Category Archives: Disasters

Season’s greetings

Well, the carol muzak fills the air of the arcades and promenades (with a muzakal rendition of O Tannenbaum, better known to these Brit ears as The Red Flag—“The people’s flag is deepest red / It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead”–on heavy rotation), the rightist soundtrucks blare out martial songs in the background as I write this as they rehearse for the Emperor’s birthday on December 23, and snatches of the fourth movement (“Alle Menschen werden Brüder”) of Beethoven’s Ninth, a hardy perennial Yuletide favorite in Japan, emanate from television and radio.

All of this can only mean one thing: it’s time to inaugurate a new tradition, at grave risk of coming across somewhere between an Oscar acceptance speech and a sherried-up great-aunt’s photocopied Christmas circular, and send out season’s greetings to all. Writing in the contemporary world is, for me at least, a daunting affair—with 100,000 books published annually in the US, another 100,000 published in the UK, some 200 million and mounting blogs in the blogosphere, and half of all US teens describing themselves as “content creators”, why would anyone waste their precious time on my witterings, I often wonder to myself, so I’m simply and straightforwardly grateful to everyone who stops by, in particular to Spike’s 300-odd e-mail subscribers, who hail from places as diverse as Hanoi and Prague (with a big shout-out to the sizeable Alberta/British Columbia contingent), its 100-odd Twitter followers, and especially to everyone who takes the trouble to leave a comment.

Us bloggers are narcissistic, solipsistic, frequently deluded folk, filled with self-doubt—in short, we’re human—so we care deeply about our stats—our clicks, our hits, our comment counts—and at the business end of a fine WordPress blog, at least, we can obsess unhealthily over them in quite some detail. It was with a rush of delight, for instance, that I discovered last month that Spike had notched up its quarter millionth hit. Not much compared to the Benjy the skateboarding dog video at YouTube, I bemoaned to a friend, who caustically and rightly replied that Benjy brings far more joy to the world than I do.

Spike began the year with the quotation “By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen” and ended with the phrase “harsher winds blowing in the heartland”. In between, I somehow managed to scrawl out 24 posts—another novella length’s worth of ramblings—about everything under the Japanese sun from alienation to orb-weaver spiders. As Spike, my alter-ego, the year brought one particular personal highlight, at a farewell party—no shortage of them this year, as foreigners fled—at the rooftop poolside of the swanky Tokyo American Club, where the host introduced me as “Spike Japan” to coos of recognition and approval, as well as friendly admonitions not to slacken the pace and disappoint my “fans”. So once again, thank you all—I simply wouldn’t have kept on writing without you.

Ah, I almost forgot—the photos. They’re fresh off the roll, taken yesterday on a wild-goose, needle-in-a-haystack mission to the summer resort of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture with my old friend Dr. W—, associate professor of Japanese history at W— University. The mission was to find this mountain lodge, in amongst fifteen hundred others like it, in a half-shambolic, half-spruce besso holiday home resort called Lake New Town, where entry by outsiders is an act of trespass and the now icy roads make driving treacherous.

No one wants this lodge to be found—no signs guide the way, no memorial plinth stands nearby, no “X” marks the spot. This is no ordinary lodge though, but the Asama Sanso, where on February 19, 1972, nigh on forty years ago, five members of the United Red Army forced their way in, took the caretaker’s wife hostage, and held off the police in a bloody siege that lasted ten days and left two cops and a bystander dead. The United Red Army had started the winter of 1971/2 a platoon 29 strong, but at its Haruna Base, just over the prefectural border in Gunma, had succumbed to an orgy of internecine strife and lynch-mob justice that left 12 of its acolytes dead through starvation, exposure, and asphyxiation for imaginary thought-crimes that span the gamut from “defeatism”, the offence of the first to die, Michio Ozaki (22), to “bureaucratism” and “theoreticism”, the offences of the last, Takashi Yamada (27). As the dragnet closed in, the ringleaders and other members were nabbed; five escaped on foot across the border to Nagano, and so began the siege of the Asama Sanso.  

It was a strange stand-off: the besieged paid no heed to the police and made no demands of their own. The lodge was stocked with provisions aplenty, and once the only entrance, on the top floor, had been barricaded, it was turned into a nigh on impregnable fortress. Nothing on the police side worked, not even the 150 tonnes of water rained down, the 1,500 rounds of tear gas fired, the all-night barrages of noise, and the megaphoned pleas of anguished relatives. The siege was marked by moments of macabre comedy: the besiegers’ bento meals froze in the frigid cold before they could be doled out and the police were forced to rely on then just-invented Cup Noodles for sustenance. A scheme to destroy the top floor with a wrecking ball had to be aborted after the operator of the improvised armored crane kicked the battery terminal from its moorings in the cramped cabin.

On the 10th day, the police stormed the lodge; it took over eight hours to find and subdue the five fugitives. If the incident spelt the end of ultra-radical left as a force with which to be reckoned , it marked the dawn of the age of live outside broadcasts and saturation coverage of breaking news—the peak audience rating of 90% on the last day of the seige has never been matched before or since in Japanese television history.  

At the time of the siege the lodge belonged to a maker of musical instruments. Astonishingly, it was not demolished but renovated and extended, passing through several owners before ending up a few years back in the possession of a motorcycle design firm, which goes some of the way to explaining the sign in peeling green and fractured French by the front door: “C’est l’espace pour les menbres et amis de moto”. In February this year, it was bought by a Japan-registered company with a Chinese name and probable Hong Kong connections, to predictable howls of outrage from the right, enraged that the Maoist-tinged United Red Army should have the last—for now—laugh as ownership passes into the hands of the sons and daughters of Mao. What the Chinese plan to with it is anyone’s guess—it’s hard to imagine anyone who knows their history spending a restful night in a place so abustle with ghosts.

Of the five fugitives, one, Kunio Bando, was released in 1975 after the Japanese Red Army stormed the US and Swedish embassies in Kuala Lumpur and took 52 hostages; he remains at large. One, Motohisa Kato, was just 16 years old at the time of the incident, and went largely scot-free. His older brother, Michinori, was sentenced to 13 years; he is now a farmer and active in the Wild Bird Society of Japan. Masakuni Yoshino was sentenced to life for the murder of 17 people and remains behind bars. Hiroshi Sakaguchi, “number three” in the United Red Army, was sentenced to hang and remains on death row, four decades on—a cruel and unusual punishment if ever there was one.

Well, you wouldn’t have wanted a beaming Santa and his grinning little elvish helpers on a Christmas card from me now, would you? All the best for the year ahead, thanks again, and please drop by, if you have the time to spare, in 2012.


Minispike: You survived the meltdown, now get the T-shirt

 (More pontifications from the purple velour armchair)

While the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has slipped from the front pages (and even the inside ones) of much of the world’s press, it became clear on May 12 that reactor No. 1 was far worse shape than TEPCO had suspected, at least publicly—although it came as no huge shock to this dilettanteish student of the only comparable incident, Three Mile Island—with the core in complete meltdown, a situation likely to have been replicated in reactors No. 2 and No. 3.

The response of Kunihiko Takeda, Vice-Chancellor of the Institute of Science and Technology Research at Chubu University, Director of the Asahi Chemical Industries Uranium Enrichment Laboratory (1986-1991), recipient of the Special Award of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (1990), anthropogenic climate change denier, pointless controversialist, general buffoon, and a man whose views, unusually for a scientist, are largely unencumbered by empirical evidence, was that:

It’s neither a surprise nor bad news. This means TEPCO has been pumping lots of water in the reactor without knowing what exactly is happening in it, which is the best thing TEPCO could do.

A response that in this reader prompted a mixture of reactions: laughter, recollection of the Upton Sinclair quip, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”, marvel at the eternal optimism of the sunlit mind, and despair at the state of higher education. At least the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in its latest update as of this writing, has the decency to concede that, “Overall, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious”.

Letdown and putdown, takedown and breakdown, comedown and meltdown—compound nouns derived from phrasal verbs and the adverb “down” are, well, real downers, and it’s no wonder that the IAEA prefers “core melt accident”. “Meltdown” will suffice for me, although the question of whether we have indeed survived will remain moot until cold shutdown, one compound “down” noun that will come—perhaps in a year’s time—as blessed relief.

The roles of nuclear power and renewables in the solution to the twin crises of energy depletion and climate change that two centuries of fossil fuel addiction have wrought are of course subject to monstrously complex debate and beyond the scope of meaningful contribution here from me, who like many, resents being forced to think about things nuclear and who would much rather be writing about the decay of hot-springs resorts than the decay of radioactive isotopes.

For now I choose to take refuge in black humor, and it is therefore with pleasure that I present a garment whose time has come, the Plutonium kun T-shirt.

 The tee is available in a choice of white or speckled gray from Tokyo T-shirt outfit Small Design here, for Y3,400 ($42)—not cheap, true, but then quality rarely is.

When I first wrote about Plutonium kun on April 2, I mentioned how hard it was to track down shots of the elusive lad. It isn’t any more, as he has gone viral (in Japan at least), as an image engine search for プルトくん or プルト君 will show. It’s my ardent dream, although an unlikely to be fulfilled one, that he become as internationally famous as the nuclear trefoil—or at least as famous as Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy from The Simpsons.

While the Plutonium kun tee has understandably streaked to the top of its sales ranking, Small Design has been churning out other T-shirt designs inspired by Fukushima Daiichi, including this one, hot off the screenprint press, in commemoration of the confirmation of the meltdown

 and this one,

inspired by a prankster’s brilliantly surreptitious addition

to the Myth of Tomorrow mural at Shibuya station by legendary avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, a story that has only barely seeped out into the global media.

Order your nuclear tee now and wear it with pride —all the best people are sporting them this season.

[With many thanks to reader Jeffrey for the tip-off]

Holiday in Fukushima: To the zone of exclusion

It’s time to taste what you most fear,
Right Guard will not help you here,
Brace yourself, my dear,
Brace yourself, my dear,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
It’s tough kid, but it’s life,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
Don’t forget to pack a wife…

(With apologies to The Dead Kennedys)

 Japan’s Golden Week break in late April and early May is often a wash-out: the four national holidays regularly fall in part on a weekend, the roads seethe with epic bumper-to-bumper jams, hotel rooms are scarcer than hen’s teeth, and even if you finally reach your chosen destination, queues of hours for the attraction are inevitable if it is at all popular.

This year augured better, though: the national holidays distributed themselves beautifully across the calendar, meaning a whole week off could be had for the price of a single working day’s vacation, and the national mood of self-restraint in the aftermath of the disaster was leading the media to predict that traffic volumes would be down by a third to a half. It was time, I decided, to leverage these fortuitous circumstances. Where would the roads be most deserted, where would the hotels be emptiest, where would the queues be shortest, I mused. It was time, I decided, for a holiday in Fukushima.

An accident on the elevated expressway out of the capital brought an hour of almost total immobility, with the trucks thundering past on the inbound lanes causing the ancient, rickety structure to vibrate like an endless earthquake. Eventually we were unshackled, and heading north was like rewinding the clock of spring: while the new verdancy in Tokyo was already dazzling, here the landscape was draped in tentative greens and the delicate pinks of cherry trees.

Few vehicles were left on the expressway as the border loomed. Welcome to Fukushima, said the sign, with inauspiciously high waves menacing a lighthouse, and welcome to Iwaki, where the Hula Girls were born.

Fukushima has been cursed by the decision of a nameless apparatchik or faceless committee many decades back to name Fukushima Daiichi and Daini not after the city, town, or village where they are located, as all but one of the nation’s 15 other nuclear power plants are, but after the whole of the prefecture. Had the decision fallen differently, the litany of nuclear tragedy would read Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Okuma, but now the entire prefecture and its two million inhabitants are tainted by association, a contaminated brand.

Iwaki is huge—at some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, it’s as large as a small English county, and its very northernmost fringe intrudes into the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. Like many a Fukushima municipality, it’s an artificial creation, in this case the 1966 amalgamation of 14 cities, towns, and villages. Once a coal-mining region, it has made a relatively successful transition to industry and tourism since the last mine closed in 1976. The first port of call was to pay my respects at the spiritual home of those Hula Girls, Spa Resort Hawaiians.

The cladding around the new hotel going up on the hill lent it an unfortunate resemblance to one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. The sign to the right announced that the resort would be closed for a while, due to the March 11 earthquake and to another earthquake that had escaped my attention, the April 11 Iwaki aftershock, which turns out to have been an M7.0 temblor directly under the city—just another flick of the catfish’s tail.

Overshadowed by the kitschy glamour of Spa Resort Hawaiians, the neighboring hot-springs district of Iwaki Yumoto has been moldering away for years. Almost all of the hotels were closed, the notices on their doors citing the earthquake and aftershock, with some throwing in “harmful rumors” or “reputational damage” (風評被害), one of the expressions of the moment, for good measure. Traces of a grimier past were not hard to come by: what might have been an old collier’s house stood across the road from one of the largest hotels.

Another expression of the moment, “ganbaro” (がんばろう or ガンバロウ or 頑張ろう), which might be rendered as “hang in there” or “tough it out”, was much in evidence. Here an image character, Tairamon, encourages Iwaki, while a hand-drawn sign encourages Yumoto.

Down at the port of Onahama, a convoy of volunteer buses was parked in serried rank as streams of people who had sacrificed their vacations to help out in any way they could carted debris out of La La Mew, a fish market, gift center, and restaurant complex, and I felt the first prickings of guilt. Fortunately I found company with other rubberneckers watching dockside salvage operations, a man perched precariously on the stern of a sunken vessel.

No matter how many video clips of tsunami inundation you can brace yourself to watch, no matter how many survivors’ tales you can bear to hear, nothing prepares your senses fully for the experience: at Onahama it was the stench that was overpowering, first the acrid taste of spilt diesel on tangy salt air, then the stinking assault of rotting fish, now the rank odor of toxic garbage fumes. Although the waves had reached only a couple of hundred meters inland here, barely crossing the portside dual-carriageway, on the unlucky side of the road the Onahama Tourist Center had been eviscerated, its entrails carried who knew where. 

The details appalled: the exuberantly colorful albacore on the side of a fishing boat,

the acres of railroad tracks, their ballast replaced by sea-disgorged sand and stones, and the untouched cement works, with its neat piles of coal, in the backdrop of the carnage.

Located on a sea-jutting wharf, the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima is the jewel in Iwaki’s tourism crown, and its post-earthquake travails bear uncanny animal kingdom parallels with the woes of Fukushima Daiichi. Flooded throughout the ground floor by the tsunami, its backup power generators kicked in to power up the indispensible filtration systems while the big beasts—sea lions and walruses, seals and otters—were evacuated to other aquariums, as were the piscine stars of the show such as gar and greeneye, but the diesel for the generators and the food for the fish ran out, leaving 200,000 marine organisms of 750 species dead in oxygen-starved tanks.  

Chastened, I turned inland and stopped for a snack at a Seven-Eleven to make my first, very modest, contribution to the revival of the Fukushima economy. An old woman cried from back of the store, “Earthquake! And I’ve only just finished cleaning up!” to a tremor I failed to feel. Some people were still jumpy.

Heading north up the coast, at the places where the road was forced by topography to hug the sea, the devastation was callous in its capriciousness. Fate had been too cruel: one house furthest from the shore in a cluster of a dozen stood untouched, while its companions sat back on their haunches or listed like fish with swim-bladder disorder. Houses sheltered by a headland lay a stone’s skim from scenes of utter destruction. The new things pained the most: a brace of freshly built homes, their first-floor guts ripped out, a pin-fresh hotel with deep scars and smashed windows. No more photos, at any rate not here, I told myself, as a man strapped into his camera strode gleefully off to capture a car upended and tossed, with almost wanton whimsy, into a paddy.

Route Six runs for some 350km up the Pacific coast from Tokyo to Sendai, but it pierces the heart of the zone of exclusion at Futaba and it’s no longer possible to get to Minami Soma from Iwaki. I turned right and headed north toward Fukushima Daiichi.

(Observant pistonheads will notice the car in front of me is a Nissan, as are the two minivans facing camera behind the Nissan dealership—that’s because Iwaki is a Nissan town, being home to the Nissan plant responsible for the VQ engine series, which featured on Ward’s annual 10 best engine list for 14 straight years from 1995 to 2008.) 

Soon it was goodbye Iwaki and hello Hirono—crossing the border meant I was now a couple of kilometres inside the 20km-30km radius from Fukushima Daiichi that was initially designated as the “stay indoors” zone (室内避難区域) until the boundaries were redrawn on April 21, leaving the whole of Hirono but none of Iwaki in the “prepare to evacuate in an emergency” zone (緊急時避難準備区域).

Some lazy hacks have taken to calling everywhere along the Fukushima coast from Minami Soma in the north to Iwaki in the south “nuclear ghost towns”. They’re not, but Hirono is, and I hope never to see another one in my life. No rampaging steers running wild here, no cows lying dying in barns, no dogs turning feral as there are in the 20km zone of exclusion; this had been an orderly departure, leaving in its trace only silences and absences—of cars from garageless driveways, of washing from steel clothes poles, of people from the tidy sidewalks. Every roadside enterprise, from humble ramen stand to ubiquitous convenience store, was locked and deserted. What, I wondered, would an observer catapulted forward in time from two months ago (has it really only been two months?) make of this post-apocalyptic scene.

As so often, it was the signs that were most poignant. One on a hillside proclaimed that Hirono was the town, by virtue of its southerly location, that announced the coming of spring to the north-eastern Tohoku region, while another called for support for the women’s soccer club Mareeze (yes, it’s a portmanteau of “marine” and “breeze”) of Fukushima Daiichi operator TEPCO—like the string of four pure-play nuclear seaside towns to the north, Hirono is a TEPCO company town, thanks to its mixed gas and coal thermal power plant.

Welcome to Hirono, says this sign, a town where you can meet others through soccer—Hirono is home to J-Village, the first national football training facility. It claims that Hirono, too, is the hometown of children’s songs—the two to which it refers, known by every child throughout the land, being The Dragonfly’s Glasses, written by a local country doctor, and Steam Train, whose connection with Hirono rests on a tenuous lyrical pun. Still, every little town must have its little claim to fame.

By the town hall, an elliptical message: everyone participates, a healthy town.

Dylan was drawling, “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” over the stereo as I parked up awhile to watch a procession of olive drab armoured personnel carriers, adorned with white bibs reading “disaster dispatch duty”, and police riot buses, windows begrilled, roll in from the south, realizing with mounting consternation that the buses were from Nagoya and other far distant places. Admittedly, there have been many reports of burglaries and even the odd mugging of an ATM within the zone of exclusion, but does it really take the whole of the nation’s boys in blue to restore law and order to a few rural towns? Or were they, I wondered, streaming in for slyer, more sinister purposes, to make recalcitrants among the workers for TEPCO and its subcontractors toe the radiological line?

Route Six was blocked at the 20km limit, as expected. A cop waved traffic off to a diversion to the right and I found myself facing the twin chimneys of the otherwise invisible power plant, not a comforting sight.

Another diversion, this time to the left, and I wound up at J-Village, requisitioned by the state soon after the disaster as the front-line base for the nuclear drama.

TEPCO and subcontractor workers at Fukushima Daiichi get three days R&R here after three days on site, although as according to its own website, J-Village has no running water, it’s unclear how much rest or relaxation anyone might get.

And this was truly the end of the line: I was now 9km south of Fukushima Daini and 20km south of Fukushima Daiichi. Entry forbidden by the Basic Law on Disaster Response, Article 116, Paragraph 1, Item 2, threatens the sign, violators may be punished. With a Y100,000 ($1,250) fine or—more likely—a month in chokey, say the media, and not fancying 30 days in the slammer—prisons hereabouts are no holiday camps, by all accounts—I resolved to venture no further. In a van by the sign, a bunch of Hitachi Transport System employees—what were they doing here—were nodding off or dozing on as a busload of hired hands from general contractor Taisei shipped out of J-Village. Everyone, but everyone, was wearing facemasks, fine for pollen allergies but as likely to stop radiation in its tracks as a picket fence would a bull elephant in heat. A cop car cruised past, sirens silent but lights ablaze, eyeing me suspiciously. Perhaps because of an overdose of Kafka—at least a sievert’s worth—at too impressionable an age, I’ve always feared groundless arrest and prosecution, and although I wasn’t committing any illegal act, my presence, I felt, was no longer required. Life was turning into the first reel of a low-budget sci-fi gore fest, and I had lost the desire to stick around to find out what happens next.

On returning home, I discovered the depth of the Faustian compacts in which these Fukushima seashore towns had engaged with TEPCO. While the prefectural average per capita income in the year to end-March 2009, the latest year for which data are available (Japanese-only link to a mine of fascinating Fukushima factoids here), was around Y2.75mn ($34,000 at the current rate), it was Y5.65mn (over $70,000) in Hirono, by far the highest in Fukushima, and Y4.85mn (over $60,000) in Okuma, home to most of Fukushima Daiichi. In the sublimely implausible event that Hirono and its 4,500-odd inhabitants were to declare independence, it would rank somewhere above Switzerland and below Norway as one of the nominally half-dozen wealthiest nations on the planet. Remember that the next time you fork over for your electricity bills, Tokyoites.

The nuclear shoreline is also impervious, it would seem, to the vicissitudes of recession. While the rest of the prefecture—and the rest of the world—were left reeling in wake of the global financial crisis, the Soma district (essentially the Fukushima coast minus Iwaki) was clocking up gross product (i.e., GDP at a local level) growth of 6.4%, a figure that would not bring dishonour to the average emerging economy.

This bastion of electric wealth is unlikely to see its fortunes crumble anytime soon. While TEPCO is seeking a 20% cut in its peons’ pay and the toothless in-house union has folded its hand without a whisper of dissent, the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and, as now seems likely, Daini, will provide decades of arduous but lucrative work, while the five generators at Hirono will be even more pivotal to keeping the lights on in the capital.

I headed northwest, inland, to the city of Tamura then backtracked east, so I was now due west of Fukushima Daiichi and closing in on it, my destination a celebration of all things coleopteran and the rhinoceros beetle in particular, Kodomo no Kuni (“children’s country”) Mushi Mushi (“insect insect”) Land, whose attractions include the Rhinoceros Beetle Mansion and the Rhinoceros Beetle Natural Observation Park.

Lying just 33.4km west of Fukushima Daiichi, Mushi Mushi Land had gamely struggled on after March 11 until, bizarrely, someone realized around a month later that eight households in the area were inside the 30km zone and the city mandated the evacuation of the whole district. This much I knew in advance, but the word was that somehow the on-site accommodation facility, Sky Palace Tokiwa, was still open. Many of the backroads leading to Insect Land had been ripped asunder by the earthquake, however, the signposts were unhelpful, and dusk was stealing in, so with reluctance I gave up my quest to spend the night in coleopteran company.

Just down the road I found a ramshackle single-storey hot-springs hotel, Kanda no Yu, an agglomeration of at least eight wings, ells, and extensions of varying age. The proprietress—let’s call her mother—seemed to take a shine to me.

“Have you come to volunteer?” Again the twinge of guilt.

“No, I’ve come to support Fukushima. And to do a little research.”

Raucous laughter emanated from a party in the interior.

“It’s getting pretty lively back there.”

“Yes, the cherries are in full bloom. It’s the first booking we’ve had in quite a while. Since…” Her voice trailed off.

“I had hoped to stay up at Insect Land, but it seems to be all shut down.”

“Is it? That is a shame. The beetles are just coming into season now, too.”

Grandmother gave me the once-over with a beady eye as I carried my bags in. Somehow I found myself looking up with her at a swallow’s nest in the eaves.

“It’s a swallow’s nest.”

“Yes, I see. But the swallows haven’t come back yet, have they?” I knew as soon as I blurted this out that the conversation had taken a wrong turn.

“Of course they have!” she said in high dudgeon, pointing to a trace of swallow droppings below the nest. “You don’t think we’d’ve left the shit there from last year, do you?”

Dining options in the center of Tamura were limited. I settled on a counter perch at this branch of Hakkenden (“legend of eight swords”), a kushiyaki chicken-on-a-stick chain. A lanky black-uniformed dude with a scraggly goatee, pierced nose, and an indecipherable and amateurish monochrome tattoo above his right wrist proved to be a disciplined twirler of the chicken batons on the charcoal and won my heart when he flipped the bird in some style to a customer acquaintance, the first time I’d ever seen the middle finger given on these islands. A queue of blossom revellers—no sombre self-restraint here—built up outside the restaurant. “Japan,” I thought to myself, “there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Back home, I wasn’t so sure. Like the rest of Fukushima, which is set to lose a fifth of its folk in the coming quarter century, Tamura is in dire demographic trouble. The population, heading south to 40,000, is already a quarter below the 1970 level and fell by 6.5% from 2005 to 2010 alone, outpacing the predictions of the demographers due mainly it seems to a tumbling birth rate, and is likely to fall by another quarter by 2035. Agriculture is in a state of collapse: while there were 11,000 farmers in 1985, only 4,400 were left on the land by 2005, perhaps because one of the primary crops is uncompetitive leaf tobacco, the sole and increasingly reluctant buyer of which is the former cigarette monopoly, Japan Tobacco.

As with Tamura, so with Hakkenden, a brand of a listed restaurant operator, Marche, which has some 850 restaurants, directly run and franchised, in various formats, around the nation. While Marche sales hovered around Y19bn-Y20bn ($235mn-$250mn) from 2002 to 2007, they have plummeted in the last five years. Marche is aiming for sales down 13% to Y13.5bn ($170mn) in the year to end-March, a target it will be lucky to achieve, as sales in the first three quarters of the fiscal year were down a calamitous 18%.

Back at the inn, the maid fussed, cautioning of morning chills, as I marvelled at the room’s tiny and prehistoric CRT TV. There was a choice of TEPCO reading matter—a hardback propaganda manga from a decade ago, “Environment company TEPCO: Together with wisdom to a living future”, and the latest edition of Nikkei Business magazine, whose cover bore a picture of TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu bowing and the stern Dostoyevskian legend “TEPCO: Crime and punishment”—but I was too tired for either. Serenaded by a sublime chorus of frogs, pebbly then tremulous, I fell asleep 35km and, according to my roadmap, three traffic lights due west of Fukushima Daiichi to my first ever nuclear nightmare, in which a vitrified radioactive waterfall atop which I was standing was about to melt.

Before breakfast next morning, I took a stroll around Tokiwa, the dusty corner of Tamura where I had pitched up, enraptured by the consumer electronics shop,

the ironmongers,

and the vendor of salt and Subarus (said the sign),

before coming across a photographer’s studio with something I’ve been longing to unearth—a two-digit phone number.

Around the corner of the shop lay a feast for the amateur iconographer.

All new cars, exclaims the ad for a driving school at the top. New that is, if a 1962 Nissan Cedric qualifies as new. The deeply faded wooden plaque pronounces the store owner to be a member of the Japan Photo Culture Association, which still exists, while below that there’s evidence that the phone number on the front of the studio hadn’t seen time lop a digit off.

On and on through Tokiwa thundered the trucks of the military and the police, bearing tell-tale number plates from Yokohama, Gifu, Toyama, anywhere but here, on their terrifying way to Fukushima Daiichi.

As I prepared to leave after a hearty country breakfast, mother pressed a couple of onigiri rice balls into my hands.

“For lunch. Made with mushrooms freshly picked from the hills.”

I accepted, embarrassed. Later I wondered whether this was some obscure trial of courage—or foolhardiness. Still, what’s the odd kilobecquerel between friends? I had one—just the one—for lunch. A little salty, perhaps, but delicious.

After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun

It’s not widely known, but the feckless, reckless, and soon to be penniless operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), built an eight-storey tribute to itself, Denryokukan—The Hall of Electric Power—deep in the heart of the Tokyo youth fashion mecca of Shibuya back in the Orwellian year of 1984, when the picking of the fruits of its tree of monopoly profits was good.

I’d love to bring you a live report from The Hall of Electric Power (admission free), but sadly I can’t, because it was closed in April last year for renovation and was due for a grand renewal open, as we call such things hereabouts, with the impeccable timing that only a master of disaster such as TEPCO can muster, on March 20, just nine days after the tsunami set in train the continuing carnage at Fukushima Daiichi, and The Hall will remain closed, its website informs with deep apologies (if a website could bow, this one would), “for the time being”.

Unable to sample the treasures of the Alpha Wave Library and the delights of the Induction Heating Herb Café first hand, I’ll have to fall back on a report of a long-ago visit by a traveler from Finland, who calls The Hall “a bizarre electrified Disneyland with displays like The Electric Forest and the ever-popular Demand Side Management Theater”. He goes on to recount a surreal 3D movie being shown in the eighth floor TEPCO Hall:

I was expecting a 3D tour of a power plant or the life of a uranium atom or something, and the first 15 minutes were indeed a 2D cartoon on how to conserve energy, but then the actual movie started—and wow! It was very 3D, limited only by the relatively small screen and motionless seats, but the movie itself was an absolutely stunning animated feature called 銀河鉄道999 (Galaxy Express 999). The movie packed all the twists and turns of a 2-hour movie into 15 minutes, with our approximately 10-year-old protagonist taking a steam locomotive in the company of a wispy blonde in a fur hat. The locomotive flies out into space, where he meets a waitress named Kurea who is made of transparent crystal, walks around naked and weeps about being lonely. Then there’s a laser-gun firefight, the train goes out of control and heads straight into an asteroid field, the blonde turns out to be an evil robot in disguise and then the boy wakes up and realizes that it was all a dream… or was it?

But what most intrigued me about his account was reference to a trio of image characters, as we call them hereabouts: “Cosmos kun, Pluto kun (as in -nium) and TEPCO’s generic mascot Denko chan…all explaining why nuclear power is good for you.”

To my eternal chagrin, I haven’t been able to track down Cosmos kun, but Denko chan (でんこちゃん), whose name comes from the “den” of electric power (電力, denryoku), the “ko” (子, child) in which female names so often end, trapping their bearers in a state of eternal childhood, and the generally female diminutive suffix “chan”, can be found everywhere in TEPCO propaganda. Here she is, with finger characteristically a-wagging, admonishing us to “Take care of electricity!”

And here, exhorting us to “Make friends with electricity!”

She features on a bewildering variety of character goods, as we call them hereabouts, from pen top to mobile phone strap, bento lunchbox to T-shirt. Here she graces a pair of oven mitts.

She has—inevitably—attracted her own fan art, some of it—just as inevitably—rather racy.

But the undisputed star of the galaxy of TEPCO image characters must be Plutonium kun. I once wrote of Yu-chan, the cartoon mascot of the battered former coal town of Yubari, that “Japan of course has a massive talent for cuteification: if you can cuteify coalmining, you can cuteify anything”, but never in my darkest nightmares did I dream of encountering Plutonium kun. He’s a hard lad to track down, not having proven as popular as Denko chan, but I did manage to salvage this image from the recesses of the Internet.

The text, with its furigana reading aids above every kanji character and its childish vocabulary, in which “non-fissile uranium” is referred to as “unburnable uranium”, is aimed at the very young, to get them hooked on plutonium from an early age, and demands, nay begs, to be translated, so here goes:

Plutonium is made by having unburnable uranium (uranium 238) soak up neutrons in a nuclear reactor, and when it turns into plutonium it can be used as a fuel in nuclear power generation, just like uranium. By using plutonium, uranium resources can be used more economically. Plutonium kun is a visualization of unburnable uranium being transformed into plutonium.

Plutonium kun also appeared in a 10-minute anime made about a decade ago by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (now the Japan Atomic Energy Agency), an industry body specializing in the development of fast-breeder and advanced-thermal reactors, an anime that was swiftly withdrawn in part because of a scene in which Plutonium kun gets his boy pal to drink a glass of liquid plutonium while he sweetly intones that “I’m hardly absorbed by your stomach or intestines and I’m expelled by your body, so in fact I can’t kill people at all”.

Kind hands have made the anime available in its entirety here, although for the squeamish and those who don’t speak Japanese I recommend as a sampler the 30-second clip here.

The events of 3/11 make it unlikely we will see the likes of Plutonium kun again. If only his real-life namesake were so easy to eradicate. But wait—there’s one last use to which he can be put. By all accounts, the many routes in and out of the 20km-30km evacuation advisory zone and the 20km evacuation zone around Fukushima Daiichi are largely bereft of warning signs or patrols to prevent the wandering motorist from straying too close to the plant. Why not get TEPCO to deploy the hordes of Mickey Mouses made temporarily unemployed by the closure of Tokyo Disney Resort because of the liquefaction of its parking lots, dress them up as Plutonium kun, arm them with Jedi lightsabers, triple their pay for danger money, and post them on the access roads at the perimeter of the exclusion zone to direct traffic? It would be far less cruel, after all, than the way TEPCO treats its employees battling to avert catastrophe within the plant. And it would serve to remind the world that, as its logo hints, TEPCO has always been a disastrously Mickey Mouse kind of company.


[With massive props to A.E. for the Denryokukan tip-off and many thanks to H.T. for the reminder of the similarities between the TEPCO logo and his mouseship.]

After the earthquake: A long, hot summer

With some 30,000-50,000 dead, half a million evacuees, and the gravest nuclear crisis in decades (albeit one that Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, Sir John Beddington, has I think rightly characterized as a “sideshow”), the events of 3/11 are in many ways an order of magnitude greater than the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and in all probability the worst natural catastrophe ever to strike a developed nation.

But Japan has bounced back swiftly from natural disasters before—is there any reason to expect this time to be any different? Here I explore one reason to be less than sanguine, the loss of power generation capacity at Tokyo Electric Power, more familiarly known as TEPCO, the hapless operator of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

TEPCO is one of the world’s largest utilities, with 28.6mn customers, and it serves a population of 44.6mn people, not only in Tokyo, but also in the greater Kanto plain area—specifically the prefectures of Tokyo, Chiba, Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi, Saitama, Yamanashi, Kanagawa, and a chunk of Shizuoka. The area contains more than a third of Japan’s population and accounts for some 40% of its GDP.  

On Thursday, March 10, TEPCO had theoretical total capacity of 74.9mn kW. How much actual capacity does it have now? To find the answer to that, we have to look in detail at what capacity has been taken out by the earthquake and tsunami.

First and foremost obviously comes Fukushima Daiichi (“number one”). It is reasonable to assume, he writes with considerable understatement, that it is not going to return to frontline service anytime soon (and also reasonable to assume that units No. 7 and No. 8 at Daiichi—I bet you didn’t know about those—will not be built by 2013-2014 as scheduled). 

Fukushima Daiichi
No. 1 – 460,000 kW
No. 2 – 784,000 kW
No. 3 – 784,000 kW
No. 4 – 784,000 kW
No. 5 – 784,000 kW
No. 6 – 1.1mn kW
Total: 4,696,000 kW

Second comes Fukushima Daini (“number two”), the newer cousin of Daiichi, just 10km or so south down the coast.

Fukushima Daini
No. 1 – 1.1mn kW
No. 2 – 1.1mn kW
No. 3 – 1.1mn kW
No. 4 – 1.1mn kW
Total: 4,400,000 kW

While the eyes of the world has been on Daiichi, Daini was also inundated with a tsunami greater than it had been designed to withstand and had difficulties achieving cold shutdown (what experts in all things nuclear we have all become), although this status was attained for all four reactors by the morning of March 15.

If Daini ever resumes service, it will not be by this summer. The template for recovery here is the third of TEPCO’s trio of major nuclear plants—and the world’s largest—Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, on the Sea of Japan coast in Niigata Prefecture, where it might be said TEPCO’s capacity woes really began, with the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake of July 2007.

No. 1 – 1.1mn kW
No. 2 – 1.1mn kW (down)
No. 3 – 1.1mn kW (down)
No. 4 – 1.1mn kW (down)
No. 5 – 1.1mn kW
No. 6 – 1.356mn kW
No. 7 – 1.356mn kW
Total active: 4,912,000 kW
Total theoretical: 8,212,000 kW

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was hit by shaking from the earthquake beyond the level it was designed to withstand and although it powered down without too much ado, the government mandated seismic upgrades. It took 21 months before the first reactor, No. 7, returned to operation. Currently reactors No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 are still out of commission. From this we can safely assume, even setting larger political considerations aside, that Fukushima Daini will be out of service for years rather than months.

Finally in the nuclear round-up comes Tokai No. 2 (Tokai No.1, which was Japan’s oldest nuclear power station, was effectively withdrawn from duty in 1998). Tokai is on the Pacific coast in an eponymous village in Ibaraki Prefecture. As with Fukushima, it was hit by a tsunami, albeit a smaller one, which knocked out one of its three diesel generators, and it took until March 15 to achieve cold shutdown.

No. 2 – 1,100,000 kW

So of TEPCO’s theoretical nuclear power capacity of 18,408,000 kW, it lost 10,196,000 kW on March 11 and has just 4,912,000 kW of actual capacity, or 27%, left.

But there’s more bad news to come, for the earthquake and tsunami also took down a large chunk of TEPCO’s conventional power capacity. Hirono, which is on the Fukushima coast about 10km south of Fukushima Daini, was hit by a tsunami, presumably—details are sketchy—one with similar height and power to that which inundated Daini.

No. 1 – 600,000 kW
No. 2 – 600,000 kW (down)
No. 3 – 1mn kW
No. 4 – 1mn kW (down)
No. 5 – 600,000 kW
Total: 3,800,000 kW
Total loss: 1,600,000 kW

Then there’s Hitachinaka, on the Ibaraki coast in the village of Tokai.

No. 1 – 1mn kW (down)
Total loss: 1,000,000 kW

Then there’s Kashima, again on the Ibaraki coast, this time in the eponymous city. Again, details are sketchy, but to judge from accounts of severe damage to the steelworks, which are close to the power plant, the prognosis cannot be that good.

No. 1 – 600,000 kW
No. 2 – 600,000 kW (down)
No. 3 – 600,000 kW (down)
No. 4 – 600,000 kW
No. 5 – 1mn kW (down)
No. 6 – 1mn kW (down)
Total: 4,400,000 kW
otal loss: 3,200,000 kW

Finally in the thermal round-up, there’s Higashi Ogishima, on the coast of Kanagawa in Kawasaki. This is in a relatively elevated location and likely to be stage a full recovery relatively rapidly.  

Higashi Ogishima
No. 1 – 1mn kW (down)
No. 2 – 1mn kW
Total: 2,000,000 kW
Total loss: 1,000,000 kW

So we can put the current loss of thermal power at 6.8mn kW, which is 16% of TEPCO’s total thermal capacity of 42.1mn kW, with 1mn kW likely to be restored fairly soon, but the remaining 5.8mn kW possibly out of action for six months to a year. That takes the total loss of nuclear and thermal power, discounting Higashi Ogishima, to about 16mn kW, or 21% of TEPCO’s theoretical capacity.

But that marks the end of the bad news, right? Not quite, no. Because of the lack of rain over the last six months to a year—it feels as though it has been an exceptionally dry winter, even by Tokyo standards—and a lack of power to fuel the pumps, TEPCO’s current hydroelectric generating capacity is a fraction of its theoretical capacity, just 800,000 kW (5.5%) against 14.6mn kW. That’s another 13.8mn kW missing, and the combined nuclear, thermal, and hydro shortfall mounts to 29.8mn kW, almost exactly 40% of theoretical capacity. There are also the more minor issues of damage to thermal facilities at power companies from which TEPCO buys electricity (estimated at 1.7mn kW) and thermal facilities undergoing routine maintenance, which cannot be restarted on a dime (3.4mn kW). All told, current TEPCO capacity—according to the company early in the week beginning March 14—is roughly 33mn kW, less than half of theoretical capacity.

That then is the hardly encouraging picture on the supply side. How do things look on the demand side? It’s callous, I know, to talk of good fortune in the timing of a disaster, but TEPCO—and by extension, Japan—can at least count itself lucky in that the events of 3/11 happened in March, which together with April, October, and November, is one of the months in which, for seasonal reasons, demand for electricity is lowest. Nonetheless, peak demand in the week beginning March 14 came in at around 41mn kW, which is why Tokyo and the wider Kanto region were subject to rolling power outages all week and a cold snap on March 17 led TEPCO to threaten large-scale blackouts without warning. Peak demand this coming July and August, in a normal year, would be around 55mn-60mn kW (it has peaked above 60mn in six of the ten years from 2000 to 2009, the all-time demand peak was registered on July 24, 2001, at 64.3mn kW, and TEPCO itself projects the three-day average summer peak at 57.55mn kW). With current capacity at least 40% short of that, something has to give, and in a very big way.

What options does TEPCO have to bridge the gap? At the time of the 2007 Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake, it bought in power from neighboring utility, Tohoku Electric, to the north. That is not going to be possible this time, because much of Tohoku has been laid waste to by the earthquake and tsunami. Tohoku Electric has seen one of its two nuclear plants, Onagawa, crippled by the catastrophe, is desperately short of power itself, and is going to be in no position to help. Hokkaido, further north, has spare capacity, but at an estimated 0.7 kW, it is barely a drop in a bucket, and there may be transmission and distribution issues, too—it’s not as though the electricity can be boxed up, put on a ferry, and carted across the Tsugaru Strait. Turning west, TEPCO is stymied by one of the quirks of Japan’s power distribution system: everywhere west of its operating range runs on a utility frequency of 60 Hz, whereas it, Tohoku, and Hokkaido operate on 50 Hz, a legacy of Tokyo’s 1895 decision to buy 50 Hz generation equipment from AEG of Germany and Osaka’s 1896 decision to buy 60 Hz equipment from General Electric of the US. There are a handful of frequency converter substations, but they can only handle 1mn kW and this is already included in TEPCO’s capacity.

Where else can TEPCO turn? It can—probably within months—fire up thermal plants undergoing routine maintenance (3.4mn kW), resume operation at long-idled, mainly oil-fired plants (2.8 kW), hike operating rates at still running thermal plants (3.3mn kW), and maybe buy in surplus electricity generated by companies (700,000 kW), taking supply capacity up around 43mn kW, still at best 20% shy of peak demand.

So adjustments will have to be made on the demand side to bridge the supply/demand gap. Already station escalators across Tokyo have been cordoned off as if they were strips of contaminated Fukushima soil, convenience stores are discovering that—who knew it—they had dimmer switches all along, and, as the neon fades, some are dusting off their copies of Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay in celebration of traditional aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows.

Air-conditioning is the sole reason that peak summer electricity demand is a third higher than off-peak spring and autumn demand. So turn off the air-conditioning, I hear you say. Easier said than done: life in a modern office building without air-conditioning when outside the mercury is climbing past 35°C would be about as inimical to humans as life on the surface of Venus. Factories producing silicon wafers and luxury cars cannot cope with wild fluctuations in temperature. It looks as though the long-suffering consumer will be asked yet again to endure the unendurable, to sweat for victory to keep the offices purring and factories humming, although blackouts are necessarily undiscriminating—while TEPCO will no doubt do its utmost to ring-fence central Tokyo from outages, there will inevitably be disruptions to production and consumption.

This, then, is the base-case scenario. It’s easy enough to come up with a best-case scenario, in which incantations for precipitation go answered by the gods (there are no gods in a base-case scenario) and the baiyu plum rains of June and July prove bountiful, at least some knocked-out thermal power is restored promptly and TEPCO scrapes through summer on a wing and a prayer, stretched to the very borders of capacity. And in the worst-case scenario, the rains fail, the government orders Kashiwazaki-Kariwa shut for safety inspections, summer is a scorcher, and massive unannounced blackouts engulf Honshu from Tokyo north to the tip of the Shimokita peninsula.

In the early days after the earthquake and tsunami, the dismal scientists rushed out entirely predictable forecasts of a little dent to GDP in the first half of the year but a pickup, led by reconstruction, in the second half—why, they declared, oblivious perhaps to Bastiat’s broken window fallacy, the disaster would be good for the Japanese economy. Why, they declared, the three most afflicted prefectures, Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate, only account together for about 4% of GDP. The prospect of power cuts stretching indefinitely into the future across half of Honshu may now give them pause for thought. It is at least conceivable that TEPCO and Tohoku Electric will not have sufficient capacity to cope with peak demand for years to come. The limits of electric power capacity are something facing many developed nations, including the US and the UK, although in their cases it stems from decades of underinvestment. Japan has just been catapulted toward those limits first. Welcome—with a magnitude 9.0 jolt—to the future.