Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 17, 2011

HERE’S an excerpt of an eyewitness account of the tsunami that struck the Sanriku area of Japan:

“The angry roar of the waves gradually intensified with a sound that resembled branches snapping off a tree. People shouted warnings about the huge tsunami as it struck the shore, but even as they spoke, the six-meter wave was rushing onto land like a galloping horse.”

It was filed in June 1896 by a special correspondent for the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, which became the Mainichi Shimbun in 1943. Tsunami are one of life’s constants for Japan in general and the Sanriku area in particular. Gregory Clancey, the author of Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930, explains in an article in The Telegraph:

“The people of Sanriku are fated to live with seismic waves like the people of Bangladesh with cyclonic storms and the people of the American Midwest with tornados. It’s just that the region’s tsunamis are on much longer cycles, and, when they do come, give far less warning and often no ready means of escape…. The spectacle of burning debris from wooden houses carried over Japanese rice fields by fast-moving sheets of water had until last week never been captured on camera. Yet such phenomena were illustrated more than a century ago by Kokunimasu Utagawa (1874-1944) and other artists seeking to bring the sublime devastation of a Sanriku tsunami to urban Japanese audiences.”

Leave it to someone with a cubicle in the Ivory Tower to describe devastation as “sublime”; Webster’s defines that word as something inspiring awe through grandeur or beauty. The unconscious exposure of self-absorption is just as much a constant among academics as it is among journalists. The only differences are that the former use more complex sentences and often conduct actual research.

Prof. Clancey does describe briefly how technology has sometimes mitigated the effects of the tsunami in the Sanriku area. That’s a point worth remembering in light of newspaper reports in the Western media, such as the one I mentioned yesterday claiming that the Japanese deluded themselves into thinking that technology could beat nature. (The same bottom feeder was responsible for another stinker in The Independent today.)

Some people regret that modern affluence has robbed us of our connection to the realities of life. The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley quickly dismisses that idea using a copy of the newspaper clipping that he borrowed from another site, and which I swiped from him. The title of his post is, Wealth and Technology Make the Death Toll Smaller, Not Larger.

One academic always worth reading, Victor Davis Hanson (perhaps because he was a farmer), thinks the real problem is complexity in a post called Thoughts on Japan. One aspect is:

“…the inability to transmit knowledge and the dire wages of specialization. The original architects of such systems are now mostly dead, and we, their replacements, often lack their education and respect for civilization’s protocols. The result is that millions of Americans are simply enjoying a system built for them by others which they are not quite able to use, repair, expand — or understand…. Today’s popular culture knows Facebook well, but does one in a thousand know that a bee is necessary for an almond to set, or what a piston and cylinder are, or the difference between a southern and northern storm? I once asked my students to explain the winter solstice, not just the astronomy of it, but what such a date portended in terms of work, culture, and mindset. It was in the 1990s, and my favorite answer was, “She was a rap singer, Sister Solstice that mouthed off too much.”

He is unlikely to use the word sublime to describe devastation:

“There is no more ordered, successful and humane urban society than found in Japan. Like most Americans, these last few days I have been moved as never before by the courage and calm of the Japanese people amid such horrific conditions, as one of the most sophisticated and complex urbanized cultures on the planet in a split second is nearly paralyzed. I confess I do not quite fathom the constant American news blitzes about all sorts of China Syndrome scenarios. Radiation pollution is a serious worry, but right now no one has died from exposure and perhaps 10,000 have perished from the tsunami and earthquake. It seems to me the greater worry right now is not yet a meltdown, but the vast dangers resulting from disruptions in food, water, power, and sewage. Odder still, it was almost crass to watch American TV heads lead in with shrill, hyped-up mini-dramas about possible radiation clouds descending here on the West Coast, even as their backdrop screens showed biblical disasters of earthquake, flood and human wreckage.”

Another constant resulting from a natural disaster is confusion; no one can be sure of actual conditions. For example, many in Japan were relieved to read that the Self-Defense Forces were given responsibility on Monday for distributing food and supplies. That means the job is in the hands of highly trained people who understand logistics and how to coordinate the actions of a large group. They will also be undeterred by any consideration other than that of accomplishing their mission.

Actor Tatsumi Takuro, however, is convinced that conditions in Tohoku are much worse than the broadcast media is presenting. (The Japanese news media does not indulge in hyped-up mini-dramas about radiation clouds adorned with pictures of biblical disasters.) Reader Ken sent a link to a Japanese language blog post in which the actor relays part of a conversation over satellite telephone with a friend in the north. Said the friend:

“Tell as many people as you can about the situation. There are dead bodies all over the place. I’m in a shelter, but there’s no food, and the children are starving.”

Based on his experience working in television, Mr. Tatsumi says that news crews go only to the safest areas and are prevented by the broadcast code from showing the worst images. Those images will be seen, he predicts, when the magazines publish special issues on the earthquake and run the gruesome photos.

Is his friend unnerved by the proximity of such death and destruction, or is the situation as dire as he describes? That’s another constant: We’ll have to wait and see.

There’s also confusion about the effect of the earthquake/tsunami on the national and international economy, especially considering Japan’s sovereign debt. Katie Benner in Fortune thinks people shouldn’t bank on a debt crisis yet:

“(T)here are two reasons that the earthquake may not trigger a sharp rise in (bond) yields. First, the quake is unlikely to force insurance companies to make massive payments for earthquake damage, since only about 18.5% of Japanese households have earthquake insurance, according to reports. If those insurers don’t have to make massive payments, they probably won’t have to liquidate assets like JGBs.

“In fact, Japanese bonds have remained stable and the yen has even strengthened since the disaster. Economists have attributed this phenomenon to speculation that Japanese institutions could sell US Treasuries to raise money, and that domestic companies might repatriate money to pay for earthquake damages. Japan, the largest buyer of US debt after China, could also momentarily stop buying Treasuries while it figures out how much it needs to spend on rescue and clean up efforts.

“Second, Japan holds more than 95% of its own debt, according to Bank of Japan data. Even if foreign investors began to unload their bonds, they account for a small part of the overall market.

“So while the specter of a debt crisis hangs over Japan as much as it ever has, it’s unlikely to occur in the immediate wake of the earthquake. The day of reckoning for Japan’s debt problem will come when foreign markets determine the interest rates on JGBs.”

Her article suggests that the Americans are the ones who should have more pressing concerns about the disaster’s effect on sovereign debt. Who’ll offset the shortfall in the purchase of Treasuries if the Japanese use the money for themselves?

That’s one of the reasons a financial advice peddler named Chris Martensen has turned into a fountain of hysteria warning of a global meltdown, as you can see here in a link sent in by both readers Marellus and 21st Century Schizoid Man. His advice for Americans on the West Coast is to prepare for a “fallout event”, while he urges the rest of us to top off our fuel tanks, buy extra food at the grocery store, have long-term storage food put aside, and get extra medicine. He also advises us to stock up on chocolate and other luxury items that will be at a “mental premium”. This will help, he says, those grasshopper friends and relatives who didn’t prepare for disaster. What he doesn’t say, but probably thinks, is that the Kit-Kats can be used as a financial instrument for later sale at mental premium prices.

Also worth noting is his disclaimer that, “I cannot fully support 100% of my concerns with hard data and evidence”, his unawareness that the region affected by the earthquake is not a major manufacturing center, and his need to identify himself on the masthead as a Ph.D.

The confusion about the threats of nuclear disaster is natural because the fears of the harmful effects are exacerbated by the cyber-equivalent of street-corner Bible thumpers and bearded sandwich-board doomsters. Some people are thumping their chests instead of Bibles and bristling with exclamation points to declare, I told you so! The nuclear power industry is already funding a tsunami of pro-nuke propaganda on the web!

Here’s another constant in the formulas of modern discussion:

People who express opinions I agree with = Truth, justice, and the American way
People who express opinions I disagree with = Paid propaganda by vested interests

A contrast with that view is this guest blog post by David Ropeik at The Scientific American, sent in by reader AK. It’s titled, Beware the Fear of Nuclear Fear. In the last post, I included a link to another site that explained the extensive research on Chernobyl reveals that disaster wasn’t as bad as most people think. Mr. Ropeik uses the extensive research done on the atomic bombing victims for the same objective:

“(T)he Japanese themselves have taught us, in the most awful way imaginable, what the actual health danger of radiation like this might be, and we need to keep the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind as we assess how catastrophic events like this actually are.

“We know from studying the survivors of those bombings, who were bathed in horrific doses of high level radiation – far worse than anything that could come from the Daiichi plant (or that came out of Chernobyl) – that ionizing radiation from nuclear energy is a carcinogen, but a relatively weak one…

“They have also been extensively studied, and 66 years later, by comparing them to cancer rates among Japanese not exposed to radiation, public health researchers estimate that only about 500 of the hibakusha died prematurely from cancer due to radiation exposure. Radiation-induced cancer killed roughly half of one percent of the exposed population. (This research is done by the Radiation Effects Research Institute, a Japanese organization supported by international public health agencies).”


“(W)hat about environmental damage? A huge area around Chernobyl is off limits to humans for hundreds of years. But that’s to limit human exposure to ionizing radiation which, while dangerous, is less so than many of us presume. With people removed, wildlife in those areas is thriving.”

That last sentence is no exaggeration, either, as you can see from this article, which resembles an account of a safari in search of wild game.

Some people just don’t want to hear it, however. The last post also discussed the broken window fallacy, in which people claim disasters are ultimately good for the economy. This time, it’s some guy at the unsurprising source of the Huffington Post:

“But if one can look past the devastation, there is a silver lining. The need to rebuild a large swath of Japan will create huge opportunities for domestic economic growth, particularly in energy-efficient technologies, while also stimulating global demand and hastening the integration of East Asia.”

Tom G. Palmer points out once more that disasters do not create wealth. Perhaps this will penetrate some of those with the ears to hear. Keynes didn’t get much right, but one thing he nailed was the importance of ruthless truth-telling.

As for the integration of East Asia, readers of this site are among those who know that East Asia is already integrating economically quite well on its own. A natural disaster has nothing to contribute to the process.

As for political integration, no one takes that seriously except Hatoyama Yukio; the vapor-based community at think tanks, universities, and editorial offices; and the bureaucrats and other political time-servers in the West. Few people even in Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party thought it was an achievable or worthwhile goal. They humored the man because he bought and paid for the party and happened to be in position to become prime minister when it took control of the government after the August 2009 election. Since his departure last May, I haven’t seen it mentioned at all.

Speaking of politics, the first sprouts of political dissension are emerging. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya says the party will be willing to shift all the funds earmarked to offset the elimination of expressway tolls to disaster relief, as well as some of the government’s child support stipend. The opposition Liberal-Democratic Party and New Komeito, however, insist that all the latter funds be allocated for rebuilding as well. (New Komeito’s position is interesting, because a child-support stipend was their idea to begin with.)

The DPJ unwillingness to give up the child support payments is understandable because it would roll back their primary legislative achievement. Even they probably realize it won’t have an effect on the birth rate despite their claims; their primary interest was strengthening the social welfare state. They also know that in the next Diet election many of them will be swept away by another tsunami of historical proportions, so they’re anxious to preserve whatever form of it they can.

That isn’t to say the LDP and New Komeito are behaving responsibly. More than 1,000 local elections are scheduled throughout the country next month, and most people want to postpone them for a few months. Municipal and prefectural governments have more serious matters to deal with at present than an election. The two opposition parties want to hold the elections as scheduled, however, because everyone knew before the earthquake that the DPJ would be flayed. (Quick update: The government has settled on a policy of allowing those local governments that choose to delay the elections the option of postponing them for up to six months. Some are criticizing the decision; they think all elections should be delayed for the same amount of time.)

And speaking of the DPJ getting flayed in local elections, the people of Nagoya held a City Council election on Sunday after the council was recalled by voters in February. They somehow managed to drag themselves to polling places despite the paralysis, desperation, and fear gripping the country, as described by some in the Western media.

As we saw at the time, that recall was the most visible expression to date of the ongoing revolt of the Japanese voter. There are 75 seats in the council, and Mayor Kawamura Takashi’s tax-cutting and government downsizing party took 28 of them. They are now the leading party in the chamber, but fell short of their target of an overall majority. The DPJ had been the leading party, but their representation was slashed from 27 to 11. The LDP and New Komeito have even fewer seats.

As always, there are people of good sense capable of distinguishing between the important and the froth. One of them is Tokyo Metro District Vice-Governor Inose Naoki, who had a long career as a non-fiction writer before becoming involved with government. Mr. Inose distributes an e-mail magazine once a week. Here’s what he writes in the latest issue:

“Just before he died, (novelist) Mishima Yukio argued that post-war democracy (in Japan) gave birth to hypocrisy. In the 7 July 1970 edition of Sankei, he wrote, ‘A certain inorganic, empty, neutral-colored, affluent, and shrewd economic power will likely remain in one corner of the Far East.’

“But the focus on the quotidian that Mishima abhorred ended at 2:46 p.m. on 11 March. Without fear of expressing myself poorly, I will say this country has experienced a discontinuance of the quotidian for the first time since the Second World War. We must rebuild our country once again.

“But there is a great difference between today and the Second World War. In those days, the dissemination of information was in the form of a pyramid. The people had no choice other than to swallow whole the announcements of Imperial Headquarters. It’s different today. We can obtain information from various networks, due to the creation of Twitter and Facebook. The people can be linked with each other horizontally through an information network that didn’t exist 66 years ago.”

Horie Takafumi went from youthful entrepreneur and media sensation to jailbird. Since returning to shaba, a Buddhist term for the everyday world that incarcerated gangsters appropriated as slang for the streets outside, he’s started to appear on television again and has a blog. Reader 21st Century Schizoid Man sent in a link to his latest Japanese-language entry. Here it is in English.

The effects of the Tohoku Earthquake have caused serious conditions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and it isn’t possible to know what will happen in the future. But as one can understand from Ikeda Nobuo’s (Japanese language) blog, even in the worst case, if people are evacuated from the area near the plant, it is unlikely there will be many fatalities or people with serious health problems (That of course does not apply if people are unable to be evacuated. The people struggling to minimize the impact of the nuclear accident could very well be exposed to large amounts of radiation and suffer serious health problems.)

In other words, it would be as if they contracted an incurable illness. But if all of Japan can be compared to a single human being, it isn’t an illness that will cause the person’s death. People will be unable to live in the area for a while, and we will have to live with that illness for the rest of our lives. The most pressing concern is whether Tokyo, the heart of Japan, and the economy, the country’s circulatory system, will cease to function. If that were to happen, it is possible that Japan would die.

We should gather information ourselves and make the appropriate judgments without being led astray by strange psychological theories or urban legends. At the minimum, there is absolutely no need to evacuate Tokyo at the present. What we should do instead is go to work as we normally would, and consume as we normally would. Nothing can be done when one’s district is affected by the rolling blackouts, but other than that, there’s no need to curl up and cower, and we certainly shouldn’t buy things out of panic. There’s also no need for people who live in areas other than those supplied by Tohoku Electric or Tokyo Electric to conserve electricity. The Kanto and Kansai areas use different frequencies, so Chubu Electric and the other power companies to the west can send a maximum of only about 1.07 million kW. The most that Hokkaido Electric can accommodate is 600,000 kW. The measures to do so have already been taken.

To say that we will have to suspend events or modify our behavior in similar ways because it would look bad or be unseemly for the people in the stricken areas is the height of stupidity. The likely result of that would be to bring the economy to a standstill and bankrupt small and medium-sized companies. It would cause something like necrosis of the hands and feet if the blood stopped circulating in the peripheral circulatory system.

The best thing for people who aren’t in the affected areas to do is to go about their lives as they always do and contribute what money they can.

(end translation)

Finally, I sent an e-mail asking after Prof. Shimojo Masao, who sometimes contributes articles for the site (see the tags at left). He says that everything’s OK in Tokyo for now, but the more important question is how to link the disaster to the reconstruction of a new Japan.

Keep in mind what Matsuoka Yuki wrote: We’ll rebuild without making a sound—so swiftly the world will be astonished.


There was another 5+ Richter scale earthquake in the northern part of the country a few minutes ago. A friend in England e-mailed on Monday worried because of news about another big quake in Tokyo. He didn’t know that as of that day, there already had been more than 200 5+ earthquakes in Tokyo and points north since Friday. I haven’t heard the count as of today.

Yesterday I saw a report that scientists think the force exerted by the tsunami in the Sanriku region was roughly 50 tons per square meter.

One of Japan’s handicaps is that they won’t be able to look for as much assistance from the rest of the world as some people get, or they’ve given themselves. They’ve got too much money, and they haven’t accepted all the offers of help. Oh yes, and aid workers often get in the way. We’ve known that last one for a while, but isn’t the timing of the application of that knowledge interesting?

I’m putting a post together now on the dark side of the post-disaster situation, and no one will be shocked to know that Kan Naoto is one of the characters.


Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

13 Responses to “Constants”

  1. toadold said

    From a guy who spent a few years in Japan commenting about what he saw during past disasters in Japan.
    Ann Coulter(she may be a demon but she is our demon) claimed comparing the nuke disaster in Japan to the one the Ukraine was inane. “The soviets were uncaring about safety and technologically backward….They couldn’t make Jello.”

  2. Marellus said


    Will there be any clear winners and losers in Japanese politics, when this is over ???
    M: Don’t like to make predictions. I’d rather do summations of what just happened. So many people can’t get the past and the present right as it is. I’ll talk about the winners and losers when that’s determined.

    – A.

  3. someone said

    This satire from 1994 sums up Western news quite well: (at 17m 13s)

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Let me write about later half of today:

    My office was closed earlier right after the address by Minister of Economy and Industry asking for further power saving consumption due to the temperature tonight. I visited supermarket before I went home and bought – two cans of coffee (we consume one can within a week so I usually buy six cans), one bag of coffee sugar, a bag of chips for my son, a case of umeboshi for my wife. Except for rice and rice cakes (mochi), the supermarket was full of foods, so no need to worry about coming days. I predict rice would be refilled within a few days. At a bus stop while waiting for next one, I noticed most of the shops and restaurants are open but with limited lightings, which made me feel ok. (I actually had teardrops in my eyes, struck.)

    Back home, we have been limiting to stay in one room together to limit consumption of energy, been sleeping in that room with ready-to-evacuate equipment (lights and portable radio and cash). I enjoyed Jimmy Cliff with my 5 years old son. He sang along somehow and I was very happy for the duration of video. I do not want to expose my son to radios and take due care, but there is no imminent sign to do so. Except for that and for possible sudden large aftershock or separate big hit, nothing to worry about, so I guess I am back to normal – a sort of. Thank you, Ampontan.
    You’re welcome, and thanks for the note.

    I feel a little guilty to mention that the only hardship so far in Kyushu is that my wife won’t be able to watch Shop Channel until it resumes broadcasts tomorrow. Well, it’s a hardship for her. I think it’s good news myself.

    – A.

  5. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    A: Just woke up to find power supply is fine. See below for the current status of insurers –

  6. Marellus said


    This article from zerohedge says that a US Aircraft carrier is headed towards Japan for rescue operations, while Sky News says that TEPCO called the situation “severe” . I do not know what nuance this might have in Japanese. Would it mean terrible but manageable ? Or something more ominous ?

    Whatever else this crisis will bring, it will raise awareness on how spent nuclear fuel is dealt with. I personally think the solution lies in the work of Gerald Bull. If there is nowhere on earth where spent nuclear rods can be safely stored, then build a cannon that can fire the material into outer space.

    In the 1960’s Mr Bull built a gun that could fire projectiles to altitudes of 180 km on a shoestring budget.
    Have to see the original Japanese to know for sure, but it’s not good.

    – A.

  7. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    A: Morning. See above just for your reference.

  8. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    If the news above is true, I cannot tell the story to my wife. She has been repeating “why did not they do this much earlier (pouring sea water)” since last Sunday. Her point has been that why compare value of reactors to the lives of people. They will be speechless. But I suspect if Kan really tried to compare the value. He must be thinking about something entirely different, otherwise he did not insist on visiting the site earlier after the incident.

  9. toadold said

    Well I wasn’t going to talk about this since I know there are people in Japan who know these survival techniques, but I’m seeing photos and videos of people who might just need them. Indoor survival tents: If you are in a building without heat you can make indoor shelters that trap and conserve body heat. You make mini-rooms or tents with cardboard and tape. If you have it you can also add aluminum foil to the walls and ceiling of the indoor shelter. If you can’t get butane fuel canisters, kerosene, or alcohol. You can use large coffee cans to make “Hobo Stoves” that are very efficient for burning small amounts of wood, twigs,pine needles or what have you.
    You need to set in on a cinder block, ceramic tile completely bare ground, in a ventilated area. Some people will stick an back packers alcohol stove in one for greater efficiency and to support larger pots.

  10. TonyGoalder said

    This is probably the only time that I have agreed with Ann Coulter. What is up with that!!

  11. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Just because Kan and his allies hesitate to release so much…… it is getting into a comedy. In the midst of death/rescue/restoration/what-you-call.

    Already Government and TEPCO throwing each other dirts that either of them refused to have US assistance to handle the nuke….

  12. toadold said

    I seem to be detecting a certain get out of the way and let the SDF handle things mood in the news reports??
    While US news conferences seem to either turn in to “softball” events or reporters ego driven “got you” events the press conferences that I see on NHK where the officials only answer questions that were given in writing seem to be like Kabuki or even Noh plays. I don’t think the old boys that I see on the panels would last very long in a live question environment??

  13. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    SDF is very much reluctant about nukes. They clearly said that they did not have skills. Firemen are saying the same thing and it started to look like a sort of banzai attack in miniature. Police are trying to off hand about this – sensible. US demand that Japan first should do what it can do – more sensible.

    Many foreign volunteers seem to have left affected areas. As for other expats, you know the news already.

    Mizuho bank got out of control about their failure of banking systems – no prospect to restore within days. They have notorious record of being paralyzed for a month back in 1994. It is said massive funds transfer to the affected area caused this system shut down.

    Tokyo Disney Resort has to shut down indefinitely because of damages they get and for the purpose of power saving.

    And rolling black outs.

    And lack of logistics.

    Easy to get freaky? Yes, for some.

    Am I scared? Not a bit. Except for noises I would hear in near future to which I prefer mild radioactivity. I would visit here to cleanse myself so I expect a bit from Ampontan and readers here.

    If we survive this, we learn a lot. At least rest of the world could draw lots of lessons, in case we do not. So the sum total would be (should be) beneficial to mankind anyway, and it survived so far that way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: