Tag Archives: earthquake

Did you care about Beirut as well?

The online landscape has been akin to the shifting sands of the desert in the days since the attacks in Paris. As also happened after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, many of the initial responses were graphical, with a very striking image of the Eiffel Tower looking like a CND badge by Jean Jullien quickly being shared far and wide. Facebook, which had initially offered a service to Parisians to let friends know they were safe, also rolled out a feature which allowed users to superimpose the French flag over their profile pictures, akin to the rainbow flags which did the rounds after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling earlier in the year.

This wave of virtual tears then crashed on the shores of ‘whataboutery’, when other similar yet less prominent killings in other countries and cities around the world were invoked, culminating in a debate about whether higher prominence should have been given to the 43 people killed by a bomb that went off in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks. Did you care about Beirut? And did you do it quickly enough? Before or after this prompting?



As one article pointed out, sharing a link from the BBC News website and complaining that the media is ignoring a story you feel should be receiving greater attention shows you the limitations of this argument: The media did cover the attacks, you just weren’t reading it. The writer notes:

“Why didn’t the media cover *insert country here*?” appears to actually be shorthand for “Why wasn’t this story shared extensively on my Facebook feed?”

Increasingly we are taking our news via the social media sites and the way in which such stories reach us – via the algorithms which determine which friends’ posts we see the most of and which kinds of stories ‘pop up’ – is anything but random. Facebook is in the business of generating engagement and it is enhancing that by learning about our habits. That function on Facebook for Parisians to show they were safe that I was so impressed by was perhaps in response to a ‘person finder’ function that Google enabled after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. There are social benefits to these initiatives, of course, but the sites are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, remember. They want our engagement and they generate that partly by linking us with our global communities as well as by making themselves invaluable to us.

You could call me paranoid, I suppose, but the way that the Tricolore spread across the profile pictures of friends around the world and how that change was prompted by Facebook itself does make me wonder. Were we the guinea pigs in another behavioural study similar to this one on the Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement, as mentioned in this Washington Post story about the rainbow flags? Facebook was not particularly subtle in its prompting: a story about a friend’s updated profile picture with a button below to allow you to change yours. I am sure that they would never in a month of Sundays admit to using this kind of news story in such a way, but it does make you wonder. Or perhaps I need a tinfoil hat…

If, as this intriguing read from the New Statesman on PETA, Ferguson, jihad, Doctor Who, rape and kitten pictures (honestly, it’s great, give it a read) suggests:

Anger online is a cyclical parasite

then it stands to reason that online compassion or empathy is too. If you are pissed off that *insert location here* is not getting the right amount of attention, you must share more stories about that place in such a way that encourages your friend group to share those stories. Maybe then we will soon see the option to superimpose the flag of Lebanon over our profile pictures.


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The Teas That Bind from Lulu

Lulu are running a special offer at the moment, so you can get 20% off  the price of the paperback of The Teas That Bind by using the code SILVERUK, as long as you do it before Friday 27 July.

Don’t miss out!

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Where things change very slowly

Seems I wasn’t the only one who heard the call of the anti-nuclear power plant protestors outside the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence and decided to see what was happening. In amongst the crowds that gathered yesterday was former PM Yukio Hatoyama. The wheels-within-wheels and behind the scenes machinations of politics being what they are, it seems less than likely that he had entirely pure motives for wanting to join in calling for no more restarts to the country’s nuclear power plants.

Still, as we were held for a time behind barricades, watched over by bored police officers and an array of cameras, it was difficult to escape the feeling that all this celebrity attention could mean that the weekly protests are becoming too big to ignore. That hasn’t prevented some of Japan’s media from trying, with coverage of Monday’s huge Yoyogi Park gathering making headline news… on page 38 of certain publications.

And some remained unimpressed by Hatoyama’s appearance at the demo, with one attendee quoted in the Japan Today story saying:

He can come here and say something impressive but it doesn’t really matter. This is a grass roots movement. Things change very slowly in Japan, but we must continue to protest.

I would agree with that assessment. The crowd I saw on Friday night was striking not only for the people you would have expected to see – students and seasoned protestors among them – but also the business people, families and retirees that I imagine could be experiencing standing in the streets outside the Prime Minister’s house shouting slogans for the first time.

It would be easy to say that there are no easy answers to Japan’s current energy difficulties. The protestors in the streets understand that glib soundbites won’t provide the necessary solutions, here’s hoping that the politicians, former amd current, are also cottoning on to that.

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You say you want a revolution?

I have a confession to make. I’m not in this picture.

You say you want a revolution, well you know,
we all want to change the world

– The Beatles, Revolution

Protestors have been coming together in Tokyo each Friday evening, gathering outside the Prime Minister’s residence to demonstrate against the restarting of some of the country’s nuclear power plants. Not me though. Instead, your fearless correspondent was sipping a vodka tonic, pontificating on what it all meant and making bold statements all over the internet about what an heir to Orwell she is.

If Orwell had walked into that bar he probably would have told me to go to hell and he would have been right. I don’t have the excuse of working on a Friday, or having commitments, or living far away from the district where the demonstrations have been taking place, like others who would have loved to attend but couldn’t. With no good excuse, only my own preoccupations, I’ve been lazily watching as the protests built via word of mouth to the point where organisers and police could argue about tens or hundreds of thousands attending (organisers say around 150,000, the police 20,000).

So I sipped my drink and pondered the more-than-fifty shades of grey area that surround The Nuclear Question:

Because it’s dangerous, sure. There could be another earthquake and tsunami at any time. But we need the electricity. Except TEPCO (the utility in charge of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant) falsified safety test results, while METI (the Government department with oversight of the industry) looked the other way. You like electricity, especially the lights, the music and the air conditioning that it brings, but when the yakuza are all but running some plants, who is really overseeing them? Fukushima Daiichi was years out of date, as well as poorly maintained and inspected, they don’t build nuclear power plants like that any more.

Maybe alternative power can make up the gap, Panasonic is planning to build a town where all the houses are energy self-sufficient to show it can be done or we could just switch all the old power plants back on and this time make sure they get checked properly. Can Japan innovate again, this time on renewables and will we really do setsuden (power saving) properly when the air conditioners are already running full blast and it’s only July?

I heard they want to make Miyagi a hub for green manufacturing as part of the reconstruction but it’s a big gamble, the Oi nuclear power plant is built on a fault but up and running at full capacity and the kids of Fukushima have radiation in their thyroid glands but still talk on the Children of the Tsunami video about how they want to go home but people must know that’s a never by now. If we switch all the plants off the economy is doomed, it will mean no jobs, but the lakes are radioactive, parents aren’t letting their children drink tap water although the neon and screens are loud and bright in Shibuya and please show me the box where I mark the ‘X’ that makes this all go away for another few years…

How to cover all those thoughts with a slogan like ‘no nukes’ is beyond me, so I drink more vodka and lime and try to pretend it isn’t happening, for an evening at least. How do we begin to fix this mistake, sixty years in the making? Collective errors that brought nuclear power plants and prosperity to the regions of Japan, yet left them mismanaged and vulnerable to natural disasters. It is easy to forget, but the plants weren’t dumped on places like Fukushima, they were welcomed by populations desperate for the jobs and incomes they brought with them.

And I can’t help thinking that if Fukushima Daiichi had possessed a back-up generator on a hill somewhere – or even on its own roof – if the inspectors had made sure the company was prepared for the once in a lifetime event, if everyone had done their jobs like they were supposed to, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. No anger, no disbelief, no mistrust, no demonstrations.

The banner I want to hold says ‘no stupidity’ or ‘no hubris’, perhaps. No more cosy lunches between regulators and the regulated. I don’t know if we can un-invent nuclear power now it exists, or make it safe enough to be used to power us into a greener future. I don’t know if we can convince politicians to look beyond the short term and their own self-interest. I do know that if enough of us put down our drinks, get involved, engage with the problems that have us wide-awake and staring at 4am instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, maybe we can get a little closer to that revolution after all.

I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse

– Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I know where I’ll be next Friday evening. See you there?

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Hana Walker’s Half Life 2:46 by Our Man in Abiko

I consider myself lucky to know Our Man in Abiko and was proud to be part of the team he assembled to put #Quakebook together, containing stories of the Great East Japan Earthquake, before signing up again for light editing duties on the Abiko Free Press’s attempt to assess what had changed for Japan since those catastrophic events: Reconstructing 3/11. As the Man mentioned in his review of my own book about Japan and earthquakes, The Teas That Bind, it is incredibly difficult to be honest about a friend’s work. So why trust anything I write about his latest book, Hana Walker’s Half Life 2:46?

I may be a slight bit biased but to miss out on this fantastic story because of such fears would be a shame. By Chapter 4, as our hero Hana hurtled towards the seventh dirtiest lake in Japan, trapped inside a Mercedes with a lecherous hoodlum, I was hooked. Reading the book on my phone for the final seconds before work, or burning the candle late into the night to finish the last few chapters, testifies to the gripping nature of Hana’s quest. It takes her far from her Abiko home to find schoolgirl Emi Blackmore, missing in Ishinomaki in the North of Japan, on behalf of Emi’s estranged and distraught father, while getting some disgruntled gangsters off her back and trying to come to terms with her own chequered family history.

Hana’s mission is realistically located in the Japan residents will recognise as the one they sometimes love to loathe, peopled by less-than-helpful bureaucrats, crabby ramen shop grandmas and inept English teachers, bedevilled by mama-charus, noisy pachinko parlours and daytime cooking shows. Tatami mats, onsen, 100 yen stores and ‘nihongo jouzu’: it’s all here. American tourists wear cowboy hats, the yakuza exude menace, and so life for the characters is proceeding in its almost-usual channels as the clock ticks around to 2:46pm on 11 March 2011.

The recreations of that day are note-perfect and will be recognisable to everyone who was in Japan. Interspersing tweets with the story shows characters reacting to real news events and sharing darkly humorous catalogues of exactly what in the kitchen had smashed, just as we did. Half Life has plenty to say about the nature of belonging and nationality, about Japan and her relations with the world, in parallel with the occasionally thorny paths of father-daughter relationships, both real and surrogate. There is more to learn here – about conventions on punctuality, how blood type determines personality, that wallets can be left anywhere to be handed in later with cash intact, Japan’s unique and distinct four seasons and what always happens to the nail that sticks up – than from any etiquette guide. The cosy government, yakuza and TEPCO culture that contributed to the disaster at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is likewise illuminated.

Yet all this is covered without once detracting from the fast-paced tale of Hana’s attempts to find Emi, escape the police and the bad guys, while avoiding getting framed for murder or eaten by kittens (yes, really). And the serious moments never detract from the humour of what is at times a real caper – the bicycle scenes providing exactly the right mix of comedy and suspense – because our Hana is no suave detective, perhaps with more of Philip Marlowe about her than Lisbeth Salander.

In The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler writes, ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ Abiko’s streets may be less mean than the City of Angels’, but in desperate times, Ms Walker displays those same qualities. Hints have been dropped regarding a sequel, which is fortunate, as with Hana around Japan is sure to remain what Chandler called ‘a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in’.


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The Teas That Bind at The Cat’s Meow

I will be signing books and talking about The Teas That Bind at The Cat’s Meow on Friday 11 May. The event runs from 8:30-10:30pm and tickets are 3,500 yen, which includes a drink, snacks and a copy of the book.

Come along to hear all about surviving earthquakes, one pot of tea at a time…

You can also get your book signed and ask any questions you have about the book, volunteering, tea, earthquakes and self-publishing. Full details and a form to RSVP are here.

Hope to see you there!


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Friday May 11th, 8:30 -10:30 PM The Teas that Bind by J.C. Greenway at Biscotti Tapas

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