asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Now, where was that station…? 24 December, 2011

Filed under: news,places — johnraff @ 1:48 pm
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Talking on the radio yesterday about how the Tohoku region is slowly pulling out of the earthquake and tsunami destruction. It’s a very long slow job and many people are still in dire trouble, but this time it was about the railway system. Apparently many lines were repaired and back running in a month. Others, like lines that ran along the coast, were more severely damaged and will take longer. There are also cases where the towns that the line ran through were completely wiped out, and there is some doubt as to whether people will return there to rebuild, or move somewhere a bit further from the sea. There wouldn’t be much point in rebuilding a station in a deserted mudflat. (It’s not surprising that the prospect of a house just by the beach is not as appealing as it might once have been…)

Yet other places exist where it’s no longer possible to tell where the station used to be.

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Radiobeef and the missing 143 16 August, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:42 pm
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This isn’t good. It was about a month ago that the first radioactive beef started showing up in the consumer food chain; at first it was from cattle in the Fukushima area that had been fed rice straw contaminated by the reactor explosion. That was bad enough for the local farmers who had been struggling to get their lives restarted after the earthquake, but it now seems that straw from the danger zone – a major rice-producing area – had been sent to all kinds of places and traces of radioactive caesium have been found in beef from quite different places. This is bound to have an effect on sales of (delicious) Japanese beef, both here and, maybe more importantly, in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan where all kinds of Japanese food has been selling to the newly rich. ($100 apples, anyone?)

More: it now turns out that the Tokyo power company responsible for the Fukushima reactor is unable to trace 143 people who worked on the clear up operation, in order to monitor their radiation exposure. A lot of part-time workers were taken on in a shambling chain of sub-contractors to sub-sub-contractors and the bottom end included homeless people and alcoholics hanging out on the bad side of the railway station waiting for a bit of work from the gangster brokers who came round. They were offered 2 or 3 times the going rate for dangerous work, but nobody seemed to care too much about where they went afterwards. Of course this is just an extreme example of the return to Victorian-era exploitation that capitalists have been organizing on a world-wide level, but this time even token attempts to be concerned for workers’ welfare have broken down.

The Japanese population as a whole are, as you can imagine, less than enthused about repairing nuclear reactors, still less building new ones. Nobody believes the government or power companies when they try to reassure us that everything will be OK. Coming on top of the annual August commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the mood here is very much anti-nuclear. Of course public opinion is fickle, people forget quickly and the nuclear power consortium of electricity companies, big engineering, corrupt public servants, politicians and the media will do their best to fight back. Nuclear energy looks cheaper than renewable alternatives, untill you include all the hidden costs, and there’s lots of palm-greasing cash available. Still, can we allow ourselves some limited optimism that the much-fabled Japanese Consensus is about to be reached, and a major policy switch is coming up?

Fingers crossed (again).

 

…the heat goes on… 13 July, 2011

Filed under: city,news,seasons — johnraff @ 2:56 pm
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…and is likely to for quite a while. It’s still only the start of July, the peak will probably be around the end of the month and the first cool breeze of autumn doesn’t usually arrive till some time in September. Had to water the garden this morning for the first time this year.

The TV news was telling us that some three times as many people had died of heatstroke as at the same time last year. Meanwhile with several nuclear power stations either shut down or destroyed by tidal waves electric power supplies are on the edge. Here in the Nagoya area it’s not as bad as in Tokyo, but still every evening along with the weather forecast there’s a power forecast: whether the generators are likely to hold up or not. Today the percentage of available power likely to be used was 89% – considered “stable” apparently. They don’t want any more old people and children to die from the heat, so along with the appeals to economise on electricity are reminders not to overdo it. Quite tricky.

 

Hamaoka 21 May, 2011

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:49 pm
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Maybe you’ve heard of the Tokai Earthquake. The expected epicentre is a bit west of here, in Shizuoka prefecture, but near enough for the predicted magnitude of over 8 to do plenty of damage in Nagoya. Our house was built fairly recently to the more stringent standards that came in after the Kobe earthquake, so I’m hoping we’ll be OK. Whatever, it’s definitely on its way – this quake has occurred regularly every 100~150 years, and the last one was in 1854 so it’s overdue. The probability of it happening in the next 30 years has been estimated at 87%.

Now, right in the centre of where the Tokai Earthquake is expected is the city of Omaezaki, and right there, on the coast, is the Hamaoka nuclear power station. It’s hard to believe that permission was granted to build this even after the danger of earthquake damage had been pointed out in official reports, but there seems to have been an unholy coalition between the previous LDP government, the nuclear and construction industries, and even sponsored university professors and the media, all of which have set Japan on the way to generating a large proportion of its electricity from nuclear energy. Read the Asahi newspaper’s interview with Taro Kono, one of the few LDP Diet members to oppose nuclear energy: (English translation).

In the context of having to reduce, almost eliminate, cabon dioxide emissions if the world is to remain inhabitable for human beings, replacing oil-burning power stations with atomic energy seems to make some sense as a temporary stop-gap, even if the cost of disposing of used fuel rods and of dismantling old power stations is probably huge, and still somewhat unknown. The recent earthquake in Tohoku, though, has reminded us just how enormous the costs of a nuclear accident could be. Of course earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan, and though the power stations are supposed to have been built so as to withstand major shaking and high tidal waves, we have now seen how the best laid plans of mice and men…

The implications of a nuclear disaster within a couple of hundred kilometeres of Tokyo and Nagoya just don’t bear thinking about. Imagine having to evacuate Tokyo!!! So is an energy policy centred on nuclear power feasable for Japan? Prime minister Kan seems to have decided not, at least till they can harden the things up considerably, and two weeks ago he asked the Chubu power company to close down the remaining two reactors of five which were in operation at Hamaoka – a request they couldn’t really refuse.

So what now? The nuclear lobby are kicking hard, making quite reasonable claims that renewable energy is nowhere near being in a position to take over, or cheap enough even if the windmills and solar panels could be put up quickly. Public opinion, though, is with Kan on this, even though his overall popularity is pretty low, and the mood now is very much into economy. A bit of effort – turn down the air conditioners, turn off some lights, stagger days off, introduce Summer Time – and power consumption this summer might be cut by 15%. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. The point is that once a consensus has been reached the Japanese have been known to move quite fast. Revolutionary changes have taken place here still within living memory, and the Edo era wasn’t all that long ago.

Maybe we can afford some cautious optimism. Maybe Japan will catch up with Europe on the use of renewable energy and set an example for a less wasteful lifestyle – “mottanai” started here. Maybe Japanese technology will take the lead in developing new sources of energy. Maybe between us the more sane places in the world can bring America on board too…

All we can do is hope that this disaster might trigger the action needed to avoid the far worse disasters staring us in the face.

 

Raw Beef 20 May, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news — johnraff @ 2:54 pm
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The Tartars have a lot to answer for. I don’t know if you have “tartare steak” where you live, but minced raw beef, possibly mixed with onion, and topped with a raw egg is a standard menu item in many countries in Europe and America. The story is that the Tartars brought the dish to Europe as part of the Mongolian invasion. I don’t know whether the Tartars are supposed to have invented it themselves or got it from the Mongols, but it’s interesting to note that at the other end of the Mongolian sphere of influence, in East Asia, there are things like steak tartare too. Laos and Thailand have a dish called laap (or larp or laab) which is minced, sometimes raw, meat with herbs and spices, Bali has something called lawar, and Korea has yukhoe. This is definitely raw beef, and there are other elements in Korean culture to suggest Mongolian influences, so yukhoe could well be a Far Eastern version of Tartare steak.

Korean food is popular here in Japan too, especially grilled beef (pulgogi in Korea and yakiniku here) and recently yukke, the Japanese take on yukhoe, has been a very popular side dish. Of course Japan is the land of raw fish, so nobody gets too worried about raw beef – in fact I’ve had beef sashimi a few times and it’s quite good if the beef is of decent quality. That is, until a couple of weeks ago. The last two weeks the TV news has been full of reports about a spate of food poisoning cases at a yakiniku chain, where people had eaten the (very cheap at ¥280) yukke. A lot of people ended up in hospital, and four died. Food poisoning isn’t only about vomiting and diarrhoea.

 

Not so fast… 27 April, 2011

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:43 pm
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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…

 

More stories 26 March, 2011

Filed under: incidents,news — johnraff @ 2:55 am
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It’s already two weeks now and the world media’s attention has moved on, to Libya, Bahrain… but stories are still coming out of the earthquake tragedy. Every day the totals of confirmed dead and missing both go up, and it looks as if we’ll be passing 30,000 soon. Whole families have been wiped out, with no-one left to report the loss, so it will take a long time to get the full figures. By comparison, while close to 20,000 people are now being searched for, at this same time after the Kobe earthquake the figure was about 55.

So three stories that were on the radio and TV here, out of the thousands there must be. The saddest one first.

A small town built a brand new evacuation centre about two years ago, at a cost of some 5 million dollars. A two-storey building on an elevated site that would survive a substantial tsunami. Local people were trained to head there in the event of an earthquake, with regular drills, so that when the 3/11 quake hit everyone knew what to do. Before the tsunami arrived they had taken shelter on the second floor. The wave was 10 metres high, swamped the building and all 60 of the mostly elderly people there were killed. Only one younger person survived by clinging to a curtain rail.

At another town, the designated refuge for the children at the elementary and middle schools was an old peoples’ home. The middle school children had been taught to collect the little kids from the elementary school and help them escape, which they did indeed do perfectly. However, someone in the group thought the old peoples’ home didn’t look high enough to escape the wave, which was already only a couple of minutes away, and at the last moment decided to take everyone to an even higher spot. The old peoples’ home was overwhelmed, but the children survived.

Now I’m not trying to draw an “authorities are worthless” sort of moral here. They did the best they could, but people are fallible and no-one expected a tsunami of the size that hit the Tohoku region this time. Well over 10 metres in many places. Can you imagine it? Well, you’ve probably had some help from the videos on You-Tube, but it’s still hard to take in.

The last story is of a 16 year old boy and his grandmother, who were found in the ruins of a house some ten days after the earthquake. They had been in the kitchen on the second floor. The room was bent out of shape, but was still a space in which they could survive, taking things out of the fridge in the next room. However, there was no way out, until the boy was finally able to break a hole in the wall, climb onto what used to be the roof and call for help. The day after the quake he had called his parents with his cellphone and they had come to search for the two of them, but the house had been moved a hundred metres by the tsunami, smashed into fragments and mixed in with the wreckage of the neighbours’ houses so they were unable to find it. Both of them are OK.

 

 
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