Updates from Tom Gally

March 26, 2011

With radiation continuing to leak from the reactors and serious electricity shortages forecast for the summer and perhaps next winter as well, life in Tokyo is not back to normal yet by any means. But the University of Tokyo announced last night that classes will begin on schedule on April 8 and I have a lot to do to get ready for them, so I’ll stop issuing these daily updates for the time being. Thanks to everyone for reading.

March 25, 2011

Last night and this morning, Shibuya looked the most normal that I’ve see it since the earthquake. The numbers of young people around Center-gai in the early evening and of people going to work in the morning were little different from previous times. The main difference is that, in the evening, everything is much darker than normal, because most of the large signs have been turned off to save electricity. The scouts who normally hang around the Hachiko intersection, trying to strike up conversations with young women, seem to have moved to more well-lit areas inside the train station, as the intersection itself is too dark to make out people’s faces.

Yahoo Japan and some other Web sites have started showing the status of electricity usage in the Tokyo area on their homepages; at 9:00 a.m. this morning, usage was at 92% of capacity. Blackouts are scheduled in some parts of the Tokyo area this evening, and the acute electricity shortage is expected to continue at least through next winter.

There was an ample supply of milk and most other products in the local supermarket in Yokohama last night, though a few shelves for nonperishable food were still mostly bare.

We’re hoping to get word from the university soon about the plans for the coming academic year.

March 24, 2011

The weather has remained cold for the last few days. Since the heat has been turned off in university buildings, most of us wear coats as we work. Last night as I was walking home from the station, the rain started to turn to snow. Today is cloudy but dry.

In the coffee shop this morning, a couple of the regulars and a waitress got into a conversation about the changes since the earthquake. The waitress said that her father has been frightened and depressed ever since the quake; he called her up a couple of days ago, she said, demanding that she move back home. She said her mother has had her hands full taking care of him. While most people who experienced the earthquake seem to be handling the aftermath fairly well, I’ve met a handful of others who still seem on edge nearly two weeks later.

As has been widely reported, yesterday it was announced that radioactive iodine has been found in some Tokyo drinking water at high enough levels so that it should not be fed to infants. The city has started to distribute bottled water to families with small children. Atmospheric radiation has dropped slightly in Tokyo, but radioactive material continues to be released from the damaged reactors, where recovery work is proceeding slowly.

Keio University in Tokyo announced yesterday that the start of classes in most departments would be delayed. Waseda University has made a similar announcement. But most universities in the Tokyo area, including the University of Tokyo, have yet to announce major changes in their schedules.

At Hachiko crossing this morning, crews from all of the television networks were setting up cameras. I asked a man wearing an NHK armband why they were there, and he said it was related to the upcoming election. Presumably a politician was about to arrive to give a speech, but I didn’t wait around to see. No fashion shoots were in progress, unfortunately.

March 23, 2011

I returned to work at the university yesterday after the long weekend. I met with several members of our program’s staff, and we got caught up on what had happened since the earthquake. Everyone is wondering what adjustments might be have to made for the coming school year; the first day of classes is scheduled for Friday, April 8. In the afternoon, I met with a person who is coordinating the production of a couple of brochures we are making and I returned our proofread galleys to her. When the earthquake hit, she was shooting interviews for a video for another university project on the fourth floor of the building where we met. Some people ran down the stairs and went outside, while others stayed in the office.

The trains to and from work were still running reduced schedules but were not overly crowded by Tokyo standards. I continue to hear anecdotal stories about Japanese people leaving the Tokyo area but have yet to see any estimates of the numbers. Radiation stayed at elevated levels throughout the day, and the media reported that radioactive substances had been detected in the seawater off Fukushima. During the day, I also spent—wasted, perhaps—a lot of time updating the software on several computers. I felt three aftershocks in the afternoon and early evening, and there were others I didn’t notice.

This morning, I looked for epidemiological research on the long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident. Here is one abstract:

The Chernobyl nuclear accident on 26th April, 1986, led to a massive release of radionuclides into the environment. Although vast areas of Europe were affected by Chernobyl-related ionising radiation, the accident had the greatest impact in Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. Epidemiological studies that have investigated the link between the Chernobyl accident and cancer have largely focused on malignant diseases in children, specifically thyroid cancer and leukaemia. There is good evidence to suggest that rates of thyroid cancer in children from the countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union have risen as a consequence of the Chernobyl accident. The findings for childhood leukaemia are less conclusive. Overall rates for this disease do not seem to have been affected by the Chernobyl-related ionising radiation, but there may be a larger risk of infant leukaemia in contaminated areas of Europe. Among adult populations, there is no strong evidence to suggest that risk of thyroid cancer, leukaemia, or other malignant disease has increased as a result of the Chernobyl accident. (doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(02)00727-1)

A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency titled Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts is here. An article from the Japan Times about the possible radiation risk from Fukushima is here.

This morning shortly before nine, a fashion shoot was taking place in Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, the models, photographers, and assistants moving out into the intersection whenever the lights turned red and returning to the sidewalk when the lights turned green. One of the assistants asked me not to take photographs, but I did anyway.
Shibuya, March 23, 2011

March 22, 2011

The weather was cold and rainy for most of the day yesterday, and perhaps because of the rain the radiation readings in Shinjuku, Tokyo, climbed throughout the morning, reaching by noon more than double the level of the previous day. After doing a little work at home—Monday was Vernal Equinox Day, a national holiday, so I didn’t go to the university—I decided to visit some other familiar areas and look for changes.

I first took the Tokaido Line to Shinagawa, transferred there to the Yamanote Line, and rode to Shin Okubo, one stop north of Shinjuku. The Tokaido Line was less crowded than usual for late morning on a holiday, but the Yamanote Line seemed normal. The people on the trains were the usual mix for a holiday. On the Yamanote Line, I sat near a group of four, two men and two women, who had suitcases and got off at different stops, suggesting that they lived in Tokyo and had just returned from a trip together. I overhead the two women discussing the need to memorize lines for a performance.

At Shin Okubo, I had lunch at the Nepali restaurant Momo, where I had eaten several times before. I asked the owner, Tilak Malla, a middle-aged Nepali man who speaks fluent Japanese, about the earthquake, and he said that it had been frightening. (I have yet to meet anyone who said anything different.) He publishes a magazine and runs a Web site for Nepalis living in Japan, and he is active in the Nepali community here. I asked him if many Nepalis had left the country within the past week, and he said that he had heard of several people who had. He asked me worriedly what I thought would happen with the nuclear reactors. He said his business has dropped off sharply since the quake.

The sidewalks between Shin Okubo and Okubo Stations, usually jammed with people from various Asian countries, were less busy than normal, though nearly all of the stores were open. I walked over to Kaori-za, a tiny coffee shop and gallery in a basement near the south exit of Okubo Station. Kaori, the owner, a Japanese woman in her late thirties, was just opening up, so I got out my computer and did some work while she got the shop ready. She spent some time putting small vases of flowers on the tables and shelves; she said she had to store them away every night because otherwise rats would come out and eat them. (The shop is in an old, run-down building that would be impossible to rodent-proof. The other tenants are a couple of bars and a Korean church.) Kaori said she wasn’t worried about radiation, at least not yet, but that she had been having trouble sleeping at night because she was afraid of aftershocks. She did indeed seem less composed than when I had last seen her. She said she worried most about her shop, which she runs by herself.

Shinjuku, Tokyo, March 21, 2011Not far from Kaori-za, I passed a Thai restaurant where I ate once several years ago. Taped to its closed shutter was a handwritten sign in Japanese saying that the restaurant would be shut until April 17 because the staff had gone back to Thailand.

I walked south through Kabukicho to the heart of Shinjuku. It had been some time since I last walked through Kabukicho on a cold, rainy holiday afternoon so it’s difficult to make a comparison, but the streets did seem not as bustling as usual. In front of an electronics store on Shinjuku-dori, I noticed several young women trying out the iPhones on display. This street was reasonably crowded, but after I had walked as far as Isetan Department Store I realized that, at least in those two or three minutes, I hadn’t once had to dodge somebody else’s umbrella in order to avoid getting poked in the eye.

Ginza, Tokyo, March 21, 2011Before returning home, I took the subway to Ginza, another area I know well. The neighborhood—home to fancy stores and expensive bars and restaurants—was much less crowded than usual. I saw only one or two of the typical Ginza shopping pairs—well-dressed adult woman with equally well-dressed mother or mother-in-law—and the first floor of the Mitsukoshi Department Store was devoid of tourists from other parts of Asia. The Apple Store was open but the staff outnumbered the customers, and a block north the Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, and Cartier stores were all shut.

In Ginza, I ran into a former student and his wife out shopping, and we chatted for a while. He is from Fukushima Prefecture, but far enough inland that his parents’ home was not affected seriously by the earthquake or tsunami. He said his sister lives about forty kilometers away from the nuclear plant; she has evacuated with her two small children and is now staying with friends in Niigata Prefecture.

This morning’s Nihon Keizai Shinbun reported that sales at department stores and large bookstores in Tokyo are half what they were during the same period a year ago. Gasoline is still in short supply, but a large oil refinery in Yokohama has come back on line and should start shipping refined products again in a day or two. Most types of food, including fresh bread and some milk, are now available in stores. The factory that makes the thyroid replacement hormone that I must take every morning has been knocked out, and the manufacturer is now looking for other sources of supply; fortunately for me, I had my semiannual thyroid checkup just a few days before the earthquake and now have a six-month supply of the medicine.

It is still raining in Tokyo this morning, but the weather is supposed to clear up later. I took the Toyoko Line to the university; it was running a reduced schedule but didn’t get as crowded as it used to even when running normally. Radiation readings in Tokyo peaked in the middle of the night at around three times the normal level and have fallen slightly since.

I just realized that the worst earthquake damage I’ve seen with my own eyes is in the building where I work. A few minutes ago, I ran into a colleague whose office is also on the top floor; he had just arrived and was seeing his office for the first time since the quake. As with most other offices on the higher floors, his floor was littered with books and papers and some pottery had been broken. It will probably take him several hours to straighten everything up.

March 21, 2011

When I returned from Osaka last Monday, I took a taxi home from Shin Yokohama Station. During the ride, I looked for signs of the earthquake three days before, but all I could spot were lines of cars waiting to buy gasoline. The taxi driver said that there had been more damage—broken glass and the like—in downtown Yokohama near Kannai Station, which was originally landfill and thus more susceptible to shaking.

So yesterday I went to look. I first stopped for lunch at Sanyo, a Chinese restaurant in the Noge area that I frequent. The young Japanese manager of Sanyo’s new annex—the son-in-law of the owner—said that his restaurant hadn’t suffered any damage but that pieces had fallen off the outer walls of some buildings near Yokohama Stadium. He said the staff of the main Sanyo shop around the corner had run out onto the street; he had some customers at that time, though, so he stayed inside. I asked the Taiwanese waitress where she had been when the earthquake hit, and she said she had been asleep at home. She had turned on the television immediately, she said, to find out where the quake was centered and how strong it had been. (Notices of earthquakes usually appear on television screens less than a minute after the quakes begin.) She said that many of her friends have left the country.

Isezakicho Mall, Yokohama, March 20, 2011I then walked over to the Isezaki Mall, a pedestrians-only shopping street that is usually crowded with locals on weekends. Yesterday was no exception. I sat for a while at a window seat in a crowded Starbucks and watched the people inside and outside the shop, and other than the reduced lighting I didn’t see anything that would make one think that a major earthquake had happened a little more than a week earlier. Unlike in Omotesando the day before, where there had seemed to be fewer foreigners than usual, in Isezakicho I heard the area’s usual mix of Chinese, Tagalog, and Thai together with Japanese. (I didn’t happen to hear any Korean yesterday, for some reason.)

I got out my laptop and started doing some work when I heard the elderly man at the next table talking on his cellphone. “Was there an earthquake?” he said. “I just got an e-mail on my phone saying that there was an earthquake.” I checked online and saw that there had been a moderate quake in Fukushima—a three on the Japanese scale there, not strong enough to be felt in Yokohama. I showed the report to the man, and we chatted for a few minutes. He explained that he received automatic notifications on his cellphone whenever there was an earthquake. “Japan’s a dangerous country, isn’t it?” he said.

Chinatown, Yokohama, March 20, 2011I then walked through Kannai to Chinatown. Other than a few signs on stores about reduced hours, and a poster outside a gambling hall explaining how to redeem winnings from March 11, I saw no signs of the earthquake. I had been in Chinatown on a Sunday a few weeks earlier to have an infected thumb treated at a clinic there, and the streets seemed just as crowded yesterday as they had been then. This time, however, I didn’t see any groups of tourists from China. (Yokohama’s Chinatown, like many tourist-oriented Chinatowns, looks little like real towns in China today and so may seem both nostalgic and exotic to Chinese visitors.)

Park in Yokohama, March 20, 2011I walked back through the park next to the stadium, noting a typical number of children and their parents in the play area, and stopped in another coffee shop near Kannai Station to check the news on the Web and do a little more work. There was an e-mail from our department chair, relaying a request from the dean’s office for information about the safety of our graduate students. I replied with a list of nineteen students I had e-mailed after the earthquake, fifteen of whom are safe and four of whom have not yet replied. At the next table in the coffee shop were three pasokon otaku—computer nerds.  While working on their laptops (two new MacBook Airs and a tiny netbook), they chatted about work schedules, programming languages, and some topics I didn’t understand. I didn’t hear them say anything about the earthquake or the situation up north.

In the afternoon, news reports said that the number of dead and missing had topped twenty thousand.

Last night it began to rain, and this morning radiation levels in Tokyo are slightly higher than on previous days.



My friend Andy Fitzsimons, who teaches at Gakushuin University, sent around the following photograph of “deserted Tokyo” (his words), taken yesterday at the Hachiko crossing in Shibuya.

Shibuya, Tokyo, March 20, 2011

March 20, 2011

I was curious about what Tokyo looked like on the first day of this three-day weekend, so yesterday afternoon I took the train to Shibuya and walked up to Omotesando, a fashionable shopping area. The streets and buildings were surprisingly unharmed, considering the strength of the earthquake a week earlier; I saw no boarded-up windows, new-looking cracks, or other obvious signs of the shaking. Nearly all of the stores were open, though a few high-class boutiques on Omotesando were closed. The people on the train and the streets were the typical Saturday-afternoon types: mostly women and young couples strolling around and going shopping. Most were dressed too warmly, as the temperature was much higher than the day before. Perhaps I saw fewer old people and fewer families with children than normal, though it’s hard to know for sure. I was not the only Westerner on the street, but there weren’t many others. I saw only one group of foreigners who might have been tourists. A clerk in a shop asked me if I was planning to leave Japan soon.

I stopped in a basement restaurant for a quick meal before coming home. While I was waiting for my food, there was a fairly strong aftershock—a three on the Japanese scale where I was, a five-plus further north. The other diners noticed the shaking, too, but went back to eating as soon as it was over. A couple of dozen aftershocks strong enough to be felt are being recorded each day, and I usually notice two or three of them. (Normally, I might feel an earthquake only once every couple of months.) The Toyoko Line was not running any express trains yesterday so I had to take a local train home, lengthening the trip by perhaps fifteen minutes.

Progress is apparently being made at the Fukushima power station, with a nearly continuous water spray from firetrucks bringing down the temperature of the reactors and storage pools. The workers are hoping to restore the power to the reactors today and start up the regular cooling systems; if those systems aren’t working, they’ll have to replace them.

Atmospheric radiation levels in Tokyo are still low, though trace amounts of radioactive iodine have been detected in the tap water. The government also announced yesterday that radioactive substances had been found in spinach and milk in Fukushima Prefecture.

My colleague Paul Rossiter was on a short trip to London when the earthquake hit. I received the following e-mail from him yesterday:

This is just a quick note to say that I flew back to Tokyo yesterday on schedule, and got home without any problems. It’s good to be back.

Based on the Todai radiation figures, I’ve worked out that during the flight I received about 13 times as much radiation in 12 hours as I would have done if I had been in the open air at Komaba 24 hours a day from the 15th to the 18th March! An even more startling statistic is: in the last six years I’ve had a number of Ct-scans, on each occasion receiving over 900 times as much radiation as if I been at Komaba during those four days!

Actually, I see no reason to disbelieve John Beddington (the UK government’s chief science advisor) or the various Chernobyl experts who say that, even in the very worst case scenario (all four reactors simultaneously exploding, wind from the northeast, heavy rain), there isn’t going to be sufficient radiation in Tokyo to harm human health—although it would be a very different story in the immediate environs of the plant, of course.

March 19, 2011

The New Year’s period is my favorite time to be in Yokohama and Tokyo. While I usually enjoy the bustle of the cities, it’s nice to spend a few days walking around the quiet streets with the stores and businesses closed and many people out of town. The New Year’s weather most years is nice as well: chilly but not too cold, with clear blue skies and bright sunlight, and a breeze made fresh by the absence of cars and trucks on the roads.

Yesterday felt almost like New Year’s. The weather was cold, just above freezing in the morning, and the sky bluer than usual for March. Automobile traffic continued to be light. Snow-covered Mt. Fuji was clearly visible from the train I rode to work as it passed over the Tama River. Because of the delays on the Toyoko Line the night before, I took the Yokosuka Line instead from Yokohama, changing to the Yamanote Line at Shinagawa. I stood most of the way, but neither train was crowded by morning rush-hour standards. I arrived at Shibuya not much later than I would have on a normal day.

In April, we plan to open a small laboratory where students in our science writing program will be able to conduct experiments and get advice about the scientific aspects of the papers they write for the class. Much of my day yesterday was spent interviewing candidates, all with doctorates in the sciences, for the position of coordinator of the laboratory. After the interviews, the three of us on the interview committee discussed the candidates and chose one who I think will work out well.

Photograph of presentation on radiation at the University of TokyoBecause of the interview schedule, I was able to attend only part of a presentation on radiation that was held in a large classroom in the center of campus. Even though the presentation had been announced only the day before, the room was crowded, with perhaps three hundred faculty, staff, and students in attendance. When I arrived about half way through, the presenter was explaining the amounts of radiation we are exposed to in our daily lives from natural sources, medical x-rays, and the like. He said that it is impossible to avoid radiation entirely. In the question period at the end, the chemist Mamoru Shimoi asked about a discrepancy in the radiation readings taken in the air above the reactors, but moderator cut off the answer, saying they weren’t going to discuss the reactor incident, only radiation in general.

Although radiation levels in Tokyo remain at normal background levels, the exodus from the area is continuing. Both the Japanese and foreign press have reported on a rush of foreigners at the airports, and more countries are recommending that their citizens leave at least the Kanto and Tohoku areas. A notice on the British Embassy’s Web site seems ambivalent, saying at one point that “[t]he most recent advice from the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser remains that for those outside the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities there is currently no real human health issue that people should be concerned about” while also offering charter flights to Hong Kong for British nationals and their immediate families. I heard about an English conversation school that has closed for at least a month because its teachers have left. So many foreigners are leaving that a friend from Ireland, who teaches at another university in Tokyo, sent an e-mail out yesterday telling his friends that he and his family are not going to leave.

I have yet to see any report in the Japanese mainstream media about Japanese people leaving Tokyo for western Japan, though I have heard anecdotally about a number who have done so, mostly families with children.  In a train station yesterday evening, I ran into one of my colleagues, a Belgian, who was on his way to Shinagawa to take the bullet train to Kyoto with his family. He said he had had trouble getting a ticket; this morning, though, the online reservation system for westbound trains shows many available seats. As this is the first day of a three-day weekend and most schools are on holiday in March in any case, it’s hard to know how much of any migration might really be due to the aftermath of last week’s earthquake and tsunami. But since reporting on crowded trains, airports, and roads is one of the mainstream media’s favorite space-fillers, I am starting to wonder if they are deliberately downplaying the migration in order to avoid sowing panic.

On campus, we’re continuing to limit electricity use. While the elevators are still available if necessary, nearly everyone seems to be using the stairs instead. Through the course of the day yesterday, I made three trips up and down the stairs to my twelfth-floor office. No blackouts are scheduled for the three-day weekend.

I didn’t visit any supermarkets yesterday, but food still seems to be readily available but with some spot shortages. The restaurant where I stopped for dinner last night was offering a somewhat limited menu—perhaps twenty entrées instead of the usual forty or so. Some of the shortages are due to people buying extra quantities of things they need. Another diner at the restaurant had two big packages of toilet paper on the seat next to her, and I saw a woman in a drugstore putting boxes and boxes of allergy masks into a shopping basket. (We are approaching the peak of the hay fever season.)

I have heard rumors—as yet unconfirmed—that some universities are planning to delay the start of the next academic year, which normally begins in April. The University of Tokyo has made no announcements. At this point, I suspect that we will start on time even if we are missing some staff or students, but we will have to wait and see.

Throughout the past week, everything at home has been much the same as before. We’ve yet to have any blackouts in our area, the newspapers and mail continue to be delivered on time, the garbage is being picked up, and our water, gas, and Internet services have been uninterrupted.

Update

Waseda University in Tokyo has indeed delayed the start of classes by one month.

March 17, 2011

The day began almost as normal, though wintry for this time of year—close to freezing early in the morning, sunny, breezy. The trains were running their regular schedule again. Ridership was twenty or thirty percent less than before the earthquake, but I did spot a few of the commuters I see most mornings. I bought a couple of sandwiches at a convenience store—the first time I had seen fresh bread in the stores since returning to Tokyo—and I reached the university around the usual time. Other than wearing a coat and working without heat in order to save electricity, I spent the day with a normal round of e-mails, plus some writing and proofreading.

The art historian in the office next door arrived for the first time since the earthquake together with a few of his graduate students to clean up the books that had fallen on the floor in last week’s earthquake. The pile looked about a foot deep, but in a short time they had cleared a path through the room.

We chatted for a while in the hall. When the earthquake hit, he had been at an art exhibition in Ueno, and he ended up spending the night there. Over the last few days, I’ve heard other stories of what people did when they were unable to get home by train that day. The longest walk home I heard about was five and a half hours; most people living that far away instead camped out until the trains started running again the next morning. Most stores had closed after the quake, though the daughter of the owner of the coffee shop where I usually stop in the morning said that they had stayed open until one in the morning, several hours later than normal, to give people a place to wait.

The art historian asked me what I thought of American coverage of the Japanese situation. I’ve mostly been following the news in Japanese, so I could only comment on the New York Times, which paints a more dire image of the problems at the nuclear power plant than do the Japanese media. The art historian was dismissive of the coverage in France. He said that friends in France have been urging him to flee and were offering him places to stay in Paris. The French Embassy in Japan has apparently been telling French nationals to leave the Tokyo area, and one young French scientist I know has indeed gone to stay with relatives in Kyoto. I heard several more stories of foreigners leaving the country in a rush. Another colleague said she has received offers of refuge from friends around the world.

More faculty were on campus today because our monthly Faculty Meeting was scheduled for four-thirty. To many people’s surprise, enough faculty were there for a quorum, so the meeting proceeded more or less normally. Perhaps half of the business was related to the earthquake and tsunami. One of the vice deans reported on energy-saving measures and said that the Komaba Campus, by turning off the heat, reducing lighting, and halting some scientific experiments, had managed to cut electricity consumption by nearly half. The end of the meeting was rushed, as news came in that massive unscheduled blackouts in the Tokyo area might begin soon and that trains were running sharply reduced schedules.

When I left the meeting around six, I walked to Shibuya and had dinner in one of my usual places. The neighborhood, normally brightly lit and bustling, was dim and, if not deserted, at least much quiter than normal. There were few cars on the street. Nearly all of the stores—even the Starbucks and McDonald’s—were closed by seven. At the station, a line of people several hundred yards long stretched all the way to the Hachiko statue, waiting to get on the Tokyu Toyoko Line. The entrance to the JR lines, in contrast, was less busy than usual, so I took the Yamanote Line to Shinagawa and changed there to the Keihin Tohoku Line. Those trains were not crowded at all, and I got home smoothly, after picking up some cartons of soy milk at a grocery store. (I realized today that cow’s milk might be in short supply for quite a while, as milk contaminated with radioactive material can be harmful to drink.)

The university announced today that, because of continuing transportation difficulties, the graduation ceremonies for graduate students and undergraduates will take place in a small hall on the Hongo Campus on March 24. Only one or two graduates from each school will attend as representatives of their classes; the others must watch the ceremony streamed over the Internet.

The news from Fukushima doesn’t get any better, but radiation levels in Tokyo have remained near normal after spiking on Monday. Because the fear of radiation, rather than that of aftershocks or more tsunami, seems to be what is causing people to leave Tokyo or Japan, I have collected several sources of current radiation readings on another page.

March 16, 2011

The news from the Fukushima nuclear continues to be worrying. Radiation has been detected again in high concentrations near the reactors and the evacuation area has been expanded, but readings in Tokyo and Yokohama are only slightly higher than normal despite a wind from the north all day today. Television news in the afternoon showed Self Defense Forces helicopters taking off with loads of water to dump on one of the burning reactors, but it was reported later that they had to turn back without dropping their loads because of the high radiation readings.

I debated for a while whether to go to work this morning, but after doing some e-mail at home and seeing from the news that the radiation in Tokyo was not spiking, I decided to go into the university. The train line I take—the Tokyu Toyoko Line—was running its normal schedule for the first time since the earthquake, and it was less crowded than normal for that time of day. Many stores around Shibuya, the major train terminal not far from the Komaba Campus of the University of Tokyo, were closed or operating on reduced hours. Campus was quiet, as it had been yesterday (we’re between semesters in any case), though I did have a chance to talk with several colleagues. Besides doing a lot of e-mail, I spent some time cleaning my office, including rearranging the furniture to put a table next to the south-facing window. We’ve been told not to use electricity, including lights, heat, and elevators, whenever possible, and I needed to put my work table in better light. I’ve also been wearing extra-warm clothes to work. My office gets a lot of sun, though, so I haven’t been suffering.

I spent some time proofreading galleys for a brochure. We thought we needed to have it printed and delivered by March 31, the end of the fiscal year, because we are paying for it out of this year’s budget. But a notification came from the university in the afternoon telling us not to try to complete purchases within the fiscal year but to carry them over into the next year (something that usually is strictly forbidden when spending government funds). The purpose is to try to prevent unnecessary demand for products and services when there are much more urgent needs up north.

The streets of Tokyo and Yokohama were noticeably quieter today than normal. In addition to the many closed stores, some companies are short-staffed because their employees cannot get to work. Gasoline shortages—most gas stations seem to be out of gas—are contributing to the quietness. There have been reports in the press of many foreigners leaving Japan, and I know of several people at the university who have already done so or are planning to do so soon. It seems that some Japanese are leaving the Tokyo area for western Japan as well, though I haven’t seen this migration mentioned in the news yet.

Many types of food are readily available, though some, such as milk, seem to have disappeared. Some restaurants have signs saying that they aren’t serving their complete menus. Contrary to what I wrote yesterday, though, fresh fruit and vegetables are available in abundance at least in some stores. Aside from the milk—I’ll have to eat my cereal tomorrow morning with cold water—we have plenty of food at home. There was supposed to be a scheduled power outage in our area this evening, but our neighborhood ended up not being affected.

There was a moderate earthquake as I was writing this at 10:40 p.m. (magnitude 5.3), and I had felt an even stronger one at work today. An earthquake in Shizuoka last night, which I also felt, injured at least a couple of dozen people, but it has barely been mentioned in the news because so much else is going on. One of the colleagues I chatted with today is an archeologist and historian writing a book about collapsed societies, and he mentioned the theory that some ancient societies failed because of “earthquake storms,” that is, periods of decades or centuries when many destructive earthquakes occurred in the same area. I told him that I wished he hadn’t mentioned that to me.

March 15, 2011

I returned from Osaka yesterday and found our house in Yokohama undamaged. Rolling power blackouts have been scheduled since yesterday, but they haven't yet taken place where we live. The trains were running this morning, so I came into the university to check on the situation. My office is on the top floor of a 12-story building. Books had fallen from the shelves in my and other offices, but as far as I know nobody was hurt. Some of the other offices on the top floors cannot be entered because of books and cabinets that have fallen in front of the doors.

Tokyo is calm but quieter than normal, with many stores closed. Food is still available, though there seem to be some shortages, especially of fresh food. We're trying to minimize electrical use as much as possible.

The situation with the nuclear power plants becomes increasingly worrisome. When I switched on a stream of NHK news about twenty minutes ago, they were giving advice on how to avoid radiation exposure. According to current reports, the radiation increase is limited to the area around the nuclear plant, where people are being told to stay indoors. The prime minister just finished a press conference, and he sounded grim.

I was scheduled to fly to the U.S. this Friday night, but I decided to cancel the trip.