Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: March 2011

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Ordinary stories from Tokyo

Story 1

Mrs Sato is 68 years old. She lives with her husband and disabled 38-year-old son in a suburb in western Tokyo. When the earthquake struck, the couple was at home, but their son was a few blocks away, getting physiotherapy at a special school. Mr Sato wasn't able to call the school since the telephone network was overloaded. He set off on bicycle to find his son, but when he arrived at the school, his son was missing.

The Satos could only piece together what had happened after they found their son. He somehow wandered off after the quake and got onto a bus. Why didn't the school staff notice? We don't know, but it's a small, inexpensive, possibly understaffed suburban school. Fortunately their son is not severely disabled and this is Japan, i.e. it is safer than many other countries, even in the wake of the biggest quake in its history. The passengers on the crowded bus realized that something was amiss and told the bus driver, who told the police, who managed to return the son safely to his parents.

This is not a city in a blind panic. This is a story about a retired man cycling through crowded streets to find his son; and various individuals ignoring their own anxiety to help a disabled man to find his way home.

Story 2

Sachiko is a 19-year-old who is studying tourism. During the winter holiday she worked part-time at a hideously expensive hotel in Yūrakuchō that caters largely to foreign tourists. When the earthquake struck, she was on the hotel's 23rd floor, cleaning a suite.

"Did the hotel sway a lot?"
"Yes, it was really scary."
"What did you do after the shaking stopped?"
"I called my duty manager on an internal phone to ask him what I should do."
"What did he say?"
"He said to check that all the guests were OK, and to help them to get to the ground floor."
"The elevators weren't working?"
"No, we had to walk down 23 floors."
"You live in Setagaya, but that night the trains weren't running. How did you get home?"
"Oh, no, I couldn't go home. I had to work."
"The trains weren't running so the night staff couldn't come. The day staff did a double shift that night."
"Did everybody continue working?"
"Yes, many people were stranded that night, so the hotel opened its lobby and unoccupied rooms. We also served snacks and drinks. We were very busy!"
"Did you continue working that next week?"
"We worked that weekend, but since the 13th we haven't had any guests so I can't work."
"No wages?"
"No, no shifts, no wages."
"When will you return to the hotel?"
"I don't know. We're not getting any bookings."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Shoganai. It can't be helped."

Story 3

I talked to an American woman who had returned to her country just after the quake, but came back to Japan this week.

"Why did you leave? Were you scared of the radiation?"
"There was no food in Tokyo! I'm not staying in a city with no food!"
"We always had fresh fruit and fresh vegetables and meat."
"There was no bread! No toilet paper!"
"Did your company continue to pay your salary?"
"They'd better pay me! That quake wasn't my fault! If they don't pay me, I'll sue their pants off!"

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tokyo glimpses

A young girl walks in front of me in that very Japanese way: ultra-short skirt, black stiletto boots, pigeon-toed, two huge bags hanging from the crooks of her bent arms, palms upwards, hands flopping loosely, forearms pointing 180 degrees like a double door left wide open. She's tiny, but she occupies three times her body size thanks to that elbow-bag-thing. She looks like a miniature Tyrannosaurus rex.

Middle-aged guy gets on the Toei Ōedo Line at Kagurazaka. Beard, which is unusual. Dressed conspicuously fashionably, armed with an obviously expensive leather man bag, which he puts on the seat next to him. As the train gets fuller, going towards Ueno, he makes no attempt to remove the bag to make room for another passenger. He is too absorbed in his MacBook Air and bad jazz screeching from his headphones. Ah well. It could've been worse: it could've been an iPad. 

Monday, 28 March 2011

Japan is nie vir sissies nie

Every morning when I arrive in Nishi-Shinjuku, I realize anew what an astonishing city this is. I get off at Tochōmae Station and exit near the Keio Plaza Hotel, which happens to be the first skyscraper built in Nishi-Shinjuku and the first high-rise hotel in Japan. (The hotel's first tower was completed in 1971, the second tower in 1980.) The first thing I see as I reach the street level is the ultra-modern, sci-fi-like Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower surrounded by various other skyscrapers. Each time I look at it, I grin involuntarily.

Whenever I express awe about Tokyo, technology, shinkansen, konbini efficiency or superfast internet connections, The Hero tells me, "Jy's so 'n plaasjapie!" (You're such a country bumpkin.) Yes. I am. Irrevocably. I'm from Africa! You think we have buildings like that in Africa?! Mind you, we do have the pyramids. They're rather awesome.

Tochōmae Station is linked to the massive Shinjuku Station network via various underground passages sneaking underneath buildings and meandering through shopping arcades. These corridors are fully intact after the earthquake: not one crack, not one speck of plaster that has fallen. Kudos to the architects, the engineers and the construction companies. We have to focus on what went wrong in the earthquake in order to recover as fast as possible, but unfortunately that means we forget how much went right. Look at Shinjuku!

Fright risk

The Hero and I were talking about the foreign exodus. My company, which employs several foreigners, has lost a large percentage of that workforce. The rest of us have to scramble to keep things going until – who knows? – the prodigal sons return, or my company appoints new staff (if they can find them).

"I hope this exodus doesn't make it more difficult to get credit cards and mobile phone contracts," I said.
"Huh?" The Hero asked.
"Some companies don't want to give credit cards or phone contracts to foreigners because they can go AWOL without paying debts. They're a flight risk."
"They're not a flight risk," The Hero responded without batting an eyelid, "they're a fright risk."

Funny friends

"You've been living in a tumble dryer," says a friend. She's right, but fortunately we're experiencing fewer aftershocks. That means we can catch our breath until a god with itchy fingers hits the SPIN button again.

Another South African in Tokyo says we haven't left because we're tough. "Or stupid," I replied. "Tough and stupid! Best combination!" he fired back.

Maybe that's why we're good rugby players?

The debate continues

The debate between the runningawayers and the stayingputters continues. One runningawayer argument requires a response. They allege that their absence helps the overburdened infrastructure and has made life easier for companies that had to close for a week. No. Your absence is hurting your company, the retail business, the entertainment industry. What Tokyo needs – and this city is where most of you lived – what Tokyo needs is to return to business as usual and to maintain its morale. If you have left for good, I accept your decision. If you – you wealthy bankers and expat managers who left your local staff behind – if you want to come back now that the end is apparently not so nigh, here's a gentle reminder: Afrika is nie vir sissies nie. Japan ook nie. 

Friday, 25 March 2011

A cherry blossom expedition

This morning I went to Ueno Park on my first "sakura sanpo" (cherry blossom walk) for 2011. The park was very quiet – mostly homeless men, retired people, a few mothers with babies. As has become the norm in Tokyo in the last two weeks, I didn't see one single white face.

I wonder what hanami will be like this year: more subdued or more exuberant? A lot depends on Tōden. If they can bring the Fukushima nuclear reactor under control, and if people don't have to worry about radiation levels anymore – whether justifiably or unnecessarily – then perhaps we'll be able to celebrate a new beginning under the pink popcorn.

Photos of Ueno Park here.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Japan's number9nightmare

Have you read the book number9dream by David Mitchell?

The young hero, Eiji, prays to a thunder god, but his prayer goes horribly wrong. He dreams that a huge flood submerges Tokyo and drowns him. The characters Goatwriter, Mrs Comb and Pithecanthropus live in a post-war wasteland, and at some stage they jump into a waterfall that's flowing backwards (a phenomenon that reminds me of a tsunami).

This is an excerpt from the book's end: 
We interrupt this programme to bring an emergency bulletin … A massive earthquake has struck the Tokyo Metropolitan region within the last sixty seconds. The National Bureau of Seismology reports a quake of 7.3 on the Richter scale, which exceeds the Great Kansai Earthquake of 1995, and indicates extreme structural damage throughout the Kanto basin … I pick up the antique telephone. I try three times, but Ai's number is dead. So is Buntarō's. So is Nero's. No reply from Ueno. Nothing from the Tokyo operator. I would give anything to be dreaming right now. Anything. Are the airwaves and cables jammed because half the phone users in the country are trying to call the capital, or because Tokyo is now a landscape of rubble under clouds of cement dust?
Eiji runs back to Tokyo. The final chapter in the book, Chapter 9, is blank.

At its epicenter, the Great Tōhoku Earthquake was 9 on the Richter scale, although the intensity was far less in Tokyo itself.

Leaks and poops ebury where

The Hero, who speaks English fluently, occasionally switches to an exaggerated Japanese English because he knows it makes me laugh. Today he sent me a mobile phone email about the Fukushima nuclear reactor and the high levels of radiation in Tokyo's tap water.

You must be careful, he instructed me. You must never believe the government. "The gobernmento always hide. So leaks and poops ebury where."

I burst out laughing when I read that. It's an irreverent description of a very serious situation, but isn't that exactly what the Fukushima reactor is doing? It's leaking and pooping all over the place, contaminating food and water, and leaving behind an awful mess.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Acid rain toilet paper mercy mission

Yesterday I bravely battled vicious acid raid to provide an emergency toilet paper delivery service to a friend who'd run out.

Monday was a public holiday in Japan: Vernal Equinox Day or 春分の日, Shunbun no Hi. Friends arranged a lunch at their home in Nakano, and when they heard that my local shitamachi stores had plenty of supplies, I received an urgent request to help out. It was definitely the first time I ever arrived at a party with toilet paper as a gift for my hosts. (Only two products remain in short supply in certain stores: milk and toilet paper. I'm sure it has a deep Freudian significance, but I haven't figure it out yet.)

It was a rainy day, and the streets were quiet-ish. Apparently rain increases radiation levels, and that probably kept some Tokyoites at home. Please note, I said the streets were quiet-ish, not empty. I took the Seibu Shinjuku Line from Takadanobaba, and there was standing room only.

I have to interrupt myself: that is my favourite Japanese place name. Takadanobaba. Crisp clear quick hop skip jump ka-pow!

Tokyo may be starving, according to Western media, but we had a great lunch of salad, vegetables and ginger pork. Did the vegetables include mutated spinach from Ibaraki? I don't think so, but if it did, a few leaves wouldn't make any difference. (No, really. You'd have to eat more spinach than Popeye to be affected.) It was good to relax with friends, but reality hit hard when we watched the evening news on NHK. The room went quiet as we looked at a man standing in the wreck of his house, with a handwritten notice that bulldozers should please not raze it, since his wife's body was possibly still under the rubble.

Thus we waver between laughter and sorrow, anxiety and determination.

Fugusuma38, where are you?

Today I saw a comment by a Japanese netizen that made me smile. "What we need is a Fugusuma38!" This needs some clarification. Fugusuma is how Fukushima would be pronounced in the Tōhoku dialect. Sengoku38 was the YouTube identity of a man who leaked video material of a collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and a Japan Coast Guard boat, thus becoming a folk hero in Japan.

So, what we need is an insider who can tell us the truth about the Fukushima nuclear power plant.


The Hero has decided he's worried about the radiation issue precisely because I'm not. "You’ve been wrong too often about too many things," he says. That may be true, but I wasn't wrong to stalk you halfway around the world, was I? 

Anyway, I walked in the rain yesterday and today and I drank two glasses of tap water before I remembered that it also had increased levels of iodine, but I'm still not glowing cobalt blue. Drat. 

PS: Acid rain toilet paper mercy mission. How's that for a noun cluster?

PS2: We've barely learnt how to spell microsievert, or we're walloped on the head with becquerel. Why can't these things be discovered by scientists called Smith?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A quiet weekend in Tokyo

I want to start this post with a reminder: Although Tokyo is fine, the destruction in Tōhoku is indescribable and the tragedy remains immeasurable. I have lost my faith in the international media and I have never trusted any politician, so I do not want to repeat what they say. I can only tell you what I experience, personally, in my own tiny sphere in Tokyo.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I walked to Asakusa along the Sumida River to take photos of Tokyo Sky Tree, which reached its maximum height of 634 meters on 18 March 2011 with no fuss and no fanfare. It is now the second tallest man-made structure in the world.

The streets were quieter than usual, but my shitamachi neighbours were out and about: families strolling next to the river, mothers biking with their kids to well-stocked supermarkets, old guys sleeping in sunny spots on the river embankment. Asakusa and its famous icon, Sensō-ji, were busy but not crowded.

I did not see one single white person. While I was walking along the backstreets of Taitō and shopping at a local supermarket – in other words, clearly doing non-touristy stuff in an area with few white residents – I was stopped by two random strangers who asked me why I had not left Japan. (I should add that shitamachi residents are known for being less reticent than other Tokyoites.) When I told them Japan is my home, they bowed, said thank you and reminded me to ki o tsukete (take care).

Clearly the tourists have left Tokyo, and that's probably a good idea: power and transport remain iffy, and residents need to focus their energy on their own emotional stability and the recovery efforts in Tōhoku. Still, it hurt to see so many empty sightseeing boats on such a beautiful day. More evidence that life is not normal yet, but at least the boats kept going for their small number of passengers.

I thought, sardonically, that this white exodus has solved at least one perplexing problem: whether to acknowledge other foreigners or not. (Read about it here.)

This morning I went to my hairdresser in Akasaka. Although I'm happy to go native in all things, the one exception is my hair. Japanese hair and Caucasian hair are very different, and they require different products and different styling. I have light brown hair (you may call it reddish blonde if you feel poetic, though "classic mouse" might be more appropriate) which I don't want to entrust to a suburban used-to-black-hair stylist, so I go to Who-Ga in Akasaka. Incidentally, if you're still in Tokyo and if you need a hairdresser, I can recommend them. They're not cheap, but they're excellent, and a neck-and-shoulder massage is always included in the treatment. That alone makes it worth it.

Akasaka, too, was quiet. No white faces. My stylist told me that most of their foreign customers had cancelled their appointments. The ones who haven't left are like me: older, have lived in Japan for several years, regard this country as their home.


Kyodo News reports: "A record 262 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater were registered in the seven days following the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku temblor on March 11, according to the Meteorological Agency. The frequency of aftershocks of that magnitude until noon Friday was the highest recorded in Japan."

Until noon Friday? That means their report doesn't include the 6.1 aftershock that hit Ibaraki on Saturday night. Ibaraki is close to Tokyo, so we rocked a bit. (The earthquake that levelled Northridge in Los Angeles in 1994 was 6.7, to give you some comparison.) Compared to 9, 6 ain't that bad, although that Saturday night quake also continued long enough to make me wonder whether I should dive under my desk. The problem is that the big one started very slowly – it only felt as if the end of the world had arrived about one minute later – so every time there's a biggish aftershock, my heart rate accelerates while I wonder whether this one, too, heralds the arrival of the pale horseman.

I discovered a video that illustrates graphically how many constant aftershocks we've had. It's no wonder I'm seasick. (The Hero confirms that he also feels a bit off balance.) One second in this video = one hour. The big one is at 1:17. Haunting music, ne? I don't want to embed a video in this blog, so you can watch it here or here.

Japan's engineers have found ways to deal with quakes. Their next challenge is tsunamis, but what do you do against a 10 meter wall of water? (Watch a video here.) Declare all coastal areas a no-man's land?

Media frenzy

I've noticed that Libya has now replaced Japan on the world's front pages. After the revolting fear-mongering frenzy of the last ten days, the media has lost interest in a country that refuses to surrender to panic. Tōhoku has a staggering number of stories about human suffering, courage and compassion, but that's simply not as sexy as a nuclear nightmare, but that stupid reactor just won't blow up, so what's a newspaper to do but start salivating over the potential deaths in Libya?

Begone, Western newspapers.

Further madness overseas

My mother lives in a retirement home in South Africa. We have a long-standing arrangement that I call her every Sunday, so despite frequent chats during the last week, I called her again this afternoon.

"Mum, nothing to report, everything in Tokyo is OK."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"Don't worry about me."
"That's what I tell everybody who asks me why I don't tell you to come home."
"Who's everybody?"
"The people in the retirement home. They tell me I must tell you to come home."
"Eeeh? It's none of their business!"
"Exactly. I tell them it's your decision, and I think you're old enough and intelligent enough to make your own decisions."

I'm shocked that meddling busybodies are putting pressure on my mother to persuade me to go home. I'm also grateful, yet again, that my mother is made of stronger stuff than that. Dankie, Ma!


Tepco, Tokyo Electric Power Company, is known as Tōkyō Denryoku Kabushiki-kaisha or Tōden 東電 in Japanese. The Japanese have now started calling it 逃電. It's pronounced in the same way, but the kanji  means to flee, to escape, to abandon or to run away. Nobody is very happy with Tōden right now, and this concern is exacerbated by the company's bad history of cover-ups.

I must also add that the Fukushima 50 and various other emergency workers have emphatically not run away. They remind me of this beautiful wisdom delivered by Theodore Roosevelt during his Citizenship in a Republic speech in Paris on 23 April 1910:
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

I've mentioned a few times that I feel seasick thanks to the frequent aftershocks. I've learnt that there's a Japanese word for this dizzy feeling even when there's no earthquake. It is called 地震酔い,  jishin yoi or earthquake sickness. 

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Stayingputters and runningawayers

The earthquake has divided the foreign population in Japan into two groups: the stayingputters and the runningawayers. Both sides accuse each other of stupidity and selfishness. There's a third group, the Little Goody Two-Shoes who pretend to sympathize with all opinions, but I've never paid much attention to this bunch and I'm not about to start now. The quake may have knocked the earth off its axis, but most of my beliefs remain intact.

I'm a stayingputter. Here's what I think about the runningawayers:

It was your decision. I accept that you're afraid, or don't want inconvenience, or succumbed to family pressure or your government's alarm, or want to get your children to what you regard as safety. I would like to remind you, however, that you love to complain that foreigners are always outsiders in Japan. You complain that you don't belong. You complain that the Japanese do not accept you and will never regard you as one of them.

Congratulations. You are now literally a gaijin, an outside person, through your own choice. You're welcome to return one day, but if you ever complain again, I'll give you a snotklap.

South Africans are tough!

Ek bel my ma weer gister, net om haar te verseker ek lewe nog.

Hallo, Ma.
Hallo, my kind. Hoekom bel jy dan weer? Is daar fout?
Ek wil net sê alles is nog reg.
Jy het my dan gister gebel.
Ja, maar …
Toe het jy vir my gesê alles is reg.
Ja, maar …
Het jy dan vir my gejok?
Nee, maar …
Nou as jy gister vir my gesê het alles is reg, dan is alles reg. Ek glo jou mos.
Goed, maar …
Skop jy nou ook 'n bohaai op?
Nee, maar ek dog maar net …
Moenie bekommerd wees oor my nie. Dis 'n mooi dag hier, maar die bouery hier anderkant raas. Dis …

Ma, ek is mal oor jou. Jy is 'n goeie ou tannie.

My ma kom van Namakwaland. Die familieplaas was destyds in Heiorigas, 'n Nama-woord wat "plek van die blink water" beteken. Die ironie is dat daardie gebied uraan-ryk is. Ek beleef 'n kernkragkrisis wat die mensdom (met die aksent op dom) op hol het, en my ma het grootgeword in 'n wêreld vol uraan. Dalk is dit hoekom ma en dogter kernkragbestand is.

There aren't many South Africans in Japan. I'm friends with two of them; one of them a Capetonian, the other a Transvaler. We're all staying put. The other day we were sharing emails with each other as well as a third South African who lives in the United States (but we'll forgive him), but comes to Japan regularly on business. Here’s the conversation:

Forget about iodine! We should drink wine to protect us! Read this: study from 2008 states that drinking red wine to neutralize toxic effects from potential nuclear plant breeches may be the way to go. 
I agree 100%. If I were you, I'd drink some good South African red wine. Screw the grape juice alternative.
Ha-ha! Why am I not surprised that, when the talk changes to wine, both you guys immediately jump into the fray with your comments?!
That's because we Capies get our priorities right!
Hey! Provincialism is dead and buried in SA! Transvaal!!! Province!!! 
Not when it comes to wine and rugby.
OK, you Kaapies beat us Vaalies hands down when it comes to wyn. Rugby? Now that's another matter entirely!
We're discussing medicinal topics! Mine was a Merlot. After a helluva day with so many people leaving Japan and others too bang to work.
But I thought rugby was medicine too, unless you're a Cats supporter.
BTW, where are those people from? Not SA, I bet. South Africans' attitude would be, "Hey, if that radiation comes near me, I'll moer it stukkend!"
Ahem, the Cats don't exist anymore.
No staying power.
Vaalies out!
OK, now this conversation is rapidly spiralling out of control.
Like the Bulle and Lions! BTW, SA has sent 50 doctors, dogs and experts to Japan for relief work. Check embassy website. Go Bokke!

Die Held, wat 'n paar jaar in Suid-Afrika gewoon het, skryf vir nog 'n Suid-Afrikaner-in-Japan wat hy beter ken as ek: "Nie een van die Suid-Afrikaners wat ek ken het die land verlaat nie. Ek sê nie dat julle hier moet bly nie, maar ek bewonder net julle vasberadenheid om julle kant te bring vir die land." Die man, wat al jare lank in Japan woon, skryf terug: "Dit is ook my land. Ek is trots om hier te wees. Ek gaan bly en help waar ek kan."

I often grumble about South Africa, but its people are great. I'm glad I have South African friends with me in Japan.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Radio-aktiwiteit en goeters

Die Held vertel hierdie storie in Afrikaans. Ek vertel dit oor, maar dis in sy woorde. Ek het niks verander nie. 

Hy noem nou die dag teenoor sy pa, wat afgetree is maar nog konsulteer, dat daar altyd die familiegrond in Niigata is as die lewe in Saitama 'n bietjie moeilik word na die aardbewing.

Toe vies sy pa hom lekker. "Hoe kan ons weghol terwyl ander woeker om die ramp onder beheer te kry? Moenie mislei word deur die media nie. Ontleed die syfers en feite. Gaan leer 'n bietjie oor radio-aktiwiteit en goeters."

Die Held se pa is 'n stadsbeplanner.

Die Held vertel voort: "Hy ontleed al jare lank aardbewings en stel ontruimingskaarte op vir munisipaliteite in Chiba en Ibaraki. Toe wys hy my 'n ingewikkelde grafiek waarvan ek nie kop of gat kan uitmaak nie, en hy vertel my hoe die ding werk."
"Hoe werk dit?"
"Nee, hoe moet ek nou weet?
"Jou pa het jou dan gewys."
"Jy sit 'n magnitude in en Excel werk een of ander som uit wat wys wat die skade van die skudding gaan wees in daai spesifieke gebied. Daar was 'n laaang numeriese formule op die grafiek wat hy self gemaak het wat ek glad nie kon begryp nie."
"Dit klink interessant. Vra hom weer sodat hy weer kan verduidelik."
"Ii kara!"

Dis moeilik om "ii kara" in Afrikaans te vertaal, maar dis iets soos "basta" of "hou nou op". Ek hoor dit heel dikwels.

Should I evacuate for chilblains?

I have a health problem! Evacuate! I have chilblains!

Wait. Is it really chilblains? Perhaps my fingers have been radiated?

I demand that a plane be sent to pick me up right now, do you hear me, right now!

I actually do have chilblains. I've always been susceptible to cold: I'm the kind of person who starts shivering when she walks through a shadow on a blazing hot summer day. It's been rather cold this week, but I haven't used any heating in an effort to limit my electricity consumption, et voilà, angry red finger joints.

That's the most dramatic news I have this morning. Even the massive blackout that would plunge Tokyo into the heart of darkness – with the international media anxiously hoping that finally, finally!, there would be looting! – didn't happen.

Life in Africa

I'm glad I grew up in Africa. Africa has a huge advantage: it toughens you up. The confusion, the uncertainty, the power shortages, the lack of food and fuel, the wobbling infrastructure that is chasing the more sensitive souls away in droves … that is normal, daily life in Africa. If we could add rampant crime and a few dozen civil wars, I would be in even more familiar territory, but for now I'll have to make do without that.

This and that

A colleague received an email from his family overseas: "If you're not Japanese, what are you doing there? You can leave. You won't be a refugee." I don't know about him, but what am I doing here? Oh, not much. Donating money; donating clothes; trying to continue working so that my company can contribute in its own tiny, tiny, negligible way to Japan's recovery. Grinning at Tokyo Sky Tree, still standing proud.

A friend fretted that he didn't have toilet paper.
"Do you have English newspapers?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"Well, that's mos what they're meant for."

(Don't ask me to translate the Afrikaans word "mos". I can’t.)

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Remote rejections

My company has been urging all employees to register with their embassies. I obediently obliged like a good sheeple should. Since I'm still officially a South African citizen, I tried my best to register with the South African embassy in Tokyo. They redirect all queries to the South African government's website.

This morning, I received this message:

Welcome to the Registration of South Africans Abroad (ROSA). An error has occurred while establishing a connection to the server. When connecting to SQL Server 2005, this failure may be caused by the fact that under the default settings SQL Server does not allow remote connections. (provider: Named Pipes Provider, error: 40 - Could not open a connection to SQL Server)

Tonight, for my own amusement, I tried again. I was told:

Login failed for user 'sa' because the account is currently locked out. The system administrator can unlock it.

I'm living in a country crippled by disasters, and it's still functioning better than South Africa.

A cold night awaits

I went to work today, but came home early because there might be a blackout in Tokyo tonight. After a public announcement, there was a controlled stampede to the stations. Anywhere except in Japan such behaviour would be described as exemplary restraint, but in Japan it qualifies as a bit of a kerfuffle. It was rather fun. I didn't have to exert any energy. I was propelled forward by crowd velocity. The only tricky part was getting out of the train at Akihabara: it was so densely packed I'm still not sure all my body parts exited with me. I chose to get out at Akihabara and walk the rest of the way because I wanted to see the panicky pandemonium that Western newspapers describe in such vivid detail. Ummm. I'm afraid I'm a very bad eye witness. I saw nothing extraordinary, except that people went home unusually early.

It has occurred to me that we might see a bump in Japan's notoriously low birthrate nine months from now.

I bought supplies at my local fruit and veggie shop, which doesn't have one empty shelf, so I'm enjoying one of my favourite Japanese snacks, dried persimmons (干し柿 or hoshigaki), while I type this.

Tonight will be a very cold night. My thoughts are with the victims and the survivors in Tōhoku, the rescue workers, the Fukushima 50 and the helicopter pilots. Stay warm. Stay safe.


I'm not going back home.
I am home.
Japan is my home.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

More disjointed thoughts

It's all relative. Tuesday evening we had a 6-point aftershock in Shizuoka (west of Tokyo). "That was a big one," said The Hero. "It was?" I asked, genuinely surprised. Perhaps a week ago I would have described it as big, but now it is just normal shaking. This morning, while I was at work, we had another 6-point aftershock in Chiba (south of Tokyo). I watched pot plants trembling and clothes hangers swaying on a coat rack, thought by myself that it had been really nice to see the crew in my usual Starbucks earlier this morning ... and carried on working.

The rocking horse

A few lifetimes ago, in December last year, my niece sent me a Christmas decoration from London: a tiny wooden carving of a rocking horse. I did not have a Christmas tree, but I hung it on a door knob that is near my computer. This little horse has become my Earthquake Detector. I keep an eye on him. If he moves, I know the earth is really trembling. If he is quiet, I know my inner ears have been so confounded by the constant to-ing and fro-ing that they cannot distinguish between reality and imagination anymore. Thank you, Mei-chan! Your gift has unexpected benefits.

'n Vrou maak 'n plan

Everybody has adapted. Even Tokyo's stylish women have swapped their stilettos for flats: nobody wants to walk home for four hours in high heels ever again.

No, I'm not going home. I am home.

I am appalled by the international media's coverage of the earthquake.

Panic in Tokyo? What panic? What are you talking about? Are you so disappointed that Japan has not deteriorated into social anarchy that you are fabricating your own stories? Do you think the horror in Tōhoku is not enough to whet your readers' appetites that you have to create your own fantasies?

You deserve to be usurped by the new media like blogging, social networks and Twitter, which are far more reliable than any newspaper.

There is concern in Tokyo, even frayed nerves, but there is no panic. Not yet. There might be if you do not stop your hysterical speculations, but even that might not be powerful enough to push Tokyo off the self-control edge.

Now that I have that off my chest, I can continue. This will be a disjointed post, but newspapers are spreading so much undiluted unmitigated crap that every rational person should do what she can to provide balance.

The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Let us talk about our nuclear apocalypse and get that out of the way, too.

Yes, the situation is bad and it might get worse.

No, we're not going to die of radiation in Tokyo. You might die in Tokyo and you might suffer from radiation near the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, but you're not going to die of radiation in Tokyo.

Yes, yesterday radiation levels spiked in Tokyo and various other prefectures. It was a bit like having an X-ray. Radiation levels might increase again, but you're still not going to die of it in Tokyo.

What is the worst-case scenario? Not nuclear meltdown, but meltdown of social order and financial markets caused by fear-mongering.

What is the worst thing that can happen at the power plant? A nuclear explosion? Even that will not spread a radio-active cloud over all of Japan, Asia and America. Hiroshima didn't do that. Nagasaki didn't do that. Chernobyl didn't do that.

The saddest thing about the nuclear threat is that it is distracting attention from the real horror, the annihilation of the Tōhoku coast.

Hemidemisemiquaver normal

Although the real devastation is in Tōhoku, I will focus on Tokyo, where I live. Tokyo's real challenge starts now: to return to hemidemisemiquaver normality despite power cuts, commuter problems, food shortages and a general uncertainty that rattles nerves even as aftershocks jolt our foundations.

I hope, selfishly, that Tepco/Tōden knows that Tokyo remains the engine that drives Japan. Disrupt it too much, and the country will suffer even more. Keep it going relatively smoothly, and the country might get back on its feet a few days sooner.

Today I returned to work for the first time since Friday. The streets are quieter and the atmosphere is more subdued, but everything is functioning. I have not tried any other train lines yet, but the Yamanote Line is running every five minutes. When my train stopped at Akihabara this morning, I could see a shinkansen poking its nose from the underground tunnel from Ueno.

Skyscrapers are standing with not one broken window. Businesses are operational. Shops are open.

My eyebrows lifted once, and that was when I walked into my company's building. It is 40 years old, and the plaster is badly cracked. I hope the walls underneath the plaster have not been damaged, but I trust if that were the case, Mitsubishi (the landlord) would have closed the building.

My company employs many foreigners. I am reluctant to do endless post mortems with them and to listen to their doomsday scenarios. "This wasn't the big one. The big one is yet to come." Yes, and an asteroid will hit us tomorrow and Saquasohuh Kachina will arrive on Friday in time for tea.

Everybody's first question to me: "Are you going home?"

No, I'm not going home.

I am home.

Japan is home.

I love and respect this country too much to run away.

What should not have surprised me, but still did, was the number of foreigners who have fled ... or perhaps I am surprised not by how many, but by who fled. Many are young(ish) single men who say they are concerned about the radiation. They are not leaving permanently, not yet anyway, but for two or three weeks. That means they exploit Japan when it suits them, run away when life gets inconvenient and come back when it normalizes. Admirable, gentlemen, admirable.

Several other colleagues have not left, but are bluntly refusing to come to work.

Am I too stupid to understand the last few days, or has life in Africa numbed my mayhem meter to such an extent that even a 9-point earthquake does not register? Or, and this is a very real possibility, should I be grateful that my family is not calling me every ten minutes, demanding that I return?

I am not Wonder Woman. I am very scared at times, and I readily admit that the continuing aftershocks are making me very uneasy.

My life, too, has changed. My showers are very short. I get dressed as quickly as possible. I wear warmer clothes than I would normally do, in case I get caught outside at night. I still feel disorientated. I find it difficult to concentrate. My thoughts drift away during conversations.

Life in Japan certain parts of Honshu is not a hanami party right now, but run away? Hell, no. What, precisely, would be the point? Bullet in Africa, grizzly bear in Canada, bomb explosion in Europe. When you gotta go, you gotta go, deshou?

If we do get blasted with radiation, I hope I will glow cobalt blue. Neon green is not my colour.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

"A coast where no coast ever was"

Through the twilight eastward all looked, and saw at the edge of the dusky horizon a long, lean, dim line like the shadowing of a coast where no coast ever was, — a line that thickened as they gazed, that broadened as a coast-line broadens to the eyes of one approaching it, yet incomparably more quickly. For that long darkness was the returning sea, towering like a cliff, and coursing more swiftly than the kite flies. "Tsunami!" shrieked the people; and then all shrieks and all sounds and all power to hear sounds were annihilated by a nameless shock heavier than any thunder, as the colossal swell smote the shore with a weight that sent a shudder through all the hills, and a foam-burst like a blaze of sheet-lightning.
This excerpt comes from an article by Lafcadio Hearn in The Athlantic Monthly, December 1896. You can read more here. His description of a tsunami starts on page 837. 

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Long live sheeple!

Either every single resident was involved in a massive overnight clean-up operation, or the shitamachi withstood the earthquake astonishingly well.

I went for a walk this afternoon. I needed food supplies, and I deliberately walked past the nearby supermarkets to one closer to the Sumida River. If you walk directly, you can do it in 20 minutes; if you wander aimlessly, as I did, it takes twice as much time. I did not take my camera. I simply observed.

It looked almost surrealistically normal, although it was very quiet. Two houses had newly erected metal frames around them, probably for some repair work; I spotted a few Tokyo Bureau of Waterworks employees who were fixing a water pipe; and I got a friendly hallo from a man who was repotting plants that had fallen over; but there was no sign that anything was wrong until I entered the supermarket. The shelves were not bare, but they were a lot emptier than usual.

I was intrigued by what had sold out: toilet paper, bottled water, processed meat (such as ham) and, of course, rice. The shop had plenty of fruit and vegetables left, which meant I was happy. I guess most people choose food that will not spoil when they are preparing for the apocalypse.

I walked back via Satake Shōtengai (商店街 or shopping street). I am not 100% sure of my facts, so do not quote me, but I was told that the Satakes were the original landowners of this part of Taitō-ku, and that many residents still pay rent to the family. I should add that land ownership in Tokyo is rare; many residents own their own house, but not the land on which the house is built. If this story is true, the Satake family must be exceptionally wealthy.

You will not find Satake Shōtengai in any English guidebook. It does not have the international fame of nearby Ameyoko, it is too nondescript to be of any interest to non-locals, and the average age of the shoppers is 73. This does have one big advantage: whereas all the konbini and supermarkets were empty, this shopping street had plenty of supplies. I found toilet paper plus a big box of tissues. I need tissues because my hay fever, which disappeared in the shock of the quake, has returned in full force.

Déjà vu en domheid

We have been warned that we might have power cuts next week. Several nuclear power plants have been shut down – as a matter of fact, Tokyo Electrical Power Company or TEPCO is struggling to control overheating reactors – and this implies an action that is very familiar to South Africans: load shedding. We will have to use electricity sparingly and share it across the country.

Tokyo remains quiet, and I get the impression that most residents are cocooning at home. I read in a newspaper – cannot remember which one; I've read so many – that Tokyo people are staying home because they fear a nuclear meltdown, radiation, acid rain and probably Godzilla too. I do not deny that we could have a nuclear disaster, Mr Whoever Wrote That Article, but may I offer a slightly different interpretation? Perhaps we are staying home because do not want to be caught far away if a serious after-shock hits; or we realize that resources are running low and we are trying not to be meiwaku (迷惑, bother, nuisance). If you find that hard to believe, how about this: perhaps we have been so overwhelmed by this experience, and by heart-wrenching images on television, that we are not in the mood to gambol down the streets. The West's interpretation of the disaster is, at times, puzzling. The fact that Japan has remained admirably calm during the past few days is ascribed to "conformism and passivity" in The Telegraph. If that is true, may we always be sheeple!


Media reports differ, but apparently we have had more than 150 after-shocks over 5 on the Richter scale since Friday, and more might come. I feel sea-sick, but I have nothing to complain about, not if I think of the horror in Tōhoku.

Thank you

A special thanks to my sisters and friends for the support, the emails and the sympathy. Thanks, above all, for respecting my love for this country. I'm not leaving. Ek bly net hier. Al wil die blêddie katvis nie sy lê kry nie.

Die verhaal van twee vissermanne

Ek is berispe omdat ek in hierdie storie halfpad na Engels oorgeslaan het.

Ek het reeds verwys na die selfbeheer waarmee Japan die ramp benader. Die Held, Japannees in murg en been, het hierdie stukkie in Afrikaans geskryf na aanleiding van iets wat hy op televisie gesien het. Ek het niks aan sy storie of sy taal verander nie. Hierdie verhaaltjie van die twee vissermanne illustreer die uithouvermoë van Japan.
Daar was twee ouerige gedeeltelik tannelose vissermanne op hulle boot wat deur die tsunami na die see toe weggeneem is en twee dae lank op die see gedryf het en op eie houtjie na die hawe toe teruggekeer het. Dit het gelyk of hulle op n piekniek was. Die een man het gese hy was bang maar het nie regtig so gelyk nie. Hulle kon nie vroeer trugkeer nie want al die ligte op die land was af waarvan hulle koers moes neem.

'n Storie in Afrikaans, op versoek

"Is jy bang?" vra Die Held. "Skryf iets op jou blog in Afrikaans! Skryf oor jishin."

Hy is 'n kampvegter vir Afrikaans soos ek nog nooit was of ooit wou wees nie. Ek is dankbaar vir Engels - as dit nie vir Engels was nie, sou ek nie in Japan kon woon nie – maar ek sal vir hom in Afrikaans skryf omdat hy al die pad met sy skoetertjie hierheen gekom het en my gevind het, al het ek intussen 2,4 meter doeriekant toe geskuif.

Ek is ernstig. Die skudding was so enorm dat die hele Japan verplaas is. Ek is nie seker in watter rigting dit geskuif het nie, maar my woonstel is nie meer waar dit Vrydagoggend was nie. Sien die storie hieronder.

Om sy vraag te beantwoord, nee, ek is nie meer bang nie. Nie so doodbang soos ek Vrydagmiddag was nie. Ek is wel onrustig oor die trillings wat 'n mens steeds voel, en ek hou 'n ogie op stories oor die Fukushima-kernkragstasies. As ek nou regtig suiwer Afrikaans wil skryf, moet ek seker Foekoesjima sê, maar ek sien selfs Die Burger is maar lukraak met sy verafrikaansing van Japannees.

Jishin, terloops, is Japannees vir aardbewing. As jy dit in kanji skryf, is dit 地震 -  is aarde, en  is skudding, bewing, trilling.

May I switch to English again? The Sendai earthquake was big. It not only ruptured a fault line from Iwate to Ibaraki with a length of 400 kilometers and a width of 200 kilometers, it shifted the Earth on its axis and moved Japan 2,4 meters thataway. 
According to CNN: 
The powerful earthquake that unleashed a devastating tsunami Friday appears to have moved the main island of Japan by 2.4 meters and shifted the Earth on its axis. "At this point, we know that one GPS station moved, and we have seen a map from the Geospatial Information Authority in Japan showing the pattern of shift over a large area is consistent with about that much shift of the land mass," said Kenneth Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Reports from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy estimated the 8.9-magnitude quake shifted the planet on its axis by nearly 10 centimeters.

"Sorrow is old, grey and stooped"

Another perfect morning.

The more I learn about the earthquake, the quieter I get. I cannot add to the thousands of articles written about this disaster; I can only tell you about my small moments many miles from the destruction.

I had two surprises last night. First, The Hero arrived without any warning after travelling from Saitama on his scooter. It was good to see him again. Second, last night was so quiet that sleep was actually possible. There may have been more, but I felt only three after-shocks.

I didn't sleep in my clothes. I did sleep in a track suit with my socks on, and my rucksack with documents, water and a ski jacket waited at the front door. As I've said before, too little too late; but as silly as my precautions were, they helped me to fall asleep.

Now that I've had a chance to catch up with The Hero …

He-who-wants-to-be-called-Uyoku has been reincarnated. I've reverted to the name I've been using for many years. Every story has a hero, and he's the hero of this particular story.

Now that I've had a chance to catch up with The Hero, I could finally hear his version of what happened. He was travelling on his scooter when the earthquake hit. "I thought I was suddenly getting sick, because I was feeling dizzy. So I stopped my bike. Then I realized all vehicles had stopped and the problem wasn't my head, it was my feet! I couldn't stand, so I crouched next to my bike and watched the telephone poles and buildings swaying. When it finally stopped, I talked to my nearest neighbour, an old guy. He said something I still don't understand. He said, 'I thought I would die and the government would also die.' Why was he thinking about the government?!"

The Hero is worried about the Fukushima nuclear reactors; I'm uneasy about the continuing after-shocks. He doesn't like being on the 11th floor; I think anywhere in a new building is safer than the ground floor of an old house. It was good to argue with him again.

I'm not sure what I'll do today, but I want to go for a walk. Perhaps I simply want to see signs of normality.  As I write this at 08:26, we're having another after-shock, not violent, but rather long.

Yesterday I wrote an email to my friends: "The earth is still shuddering. It's one 余震 (joshin, aftershock) after another. It feels like constant vertigo. I honestly don't know anymore whether it's the earth that's moving, or just me being light-headed from tiredness and sorrow. I know sorrow is a melodramatic word, but sadness doesn't even begin to cover it."

My friend Sara, an artist and a writer who's had her share of bad experiences in South Africa, wrote back: "Sorrow is just the right word. He followed me around after I was attacked the first time, always just behind my left shoulder. He is old, grey and stooped. He takes a long time to leave."

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The catfish under Japan

Saturday afternoon, and Namazu the catfish is finally calming down. We're still getting aftershocks, but not as often or as intense as earlier.

A sober calm continues to reign. I've read so many newspaper articles and blog posts, and all refer to the quiet self-control of the people of Japan. I get the impression that many, if not most, are staying home today unless they are directly involved in emergency services or rescue operations. I've been outside only twice: once to turn on my gas supply, which cuts off automatically when a quake hits, and again to buy food. My nearest konbini had only empty shelves, but I bought fruit, veggies and canned "sea chicken" (tuna) at a small mom-and-pop vegetable store on the corner across from my apartment building.

Both store owners know me well by now, but the warmth of the shitamachi people still catches me by surprise. When the konbini obachan ("tannie") saw me, she rushed at me and patted me on my arm. "Kowai desu ne! Daijoubu desu ka? That was so scary! Are you OK?" Then she apologized that she had no supplies left, but reminded me to stock up on bottled water. So I did.

The veggie obachan also chatted to me as she rang up my purchases on her soroban (Japanese abacus). "Are you OK? That's good. Was this your hajimete jishin, first earthquake? It was many Japanese people's first big earthquake too. Ichiban ookii ne, biggest ever, wasn't it? Do you have enough food? How about more sea chicken? How about more sweet potatoes – good energy food and it lasts a long time."

I had visions of myself sitting underneath thirteen floors of rubble, munching on raw sweet potatoes, but I let her add another two to my collection, and then I supplemented all that healthy stuff with some chocolate chip cookies. Do what you can to cope with disaster, says I.

Now I'm huddling at home in front of my computer, still feeling dazed, but cautiously grateful that the worst jitters have stopped, if only temporarily. I finally figured out where my gas control panel was – outside in the hall, as I suspected, but I had looked for it in the wrong place – and I could reconnect my gas supply and take a hot shower. A very quick shower. I had no intention whatsoever of playing Lady Godiva when the next one hit.

Yesterday was a lonely day. I was at an office where I knew nobody, since it was the first day of a new short-term editing project, in an area that I don't know well. I had to walk home alone without talking to anybody about what had happened. I could relax when I knew The Hero was safe, but we were miles apart and will have to remain separated until transport returns to normal. I couldn't get in touch with all my colleagues immediately – still haven't – and although they're probably fine, I'm still worried.

I remain on edge, and although it's far too late for precautions, I'm keeping a small rucksack with ID, money and water close to my front door so that I can grab it if I have to run out.

I'm grateful that I'm in a new building with good anti-earthquake foundations. Now that I've compared experiences with friends, I've realized that I had remarkably little damage in my apartment. I still have water, gas, electricity and internet. The only thing that's not functioning is the elevator, but let's just say it's good exercise to walk up eleven floors.

If you want more hard facts, continue reading.

Wikipedia calls it a megathrust earthquake. I've never heard that term before.

The 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami (東北地方太平洋沖地震 Tōhoku Chihō Taiheiyō-oki Jishin, literally "Tōhoku region Pacific Ocean offshore earthquake") was an 8.9 to 9.1 MW megathrust earthquake that created tsunami waves of up to 10 meters. It was measured at 7 on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale in the northern Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. The earthquake focus was reported to be 130 kilometres off the Oshika Peninsula, the east coast of Tōhoku, on 11 March 2011, at 14:46 local time, at a depth of 24,4 kilometers. News reports by Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) indicate that at least 1000 people have died and another 700+ are missing in six different prefectures. Estimates of magnitude range from 8.9 to 9.1 MW,  making it the largest earthquake to hit Japan and one of the five largest earthquakes in the world since seismological record-keeping began. The Associated Press reported that it was the largest earthquake to have struck Japan in the last 1 200 years.

Seven is the highest possible rating on Japan's seismic intensity scale (震度 shindo).

According to Japanese television news, the Sendai earthquake rated 5 on the Japanese scale in certain parts of Tokyo and 6 in others. It was apparently 180 times more powerful than the Kanto earthquake of 1923.

Talking about television, I think Al Jazeera is an excellent English news source; and The Daily Mail, which I usually regard as schlock, has surprised me with a few good stories. You can see visuals here.

I end with some trivial information: AP News has reported that this earthquake has caused the day to get a bit shorter. NASA calculated that the Earth's rotation sped up by 1,6 microseconds due to the shift in its mass caused by the quake.

That may be true, but the day is still far too long for the people of Tōhoku. Keep your fingers crossed - pray, burn incense, mutter scientific formulae, whatever you prefer - that Japan will recover quickly, and that Kashima will conquer Namazu.


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