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Test Pressing

010 / Far East Family Band / Nippon-Jin

To explain for the newer readers, Dr Rob is the other key contributor to Test Pressing alongside myself. He lives in Japan and here writes about living in the country post-earthquake. If you didn’t know the good doctor has a radio show and you can stream it here.

When the Tohoku earthquake hit I was in Sakudiara, a small town in Nagano that has sprung up around a handful of warehouse-sized shops and a cinema multiplex. That has to be at least 500 kilometres from Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi. The areas closest to the centre of the quake. My kids had the day off school and as a soft option I had tried to lose them in Toys R Us. I had been feeling unwell all day and as I stepped out of the blare and demands of the shop I felt myself become unsteady. My first thought was maybe I actually have the flu and I checked around me to see if everyone else was OK. They seemed unaffected and I felt then like I might pass out but I noticed that the pylons around us were twanging like steel nipples. Earthquake. In Tokyo you get used to them but part of the deal with moving to Nagano is/was that they never happen here. We`ve got the volcanos to worry about instead. I asked a taxi driver “does this happen often?” He said “never”. When we got to the shinkansen station everybody was being ushered off the platforms and into a waiting room. The TV warned of possible tsunamis up to 1 metre in height. Within 5 minutes this was up to 10 metres. Trains were suspended. All mobile networks went down. We were lucky enough to live so close as to be able to stretch to a taxi home, though totally unprepared for what would greet us there when we switched on the TV.

When an earthquake of any scale hits in Japan, television broadcasts are interrupted by a colour-coded map highlighting areas worse effected and if tsunami are expected then evacuation voice overs in Japanese, English, Spanish and Chinese. These normally last for a few minutes. In the case of the Tohoku earthquake they started around 3pm on Friday March 11 and continued for a little over two weeks. Early on we didn’t get to see the tsunami footage. I guess it wasn’t available. No one able to retrive it. But news announcers were wearing hardhats in shaking studios as ceilings collapsed around them. I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on but one of the sights that will stay with me was that of Chiba burning. It looked like they would never be able to put it out. It really did look like the beginning of the end of the world. And the quakes just kept coming. They are still coming. We had another one last night (16.05.11). I can`t quite remember the figure but there have been over a 1000 earthquakes in Japan since March 11. Over 100 of them grade 4 or over.

Where I am, in the mountains, is pretty much bang in the middle of the widest part of the main island. The safest place in terms of tsunami. This didn’t happen by accident. I once visited a beautiful coastal resort called Shimoda. Blue sea surrounded by lush green mountains. I had always dreamed of living on a beach somewhere, but the warning signs in Shimoda changed my mind. In the event of a major earthquake, leave the area immediately. So you survive a major earthquake. Your home falls down at midnight. You`ve then got around ten minutes to try to outrun a giant wave. Forget it. I am no longer dreaming of California. I have made my home in the mountains.

While the earthquakes kept coming, every ten minutes in some places, attention quickly focused on the damaged nuclear power plant on the Fukushima coast, around 250km south east. I called the British Embassy for advice. “My children and I are in Nagano (a long way away) what should we do?” “Stay inside, close all windows and doors.” “My wife is in Tokyo (a lot closer – maybe 180km to the South of Fukushima) what should she do?” “I`ll have to call you back. In the meantime check our website.” I did and some attractive young lady showed me how to pack a handbag with a bottle of water and my passport.

Friends from Ibaraki came to stay in my living room, because their roof had collapsed and they were just to close for comfort. Three adults, three children. Each adult monitoring news from a different source. The BBC, Japanese TV and direct news feeds to mobiles. It was impossible to work out what was going on and the seriousness of the situation. Japanese authorities trying to avoid panic. Overseas advising evacuation. Those British nationals living in Tokyo and the north of japan should consider leaving the area.

I kept a diary. It goes without saying since it is clear that I am that vain. And I thought about asking Paul to post pieces everyday, just to highlight the situation. But I am so far away from the real trouble. My anxieties are trivial. Largely unreal. There was a report detailing the adverse psychological effects the continual news coverage was having on young children. Constant re-runs of lives being washed away. Confused like the children I did not know if the footage was archived or was this still happening.

Every morning at 5 AM I would check the only English speaking channel for news. I would check the IAEA three times a day for updates. I remember my panic at learning there is a Unit 5. Every night I would go to bed fully clothed, In case I had to get the children up and out. Sea-sick on dry land. Can`t trust my senses Earthquakes would be detected by laundry, unable to be dried outside, dancing in the lounge. My youngest son and I watched dead Koi float in an ornamental pond. Like fallen crescent moons. Mum called to check if I have picked up any Uranium tablets. Tiny bombs. I learned to fear the rain.

We tried to send food and clothes North, but there were no routes open. The British Embassy advised that I should consider leaving the area. So I did. I packed a suitcase and got some money together but I didn’t really think about going. There are an awful lot of people an awful lot worse off, who have lost everything and have nowhere to run. And it quickly became apparent that the power plant situation was chronic. If you did run, would you ever come back? I did realize that I was beginning to lose my mind. Where I live, out of season, is deserted. I could walk for 20 minutes and not see anyone. I would wonder if there had been some public announcement in Japanese that I had missed, and everyone else had gone. I knew I had to get a grip.

In all honesty, Nagano has been largely unaffected. I don`t think the earthquakes we experienced were over grade 3. Anything higher must be terrifying. Food deliveries, the equivalent of something like Ocado, stopped and as yet haven`t fully resumed. The swimming pool closed to save on electricity. In the supermarket (we only really have the one) we suffered runs on tinned fish, milk, bread, bottled water. Toilet roll. All shortages seemingly caused by panic buying and hoarding rather than supply. Fuel was rationed to 10 litres per car and the kerosene we use to heat our home (we were still in the -20s at night) limited to 18 litres per household per week. Fuel rationing has consequences for a community that needs tourism to survive. The government lifted tolls on roads over Golden Week and the place was busy. But not as busy as last year.

In the third week, once emergency broadcasting had stopped, I made the conscious decision to ignore all media. None of it was really telling me anything I could use. Information on the IAEA is along the lines of “Today we tested radiation levels in 15 prefectures”. Which ones? “And levels ranged from 1,000, 000 to 0.1 mbq/m2.” Where is it 1,000,000 and where is it 0.1? Everyone seemed to know something you didn’t. “Oh you are safe in the mountains they will shield you”. “Oh you need to get out of the mountains, the winds will carry the radiation to you first”. But it seemed to me that nobody knew anything. I decided to ignore everyone. I decided just get on with things. But I have stopped boozing in the evening. I never know when I all my faculties may be called upon.

I called friends in Tokyo. Anyone thinking of heading further south? No. They were all staying put. So I figured maybe things weren’t as bad as they looked on TV. But when I did go back into Tokyo I was shocked. I travelled in to play at Lone Star, like most parties here now, for the indefinite future, for charity. I`d watched fellow shinkansen travelers don facemasks as we went through Omiya and arrived in Tokyo at around 8:30 pm on a Saturday night. Expecting to have to squeeze my record box, standing, onto a busy Metro train, I practically had the carriage to myself. To get to the party in Harajuku I travel through Omontesando, a busy shopping area, normally packed with hot women trying to look cool under weight of too many purchases. No one was on the platform. Changing lines, wheeling my box through deserted walkways, eerie is the word. Tokyo is never quiet. Convenience stores were dimly lit and empty. Shops and restaurants closing. Saving power.

At the party, it was understandably quiet. It became clear that many of the young foreigners we know had left the country. Gone home. It turned into one of those nights where the aging DJs are left drinking with a handful of close friends. Going for it with the bravado of Shakespeare kissing plague victims. Bravado which of course eventually slipped. By 3 am everybody, to me, looked worried out of their minds. I heard rumours of radioactive caesium in the breast milk of Tokyo mothers. Stories of protestors at the TEPCO headquarters being beaten up by plain clothes police. I realized once again, how lucky I am.

I do get the feeling that as figures for accumulated radiation begin to be made available that the situation may be worse than the Japanese government was willing to admit (I guess their standpoint – to avoid panic – has been we can neither confirm nor unconfirm until tests have been done and numbers are available) and as bad as overseas authorities have predicted all along. But now, I kind of ignore the earthquakes because we have made the decision to stay. I cook my kids` food in bottled or filtered water. I don’t let them get wet. This has become the new normal. Not so bad. Maybe easy to forget, save the pink Spiderwort in the window box. And maybe I should keep my mouth shut since I am still here sitting amongst most of my possessions. With my family. Japan doesn`t need any more scary stories. She needs support from the rest of the world in terms of visits from friends. Artists. Tourism and trade. But the other night at 2 AM I took these pictures off the TV, as cameras followed a man back to his former home in Miyagi. A solitary white radiation-suited figure on a science-fiction landscape. Completely flattened. Absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see. Stopping. Taking a moment to burn incense. To mourn. Beyond hope. The sound of bird song deafening.


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