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Japan is OK

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:37 AM, March 18, 2011 [Permalink]

I am sitting in my living room, with my legs underneath the low 'kotatsu' table, in circumstances that would have been completely inconceivable to me just a few days ago. Here, in my home on the west side of Tokyo, one of the most modern best-engineered cities on the planet, I am writing, in pencil, by lantern-light.

About a half-hour ago - exactly at the scheduled time - today's rolling blackout began. Our zone drew the 'short straw' today, so our blackout is coming after sunset, making it particularly troublesome. It will last for something between two and three hours, and during that time - with all the lights out, the heat off, and of course no TV or internet - I hope I can use the enforced 'break' to collect my thoughts about this week's events.

I want to say something about Japan. I mean, about 'Japan' the country.

Earlier today, while talking to my parents over in Vancouver (via Skype), I found them extremely worried about the situation here. Their main source of information is of course TV and the newspapers, and what they see there has left them with the impression that this country has been beaten to its knees and is swamped by a catastrophe of epic proportions. They want me to leave. Friends overseas have said the same thing in their emails, "Dave, get out! Please get away from Japan!"

Now that is perhaps an unavoidable result of this kind of news coverage. There is no reason to criticize the media for going overboard. News is news, and everybody of course wants to see what has happened, and to learn about what is going on, myself included.

The unfortunate effect of such coverage though, is that most of those who view it have no chance to understand what is happening behind the camera, or in those parts of the country not directly affected. Nor do they usually have enough background knowledge to be able to interpret what they see on their news screens.

Now I hope what I am about to say will not be misunderstood. I of course understand that there has been a massive human tragedy here this week (and which is still going on). Many have died, families have been torn apart, people's livelihoods destroyed, and entire communities obliterated. I cannot begin to understand the grief of those closely affected.

But please look at the 'bigger picture' with me for a minute.

The area affected by the tidal wave is a fishing/agricultural zone, in a part of Japan which has been losing population for quite some time now. (That's actually something that can be said about rural Japan as a whole, of course.) In terms of 'square miles' of the nation, it is quite small, which means that the ratio of 'unaffected' to 'affected' people is very large. My point in bringing this up is not to trivialize the local impact, but to illustrate that the people affected by this will have plenty of backup help, and indeed, massive amounts of food, fuel, medicines and supplies of all kinds are now on the way to them from every corner of this country. The first days after the earthquake and tidal wave were obviously extremely difficult for the survivors, as the relief efforts took some time to get through to them because of the disruptions to the transportation infrastructure, but unlike post-quake scenes we sometimes see from other countries, where a year after an event people are still squatting in the rubble of their homes, these people will have a great deal of support to help them recover. A few days from now we will see the first scenes from news helicopters of the 'villages' consisting of rows of small houses that will be springing up on every suitable area of open ground - just as they did after the Kobe disaster.

The news reports show many scenes of people lining up at supermarkets, and of empty shelves, but when we look at the nation's overall food supply, there is absolutely no cause for concern. Although the affected region is an important supplier of seafood, other areas will soon take up any slack. As for rice, our basic staple, my computer does not have enough 'zeroes' to begin to tally up the tons that are in storage in government and agricultural co-operative warehouses around the country. And given that a very large percentage of the nation's food is imported anyway, there is no long term danger of food shortages.

Transportation has of course taken a tremendous hit - highways and railroads are closed all through the region, making immediate relief efforts very difficult. The roads will be cleared and repaired in short order, and indeed most major highways are already open. The shinkansen through the region will not be running for months, because the specialized tracks will have to be rebuilt, but local trains will be back very soon. As a consequence of the long and thin shape of this country, rail access to the north on the opposite seacoast has been completely unaffected, and freight trains full of relief supplies are using that route.

Industrial production has come to a halt in many places due to the earthquake, which affected a far wider area than the tsunami of course. Many of the country's major companies have substantial plants in Tohoku, having been attracted to the area by low land prices. But you can't run the famous 'just in time' system to build automobiles without running the risk of disruptions when your suppliers get in trouble, and that particular chicken has now come home to roost for companies like Toyota and Hitachi. But they of course have Plan B and C, etc. in place, and alternate workshops and factories all over the country are ramping up to fill the gaps. Such small companies are very nimble, and the stream of export production will recover very soon.

I cannot be blasé about the nuclear disaster, which is far from over (and will never be 'over' of course, as it is already clear that this is a history-changing event.) Just how wide an area will be left uninhabitable is not yet known, but most of the analysis I have read leaves me with the impression that the populace in general - even including the 30+ million people in the greater Tokyo area - will suffer no serious health consequences. (For the plant workers and emergency responders there, the situation is obviously very much more dangerous, and all of us are of course hoping that as many of them as possible will come through with their health intact, something that is far from certain.) But although a radioactive emergency on the Chernobyl scale is impossible here, there will be major long-term economic and social effects on the lives of the people who were living in the immediate area of the plant. Even if the emergency comes to a close with no contamination spread about, their property is now worthless; it can never be sold, as nobody would ever want to move to that area. This also applies to people living within a similar distance of all the nuclear plants in Japan, even those unrelated to the current disaster. This is a major destruction of wealth, and it remains to be seen whether or not the government will be capable of doing anything to correct that, short of making cash grants to people to resettle them in other places.

The impact on energy policy - both short and long term - will be massive and impossible to predict. As I can certainly testify tonight - by the light of this lantern - our living patterns are indeed going to be disrupted, but the argument can be made that the upcoming enforced reduction in the amount of energy we consume on a day-to-day basis may not be entirely a negative thing. It has been perfectly clear to all of us for some years, in every advanced society on this planet, that we have been too profligate with our energy. Well, Japan is about to become a world leader in energy conservation practices, whether we like it or not! The mood here in the Kanto area - we have had four days of rolling blackouts as I write - is one of acceptance, and willingness to put up with the disruptions and hardships caused by this, as long as they are seen to be applied fairly, across the board. The down side of the nuclear power plant disruptions though - and this will be huge - is that in the 'short term' (many years, actually), our consumption of oil will skyrocket (followed by that of coal, as oil prices climb to sky high levels, and stay there). There are simply no other practical sources of energy available.

The overall economic impact is harder to predict. For decades now, we have been told that a major problem for the Japanese economy has been lack of domestic consumption and an excessive focus on exports. Well, a whole lot of people here are about to spend a whole lot of money ... right here. Most of it will go to the construction industry - traditionally one of the mainstays of the economy, and always a major conduit for money to make its way down to every level of a community. The downside is that most of that 'whole lot of money' will be government funds, and with the national deficit already at a level that leaves financial observers breathless, the effects are far from clear. But financial analysis of a company (or nation) is always more to do with perception than reality. If the financial situation is seen as sustainable, it will be so. It is only if trust is lost, that we get in trouble.

One extremely interesting aspect of this entire catastrophe is the role that the central government has played. Or more accurately - what they haven't done. The Prime Minister has been almost invisible; he may as well have abdicated, for all we can tell. On the few occasions when he has spoken, he has only reinforced our impression of his incompetence. Cabinet secretary Edano-san has impressed greatly with his ability to handle news conferences, but there is no indication that he is involved in anything pro-active, beyond a P/R role. The rest of the Cabinet must be hiding under their desks, for all we have seen or heard of them. The relief efforts seem to be being arranged and carried out almost exclusively by lower levels of government, businesses and trade groups, private organizations, and of course right at the point of the spear - by community groups and individuals. We've all suspected that over the past couple of decades the central government had gradually lost its ability to effectively manage the country (compared to its solid performance in the immediate post-war era), and this has now been completely confirmed. Just which people - or which party - sit in those brocade chairs in the Diet makes no difference; they are nothing more than a circus show for the media, and most of us are heartily sick of how much attention they get.

Now I am 'only' a woodblock printmaker; I have no special training at analyzing the workings of a complex society. But I have been in Japan since the early 1980s, and every day of that time I have been looking around me at the workings of this society, slowly developing an understanding of how things work here.

Yes, this has been, and remains, a horrible tragedy. But Japan - the nation - is OK. I can tell my parents and my friends overseas that even as they sit watching those awful news broadcasts, stunned by the magnitude of the devastation, that Japan is already getting to its feet.

Our family has friends in the affected areas, with whom we have not yet been able to establish contact. It is very frustrating to sit here and not be able to help them, or indeed to know if they are still alive. As time goes by and communication links are restored, we may yet talk again. If that hope does not come true, I will bow my head, shed some tears, and move on.

And that is just what everybody in this country will do. An image I saw in the news earlier today perhaps encapsulates the capabilities of this society to move forward from this disaster. The TV crew was filming at one of the evacuation centers, a school building. Out in the schoolyard there were tents set up where people were preparing meals. Others were busy with all manner of chores, helping to organize their 'new' community. As the camera panned over the scene, humming with activity, we could see that the tsunami waters must have come up to a point just beyond the schoolground, because it was there that the disaster zone began - a sea of smashed buildings that stretched into the distance as far as we could see. And right at the edge of the schoolyard, the evacuees had established their garbage collection station.

Any resident of Japan knows what is coming next. Yes; the station was organized into sections - cans here, bottles there, burnable garbage in these bags, plastics in these, etc. etc. Not meters away, the rubble began.

Why didn't they just toss the garbage into the rubble? Because their next job - starting tomorrow - will be to clean that huge mess up. And clean it up they will (probably even sorting a lot of it into re-cycleable categories as they do so!)

Japan is a society with tremendous resources and strengths. This nation has a wonderfully educated populace, with a strong social desire for cohesiveness and harmony. 'Pulling together' is what they we do best. And this is a nation that thrives on adversity. All these things are in the social contract, somewhere in the fine print. The Japanese grow up with these things naturally, and as for the rest of us who are resident here, when we decided to make this our home, we also signed on.

Japan will be OK.

Japan is OK.

Trust me.


Following comment posted by: Albert on March 18, 2011 2:16 AM

This is kind of the message I've been trying to spread. Friends and family know my wife and I are going to Japan in May, and I've gotten more than a few "Is that trip still on?" questions, to which my answer has been, "Of course! Why wouldn't it be?" Even the day the earthquake hit (well, the day after for Japan), it was pretty clear that Tokyo would be more or less back to normal in a week or two. Maybe if we were going to Sendai or Hakodate we might want to shuffle things around, but we're not expecting any trouble at all down in Tokyo, Kansai or on the Sanin Coast.

Heck, my father-in-law has a scientific conference scheduled for August in Sendai, and just a few days after the quake got an email saying "We're still on!" Apparently the conference center was on high ground and so was not damaged by the tsunami.

Following comment posted by: Mike L on March 18, 2011 12:39 PM

Thank you for writing this. It's so hard to know what's going on at street level as everything we see here in the States is from above, far away or through the media which, of course, makes more money of stories of doom and gloom than it does with what you've written here. I'm still glad I made a donation to the effort and wish you and the rest of the country the best. Thank you for keeping us informed.

Following comment posted by: Dave on March 18, 2011 12:43 PM

I'm still glad I made a donation to the effort ...

I hope nothing I said would make people think that "Oh, everybody is OK; I don't need to help." There are of course huge numbers of people here who are going to need assistance for a very long time. I simply wanted to try and counter the overwhelming impression people seem to have that 'Japan is at the end of its rope ...'

Following comment posted by: Joan Stewart on March 18, 2011 1:41 PM

Wonderfully said. Thank you.

Joan Stewart
Shinjuku-Ku, Tokyo

Following comment posted by: John Bergman on March 18, 2011 2:34 PM

David it is nice to hear you are ok. I have family in Chiba,Fukuoka,Yokohama,and Hiroshima and know that they are ok since I understand the distance of the quake and tsunami from Tokyo. It will take some time before Japan gets back on it feet so in the meantime we will send our prayers for our temple at Shinnyo-En USA.
John Bergman
Oakland, Ca. USA

Following comment posted by: Tracey Boyer on March 18, 2011 2:48 PM

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dave.
We're in France on school holidays, and everyone seems to think we've evacuated for good! Total incomprehension when we talk of going back home to Tokyo! We're looking forward to the sakura...

Tracey Boyer
Meguro-Ku, Tokyo

Following comment posted by: Reiko Nagase on March 18, 2011 3:41 PM

Dear Dave,
My friend Jeannie forwarded your message to me just now. BRAVO! Thank you for writing this which shows exactly as many of us feel.
Having lived abroad for many years, I am receiving so many warm messages from friends all over the globe and to each of them I have been trying to express much of what you have stated. In addtion, I am also trying to convey similar comments so our own Japanese, "don't panic, there's no need to flee from Tokyo nor Japan!"
You are right_Japan is OK, Japan will be OK!
Please continue spreading this as I shall, also!_____Reiko from Shinjuku

Following comment posted by: Larry on March 18, 2011 5:36 PM

Thanks Dave,

This is just the fine reasoning and reporting that we all need. With your permission, I'm adding this link to the "reporting" I'm attempting with my international mailing list.

Following comment posted by: peter von gomm on March 18, 2011 7:45 PM

David- I don't know you, but I'd like to meet you one day. Brilliantly written and saturated with careful thought from the heart. Thank you for sharing.

Peter (Tokyo)

Following comment posted by: Mari on March 18, 2011 9:29 PM

Thank you for a well written calm message to all those who have panicked and evacuated for the time being - including me - you have given me much needed hope and belief in the Japanese people. We will survive and recover and once again, Japan will be OKAY!

Following comment posted by: Terry Greenaway on March 18, 2011 10:26 PM

Thanks for the update, Dave. Good to see even the big problems get the same astringent, practical and positive Bull treatment.

Love to all in Japan, T

Following comment posted by: Peter Miller on March 18, 2011 11:41 PM

Very well said, Dave. A thoughtful, sophisticated, and heartfelt analysis -- three qualities rarely found together. And a useful antidote to media misinformation, which I will cite to those who have become unduly alarmed. You really do present the 'big picture' in your writing as well as in your artwork.

Following comment posted by: Ken Morgan on March 18, 2011 11:48 PM

David-SPOT ON. I began to study Japan in 1959. I have always held a high regard for their ability to compartmentize things needing direction to quick and complete completition.
Your piece was eloquent, painting a very clear picture of now and the future.Thank you for filling the voids in the press releases we are allowed to experience.
As too your delay, I hope I speak for all-Don't Worry-Be Happy. Continue these treasure with the skill and insight you have shown for so many years. We can be patient.
Ken Morgan

Following comment posted by: Andy English on March 19, 2011 12:12 AM

A suitably considered and sober reflection

Following comment posted by: Gayle Wohlken on March 19, 2011 12:16 AM

Dave, thanks for this. News reports, sensational and most often frightening, present a much smaller look at what should be the larger view. I will refer friends to this piece you wrote at first by hand in lantern light. ~Gayle

Following comment posted by: Danielle Bussone on March 19, 2011 12:17 AM

Thanks, Dave, My stomach will continue to churn out of concern for my Japanese family, you included, until the nuclear reactors are under control. This was a comfort to read though. Danielle

Following comment posted by: Constance Brewer on March 19, 2011 2:31 AM

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dave. I've learned a lot from this little piece. Connie

Following comment posted by: S on March 19, 2011 8:41 AM

Dear Dave,

Thanks for a great post. I hope to share it with my parents later. I've only been living in Tokyo for two and a half years and was planning on moving back to America later this year.

My mother has requested I move up my schedule and leave Japan now instead of in July. I deeply want to stay (until July).

Thank you for a clear and concise post. I'm sorry to be leaving Japan when it seems to need all the money and the help it can get.

Stephanie, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

Following comment posted by: Christian Martinu on March 19, 2011 9:49 AM

I am Austrian and run a ballet company in Tokyo.
Just had an interview with the Austrian TV about our situation and am very happy that I could share similar thoughts like you did already.
Found your thoughts today in the morning and appreciate them a lot!
Bless you! Chris

Following comment posted by: mal on March 19, 2011 10:22 AM

A friend just forwarded the link to your comprehensive blog. Very considerate of you to provide a straight 'as it is' account of what's happening. Being reliant on the stories promoted by various forms of media one is never really sure how bad things are. It is without doubt an horrendous natural disaster and potential man made disaster, requiring us all to be supportive of Japan as a nation. As well as giving freely to the relief funds perhaps the financial markets could also help by showing some social responsibility.

Following comment posted by: corey on March 19, 2011 1:22 PM

Tears are running down my face as I read. Life goes on outside my house as any other day. I hear the kids outside playing on the street. On the other hand a mail just came in from a friend in PNG. She writes that the govt is warning people about dangerous rain coming. Most people still get their drinking water from catchment. My in-laws feel safe in their home in rural Ibaraki. Safer than coming in and staying with us in Tokyo. Meanwhile, my sister in Seattle writes of panic driven shoppers out all supplies of iodine pills in pharmacies.

This might be useful info for those who read your blog.
Donations: support the Salvation Army- they take out the least money for "overhead."
From the post office, send to: きゅうせいぐんほんえい
(kyuuseigunhonei), furikai #: 00180-5-4400 or more easily by internet (credit card): http://www.salvationarmy.or.jp

Donations are necessary at the Kameda Hospital in Awakamogawa. They've taken in dialysis "refuges" and really need money for supplies. (Maybe you can find it on Kameda's site)

I hope and pray that those working so hard under such risks to their health, will succeed in getting those fuel rods under water, and our focus can return to helping those in need.

The calm collected thoughts written from your desk far from the yammering of the fear mongers puts me at ease, though with a heavy heart.

Following comment posted by: Sherry on March 19, 2011 4:40 PM

On Behalf of your Family - we can now sleep in Peace - A Very Grateful Thank You!

Following comment posted by: Ellen Shipley on March 19, 2011 5:44 PM

Thank you for writing this Dave. So heartening. There is so much to admire in the Japanese people and it is shining through your writing.

Good luck to you all.

Following comment posted by: Marilynn Smith on March 20, 2011 12:00 AM

Very good to hear your thoughts. Living in Mexico I get similar statements. News is news, but is it? We drive Baja Mexico every year and have never had a problem. The news makes it sound dangerous. When the swine flu hit I had friends up north telling me about the hundreds of deaths in Mexico City where over 3 million people live. The out break was truly small in relation to the numbers. This is a gentle country, not a violent one. Just like you are safe in Japan we are safe here. It is wonderful to hear about how Japan will work together to provide wonderful assistance to those affected. It is a "big" event. However, your thoughts are good in that they say to us Japan will survive and do a great job of over coming the disaster.

Following comment posted by: June Langford Berkley on March 20, 2011 4:12 AM

Beautifully written and so valued by those who have friends and family in Japan. I can pass this on to friends and family who are deeply concerned for my son, who is living in Tokyo, and for ALL those affected by this disaster. This brings us all to a new level of appreciation for the Japanese culture.

Following comment posted by: Jean Womack on March 20, 2011 12:07 PM

David, I wonder if I could reprint your letter in my blog? Thanks. Jean Womack

[From Dave: reply made privately]

Following comment posted by: David K. M. Klaus on March 20, 2011 4:05 PM

Thank you, sir.

Following comment posted by: Jeremy on March 20, 2011 8:43 PM

Dave, thanks for writing this. I've been trying to explain this to people I'm seeing back home, and family who are working themselves into a panic about us going back to Japan at the end of the week. Thanking for putting it so eloquently and so clearly. When the quake hit, before we knew about the situation in Fukushima, I said that I thought Tokyo would be back to normal by the following Tuesday. Obviously I was wrong about the date, but I don't feel that I was wrong about the rest of it. Japan is already working towards a return to normal. Perhaps the new normal will be a bit different from the old, but Japan and its people will get there sooner than anyone outside the country can possibly believe. Thanks again for writing this.

Following comment posted by: peggy kanada on March 21, 2011 12:02 AM

dear david,
a great letter--and i share many of your thoughts about how the region so badly hit by the tsunami will be rebuilt. However, i do not think we are yet beyond dealing with the problems of the fukushima plant meltdown. the thousands of nuclear fuel rods no longer being properly cooled in terribly damaged outer storage tanks will require at least three years to cool down and no one has taken the leadership to implement the needed long term plans to solve how to cool them down and then transport them safely to permanent storage/recycling. depending on the wind and amount of radiation released in a meltdown or series of meltdowns radiation may impact heavily populated areas like tokyo.
the rolling blackouts which affect hospitals and train transportation are also poorly thought out by what appear to me to be incompetents at tokyo electric. first they are not fair--there is no plan to black out chiyoda ward for example. staggering working hours/ reducing power demand at peak times (like 6pm)/cutting neon ads/implementing daylight savings time are all measures that would cut electric usage. and getting the grid fixed/rationalize the wattage so that power can be sent up from western japan would probably work a lot fairer and better.
anyway, thanks for writing (i rec'd it from jeannie ohmae)--and i would like to forward it on if that is ok?

Following comment posted by: Dave on March 21, 2011 12:30 AM


No, I'm certainly not trying to claim that everything is 'perfect' or that all the response measures have been well thought-out and sensibly implemented. (I'm putting together a collection of examples of problem areas, which may make another post a bit later on.) We're not out of the woods yet, and a staggering amount of work remains of course; years of work ...

Please feel free to link/quote/etc. as you wish.

Following comment posted by: Jen on March 21, 2011 1:07 AM

I am an American staying in Tokyo with my Japanese fiance. This was my first ever encounter with an earthquake. I am so glad to be here witnessing it first-hand because I can only imagine what my family back in America must have racing through their minds with every emerging newscast. I have e-mailed them the link to your writings because I think it is so well expressed. And having them hear another non-Japanese who shared the same experience give an account of what is REALLY going on might set their minds a bit at ease. Even though the current laws will prevent me from ever being a Japanese citizen, I will accept being a resident. Despite where I happened to be born or what my genetic makeup is, Japan is my home and these are my people. Patient, proud, and persevering!

Following comment posted by: Carole Dwinell on March 21, 2011 3:28 AM

Thank you for a clear perspective. Our eyes are clouded with tears and it helps to see with ones closer than our own or those of the media cameras. The devastation is mind boggling, hard to see, impossible to imagine living it. I've posted a link to your letter to the LetPress server list because of our worldwide members' concern ... and the clarity with which you speak. Again, thank you.

Following comment posted by: Sally Grove on March 21, 2011 11:46 AM

Thank you, thank you.

What a wonderful piece of writing explaining a true picture of how things are in Japan. I have tried to get a true picture of recent events with no joy.

Declan is my cousin and sent the link to us. Our family has been part of the JKA (Japanese Karate Association) for serveral years now and we have friends in Tokyo. Many had sent out emails saying they were ok, but with the media coverage it has been very worrying.

We have contributed to a fund raiser for the relief fund held in Western Australia and also privately assisted.

Please take our heartfilled best wishes to you and your community. We are all praying for Japans speedy recovery from this disaster.

Following comment posted by: ash on March 21, 2011 8:12 PM

hats off to you Dave.this is the same message what i have conveyed with my relatives and friends in India who were asking me to "come back".Japan is a strong nation and the people here are so hard working and have a strong determination.everything will be back within few months.........................


Following comment posted by: Alan Edwards on March 21, 2011 9:47 PM


Your words meant a lot to me. I live in Karuizawa and I have an apartment which I don't use. I offered this to any family who can make use of it from the affected area. This was one week ago. I did this through the local Government office here in Karuizawa. I have heard nothing yet. The apartment is heated and has all that anyone might need to live comfortably. I don't know what to do next to make this safe, warm house available to a family that need it. It will be available for at least a year. If you know of anyone that can use it then tell me. Do you know of some way that I can contact a family that can use it? I am in Japan alone at the moment so I have a very limited ability to reach an organisation that can help me rehouse a family.

Thank you for any help that you can give


Following comment posted by: Ina Travis on March 23, 2011 1:42 AM

thanks to the people who have shared this account more or less hand-to-hand, thank you to David for giving us all something to hope for, to aspire to...

I have been repeating ' The Japanese do not panic - how dare we?' over and over this week, as the number of damaged reactors has swelled, in some cases, to 16 in the telling.

thank you, thank you, thank you.

Following comment posted by: Dave on March 26, 2011 1:02 PM

[previous comment removed ...]

Although I understand that some people do not share my optimism about the long-term impact of the current events, please keep your comments polite. And no, I will not "apologize for encouraging unfounded false hopes based on ... ill-informed prejudices."

Following comment posted by: Ven. Tenzin Nordron on March 26, 2011 1:11 PM

There was nothing impolite about my comment. Best of luck to you.

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