“Yes, the blog has been away, AWOL for months, due to working to finish a book and the grind of daily employed work, and the getting out of the habit frankly.”
Yes, that was written eleven months ago, and there has been an awful lot of inactivity ever since.
So, what has happened in that time? Errr. Well. Visits to Britain and Norway, conferences and presentations, work and more work, and a visit to London in March that resulted in chronic ailments, weight loss, and the worst journey back to Japan conducted by an airline other than Aeroflot. So, not much really.
Japan has completely recovered from the Triple Crises of 2011. And yet hasn’t, as tens of thousands are still living in temporary shelter housing, the mortality rate of survivors is truly appalling, and the rebuilding of most Tohoku communities has scarcely begun. The Fukushima nuclear crisis would appear to be over, unless you actually take the time to look at the basic facts, something that most people manage not to do thanks to Japanese media. The clean up hasn’t really begun, the facilities are barely stabilised, there is still no clear idea of how much nuclear material has been expelled into the environment, nor if these leaks are continuing. In short, it is a disaster which is ongoing, and yet the impression is that all is fine and well.
This could be known as the ‘Lance Corporal Jones moment’, as the eponymous character in the long running Dad’s Army BBC comedy of more than forty years ago used to jitter about, yelling “Don’t panic!” whenever there was a minor problem or major crisis, and usually when no one else appeared likely to panic. The authorities tell us all is well and not to panic. We weren’t anyway, but since we’re being told not to worry, perhaps we’d better.
The reason for this blog now, when other things could be being done (biscuits don’t eat themselves you know) is the next new crisis in Japan. This is a domestic crisis, but far away, so far that those of us in the vicinity of Tokyo felt nothing and only saw what the TV showed us. However, that was pretty dramatic. This viewer was home late from work, just fed and watered, and bored by the NHK News 9, which in its new format this month appears to allot far more time to fluff and trivia than before, perhaps wary of heavy and hard news stories in the era of government dissatisfaction with anything remotely resembling a critical media. The hand went out for the remote, it was pointed at the TV, but before a button could be pressed a loud alert chime was heard, and a warning message flashed across the screen. No, it wasn’t NHK warning against changing channels but an earthquake alert. Immediately, the female announcer went into ‘Lance Corporal Jones mode’, telling us of a massive earthquake in Kyushu, to escape from potential tsunami-affected areas, and to evacuate from buildings, after switching off gas and electric power, but not to panic. That really was the basis for millions to panic. And for good reason, as the affected area, centred around the major city of Kumamoto in the extreme south-west of Japan, was hit by an earthquake at 21:26 on Thursday 14th April, which in terms of magnitude (estimated at 6.4) was less powerful than the 1995 Hanshin (6.9), 2003 Hokkaido (8.3), 2004 Chuetsu-Niigata (6.9), and the March 2011 Great East Japan- Tohoku (9.0) quakes, but which due to a coincidence of fault lines led to a brief concentration of power in one town. Mashiki is a small town of about 32,000 to the east of Kumamoto City (in Kumamoto Prefecture), which hosts the local airport but is otherwise a small, country town with many old houses. In Mashiki, the energy of the quake was quickly focused, and the frequency of the waves have been found to resemble those of the Hanshin earthquake which decimated large residential areas of Kobe, resulting in a quake in Mashiki of Japanese Earthquake Level 7, on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale of 1-7. This resulted in large scale damage to buildings, roads and other infrastructure, and to the deaths of nine people, all but one in a small area of Mashiki, killed by their wooden buildings collapsing, as was often the case in Kobe. The relatively few deaths is the result of the sparse local population and the rapid reactions of locals, emergency services, and other supporting bodies.
An example of the contrast with the Hanshin quake was the dispatch of Ground Self-Defense (GSDF) troops to Mashiki Town upon the request of the mayor within an hour of the quake, and the arrival of the first 30 troops within approximately 90 mins of the quake. Just over 24 hours later there are approximately 1,700 SDF personnel engaged in rescue, relief, and other support duties. Police and fire fighters from 19 prefectures have dispatched personnel, and the government has coordinated dispatch of Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT), which have arrived and begun their operations. The lessons of the previous disasters seem to have been well learnt, and the emergency response has been fine. The problem is that the aftershocks have been so frequent and so strong that those who have moved to evacuation centres are often too frightened to sleep inside. With approximately 150 subsequent quakes in the next 24 hours, many so strong they have knocked adults off their feet, including during a televised earthquake briefing meeting in Kumamoto City, few have been able to feel secure despite the great emergency and support presence.
This viewer stayed up until past 1am, watching events unfold, and hoping that all would be well. However, the reassurance of the media produced one more ‘Lance Corporal Jones moment’ before bedtime. Flicking through the non-NHK commercial TV channels there appeared the most remarkable media image of the night. A gentleman, clearly a local veteran newscaster in his sixties, in a suit, sat in a TV student in Kumamoto, wearing a white, plastic helmet indicating that he and his local channel were taking the crisis seriously, and with the letters KKK emblazoned on the front of the helmet, denoting his station allegiance rather than any sinister racial ideology, was telling us information. Most of it was relatively bland. However, he had to speak up, and part of his message was “don’t worry…don’t panic…the situation has stabilised”, so that it sounded slightly shrill, and rather less than calming. One of the reasons he had to speak up was that his colleagues in the studio were bouncing around shouting at each other right behind and beside him, yelling “have you got the data? No? Well what’s happening then?” They were obviously not listening to helmet-man’s advice. But somewhat comfortingly, none of them were wearing helmets. Whatever the crises they were dealing with the roof of the studio was not likely to drop on them, and most would be able to go home to bed, eventually.
Comforted by that small crumb, this viewer switched off and retired to bed. As surely did millions of others. And that is the most disquieting thing about such a major disaster. Most of us in the same country feel the crisis is real and terrible, but we simply don’t feel any effect. The most panic we feel is when men with helmets and women without tell us not to panic. This really is a most curious and distant domestic crisis.