While I was in the UK the Japanese earthquake almost vanished from the news. An occasional mention of yet more leaking radiation, but mainly it was all about Libya, where Britain and France seem to be the two main actors, generally totally failing to stop Qadhafi from shelling his own citizens. Now there’s talk of putting troops on the ground, going way over the UN mandate and starting to look like another Iraq or Afghanistan…
Meanwhile, here in Japan of course the earthquake is not going anywhere. Clearing up will take years, many thousands of people are still living in shelters, the already weak economy is gasping for breath and 2/3 of the TV news is about all that. Some items that came up in the last few days:
- Some 95% of the deaths – approaching 30,000 – were caused by the tsunami, rather than the earthquake itself, and 2/3 of those were of people who were over 60.
- More than a month later the aftershocks are still going on. Every day there are a couple more, some of magnitude 4 or 5 – not that small by any means, but they hardly get a mention in the news any more.
- While abroad there’s been a lot of talk about the stoical, steadfast Japanese, here it’s about the people of Tohoku: the North-East region of Japan which is cold and traditionally poor, inhabited mostly by farmers and fishermen. They don’t complain much, just get on with the job – sort of more Japanese than the Japanese.
- It’s “hanami” time – the annual Spring flower festivities when you have a few drinks under the cherry blossom and celebrate the end of Winter. This year, though, people look a bit guilty to be having a good time and the nighttime light-up of the cherry trees has been cancelled in many places – partly to save electricity, and partly because it just doesn’t feel right.
- There have been many generous gifts from private individuals, in Japan and all over the world, along with all kinds of volunteer assistance. Some people from Bangladesh loaded a van up with ingredients and made curry (very popular with kids here). Others put together a laundry truck, India sent 20,000 blankets, the US army sent their band, who were really good apparently, the Australian prime minister brought cuddly koalas, others did free hairdressing, brought flowers… Seriously, some of these things might sound silly, but were genuinely appreciated, I think.
- Even so, at a time like this what people would appreciate most of all is some money in their pockets, having had to flee their homes with nothing except the clothes they were wearing. At this point, however, the various local government authorities, those that still exist that is, are struggling with trying to figure out who’s in which refugee centre, how much each person’s house has been damaged, what compensation should go to which person where… in other words the usual red tape, so in spite of all the generous gifts that have come in, no-one’s actually seen any of the cash. Add to that rumours that the big organizations like the Red Cross have been creaming off as much as 40% for administrative costs or something – could that really be true? It’s easy to get cynical, or think of maybe just driving up there and /doing something/ directly.
- Not all the victims were Japanese. While Japan is still not a major immigrant destination, there are still people here from Korea, China, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Nigeria, not to mention my own UK. Not all those people can understand emergency tsunami warnings, evacuation instructions and the like in Japanese, and efforts have been made to provide translations into English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese… This is obviously a major task and recently there has been talk of providing important information in simple Japanese which relatively recent arrivals might be able to understand. This seems to make more sense.
- Back to school. Often in shared classrooms somewhat remote from their own home towns, but a lot of children have been starting classes this week. School dinners for some of them have been just a bottle of milk and a piece of bread, though. The kitchens are still not usable. Maybe they can have proper hot dinners in a few more weeks.
- Radioactive refugees. Of course the Fukushima reactor breakdown has turned out to be a major part of this catastrophe, and possibly the one with the longest after-effects. Some 100,000 people have been forcibly evacuated from the area, with no immediate prospect of return. Now kids from that area are being picked on at school, and even adults have been refused admission by hotels and ryokan because they might be radioactive.
- People are not the only victims. Farmers were forced to leave their animals behind, and even pet dogs are not allowed in the shelters, so many animals in the zone round the Fukushima reactor have starved to death.
- Cars. More than 400,000 were trashed by the tsunami, made worthless by salt water and mud and now have to be disposed of. First, though, the owners have to be identified and permission obtained…
- The economic effects continue to spread. Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong are threatened with bankruptcy because people are afraid of radioactive fish. Factories in Thailand and China cannot get the parts they need. Beer manufacturers are cutting down on the varieties they will make this year. Rice will not be planted in the restricted area, maybe for the forseeable future. “Buri” (a kind of tuna) is just coming into season, and delicious, but the price has collapsed because the distributors cannot guarantee having reliable electricity supplies to keep their freezers running.
In the end of course taxes are going to have to go up to pay for all this, so we can look forward to higher VAT or income tax, or possibly both. Would it be over-optimistic to hope that this disaster might be an opportunity to rethink the country’s (the world’s?) whole energy policy, shift towards renewable resources and more efficient use? Fingers crossed…