Grocery Shopping Without the Panic

10:00 and the local grocery store is open. Time to put my well developed strategy into place. Side door into the store, straight for dairy, juice, on to pasta sauce, dark chocolate and last of all vegetables. As I hustle through the store and make a b-line for the dairy aisle I notice something strange. The dairy aisle is actually full of dairy. All of the usual suspects are gathered: milk (of all kinds), yogurt and cheese. I get a bit suspicious as this is the first time in almost a month that it has all been there. I rush on to the pasta aisle and what do I find? Jars of imported tomato sauce exactly where they are supposed to be with bags of pasta nestled on a shelf nearby. Feeling lucky I head over to the snack aisle and there are boxes and boxes of 72% cocoa dark chocolate, perfect for my afternoon tea time! I casually saunter over to the vegetable section and behold, all of the vegetables in their usual places. I am so surprised by the ease of shopping that I even forget to look for fruit juice. I make my purchases and head upstairs for the final check of the day. No less than 9 kinds of toilet paper on fully stocked shelves! It has been a good day indeed!

It looks like things are getting back to normal here in Tokyo and I have mixed feelings about that. Of course, I appreciate it when my life is a bit easier but there is a layer of unease at the changes. The skeptic in me feels that the more normal things get here the higher the chance gets that people will forget how bad it still is up in Tohoku. The optimist would say that it is possible that when people here are better off they will become even more generous in their help of people in need up north.

I am leaning toward cautious optimism.

Why is it Japanese to Survive Disaster?

The western media has, since the last world war ended, portrayed certain images of Japan that suited political need and has at times even reluctantly envied Japan. Although there has been some degradation of the image of Japanese men and tourists in particular, all of the way up to the end of the 80’s there was a very strong tendency to extol the virtues of Japanese culture and to some extent, to idealize certain aspects of their culture. The concepts of community, harmony and cooperation have often been portrayed as core values, a great contrast to the way those concepts were applied to people in Japan just before and during WWII. After the 80’s and the bursting of the economic bubble, there was a fair bit of condemnation and a sense that the eventual fall had been inevitable. Japan slowly faded away in the media as other parts of the world became more ‘interesting(threatening)’ but the images that had been pushed so hard for so long remained.

Along comes a disaster, a massive tsunami, one of the worst in recent days in financial terms and at a cost of life rarely seen in developed countries. Even more than the Hanshin quake near Kobe in 1995 the response around the world was immediate and amazing. The speed of news now moves much faster than ever before, and social media allowed people like myself to be relating personal experience as well as news around the world within minutes of the shaking’s cease. People all over the world felt sorrow for Japan, and were able to empathize on a globally personal level I don’t believe has happened before. In a strange way, it was a tragically beautiful moment of the individual people of the world sharing a tragedy and wanting to support each other. A small start but a start of something new that could change the way people see the world.

Then came the foreign press. They descended on Japan with great rapidity, looking for any aspect of the tragedy they could report and to some extent giving a much more broad and informative analysis of the disaster than was coming from the Japanese government and press. Many people in Japan appeared to think that they were not being informed well enough, including the PM Naoto Kan. The western media to some extent forced a discussion of information transparency rarely seen here before. As the nuclear crisis unfolded, this duality of information brought by the Japanese and foreign press was a groundbreaking collaboration. Many serious news correspondents dug for the important information that helped to build a clearer picture of the unfolding situation. It was all very exciting, and everybody hung on every report of real news.

The crisis then fell into patterns, the process of trying to control the disaster and assess the damage plateaued so there were less sensational headlines available. Then came the ‘human interest’ stories. Stories of people struggling to live after the crisis, of a great loss of life and of triumphs over adversity. Instead of crediting the people who survived with the disaster with their resilience as communities and focussing on the cooperation of survival of friends of family working together in the face of the circumstances, suddenly all of their strength of character was magically converted to a byproduct of their ‘Japanese-ness’. The normal support that small communities around the world show when they have to work together and survive, when things too large have carelessly crushed their way of life was transformed to a ‘wondrous Japanese cultural stoicism’ rather than recognize it for what it would have been if it had happened elsewhere, a triumph of the human sense of community responsibility and awareness. Although the way the communities worked together to survive is a wonderful thing, there is nothing particularly ‘Japanese’ about it. If it had anything to do with Japanese culture, people in Kantou (Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa) wouldn’t have been hoarding valuable resources (water, rice, dry goods, etc) desperately needed by their neighbors to the north; they would have felt a need to accept a bit of hardship themselves in the face of such great need from fellow Japanese people. That type of self-sacrifice didn’t happen in any of the nearby cities. I would say that attributing the actions of those in the small villages in the hard-hit areas to their ‘Japanese cultural background’ belittles what many of them have accomplished in the face of adversity. Wouldn’t any villages in the world who are close by birth and bond of community support each other and work together to survive? Wouldn’t people in any large city in such a large disaster tend to think of themselves and hoard in such circumstances? I would say that things here have been as one would expect them to be after any disaster in a country as developed as Japan with distinct rural and urban populations.

It all comes back to the strange view western nations have of Japan. Popular media and news all seem to promote the stereotypes, and for obvious reasons Japan does not seem to mind the image. As someone who has extensively studied Japanese history and language I just find these images strange considering Japanese turbulent and often very inharmonious background. Some elements of the Japanese cultural aspiration toward the portrayed ideals exist in the literature and even the language, but that is like saying that all North American people must be like Superman because we tend to believe in some the ideals he portrays (discounting the American patriotic bias). I think we have to see Japan the same way, the way we should see ourselves. There is no real harmony between the different cultural areas of Japan nor within the government itself. As with some small island nations with large populations, a certain level of cooperation is necessary to function but this is by no means unique to Japan. Cultural ideals are things to be aspired to, but not a reality to which everything can be attributed. Japan happens to have slightly different ideals than many western nations; they are ideals that we can admire, but they are just ideals. The reality as I see it is that people the world over are very similar with just a veneer of cultural difference that influences their reactions and expression. We all want to be safe and happy, all care about those close, fear those who we see as a threat, desire to improve the situation we live in and to some extent we all aspire to cultural ideals; we just have different ways of expressing these things.

If we are to move beyond seeing only the surface of cultural expression we need to really understand that we all have the same fundamental human experience: birth, community, death. Social networking is slowly breaking down some of the barriers as people start to communicate more and more without clear borders and accept others with less criteria to evaluate them by. It is a first step, but possibly one of the biggest one in the history of humanity as whole, not as a small collection of families, villages, towns, cities, states and nations.

I look forward to the day the New York Times won’t feel the need to refer to ‘the Japanese character’ in reference to courageous actions by individuals and small groups. I find it very disappointing.

I have more hope for the world.

Quiet Sunday Morning in Ginza

It is about 11am here in Ginza, Tokyo. The stores have been open for an hour, the weather is a pleasant 16C and sunny, and there are very few people here. The effects of the earthquake must be felt by the businesses here, largely selling high end brand items and other luxuries. That is not to say that there are not a few people walking around with a signature pale blue Tiffany & Co. bag or some specialty food from one of the many famous small shops here, but it is no where near the number of people you would to expect to see here on a normal day, never mind a beautiful weekend morning. People are just not thinking about luxury at a time like this. The same people who were hoarding toilet paper a few days ago are not too likely to be out here. For people like me who just came here to wait for someone and have coffee, the unusual quiet is actually quiet welcome but would be easier to appreciate if it were not happening for these reasons.

I guess part of me looks forward to the day when I will no longer have my choice of seats in this Starbucks because it will mean things are ok. Today, it feels kind of far away.

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.

Earthquake in Tokyo: A few days later

It is March 15th, and I am sitting here in a Starbucks sipping an iced tea and listening to music. Everything looks normal and the few people that are here are reading books, relaxing and generally going on with their lives. Sounds like a normal day? On the surface it could seem normal, but if you look around you can see the subtle differences. This Starbucks location is normally open from 7am to 10pm on weekdays has announced that from tomorrow they will cut their hours to 8am to 6pm, and outside the window things change even more. It is 8 am and there are virtually no people walking around, no children being herded by their mothers, few salary men running for the train, even fewer delivery trucks. Walk out the door and wander around: things change even more.

Walk down the street and you will notice a bit less traffic. You do not have to walk much farther to see that gas stations are out of gasoline, and most are also out of diesel. Look in a convenience store window as you walk by and you will notice a lot of empty shelves. Some have been clever enough to move stock they do have to the front of the store or shelves adjacent windows to draw people in, but there will likely be no consumables or water for sale. Toilet paper is the same. If you are just running out now, you might’ve out of luck. Walk further down the street to the local supermarket and you will see people lined up hoping to get things they need or at least think they need, but the shelves are bare but for a few things the staff found stacked at the back of the store room and have just now pulled out and shelved. Buying alcohol is not a problem and there are some fresh fruits and vegetables to be had, but pretty much anything that can be stored for any length of time is gone.

Leave the supermarket and head over to the department store. But wait, most department stores are locked down tight, their steel shutter doors keeping out people eager for their wares and hiding any damage that might have occurred of Friday. Want to buy a portable gas stove? You had to be there on Friday or been lucky enough to find one at an outdoor supply store afterwards. If you don’t have to go to work on the rather chaotic trains, you might as well just go home and get on Twitter while watching a streaming broadcast of NHK world news on your computer of mobile device. But don’t forget to charge your gadgets if you live in an area scheduled for blackouts, because who knows, they might actually happen.

Sitting at home you notice something strange: it is too still. There is a strange seasick feeling that sometimes come when things are calm, the constant magnitude 3-4 aftershocks being so common that they become normal and almost comforting. The small ones are so much better than the big ones that people feel some guilty relief when a small rolling quake has just finished. Everyone feels for the people a couple of prefectures to the north who have suffered so much loss, and many want to help, but there is a certain amount of survivors guilt in the air. People here in Tokyo both feel appalled that such horror was visited on neighbors and guilty relief that they have not yet had to experience such hardship. At least NHK assuring people in Kanto that they are likely to suffer greatly in the near future removes some of the guilt.

Some people are lucky enough to be able to go north and help those affected directly, but most do not have that option. Most of us just have to stay here in Tokyo and try to live as if things are normal, pretend that things will be normal in the near future, and imagine that things will stay that way. The truth is that there is a good chance things will not be normal for a while. This disaster has been too personal and close for most here, no more devastating but more personal than the Hanshin quake, something that cannot be easily brushed aside by the business mecca that is Tokyo. Maybe it is a time to get shaken up, and change ways, to get out of the funk that has had the economy spiraling for several decades, to pick up and say “we will do better, we will make a better future and that we will succeed.” Maybe this is disaster as an opportunity. The horrible toll the disaster has wrought should be mourned, but what better tribute to those loved ones lost than to make the future brighter. So much can be done. So much has to be done. Maybe it is finally time to look to the future instead of mourning the past.

I know that I would rather live in that Japan.

Earthquake in Tokyo

4pm, March 11th

Today, at a bit before 3pm, things started to get pretty shaky here in Tokyo. A series of earthquakes hit the east coast of Japan, originating on the north coast of Honshuu. Although the real damage happened in Miyagi, even here to the south in Tokyo the quake was somewhere between a 5 and a 6 magnitude. Soon after the first few quakes I could see smoke coming from the direction of the bay that I presume is the fires said to be happening on Odaiba. There are many more reports coming in on Twitter and other sources as people get a chance to take stock of things.

Interestingly, as the phones mostly went down here in Tokyo, many people turned to Twitter and Facebook to get their message out to others, pass on news and generally comfort everyone as the quaking went on. Social media as a way of getting messages out during disasters, wars, rebellions, etc is definitely a new and interesting phenomenon. There might be a message in there for governments and other public agencies.

At my own apartment, I had to run to catch some jumping teacups as they plunged off the sill in the kitchen. Actually, pretty much everything that was not really stable was hopping and threatening to jump, but luckily most of the things that fell were just cooking supplies. Otherwise, my apartment did pretty well. It is nice to live in a new building.

This was definitely the strongest earthquake that I have personally experienced and I am happy to say that I did not really feel any real panic or worry, although that could just have to do with the fact there is not much to fall in my apartment. More than an hour has passed since the first quake it is still a bit shaky here. I do hope that everyone is all right.


11pm, March 11th

It is almost 11pm and the tremors keep coming. I can hear emergency vehicles every few minutes, convenience stores are long out of easy to eat food and there has been a huge amount of traffic on the road accompanied by people walking home on the sidewalks. It is going to be a really long nervous night for most people here in Tokyo.


11:30pm, March 11th

Just finished writing a blog entry for my friend Paul’s site. You can see it here


4am, March 12th

It is 4am and still awake due to the after-shocks. I doubt that many people will be sleeping soundly here tonight. I do feel fortunate to be at home to wait out the night.


11am, March 12th

This morning (Saturday March 12th) I was out and about after a long night of staying awake, spreading info on Twitter and generally not sleeping. It was generally peaceful with small pockets of people trying to get home. Buying groceries was a bit harder than normal for a Saturday morning, too. Overall, everyone seems to have settled down considerably, although you can see people tense every time there is another aftershock.


1pm, March 13th

Stores seem to be running low on water, instant noodles, canned goods and toilet paper. Gas stations also seem to be shutting down as people line up down the road to fill their tanks. It could be a pretty sparse week or two until supply lines get stable again. At least people seem to have settled in and started to think about planning ahead and fixing the damage as opposed to just reacting to every tremor. Regardless, I think it will be a while before people really feel normal here again.