reintroduced programme of rolling blackouts, life is returning to a semblance of normality in the capital.  People are commuting and shopping and eating and drinking, as they were before.  I will be back at work later on today and the return to the familiar routine is soothing to the nerves, if likely to prove detrimental to the writing schedule.

The decision to stay in Japan and in Tokyo was the right one for me, I feel sure.  However, that should not be taken as criticism of anyone who made an alternative choice.  We all had to make a decision we were comfortable with, in the face of rapidly altering facts and opinions from an array of experts located around the globe.  We all had different factors to consider and it would have tested the judgment of Solomon at times to know which were the deciders.  Only someone who was here would know the agony of that choice, which is why I am saddened this morning to read this from the Japan Times:

I have seen some nasty stuff written by some (foreigners) who stayed about those (foreigners) who have left

Shame on anyone engaging in such nastiness.  Was it worth it to move a family out of possible harm’s way, to head home to give loved ones a hug or simply to sleep one night in a bed that was unlikely to be rocked by that giant’s foot?  Of course, I recognise the pull of such concerns as I was almost swayed by them myself.  Although in the end other factors won out for me, I don’t have it in me to condemn anyone who chose to answer the question ‘are you ok?’ in person instead of via email, Skype or status update.

But many people in this fantastic country that I am lucky enough to call home are unable to answer that question positively and will not be in a position to do so for a very long time.  Please send as much help as you can, the British Red Cross appeal or Second Harvest Japan are both doing sterling work.  My answer to your question?  Yes, yes I am and thank you so much for asking.

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A week later

An evening spent writing, with the Stones on the stereo and a glass of whisky close at hand.

That was my plan for last Friday evening, mulled over as I headed into Tokyo for a little light shopping on a beautiful spring day off work that luckily coincided with payday.  Nature had other ideas though and once they were unleashed, it would be close to 30 hours before I saw my own front door again after walking through it that morning.

Now, a week later, we sit in a basement bar with the rumble of trains above our heads, swapping tales of where we were and what we saw, things we have read and can still barely believe.  We don’t have any words to castigate those who made the alternative call, knowing that their reasons were as sound as the ones that kept us here, but knowing equally that we have made the right one for us.  We are glad we stayed.

Colleagues, compatriots and strangers, all have become friends.  We have hugged each other, soothed ragged nerves with laughter and together we have survived.  We are no longer worried or fearful for ourselves, but for those in Northern Japan who have lost everything as the snow falls, the brave-beyond-words technicians in the power plant and loved ones at home who read the papers or watch the news and believe what they show.

The picture of a terrified Japan displayed in the UK media is not one I recognise.  In the last seven days I have come to love the people of this city and country more than I believed possible.  Today we were in Ueno, where the Zoo has been anticipating the unveiling of two giant pandas. The event has been delayed by the earthquake but the station is all set for their debut, as well as being a blaze of sakura blooms for this weekend’s hanami (flower viewing) holiday:

There is a long road ahead to heal the people and places left so devastated by last Friday’s earthquake, but from what I have seen in the last seven days, I know it can be done.  Whatever my own small part in that will be, I am ready to play it.

Ganbatte Nippon!

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After the weekend

In Kashiwa, life goes on.

The station is running on reduced power, with some lights dimmed and the escalators out of service.

Some stores are closed in case of blackouts, but more are open.  The proposed rolling plan of power outages has not been implemented yet, as people are trying to save energy in order to avoid them.  Milk and bread are in short supply, perhaps because they are being diverted to the affected areas, or because of logistical problems with deliveries, but other food and drink is available.

The city feels less busy than on a usual working day, perhaps closer to a weekend or public holiday.  People are out doing their shopping, or paying bills at the bank, while children play in the parks and no-one I see seems panicked or even visibly concerned.  Life is going on as normally as possible.  Perhaps there seem to be fewer cars on the roads, but that could be because we have been asked to conserve petrol for the relief efforts.

Today had already been scheduled as a holiday for us, so as good Northern girls, we head to the cafe to sit and talk of everything and nothing, accompanied – of course – by a round of these:

And as we do, it is impossible to believe that all the disaster headlines the media are coming up with could ever be applied to us.

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Tokyo, 11 March 2011

It takes a moment to realise what is happening.  The ground under foot isn’t where you expected it would be, instead it seems to have moved somewhere else.  You stagger a little and wonder if you are dizzy and about to faint.  Then your brain catches up with the signals and you realise what it is.

The earth continues to dance and so you clutch a nearby pillar, feeling relieved when you see an elderly gentleman do the same, as this must be the correct thing to do.  You have been in Japan long enough to worry about doing the right thing in public in an emergency situation, reluctant to be the visibly panicking foreigner.  Except that when you see how concerned the gentleman looks, you realise that this is something beyond the ordinary, it is going on too long, the shudders are getting worse.

All the Japanese people around you look fearful, which makes you more afraid.  In front of you a mother crouches down and clutches her very small child perhaps a shade too tightly as he begins to cry, not understanding why the ground is shaking, just that all the grown-ups are scared, so he should be too.  You can empathise.

Then there is the aftermath.  The news pictures on the screen in the station are like a bad movie, they flash from burning buildings, to rolling waves, to people trapped on roofs, to the Prime Minister looking grim and making an announcement.  People gather silently to watch together, stunned by what is being beamed live around the world from elsewhere in the country, powerless to assist but unable to look or move away.

You want to take a picture, but feel terrible for the impulse to intrude at this moment of national tragedy.  Until you see a press photographer standing on a railing to take a similar shot and so you risk just one.

People gather around a screen showing live footage of the tsunami, Takadanobaba station, Tokyo

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As Nasty As They Wanna Be

Well, they managed it.  Cameron’s Conservatives – no doubt already wearying of the compassionate bit – have their ‘stealing the milk‘ moment.

Since Maggie snatched the white stuff from millions of schoolchildren way back when, condemning them to easily snapped arms and legs when they fell onto the rock-hard concrete in their playgrounds (youth of today, don’t know yer born!) her disciples have been on the lookout for their own really nasty moment.

Closing libraries, flogging forests and cutting benefits will only give you so much of a kick, after all, these are the kinds of things that most of us expect the Conservatives to do.  Where’s the buzz when you do something everyone has been anticipating since the election last May?  Nowhere, that’s where.  So you have to raise your game a little.

This should do it.  Removing benefits from cancer survivors after one year.  Simply put, if you are not on the mend after 12 months, the government thinks we can probably do without you and your weak-assed immune system malingering around.  Although perhaps, following this story, they are betting that the number of people reaching that milestone is going to be dramatically reduced anyway.  I wonder what the cancer survival rates were in the 1930s?  And isn’t it just as well TB isn’t on the rise, eh?  Oh.

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