Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Tadami Flood, Fukushima, July 2011

Destroyed bridge on the Tadami railway line below Honna dam above our village
As if it wasn't enough, communities already very worried by the ongoing releases of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant were struck by record rainfalls at the end of July. Over the 72 hours until midday on Saturday 30th July, 700mm (27.5 inches) of rain fell in 72 hours in the Tadami area of Okuaizu, western Fukushima. At least 4 people died, 6,400 people were evacuated from their homes, and 500 people were cut off by floodwater, including those downstream from Tadami like our community in Kaneyama and in Yanaizu.

Our street (photo from council website)
The damage was worst in Tadami town, 30km up river, with many houses completely destroyed. Everyone on our street, only a few metres from the river, lost everything on the first (ground) floor. Rice fields and allotments that people had worked hard on were destroyed. Apart from the fact that most residents are more than 70 years old and it hit them very hard, it is sad that so much family history was lost. Over and above having your home full of mud, most painful for many people was loosing the Butsodan, the Buddhist  shrine to the family ancestors which keeps them a living presence in the home and provides continuity, sometimes over hundreds of years. Some of the houses were like domestic museums. The framed photos of the more recent dead were fortunately above the floodline. You can imagine them looking impassively down from near the ceiling as the water rose towards them. If the ancestors have seen anything, they have seen it all over the centuries, and floods have come and gone. The portrait I drew of my next door neighbour survived, and so did he, but he had to spend the next few weeks in hospital after damaging his shoulder in the clear-up. He will have been so frustrated not to be able to continue helping with the cleanup.

Below Honna dam concrete river banks were breeched, washing away house foundations and destroying rice fields and allotments.

So why did it happen? Floods are as old as water itself, and of course global warming has been accompanied by extreme weather around the world, often much worse than this in scale and casualties. But this was an 'accident' waiting to happen, and one that was a whisker away from being very much worse. Living a few metres from the river, I was very aware that flooding was a risk. This is true of any river, but there are five dams upriver from the village, the one at the top being huge. I was told that executives from Tohoku electric who own several of the dams had been doing the rounds post 3.11 trying to salvage the reputation of nuclear power -  a lost cause in Fukushima of course. Apparently they were asked if there had been any checks on the dams following the huge earthquake of 11th March. No, no extra tests, but they were sure everything was fine, and there was no risk. Of course if lots of people asked for tests they supposed they could do them. Extraordinary, and very reminiscent of the complacency of Tepco.

Concerned, we had also visited the Kaneyama council offices in May on returning from our temporary self-evacuation. As well as pressing them to urgently buy their own radiation testing equipment, instigate more detailed testing for food and soil, to source school meals from safer areas of Japan, and to draw up a plan for the emergency evacuation of children in the event of further explosions at Fukushima Daichi, I raised the issue of flood risk. I asked them what the evacuation plan was, to tell us what the warning siren sounded like, and where we were supposed to go if there was a problem. No response. I also personally raised it with the Mayor, who lived on our street. No problem , no problem. No radiation risk, and the dams were safe. Big smiles. Oh really? After a major earthquake and many aftershocks, with no extra structural checks, and no practice drills or information for residents?

Destroyed rail bridge above our house. The blue plastic covers a landslip beneath a neighbour's house

Often woken up in the night by aftershocks, I lay awake half expecting to hear the rush of water. Would we get a warning? We discussed what we would do, and I told my son to run fast for the mountainside, even if he was on his own. As it turned out I was away from home, and frustratingly I wasn't able to be there to help during a very frightening night waiting from a friend's house to see how high the water would get. The local fire and disaster volunteers thankfully did a great job of getting everyone out of their houses promptly, not letting anyone linger to save possessions, which must have saved some casualties. They have my deep respect and grateful thanks. This can't have been easy with so many elderly and frail residents, some of them bedridden.

Destroyed bridge at Yokota. Residents on the right bank had to be helicoptered to safety

After the flood it began filtering through that it was the opinion of many, through family members working on the dams, that bad decisions may have again contributed to disaster. In this case it is possible that the early and gradual release of water building up from the extreme rainfall  could have prevented the flood. This was reputedly delayed in order to keep generating electricity as long as possible. Then when it was clear that danger levels were fast approaching, the sudden release possibly added to severity of the flooding. Could it be that pressure to keep generating electricity while most of Japan's nuclear reactors are shut down contributed to this delay? No doubt they were 'following the manual.'

A very dangerous element was added in the shape of a chain of several large, yellow, iron barges used for dredging that swept down the valley smashing bridges  and damaging dams as they went. One dam could no longer use one of it's gates after it was struck.  Local opinion was that legally these should not have been in the river in the wet summer period for this very reason - they should only have been used in the winter, when there is less of a flood risk as all the moisture falls as snow. It seems that some of the workers at one of he the dams thought there was a serious risk of a dam failing completely, as they ran away. It must have been truly terrifying, especially when the barges hit.

Bridge carrying main road up the valley smashed at Yokota

It also emerged that the council' evacuation plan did not take into account that a dam might fail. When the dams were built any houses by the original course of the river were moved to at least 3 metres above the new water level, including ours.  Residents and the council were told that a serious flood was now 'Impossible.' Again, sound familiar? So guess where the evacuation moved people to? Unaccountably, an old aged persons' home by the river, only slightly higher than the problem areas, despite the availability of various large buildings nearby in the mountains, like the Ski Centre.  If a dam had actually failed there would have been a large number of deaths. As dam failure began to look possible there was a frantic attempt to  move the people who had been taken there somewhere else. This strange plan echoes what could be called the 'evacuation into slightly less danger' policy taken by the prefectural authorities, who have built emergency housing for evacuees from inside the 20km zone around Fukushima Daichi as near as 35km away - in Iwaki.  Again, this is hard to understand when there is a choice. Iwaki is an area many families have chosen to self-evacuate away from due to the elevated radiation levels.

A home left hanging over space

Luckily, the worst did not happen, though the following weeks were very tough for everyone, camping out on their top floor without kitchens or bathrooms, and beginning to tackle the horrendous smelly mess that any flood leaves in its wake. Difficult for anyone, but particularly exhausting for the majority in their 70's and older.

For us, it was the last straw. We had been trying to hang on to living in Fukushima despite the daily worry for the long-term health of our son, because of our love for the people and the place. Not having a functioning house, and realising that the riverside location was no longer tenable in the long term, it gave us the push to make the move away that was inevitable but wrenchingly sad.

There was still no sign of the necessary radiation safeguards and protections being put in place for children, still far too big a gap between information from the authorities and that available from independent sources, still difficulty in sourcing food from other areas of Japan with much lower radiation, and still no sign of transparency or clear food labelling, just more of the same simplistic 'It's safe' propaganda. Not good enough. And when it rained, the radiation levels beneath our eves were 50% higher, meaning that releases were still continuing. After all that worry it would have been ironic indeed if it had been hydro-electricity that had finished us off.

Flood debris and wrecked graves in the family plot, Nishitani

We will probably never know the degree to which human error, both in institutional form or our own addictions to energy intensive comforts, contributed to making this, and other floods like it, worse. It was certainly the worst in living memory along the Tadami river, and some of the elders said that before the dams were built it was never as severe. Because of the way the energy market is organised, people never even saw cheaper electricity for the extra risk they accepted. That is something that could change if hard-fought reforms wanted by the majority are achieved and micro-generation owned by communities is viable. 50 years ago when the dams were built people wanted to contribute to the modernisation of Japan. For us, as for many people in Japan, the recent disasters have washed away more than just houses. They have eroded trust in the government and institutions that are supposed to protect us and our children, just as they have proved once again that individual people and communities will rally round and work wonders in supporting each other and clearing up the mess in times of dire need. If only we could get better at stopping it happening in the first place.

With especial thanks the family that provided emergency accommodation on the night of the flood and looked after my son while we were cleaning up the house. Also thanks to everyone who came to help with the clear up or checked to see that we were all right - we will never forget! We think about everyone in Kaneyama every day.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Fukushima children's art project

9 year old Fukushima child's anger and sadness at Fukushima Daiichi

I'm sorry I haven't been able to post anything for quite some time. I have given most of my spare time to my new project Strong Children, and our house has just been flooded out by the Tadami river for goodness sake! Life was obviously getting too simple here in Fukushima. 

Strong Children consists of portraits of Japanese children and young people living with the ongoing consequences of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear accident, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11th 2011. Please take a look. The images are designed and made by the children, with words too if they wish. I add their portrait according to their instructions - they choose the pose, facial expression, colour and feeling. The aim is to enable them to share their important experiences and thoughts with the world at this crucial time. It is a collaboration, but they are the boss.

In my view children need an appropriate setting that gives them permission and safety to express a whole range of emotions and thoughts. That includes fear, sadness, grief and anger sometimes, as well as happiness and the more socially acceptable cute and joyful aspects of childhood. 

I also want to create a channel for them to reach the world and get feedback, and to affect the policies that shape and limit their living conditions, health and happiness. This completes a positive circle they can feel proud of and empowered by. Finally, no record of important historical events, or thinking about energy choices or ethics for that matter, can be complete without including children - even if it is just seeing the marks they make, and looking into their eyes as they gaze from a portrait.

If you would like to support or help exhibit, publish or disseminate the project, please contact me

Thursday, 12 May 2011

As unreal as snakes and snow

Japanese four lined rat snake or 'Shima-hebi' (Elaphe quadrivirgata)

A two metre long snake was not what I was expecting on a windy day after a stiff walk over snow and the debris of winter up to the ridge. But the sunshine was warm on the narrow edge, with the wind hitting the mountainside and shooting straight up, leaving a pool of stillness on the rocky edge and heat sufficient for reptiles to wake up from their winter sleep, along with their prey. The winter is so long that at the first hint of spring everyone, human, animal, plant or otherwise, leaps to make the most of every minute.

Head bottom left, tail top right

This 827m (2,713ft) mountain above Yokota in Kaneyama-machi, Fukushima-ken is one of those that, while unremarkable in itself, offers great beauty, a village laid out like a toy at it's foot, and wild expanses of space and light. I cycled to it's base and up the winding road that leads to abandoned homesteads, changing into running shoes for the top half up a forestry track and onto the final slopes.

The first flush of green above snow holes warmed by tree trunks

The path was covered in snow, so I lost it and ended up thrutching through the tangle of trees destroyed by the heavy snow, some of them big but with their trunks snapped anyway. Where the snow had melted on the steepest slopes the thick stems of tall grass and bamboo had been plastered down and combed directly downhill, making for slippery going on their smooth stalks.

A classic Okuaizu view from the ridge

I gained the ridge path and began scrambling upwards, shreds of plastic rope rotted by the sun on the ground. The snake and I surprised each other, and it lay stock still as I seemed to be neither small enough for lunch nor dangerous enough to bother moving away from. As I moved in closer it suddenly shot straight forwards past my leg and threaded like an arrow the undergrowth that had slowed me so much. That must be the speed that enables it to catch frogs, lizards, insects, mice and small birds, and I was very glad of my size at that moment.

The top, with no leaves to obscure the view

It was lovely to be up here alone, surrounded by space, with the sunshine, the snow, and the first leaves of spring all to myself - or my ever changing bundle of narratives, if you prefer the modern approach. Bundle of nerves feels more like it these days, with many of our comfortable assumptions having taken such a battering from nature and human folly recently. A lot of those personal and national narratives are having to be hastily rewritten on ragged scraps of paper with broken pencils.

Native beeches, looking south east towards the Tadami river

I spent some time pottering around, breathing in the air and feeling the burgeoning life of the hills, trying to get some comfort from greater perspectives of time and space than the house, the television and even the internet can afford. It worked, as usual, though there has been more to overcome since the March disasters. I mean, the net is great and all, and during the hours we spend in thrall to it it certainly feels significant, like right now,  but in the end we are just sitting there alone in front of some glowing metal and plastic, aren't we? Current company excepted of course - I am really here, talking to you now, you aren't alone in a darkened room, your face lit from beneath by your screen. Isn't there a hill you could be going up? That seems more real. The Romantic narrative about it has got a bit of a longer history anyway, and I am buying into it, big time. It is cheaper to buy into than a laptop, that's for sure. Wordsworth wouldn't have written half so much or walked half as far on the fells if he'd had the internet.

Looking west towards Asaksa-dake. Definitley real in a romantic kind of way

I wandered lonely as a blogger, until at length it was time to descend the ridge again, being a little more alert for wildlife this time, and better able to see where I had mistaken the path on the way up. Below, the cerulean blue roofs of Yokota surrounded the wonderful primary school, where I have run art and songwriting sessions in the course of teaching English. It has a special atmosphere amongst the children and staff - that Okuaizu magic, and is in an idylic position, full of light and life. What a tragedy that it is at risk of closing due to falling numbers. I mean, look at it for goodness sake!

Yokota school and village in it's majestic setting

Thursday, 5 May 2011

And still they came

It takes more than mere disaster to keep Arai racing club away from Aizu.

Many people have cancelled their bookings for this area, and businesses in Oku Aizu are really struggling by association with the rest of Fukushimna, even though levels here are relatively low, similar to natural background radiation in many parts of the world. I wondered therefore, whether Arai racing club would make one of their regular trips up from Saitama this Golden Week. They could be forgiven for staying at home.

Four of them came anyway. Hoshi-san (giving the thumbs up above) said that he sees this as a safe zone, and anyway, he doesn't like to necessarily do what everyone else does. "I do things at my pace," he said. He recently suffered a bereavement - he crashed his lovely new full carbon Giant in a tragic blossom-gazing incident and snapped the frame. Ouch, expensive. Get a steel bike. Now he is working overtime to save up for a replacement.

Yoshida-san on 401, Showa-mura

He works in ICT in the middle of Tokyo. Now he is listening to birdsong

Yoshida-san likes his sweet bread...a lot

After a sociable ride up 400 to Showa-mura, and the beautiful snaking slopes up 401 to a pit stop in Minamiaizu, we chain-ganged along 289 to Tadami, where we stopped at the nice little restaurant that does my favourite risotto. It's cheesy, very cheesy, and you can't say that for much food in Japan, delicious though the diet is.

Too classy for a bunch of scruffy sweaty cyclists? Not at all sir.
Ahhh, risotto! Good value at ¥850 for this plus tea or coffee

Hilariously, though the guys were happy to brave a radiation scare, they were horrified by the heavy rain that started falling while we were eating. They always hate rain, and avoid it whenever possible, as they are made out of tissue paper and would obviously melt into a soggy pulp at the merest drop. I had been waiting for this moment, as they were all riding stripped down carbon race style bikes, as is the dodgy fashion. I ride a training bike with mudguards, something that is seen as quaintly old fashioned, but I see as a no-brainer for anyone who wants to ride in comfort in all seasons, especially in the mountains. I laughed. A lot.  I asked them how the road tasted? Were they nice and warm with great splatters of dirty water up their arses? Apparently not. That'll teach 'em. Their enthusiasm and speed was thoroughly dampened, with Hoshi-san in particular frozen to the bone. To be fair, it was 7c, and they are used to Saitama, where it is currently a whopping twenty degrees warmer.

Hoshi-san cooking up a storm

Still, it was nothing that a soak in Nakagawa onsen couldn't put right. Hoshi-san bore me no ill-will despite my churlish dry-posterior-based gloating, and cooked a massive multi-course meal for us all, including vegetarian specialities for me like tofu fritters.  We finished the day satisfyingly bloated and snoozy round Shigemura-san's wood burner.

As is becoming traditional, they refused to ride the next day. I think the club needs a new name: Arai Dry Eating and Onsen Club. It was good to see them though. Although we are not out of the woods yet with the power station, and it doesn't change that, it makes all of us who live in Fukushima feel a whole lot better that people still want to come. Thanks Arai.

The snow is nearly gone

Photos from April. Speeding up the melt by hand is hard work

The snow is finally leaving us again after four months and a winter that lasted longer than usual.

A neighbour calls in the big guns to speed things up - snow from her allotment.

A heavy duty council snow machine clears the pavement

Evaporation above Oshio - one of the famous views of Japan

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Road running in Minamiaizu

A day off from worry

Hoshi-san about to make a break for glory, above Ouchijuku, Minamiaizu
It has taken me two years to find a group of runners to run with, in this sparsely populated area of a 'time poor' country, so I was really glad to be able to forget the stress of the last month and go and run with the informal Aizu Run For Fun group. They meet up a couple of times a year for a social run in addition to seeing each other at races.

Aizu Run For Fun group with Mt Ono in the background

We met at Yunokamionsen, which is lorded over by Mt Ono, and in the midst of other fine mountains, but the group like road running, so we weren't going up it, unfortunately for me. Instead we climbed up a long side valley past the famous old houses at Ouchijuku. It was about an hour of uphill road running, to a dam at the top. Then we turned round and ran back the same way! Ouch.

Endo-sensei and Iwabuchi-sensei, both primary school teachers, and Hoshi-san, very fast at 60.

The run up was at a steady social pace, and I stopped to take a photo of the others as they ran down a loop of road with mountains behind, assuming catching up would be no problem. Hoshi-san, the spry 60 year old, took the opportunity to leg it down the road sharpish, which shouldn't have been a huge surprise, as I had noticed how easily he was chatting on the way up. 

Runners on route 131, above Ouchi, Minamiaizu

I have noticed two things about Japanese sports clubs. One is that they like to play 'show the newcomer who is boss,' perhaps especially if they are a foreigner. And secondly, I am yet to go on a completely social run or ride, where people stay together all the way round. There is always someone batting off the front. Don't get me wrong, it is all done in a friendly spirit, and I love competition and hard training, but when I was in my prime in England we always said 'Don't leave your best runs in training - save it for races.' Perhaps they don't get to do as many races, so they have more of a competitive itch to scratch? It's just a different approach, and fine once you know to expect it.

Hoshi-san had a good time anyway, and it took an effort to catch him. He is obviously a classy runner for his age category, and without an ounce of fat on him at 45kg he has a great strength-to-weight ratio. On down the hill at a brisk pace, with my mountain runner's legs spitting hate at the pesky tarmac, he put in another burst and was off. 

Sharing grub after a relaxing onsen

The group who had gone a shorter route arrived back in pairs, their ages ranging from the 30s to the 70s! Fantastic. I love seeing people running and biking into their old age. I really hope I can do it. It won't be too long now. There is no better way to follow training than with an onsen, and the lunch banter got more raucous, the more alcohol the non-drivers consumed. Interesting characters!

It was a lovely day, and it was good spend it with nice people and to see a little more of an area that I don't know yet. Driving back on beautiful roads, I hoped that I would be able to come back and run a few of the mountains in Minamiaizu in less troubling times. There won't be much tarmac involved I can tell you...

Friday, 22 April 2011

Write for Tohoku ebook available

The Write for Tohoku ebook is now available from
It is 295 page collection of pieces by people who have been touched, changed, or just plain amused by their experiences of this unique country, with many pieces about Tohoku itself including places affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. You will wind up knowing a lot more than you did before about Japan behind the headlines if you aren't very careful.

It is a veritable bargain at $9.99 (£6.20 approx), and all profits go to the Japan Red Cross relief effort. Spread the word. And I'm not just saying that because a piece from Living in Aizu is in it obviously...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Run? Hide? Ride?

Look, a mask. That's me completely safe then. I'll duck and cover when I get home

If we do stay here I don't want my son to be doing anything I feel uncomfortable about myself. So on my first day back north, when I came ahead on my own to see how it felt being back here, I went for a bike ride and breathed the air in good and deep. 

I called in on one of the great primary schools I have done some teaching at, just to say hello and show that I had come back. By coincidence on the morning of the March 11th earthquake we had been told by the outgoing head of education that we would no longer be employed to do English in local schools, which confused and saddened us a bit, as a lot of children and teachers seemed to have enjoyed our creative approach. We returned home to the quake and to pictures of the tsunami on television and nothing has seemed that small or ordinary since. Still, being unemployed made it slightly easier to go away until things became clearer. They are still not clear.

The deputy head, a lovely chap, gave me an emotional greeting, and we exchanged concerns about each other's families. It is hard for him as he lives in a flat here, while his wife and children live further East (more towards the plant) in Aizuwakamatsu. This isn't an unusual arrangement in these parts, as apparently women often refuse to live in the mountains even when their husbands want to. His parting words were that I should look after my son. After the ride my eyes were itchy, but I'm guessing that was the tree pollen, which has been billowing out in big yellow clouds. Smoky Robinson might disagree.

The next day I visited Shigemura-san, who spent the first two weeks of the crisis in hospital having an operation that had been arranged before-hand. He was very upbeat and I think he is an immovable object. He loves giving hospitality, and it was great to feel almost normal as he fired up the wood burning stove in his front room for a cup of tea and a succession of snacks and goodies.

Biomass - anything that is non-nuclear is OK by us now

I dropped in to Abe-san's garage to top up for my trip to pick up my wife and child. Bowing sometimes goes out of the window in times like these, and the normally non-touching Japanese dive in for a warm double-handed handshake given the excuse of a gaijin - especially as I have turned out not to be a flyjin for now (the term coined for foreigners who flew home during the crisis).

Abé-san and friend

We discussed how sad it was that even evacuees didn't stay here for long as they found it inconvenient and cold. How sad that in modern life instant access 24 hour shopping and physical comfort every minute of the day are valued more highly than what this community offers. I said that if they had given it more time they would have realised that here everyone is your friend. People don't have as much money, sure, but they have more time. And children are really cared for and well educated. What is more important, when it comes down to it?

In a wider sense it is a kind of sickness, contributing to the concentration of life in Tokyo, which therefore needs enormous electricity resources, so nuclear power stations are forced on the provinces like Fukushima-ken that don't even benefit from them, but have to deal with the fallout - literally.

Of course in such dire circumstances I completely understand people chasing every crumb of comfort they can find, and many may simply have gone home again to work or to re-unite their families. Evacuation solves one pressing problem, but can create a whole set of new ones.

Abé-san recalled how much he disliked  living in Yokohama City for ten years. He couldn't stand the rush hour trains, with people pressed right up against your face, so he came back.  He is an occasional cyclist, and has so far given us a good bike and some skiis. He also re-did the nuts on my the car wheels for free this week. Apparently I put them on the wrong way round in taking off the snow tyres. But like the long-term health effects of low levels of radiation from naturally ocurring radon gas, compared to solely man-made caesium 137 contamination, who is to know?  Like everyone else, Abé-san looked to have lost weight since I last saw him. There is of course deep concern and worry beneath the 'business as usual' veneer.

Shigemura-san on his first post-operation ride

I joined Shigemura-san on his first post-operation ride. "9.30 in the morning!" I emphasised. "Not 10!" Yes, yes, of course, he replied. "All ready?" yes, yes of course he would be, he said. The next morning I arrived at his big old house just before 9.30 to find him struggling to get his spd pedals off and put platform pedals on. No surprise there. That took a while. You see, life, carrying on as normal! So not all Japanese dislike shaking hands, and not all Japanese are punctual either. But I liked it. It was comforting.

On the ride I had to persuade him not to sprint some sections for the sake of his recuperation. He might literally have bust a gut, but I can see that he must have been a bit stir crazy in hospital and stuck in his house, when he is such a big one for the outdoors. It was windy, and billows of dust rose from the roadside. I could feel the particles working their way into my eyes - but that is the feeling I had come out to try before my son. It wasn't good. In these situations is imagination your friend or your enemy? It is simple for Shigemura-san - there is no problem, just as there are no bears on any given hill that he chooses to go on.

I also got a call from Iwabuchi-sensei, who I run with sometimes. In February before the earthquake he did the Iwaki Sunshine Marathon, only a few kilometres from Fukushima Daiichi. We had been talking about starting a sports club and finding other runners, and one had finally got back to us to arrange a group run for the following week in Minami-Aizu, which has had the lowest radiation readings of anywhere in Fukushima.

Iwabuchi-sensei toughing it out, mask on chin

Him and me ran for a couple of hours on the road, as we are in the in-between time, after the minor roads are clear of a nice soft layer of snow, and before the mountain trails are clear enough to run. Aizu looked fantastically beautiful, as it always does, nearly enough to forget everything. It was a rolling valley route, with ups and downs like our daily emotions.

As I write, the wind is blowing from the East. That is bad, and the rain that has been falling all day has turned to big wet flakes of snow. I won't be going out for a run or a ride today. Today it's definitely hide, though that is a luxury that the many people working in road and tunnel building, construction, forestry and delivery across Aizu and the rest of Fukushima-ken can't afford.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The frog in boiling water

Returning to the nuclear threat from Fukushima Dai-ichi*

What have they done to this beautiful country? Waking to a different world

It is now four weeks since the man-made Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster, born of greed and arrogance, began. I haven't posted recently because I am too sad and angry, and I didn't know what to say. We left Fukushima-ken four days later after two explosions and a lack of credible information. We have returned to our home 133 km (83 miles) west of the plant after three weeks of keeping our son safe in Hiroshima (of all places) and Kyushu, where we visited, you guessed it, Nagasaki.

It tells you everything you need to know about this beautiful place that we have come back at all, to at least try living with these horribly new circumstances, in what for so many in Japan is an utterly changed world. This community has been so good for our son, and we feel a strong bond even after just two years. There is more information now, and it seems that Oku-Aizu may, so far, be the least affected area of Fukushima-ken. And yet the picture is far from complete. 

We have daily local air readings for microsieverts per hour, but only outside the council offices, not across the area. The one-off reading by our son's school 400m away was double this, albeit still low.  We have no local details breaking this down into amounts of iodine 131, or caesium 137 if any, and no soil testing yet. It isn't clear what effect the remaining snow or the structure of the mountains will have. Are they protective in some way, or could they lead to pockets of concentration? Should the snow be cleared off allotments and rice fields, or left to melt?

Information is inconsistent and contradictory. There appears to be no internationally uniform way of describing risk or radioactivity in a way intelligible to most people. Different figures are given using different measures over different time scales. Relating them to each other is near impossible for the non-specialist. There is particular confusion around short term versus long term risk, with dubious comparisons to things like medical x-rays and international flights being offered. The results of exposure to very high levels seem reasonably well understood, but long term chronic exposure to small amounts over years much less so. I have yet to find anyone among my friends and acquaintances who feels that they understand it, and it thus comes down to who do you trust? The answer, for many Japanese, is nobody any more.

There is also a gap between information and risk assessments in Japan and abroad. Foreign governments, scientists and engineers and the media often have a different or more pessimistic view and there has been much criticism of TEPCO.

The more you read about radiation risks, the wider the disagreements appear to be - across media pundits (independent or otherwise), governments, and most worryingly even the scientific community. The latter are quite poor at making themselves intelligible to the general public. Behind the scenes connections with industry, government, ownership and funding are not made clear, making it difficult to know to what extent the information is being distorted, selected or withheld for financial, strategic, or political reasons. No subject is completely free of this. No doubt behind the scenes the cost-benefit relationship, between how risk is presented and future compensation claims, and the future of the nuclear industry is being calculated. That is just what very big organisations often do.

We are trying to persuade the council to buy testing equipment for the air, soil, water and food, as we all urgently need reassurance that we are not putting our children at risk - with a big, comfortable margin of error, not a 'probably' or 'maybe'. For example the wild vegetable (sansai) picking season is nearly upon us and people are going to start feeding them to their children. There is currently no way of getting them tested. 

Tourism and the sale of produce is also dead in the water without transparent and credible local testing of exactly the thing that people are using or eating.  But local government has the reputation for being change averse and very slow, and because its workers have secure jobs they are less likely to see the urgency of taking pre-emptive steps to preserve the many small producers, accommodation and onsen businesses that will go under. The way that Japanese education stamps out individual flexible thinking will also be an obstacle in responding quickly and effectively to this crisis. As I put it in a previous post

The ability to respond creatively to change is the best insurance in an uncertain world. Fixed curricula with little chance to discuss, ask challenging questions, or freely explore each others minds, do not provide this.

Change is inevitable, and attempting to predict it is risky. Training children to accept and follow rigid patterns based on an assumed future, rather than to innovate solutions for any situation, risks condemning them to struggle and redundancy. 

Institutions, like some individuals, are still in denial about just how changed things will be and are trying to cling on to their routines.

We had a magnitude 7 earthquake this week which caused worrying problems at Onagawa nuclear power station, as if we don't have enough already. There was another 7 magnitude quake today, and the constant aftershocks are really fraying everyone's nerves, and frightening the children. I ran downstairs during today's quake to check on the my son and his two friends. There was no sign of them in the front room, until I realised they had all managed to squeeze underneath the small, low, heated table (kotatsu). Apparently they threw their PSPs and Nintendo DSs in there first - imagine that on the Titanic. You can tell they were scared, because he claims they didn't continue playing them under there.

In the first four days of the crisis the image that haunted me was that of people watching the tsunami approach before they had reached safety - people were screaming 'Run! Run!' But they were mesmerised by its power like rabbits in a car's headlights. We moved because we needed to break that spell. We were, I think, right to do so. 

Some friends say we should stay away, others that it is important to keep it in proportion and listen to credible reassurances. We moved back because our life is here. The radiation test numbers seemed better,  school was starting, and there was a job interview. The disciplined Japanese 'group mind,' in its warmer aspects and remarkable community solidarity is a wonderful thing,  as you will have seen from responses to the tsunami, and draws you in.

The image that is haunting me now, though, is the hopefully apocryphal 'frog in boiling water' experiment. They say that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out. But if you put it in cool water, then slowly heat it up, it will stay in there until it cooks. I hope it isn't talking about us.

Update: since writing a Nature magazine editorial reinforces my points regarding information and makes me feel better about my confusion!  

*Please note, the above is a description of my current thinking as an individual assessing risk for my family and is based on web reading. I am not a specialist.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


English version
あなたや子供達の安全のために、現状が回復し危険リスクが減るまで 、福島県または東北地方を離れたいとお考えですか? そのために役立つ情報はご存知でしょうか?

  1. 自分の行きたいエリアの市や県に連絡する。例えば、西日本。Link
  2. 緊急住宅問題の課に連絡する。例えば、住宅管理グループ。そして、現在の自分の状況を説明する。
  3. もしご自身が優先順位から外れていると言われた場合、その地区のNPOセンター、または小規模のNPOネットワークに連絡をする。Link
  4. 自治体からのサポートが得られなかった理由を電話で説明し、NPOに交渉を手伝ってもらう。または、その地区のNPOで手助けをしてくれるところや、ボランティアでホームステイさせてくれるところの連絡先を教えてもらう。


  1. 住宅管理グループ:電話番号082−513−4171、現状を説明して交渉して下さい。
  2. 広島NPOセンターが、あなたをサポートしてくれるNPOを見つけてくれるかもしれません。電話番号082−511−3180
  3. ウェブサイト
  4. NPO 西城さとやま交流館が、被災者証明がなくても受け入れて下さいます。(広島市から北東に約100キロ)
  5. 電話番号0824−82−7171
  6. クリスチャン教会は少人数の受け入れを考えてくれています。電話番号080−3125−0690、しん様宛て。

English version

Do you need to leave Fukushima-ken or Tohoku because of the nuclear accident or earthquake and tsunami?

Are you afraid for your children or yourself, and want to leave Fukushima-ken or somewhere else in Tohoku until the situation improves and the danger is reduced? Do you know or work with people who may need accommodation or respite? 

Many prefectures in safer areas like West Japan are now offering temporary accommodation to evacuees and those made homeless by the earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear accident. This may be free for up to a year, and food, equipment, and welfare support may be on offer for official evacuees and those made homeless in some areas. Evacuees from official zones, and those made homeless by earthquakes and tsunamis have priority, but help for others who make their own decision to move to a safer area may also be available. Details vary from place to place, but here is an idea for what to do:
  1. Contact the City or Prefecture office in the area you want to go to, for example in West Japan (List of prefecture and city homepages - most have English pages)
  2. Ask for the department offering emergency accommodation, for example the housing management office. Explain your situation and ask for help.
  3. If they say that you do not meet their priorities, ask for the NPO support office number for that area, or similar NPO network (list of NPO support offices in Japan)
  4. Phone them and explain that you have been refused official help, and ask them if they can negotiate for you, or if there are any NPO’s arranging help or volunteer hosts in the area – get their contact details and contact them.
Example: temporary help in Hiroshima
The city is preparing  apartments (100 so far today) free for 12 months: here are the details on the Hiroshima-ken government site

Contact details:

  1. Hiroshima housing management 082 513 4171 to negotiate for help based on your circumstances
  2. Or the Hiroshima NPO support centre will help you find other NPO’s who can help. TEL 082-511-3180
  3. An example of an NPO (100km NE of Hiroshima) offering help without criteria: Saijosatoyama Koryyukan: tel: 0824 82 7171
  4. A Christian church who may be able to offer hosts for a few families: Reformed Christian Church: Mob: 080 3125 0690 (Shin-san)
As time goes on and immediate critical needs have been met, it is likely that government, NPOs and volunteers all over Japan will provide more help and temporary accommodation for people with children who arrive from Tohoku, and especially near the reactor. Keep asking so they know what people’s needs are.

If you have any corrections or other useful information that you have verified to be correct, please post it in a comment

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

How are people in Aizu coping with the crisis in Japan?

Kaneyama-machi: a community that will bend but not break

My wife has been in daily contact with friends and family back up in Kaneyama-machi, a long way from us now but very much in our minds. Everyone of course feels differently and will have their own particular view of things and ways of coping, but here are some of the things we have heard about.

People are of course getting on with their normal lives as best they can. Many, though not young themselves, continue to care for elderly relatives at home.

There have been repeated earthquakes in Aizu, as across all of Tohoku which while lower in magnitude than the worst areas, are frightening and unsettling, and the combination of that and the nuclear crisis is very stressful.

People do not seem to trust the official information they are being given, partly because of delays at the beginning. They are confused by the difference between the 80km evacuation zone recommended by America, and the 30km Japanese zone. One said "Why is 80km good for Americans, but Japanese people only get 30km?"  Initially, the township was told to prepare for 100 evacuees, but then this was cancelled, and they aren't coming, but no reason was given. Was this because of the supply logistics in a snowy area, or for a more worrying reason? They urgently need trustworthy independent information, and information specific to their area would be invaluable.

Apparently, according to prefectural governments, areas outside the official evacuation zones cannot organise their own official moving of people, though they have no objection to individuals doing so, so mayors and schools, for example, have their hands tied. So far, it seems to be mainly foreigners and temporary residents who have left, a picture that is probably repeated in most crisis situations across the world. They are more likely to have somewhere to go to, may be less likely to have permanent jobs, and are more likely to have friends and family urging them to leave. Everyone we know who has left feels very sad and unhappy about it, finding it a very difficult decision, and wants to go back soon if possible. Oku-aizu is a difficult place to leave and is never forgotten, as the people who have left comments on recent posts here show. 

Some who have moved to Kaneyama-machi from places much nearer the accident like Fukushima City are said to feel much safer, breathing the air deeply and saying "Ah, that lovely clean mountain air." Perhaps some of the older people worry less, or notice less, whereas younger people are perhaps more informed and wary, so there may be a bit of an age divide in that respect. Some people with children are of course particularly worried, but really trying to make the best of it. Others are confident there is no appreciable risk and are happily getting on with things.

The area, which has suffered from the gradual moving away of young people and families to the cities, has paradoxically seen a sudden reversal of that. People who had moved to cities where the earthquake and tsunamis hit hard, or where there is no power or food, or a greater fear of radiation, are moving back. People's big "ie's" the symbolic central home, the physical heart of the family, are full again, as they used to be, as are most of the guest-houses and onsen hotels, which have reduced their prices a lot to help people escaping. The council is providing food outside the council offices, as many of these people not staying with their families don't have access to much.

There isn't enough fuel to plough the roads, though it is still snowing regularly and there is little or no fuel available, so getting around is difficult, and some of the teachers may soon not be able to get to work in the schools. The main roads are reported to be still negotiable, though the smaller mountain roads that were previously ploughed must be getting difficult. There is no heating oil left, though people who managed to stock up before the crisis have enough for now. The general approach to winter in the area has always been to prepare for the long haul, as winters are pretty tough in any case, and the same applies to food. It is unlikely that local people will run out of basic food for quite some time.

It is a worry that milk in some areas of Fukushima-ken has been found to contain harmful levels of Iodine already - but not in Kaneyama-machi or Oku Aizu. The government has not banned produce from affected areas here and elsewhere, but suggested that people should be wary of buying it, which comes to the same thing. In the end, public perception will determine whether people will buy produce, even though testing has been instituted. For example the TV tonight showed a dairy farmer in Aizubange with his uncontaminated milk, which was perfectly fine - however his customers had cancelled their orders. It is to be hoped that transparent and credible testing in the longer term succeeds in reassuring people sufficiently. Very small amounts of Iodine, said not to pose any risk at all, have been found in drinking water as far south as Tokyo and west in Niigata.

If anyone can cope well with all this, and find a way to bounce back, it is people like those in Kanayama-machi, with their immense vitality and community cohesion.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Children at risk near the Fukushima Daichi nuclear accident, Japan?

While now safe with my son in Hiroshima, we are still extremely concerned for everyone in Fukushima-ken, in particular the people, and especially children, living near (but outside) the official 30km evacuation zone, and we are working hard from here to help.

The American government has recommended a much bigger 80km evacuation zone. Inside that 80km area are many small towns and villages, but also Iwaki city just outside it (population 344,000), and Koriyama City, with a population of around 340,000. It is only about 60km (36 miles) west of the accident.

See map with example centres of population and their distances from the accident

We all hope that the incredibly brave, heroic workers fighting to save the plant are successful in avoiding the much larger release of radiation that would follow full meltdown of one or several of the six reactors in close proximity, and material in unprotected storage ponds, all affected by each other. We also hope that the more optimistic in a wide range of expert assessments are correct, that is to say that even if it comes to the worst, there will be no immediate risk outside the plant and the 30km evacuation zone. One described it as essentially "a local incident." I really hope so, though ineveitably this has now been upgraded to "an incident with wider consequences." But my personal view as a lay person with a deep affection for Fukishima-ken communities is that all along assessments have proved in fact to be too optimistic, from the design choices made in the building of the plant, to Tokyo Electric`s announcements, to the evacuation area. This is also view of the man who was in charge of the Chernobyl clean up.

This week I met a nuclear power worker travelling home to see his family before going to work at the Fukushima Daichi power plant. He said that we had been right to leave, and that he `expected it to get worse next week.` We think he had probably been given permission to say goodbye to his family and knew there was a chance he might not survive. The way he smiled at my son was heartbreaking.

Imagine everything going as wrong as it possibly can - it has so far. Can anyone really be sure that 6 reactors interacting at their worst, with sustained release of material including plutonium from controversial mox fuel, combined with strong landward winds and the fall of rain and snow, will not combine to create an unprecedented event? Surely `hope for best but prepare for the worst` is sensible. I am very aware of the huge pressure on government systems caused by the tsunami and earthquakes and the extraordinary scale of the logistics involved. I am also incredibly appreciative of everything that is being done already by countless hard pressed and exhausted officials, NPOs and citizens, who are struggling to decide priorities.

For example, Hiroshima City has offered to accommodate anyone from the 30km evacuation zone from Tuesday 22nd March. They will also accommodate anyone whose house has been destroyed from a very wide area including all of Tohoku, Hokkaido, Kanto, Koshin etsu in Yamanachi-ken, Nagano, and Niigata.

However amidst all this great work I am afraid that one group has been forgotten. The children and families outside the current 30km zone, but within, for example the American`s 80km zone, and with no significant mountain barrier between them and the plant, should be provided with transport to safe accommodation until the plant is stabilised. Children seem to be affected more quickly than adults by radiation of specific kinds (Iodine) because of their un-developed thyroid glands, so it needs to happen quickly -  before, not after the event.

Preferably government should do it, but if not then NPOs and volunteers could do a little. To these ends I am at the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Foundation in the Peace Park at ground zero, who have been very helpful and supportive with facilities, information and their channels of communication, which will hopefully bear some fruit. I have lobbied Hiroshima-ken (a branch of local government), and been interviewed by a journalist with the Chugoku newspaper. I have also contacted an NPO network arranged to deal with the crisis, tried to find local people to be host families, and asked all my friends and contacts to send money or food to help in the aid effort in general. I was contacted by the BBC while still in Kaneyama-machi, and spoke on a World Service's TV programme. I don't think anything has changed as a result yet.

Hiroshima City, with it's tragic history, has a unique understanding of what Fukishima's communities are going through, and I have no doubt will respond with any help they can offer. Hiroshima has just offered to accommodate anyone from the 30km evacuation zone from Tuesday 22nd March. They will also accommodate anyone whose house has been destroyed from a very wide area including all of Tohoku, Hokkaido, Kanto, Koshin etsu in Yamanachi-ken, Nagano, and Niigata. However, this does not yet include the group I am referring to, and at the least volunteer hosts will be needed, moving on to transport and lobbying official permissions if more is possible.

At the moment the parents we have spoken to are very afraid and confused, not trusting official information, and often without anywhere to head for even if they could find gasoline or an air or bus ticket for the few services left. Those with jobs are afraid of loosing them if they leave without permission, and life is continuing as normally as possible, with schools open, but no food in the shops or gasoline. What happens if you take your children out of school? What happens if you leave with nowhere to go to and no evacuee ID?What will people think of us afterwards if we leave?

Many areas of Fukushima-ken, far from evacuating, are actually receiving and looking after homeless evacuees from further north. The prefectural government has told our mayor that it is too busy to think about anything other than what central government is asking it to do. People need realistic options, and fast. They need to be encouraged to take them, to overcome the highly admirable Japanese social behaviour that in this situation, while preventing dangerous panic, can also be a barrier to sensible precautions.

If you are reading this and have any links that might help with anything, from offering aeroplanes (!), to links with Hiroshima groups, to future support or expertise for Kaneyama-machi, my small mountain community whose economy will probably be ruined whatever happens, please get in touch. Please forward this to people. My mobile number is ++81 (0)80-417-44847, but, only use this for something practical. Please use comments for anything non-urgent.

I don't yet know what can happen, if anything, as when it comes down to it I am just a foreigner with limited Japanese and a buggered laptop that has refused to connect to the internet for the last two days. I don't know if I am doing the right things, and am afraid of muddying the waters and adding to difficulties. But being safe and wrong is better than being over-confident and wrong. In any case any links I can make now will hopefully be of use to my home area Kaneyama-machi and Fukushima-ken as a whole in the future.

What we  really need is some definitive and reliable good news from Fukushima power station, to make all  our worries look stupid. Let's hope events are overtaken by us soon - it has been the other way so far.

Thanks for reading, yours in hope, Geoff

The BBC has summarised various views of the worst case scenario at 16th March:

This is the BBC's summary of health risks from radiation

This is the World Health Organisation information on the Japanese radiation risk