Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Earthquake update: Day Twelve

Tohoku Earthquake mapA full 11 days have passed since the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami which has caused so much devastation in the NE coastal region of Japan. According to the last report that I heard today, the official death toll is now over 9,000 with over 12,000 still missing, and thousands are without homes, living in evacuation shelters, their cars, or wherever they can.

I really appreciate everyone who has sent tweets and emails, and for keeping us in your thoughts. We really can't complain about some of the minor inconveniences we've had to deal with, when we think of all the lives lost in the worst-affected areas, and the hardships the people there continue to endure. But I know some of you would like an update on how things are for us in Tokyo.

Of course the problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant have taken over the news, and things there are serious. But the foreign media especially, has taken a very exaggerated, doom is upon us, let's imagine the worst-case scenario, perspective. As a result, many of the foreign residents have fled the country. However, Tokyo maybe a little quieter these days but it is nowhere near a ghost town like some media are saying. It's just the foreign stores and schools that are closed and shuttered. I've heard that Ikea stores around Kanto remain closed. And French bread shops and restaurants since all the French staff have left. And international schools. To name a few.

Do I trust that the Japanese government and other official organisations are being completely transparent? No. But there are so many eyes watching Japan right now it seems it would be pretty hard to lie outright about the current situation. Radiation levels are being measured daily in Fukushima (of course), Tokyo, and around the country by the government and many other organisations. Some of them are official, like WHO, IAEA. Some are being done by private organisations. Some by other countries like the US.

In concordance with many other foreign countries, Canada recommends all Canadians in Japan to stay outside an 80 km exclusion zone around the plant, but that there is no need to evacuate from Tokyo. According to Google Maps, where we are in the Western suburbs of Tokyo, we're about 240 km away from the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) Nuclear Plant.

The good news is that there has been some improvement in the situation at the plant towards getting the power there restored. The bad news is that over the weekend some radiation has been detected in some food items grown in the areas near, and up to 120 km away from, the Fukushima plant. Especially spinach and other leafy, green vegetables, and in milk. According to the officials, the levels found are still very small. As a comparison, they stated that drinking the tainted milk for one year would equal the radiation received in one CT scan. Eating the spinach for a year would equal to 1/5 of a CT scan. However, they have banned shipments of these food products and farmers have been instructed to destroy their crops. So these vegetables and milk are not available in the shops. They are continuing to test and report on these and other items. Slight traces of radioactive iodine have also been found in Tokyo tap water and even though they do not exceed safety limits, it is a concern.

Have I thought of leaving? Of course. If I were here on my own, like I was when I first came to Tokyo many years ago, I probably would have packed my bags and headed home too. And if we had young children I can see possibly leaving. Just in case. However, I can't really see myself abandoning H and the cats right now just to sit around in Canada worrying. And for how long? Incidentally, I would be exposed to more radiation on the international flight than staying here at the moment. Math has never been my strong suit, but the current level of radiation in Tokyo seems still well within the usual level of background radiation we're all exposed to every year. In another comparison, it would apparently take living in Tokyo for 3 years at the current radiation levels to equal one mammogram. And did you know that we absorb a small amount of radiation just by sleeping next to someone? The things you learn when there is a nuclear accident in your backyard, as it were.

Otherwise, our main inconvenience at the moment is the continuing lack of certain items in the stores. Due to excessive hoarding, on the weekend when we last went, it was still impossible to find toilet paper, batteries, water and bread in the supermarkets. I have to say that I'm very glad we have our home bread maker. It has kept us in fresh bread. Other items like milk, and instant noodles are also difficult to find. However, other things are starting to be replenished. I've also heard that even those premium items are becoming available again in other areas in Tokyo. I don't remember now who it was (sorry) but someone joked on Twitter a few days ago how people are going to feel pretty silly when this is all over and they have 5000 cup noodles in their closet!

conserve energy poster
Poster encouraging energy conservation
Central Tokyo is exempt but other areas around the capital are having rolling blackouts to compensate for the power shortage. Besides the nuclear plant in the news, there were several other plants that were forced to shut down from the earthquake and tsunami resulting in a considerable lack of power for the entire Kanto and Tohoku regions. We are included in the areas subject to blackouts but for some reason that we're not entirely sure of why, we haven't yet had a blackout in our area. Here's hoping our luck holds.

The positive thing is even though we haven't had a blackout. Yet, anyway. We've been much more aware of our energy use and have been more careful about turning off lights where we used to leave them on. If nothing else we'll hopefully have a little smaller electricity bill next month. It's also been good to see shops using less lighting. Tokyo is usually a very bright place. Too bright, really, with all the neon signs and flourescent lighting everywhere. So it's a bit darker here these days, but it surely must be good for the environment.

Due to the power shortage, trains, especially more minor lines outside the central city core, are still running on reduced schedules which means that it can take longer to get around. It was a long weekend here in Japan last weekend, the first day of spring is a national holiday here, but we haven't strayed too far from home since the earthquake due to the train situation. I'll be having my first lessons since the earthquake tomorrow, and a potentially long commute. We'll see how it goes. But other than these minor issues, life is returning to normal in Tokyo.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the news reports but you really can't believe everything you read or see these days, even in the main stream media. Don't get me started on how completely ridiculous and misinformed some of the foreign news reports are. Please don't get sucked into the paranoia. To be honest I'm more concerned about the long overdue mega quake in Tokyo, than I am about any slight increase in radiation. Reading things like this article, What chance of a 'big one' in Tokyo? certainly doesn't help either. In fact, we never planned to settle permanently in Japan and already last year we began to seriously discuss moving out in the next 1-2 years. So in the meantime, we can just hope for the best, and try to get on with our lives.

If you'd like more information, here are a few links:

Japan Meterological Agency Earthquake Information
NHK World News (Japanese news in English)
Japanese government environmental radioactivity readings
Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health monitoring environmental radioactivity levels
Tokyo radiation levels
Japan radiation levels (in English)
Geiger counter readings in Western Tokyo
Japan cites radiation in milk, spinach near plant
Radiation Dose Chart
How dangerous is low-level radiation?
International Atomic Energy Agency
World Health Organization
Background radiation (Wikipedia)
Japanese, Foreign media diverge (The Wall Street Journal)
Time Out Tokyo

The worst-hit areas are still in desperate need of aid:
Japanese Red Cross Society
Japan Society Earthquake Relief Fund
Save the Children
Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support
World Vets
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
The Salvation Army Japan

And to lighten things up:
Marauding mobs! (Japan earthquake) -- Cat lovers, this will make you smile!
Earthquake drill (The Joy of Tech)

Image source:
Tohoku Earthquake Map
Energy Conservation posters


  1. Dear Nat, so happy you and H and the kitties are alright :)

  2. Thanks so much for the update, Nat!

    I don't think I told you my son will be working another year in Ishioka. The only thing the quake etc changed for him is that he was thinking of coming home for a visit between the school years, and will now wait until summer holidays since traveling right now would be a big hassle.

    He's about 175km from the power plant and feels the exact same way you do, Nat. (I need to send this post of yours to some of my alarmist family members!) I am not surprised at all by my son's decision -- once I discerned the facts from the sensationalism, I knew he'd stay. And I'm happy he can do what he wants to do.

    My heart continues to go out to the country and its people.

  3. Thank you for providing us with an update. I'm sick of all the scaremoungering that I've been seeing in the news recently, so it is really nice to see you putting the real radiation levels in perspective. Glad to hear you are doing OK.

  4. Thank you for writing these updates! They really help with a realistic picture of what's happening in Japan right now. I've stopped watching the news on the subject now because there's little new (except for the amazing rescues that are still happening!). I just hope that recovery is swift and that you are spared another major disaster for some time to come.

  5. Thanks for posting this update... it's good to hear directly from someone in Japan what is going on. Glad to hear you and your family are doing okay :)

  6. I'm looking at Marauding mobs! and laughing out loud;) Those kitties climbing up for food are so adorable!

  7. Glad to hear you are holding up! I think of you whenever the news is on. It is hard to know the facts from media panic. They are interested in ratings after all.

  8. Thanks so much for continuing to keep us updated on your situation. You, H and the kitties have been in my thoughts every single day.

    Would you mind if I shared your post on FB? I think others would like to hear how the situation is first-hand.

  9. Thanks for the update Nat. it's nice to know what happened there through the eyes of someone who is actually living there. The news exaggerate things too much.

    I really hope the radiation problem can be fixed soon

  10. Glad to hear an update from you - i was looking in my RSS every day just in case and today was the day!!!

    The media seem to hype everything up whenever something happens. Especially in the UK.

    Well keep safe


  11. Thank you for the update, it is good to know that things are going OK for you. All the best and I hope that things only keep improving. And try not to stock the closets too full of noodles if you find them ;)

  12. i have to say, you were the first person I thought of when I heard of this horrible tragedy. I'm so glad to hear that you are safe!

    I'm back to blogging again, and I just wanted to stop in and say hello. I hope you are doing well.


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