Earthquake in Tokyo: Radiation, Hoarding, Scheduled Blackouts, Ghost-Town Tokyo, Oh My!

It has now been a week since the big quake that hit Tohoku and set off panic on local, national and global scales. There has been too little information in the press here in Japan and too much information in the press abroad. I am just writing this now to give my opinions on a few of the issues based on my experience and the experience of others here (largely via Twitter) and to hopefully diffuse some of the fear that has been spread through rumor and trash media.

First of all let me say that it seems that there are many people both here and abroad who did not pay attention in high school physics and I find that a bit disappointing. Why? The lack of understanding how nuclear energy, radiation and nuclear reactors work (on a base level at least) shocks me. They are not really complicated concepts and a few minutes of study in high school would have avoided much of the concern that has happened here in Tokyo. It is true that there has been no mass panic here as some foreign press agencies have reported, but their has been a lot of misinformed conversation, nervousness and rumor occurring here in the capital, as well as a lot of confusion over how the disaster at the reactors in Fukushima will affect people here. As the government here in Japan, foreign experts and any physics professor can tell you the danger from radiation here in Tokyo is minimal. The increases here in Tokyo as shown by government documents and local physics hobbyists with Geiger counters alike have been lower than the radiation given off by a cigarette or a flight from Tokyo to New York. Although either of those comparisons can be associated with risk, my point is that the increase has been minimal and should not be a concern for people. There is a bit of argument over the radius of danger around the plants, and for people there the danger is very real, but even the most conservative line that has been drawn describes an 80km radius, with Tokyo being over 200km away. The real affect the reactors will have on people here in Tokyo is more on lifestyle. As the loss of power that the reactors generators is more strongly felt, rolling blackouts and shortages of certain products are likely to be occurring for quite a long time to come. More about the blackouts later.

Although there was no looting here in Tokyo (most people were busy getting away from the buildings during the quakes and there is a strong respect for personal property here) there has been quite a bit of hoarding. Both fears of radiation and supply shortages have led to a double in purchases of basic goods here in Tokyo (according to the NHK) which has in turn led to the shortages people were very afraid of. This hoarding is an awful problem as it takes supplies immediately needed for relief in the north away from the people who need it. It seems that even with images of people freezing, hungry and homeless in Tohoku people in Kanto choose to think of themselves first and give no regard for those who really need the resources. If there ever was a real sense of community in Japan this would seem to show a big breakdown in social consciousness here in Kanto. With the people in shelters and small communities affected directly by the disaster pulling together, supporting each other and volunteering to help others in more need than themselves, and with the further example of the workers at the Fukushima reactors risking their lives in the hope of a better future for their prefecture, the selfish hoarding seems even more shocking. I personally bought more supplies of food and water than I normally would, but that is only because I generally live with only enough food in the house for the day and recently have not been stocking any food. Upon seeing the mad rush and the shelves emptying I had no real choice but buying a few days of basics. Even at that, I made sure I did not buy out any particular item I needed and went to several different stores to get supplies as to allow other who are not as mobile to have a chance at getting supplies. Once I reached a reasonable buffer of consumables I switched back to normal daily shopping, which had been quite hard up until yesterday when stores seemed to start catching up, but has by no means been impossible.

The scheduled blackouts are quite likely to have the most affect on people in Tokyo as they have much farther reaching repercussions than most people realize on first glance. The initial confusion as TEPCO was working out the schedules for the blackouts seems to have lessened as people gave up on waiting for a proper schedule and just stared living as if they could happen anytime. Although problems like having to wait longer for trains, not being able to watch your favorite tv show or not having running water for a few hours a day might be inconvenient they can be adjusted to in the short-term. The real inconvenience will likely come as the blackouts have more affect on the manufacturing sectors as well as business. With reduced output at factories, food processing centers, distribution hubs, etc there are likely to be more small shortages, and they will likely last for the duration of the scheduled blackouts. As far as I can tell there is no real answer as to when the blackouts will stop and when daily life can return to normal based on the available information. One bright side is that it might teach people to conserve power, work from home where possible and generally become more efficient. I know that is a bit too much to hope for, but wouldn’t it be nice if they found they didn’t have to replace all of the reactors damaged in the quake just yet? Maybe that is the environmentalist in me talking, but I really want to see it as an opportunity for change rather than a real disaster.

Contrary to what some western media sources are saying, there do not appear to be mass evacuations or panic here in Tokyo. Some companies are moving their operations further south, some people are leaving and others are considering it, but there are no mass organized evacuations outside of the disaster regions up north and there are unlikely to be any. There are some good reasons for some types of companies to move south that do not involve fears of radiation or panic. In this highly mobile and technologically based age, is not it better to operate your business in an area not affected by blackouts that will shut down your servers and hardware at unpredictable intervals, reducing your productivity and the access clients have to your services? I think that is an easy question to answer. Then why, some might ask, do the streets seem so empty? There are a few reasons that I can think of that do not involve the sinister. With gas in short supply here, how many people want to drive if they really don’t have to, and the reduced service on transit has people avoiding unnecessary outings. Public transit seems strangely empty or crowded at times, but this is likely because many companies and employees are changing their patterns, with employees either staggering their schedules to avoid crowding on the reduced-service trains or working from home when possible and not taking trains at all. As for shopping, with power outages and supply shortages, how many people are really going to be shopping for luxuries and how many stores really want to get caught open when the power suddenly goes out. It is likely going to take a while for people and businesses to find a new equilibrium in the new uncertain landscape, but most people are still here to wait it out.

Overall I would say that it has been a week and the shock should be starting to wear off for a lot of people. A new rhythm of life is just starting to emerge. Everyone is feeling out the new situation with caution and there is still a sense that things are not really over. The truth is that the repercussions of the Tohoku disaster are not yet fully known, and even dealing with the currently quantifiable factors is quite daunting. I hope that everyone will be able to find their own peace in the confusion and that we can get back to focussing on helping those who really need it. It would be very tragic if people here in Tokyo changed channels and forgot about the real victims of the disaster.

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