Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I am a terrible blogger

So, last time I wrote something, I was in Sapporo, it was February, and I promised that I'd talk about Otaru next - a lovely little port town somewhat north-west of Sapporo, famous for its glassware and (at least to me) brilliant due to its microbrewery. Not only did I neglect to follow that up, but I also kind of missed the boat on talking about the devastating earthquake that hit the Tohoku region of Japan.

So: there was a huge earthquake. I am not directly affected. Tokyo itself is fine. I did get jolted out of the shower by the initial tremor, ending up running down six flights of stairs with two Japanese guys whilst wearing a towel and struggling into my coat, wondering if my apartment block was going to collapse (that I stayed in the building a little longer than the natives can be construed as either stoicism or a failure of imagination; take your pick). It didn't collapse, though it did keep swaying for a long, long time - as did the street lamps, telegraph poles, aerials, signposts and floor. It hit at midday and the area I'm in is an odd mix of residential blocks - where most people were out at work - and small offices on the ground floors. A few people from my building were outside, and a few people from neighbouring buildings, including an elderly woman who noted that she'd never felt anything quite like it - but her mother had. It's likely she's referring to the 1923 Kanto quake, but it's hard to say. People from the offices a little down the road were waiting out on the sidewalk. When it seemed like nothing apocalyptic was going to happen just yet I went back inside to get dressed and check the Japan Meteorological Agency's earthquake information site as I always do after a big one. I actually got chased out of the building more than once by aftershocks, but things were starting to get clear. This had been a truly enormous quake, somewhat unprecedented, and it was a long time before I felt safe staying in my apartment: that's the downside of living higher up, and I'm only on the 6th; Japanese buildings are designed to sway and be flexible so as not to crack and snap during a tremor, but that can leave you feeling very seasick.

So, it was an 8.9 or a 9 - the magnitude got upgraded but not everywhere is reporting the same thing. Information after the quake has been all over the place. In a sense, there are three or four streams of 'news': First, there's the official Japanese news. The government line, almost. This is delivered almost entirely in Japanese. I can't really speak to its reliability, because I neither understand enough Japanese to follow it properly nor know enough about the situation to gauge what they're saying. Certainly, there have been some major shortcomings with their responsiveness to events. Consider the first explosion at the nuclear plant: it was hours before people knew what had happened, with the reports emerging first as rumours. When the second hydrogen explosion occurred, they were much quicker at getting the word out. The second major stream is the foreign news - for me, that mainly means the BBC and the Guardian, but also CNN, and so forth. Their coverage has been fucking ludicrous on two fronts: sensationalism and inaccuracy. The latter may often have something to do with the former, but its amazing how little information they appear to be getting, and how they're using it. One is left to assume that they have no one on staff who speaks Japanese or knows anything about Japan. I might - might! - be driven to forgive the Guardian for that a little, but the BBC? CNN? These are international news organisations, and their ability to keep up with what the Japanese news outlets and government officials have been putting out has been staggeringly poor. That leaves the third stream: bloggers and twitter users living in Japan (or elsewhere, but with an interest in the situation) who have been translating things, crowd-sourcing references, and collating many disparate stories into individual locations, like here at Gakuranman's blog. It could be suggested that 'real' media outlets have to fact-check things more than freelance bloggers and the folks on Twitter, but realistically, that can't be the case; the BBC and the Guardian are both happy to post meaningless 'eyewitness' accounts from nowhere near the scenes that do nothing but fuel the hysteria. Can't confirm something about the situation at the nuclear plants? Well, why not post a message from Bob in Kyushu who's 'terribly worried' about it. Cracking work, journalists.

It's now Tuesday, and things continue being both normal and broken in Tokyo. There have been plans for rolling blackouts in order to cope with the huge drop in electricity production versus the expected level of consumption, but I think so far these blackouts might have been avoided - it's hard for me to say, as the news on this has been extremely sketchy, English language information almost impossible to find until today, and I don't even appear to be in the area for the blackouts by wit of being in Ikebukuro, which is central enough to be judged 'necessary' I suppose. It does house the world's second busiest train station, I suppose, and now that I think about it I'm sure there are some quite official agencies situated in the Sunshine 60 building nearby. I can't find a reference for that, though, unfortunately. In addition to the blackouts - although in many ways, because of them - the trainlines here aren't up to speed either. Many lines, including the overground and the underground lines, are either running with greatly decreased frequency or to a limited number of stations. This seems particularly bad on the commuter trains coming in and out of Tokyo, but I lack first-hand knowledge of it. Finally, food is a bit of a crazy situation - I wouldn't say people are panic buying per se, but they're definitely stocking up, and with a lack of deliveries the situation has quickly emptied supermarkets and conveniences stores. Likewise, restaurants are being affected, so I've got my fingers crossed I'll actually be able to grab a beef bowl on the way into work today.

Work is definitely still continuing. In my company, different offices around the city have been closed for various reasons - shutting early, opening late, or stuck in buildings that themselves have been closed off, such as the Lumine department store here in Ikebukuro. In a few cases I believe things were cancelled based on the erroneous expectation of blackouts, which just goes to show how poor the dissemination of that information has been. Tonight, I'm working from 17:30 till 22:00, but I'll be leaving early to both try and find some lunch and to wrestle with the trains. I'm planning on using the Yamanote, which is only running at 70% capacity.

Just a quick clarification though: There has been a magnitude 9 earthquake that shook every building in the city, there are rolling blackouts, and the slim but alarming possibility of some small degree of nuclear fallout. The effect on the capital? A train that normally arrives once every couple of minutes has been reduced to once every ten.