Thursday, March 31, 2011

No April Fools?!

My company announced a week ago that, due to the sombre mood of the nation, we would be cancelling our plans for an April Fools prank.
What? Is nothing sacred?!
One sad small victim of the catastrophe was my plan to put up an April Fool's

joke on the main page of my company's site. I had given it some thought, it was going to be a fake update to one of our games. The update: "Beard Wars"!

Since I have no place to put it now, and it is April 1st, here you go, my faithful readers. A treat just for you.

So, Tokyo is really really pretty much back to normal. There are occasional scary press releases from TEPCO, or 'The Evil Power Corporation', as we lovingly call them here, but really the feeling is we're itching to return to our regular lives.
Even the TV is seeming to agree. For about a week and a half, there was nothing on but news, and in the commercial breaks, nothing but public service announcements. We, as a nation, were stuck watching the three stock public service announcements the stations had on hand , which included: 1. A dancing animals animated film about the wonders of saying 'hello', 'goodbye' and 'thank you', to a happy song that gets stuck in your head after listening for about 1.3 seconds 2. A voice-over of a gently scolding mother, telling us if we say 'baka' to someone, they will say 'baka' to us, and if we say 'gomen ne', they will say 'gomen ne' in return, to the background music of a whiny violin. 3. A schoolboy looking guilty about not giving up his seat to a pregnant lady, and then later in the day making up for it by helping a granny up some steps.

That's it. Over and over. For two weeks. I think their secret mission was to get us to save electricity by getting irritated and turning off the TV. (naturally the TV sponsors couldn't come out and say 'turn off the TV', although we were given all sorts of other tips on how to save electricity. This is a big deal because if we don't save enough, The Evil Power Corporation will initiate random blackouts.

But now the TV studios are, little by little, gingerly returning to their ordinary shows, and the infuriating public service announcements are being replaced occasionally with the famously weird, bright-and-happy cola and makeup commercials.
Other signs of recovery: A lot of foreigners that left the city for two weeks are now sheepishly returning, which is strange because the radiation is as bad as ever.
People (myself included) have gone slack on power saving, but at least the weather is getting warmer and we don't have to use heaters quite as much.
So, although if you look around carefully you'll see signs that things are still not quite right (the skyscraper down the street where I get lunch at sometimes has cracks on the sidewalk), on a first pass, things are looking cheerful.
My face mask - radiation panic index has gone way down, from 60% of people wearing disposable paper masks from the 13th to the 20th, to about 20% wearing them in the city now. ...of course it's hard to tell how many were just wearing them because of pollen allergy season, which coincided almost exactly with the radiation fears in Tokyo.

So I was 'working at home' for about a week in there, where my company was running around like a chicken with it's head cut off, ordering people in only to send them home in the afternoon, and then gave up and gave us five 'work at home' days. Notice the quotes - our schedules were put on hold and we programmers had no access to the servers, databases, or our source code, thus were given free reign.
I got a lot of work done... on my comic!

Also I've started a new blog to help me keep track of the very strange Japanese vocabulary I've been learning as a direct result of current events. Hopefully it will have other, more normal vocab in the near future as well as I keep learning the language.
Feel free to follow along!

***Announcing the end of the Little Gaijin Emergency Broadcast. We will now return to your regular scheduled programming of funny photos of japan and attempts at witty writing. ****

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Sorry I haven't been writing.. it's just that every time I think I will write something, a new development occurs.
It's day four after the huge earthquake, and things are not back to normal.
Things that are strange? Every single TV channel has been showing nothing but news. News about new quakes, new aftershocks, new areas that are being affected. The day after the quake, just here in Tokyo we felt at least a dozen minor tremors. We couldn't peel our eyes from the TV which was just catching up to the effects of the tsunami around Sendai. It's crazy, entire cities were washed away. You can really see how absolutely surreal the situation is by looking at this link that shows the before/after view.
Japan quake 2011 before after

On Sunday, we were all feeling determined to do something for the tsunami victims, so I went and donated blood at Shinjuku's west exit Red Cross Japan donation station. There was an encouragingly long line, and even though there was a complicated list of requirements and countries you couldn't be from to donate, the US wasn't one of them, and before long I was getting 200 ml of blood out and soon enough was the proud owner of a Hello Kitty x Kenketsu-chan mascot gift(blood donation has a mascot here. yes, welcome to Japan).

Takeshi was asked by his company to get some instant ramen / other long lasting foods to send up north. We went to the supermarket to see what we could get, but
...yikes. Nothing on the shelves. ...
(Well, we finally found some stores that had noodles, and stocked up a bunch and sent it with the volunteers to go help the evacuees. )

apparently the shortage is because
1. fires in chiba were at a gas refinery, limiting the amount of gas available for delivery trucks
2. people panicking and buying everything to stock up in case of another disaster.
3. people panicking and buying all the gas to try to get out of town, limiting gas for delivery trucks.

as you can see, there is a lot of panic going on. This was not helped by events at the Fukushima power plant one bit. Takeshi was talking seriously about getting out of the country, convinced a nuclear cloud would hover over the city and rain death on everyone.
I did some checks with various news sources and talked with friends (I found out one of my friends from futsal all this time works on nuclear systems for his job!) and they were all very convincing that, considering the plant withstood an earthquake 5 times stronger than it was rated for PLUS a tsunami, it is doing a great job. The biggest problem it might have had was if plant was still online, but as soon as the quake hit it went offline automatically. As long as it's offline, the rods might melt and cause a mess and some radioactive isotopes to get into the air, but these airborne particles have a short halflife and will lose their radioactivity as they get farther from the plant (12 miles or so). Even *within* the 12 miles the radiation is not as bad as newspapers seem to be hinting - like maybe getting an xray.

So *I* know it's safe. The experts know its safe. The Japanese government, the US government, the UK embassy know it's safe. (Except for France which is evacuating its tizens as we speak).
But it's goddamn hard to stay calm when everyone around is wearing masks to protect from radioactive pollen getting in their lungs, even if the risk is negligable.
Since the nuclear plants were providing a generous serving of energy to most of north and western japan, we suddenly have a loss of power. Blackouts are scheduled, and to accomodate them, trains are running less frequently. We turn on the news, and we see reports of thousands(!) of bodies washing ashore about 200 miles north of here. I went to the office on monday, and half of the lights are off to save electricity, a weird hushed silence as we all check online for the news and talk about our twilight-zone weekends.
We were dismissed early on Tuesday, told to go home and stock up in case we can't leave the house because of power plant troubles.
Like I said, the scientific facts all point to this not being a problem, but the general paranoia is a real problem. My Korean friends were called by screaming mothers ordering them to get their asses home. The French embassy is requesting for its citizens to leave for southern japan, and getting some air france planes to get them home.

And meanwhile, even four days after the big one, the tremors don't stop !! There is at least one magnitude 6.0 or higher quake somewhere around here once every six hours!
Last night there was a 6.2 one measured with it's epicenter close to Mt. Fuji. Considering that volcano is about 300 years overdue for an eruption, I can't help but eye it suspiciously.... I mean, it probably won't. But with everything that's happening, you can't quite cross it off the list. Maybe I'll be able to give those elementary school kids a first hand account after all!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake Day

Thanks for checking in on us! Here's a recap of my day yesterday: (reposting from fb)

My office is on 'reclaimed land' in the Tokyo bay. At first we thought the earthquake was just a little one.. we had a small one two days ago, but then it got really big and we hid under the desks. when it stopped, we assesed the damage which was nothing much and so we evacuated. About 30 minutes of waiting outside in the cold, we went back up, and just as we were settling back in to work, there was another huge quake. This time we didn't hide under the desks, we speed-walked back down the six flights of stairs, shouting at each other not to run.

There was an announcement from the city to go to the designated evacuation areas, so we went to the park on the corner, but the place we were supposed to evacuate to had a crack in the land !and was leaking!! (landfills are not the most stable places in the first place). Then there was an announcement there would be a tsunami, so we went back upstairs. The tsunami didn't reach us, so we were told to go home. Actually we asked if we could go home, and were told the word from the president was to "use your judgement".

What the hell does that mean? we all wondered.

Another aftershock and we were starting to get nervous, and my boss shook his head, and excused us.

... but then there was a little problem with all the trains were stopped, the streets clogged with traffic, and the phones not working. A group of my cowworkers were walking to Ginza to try to ride Japan Rail trains (instead of the subway), which was close to Takeshi's office. An hour or so of wandering in the cold and we found each other there... *phew*.

We went into his building and there were cracks and broken celiing tiles... some people were wearing the official distributed disaster helmets, but most were just chatting and wondering how to get home. We found a restaurant that was open.. right next to it in the underground plaza they were setting up tarps and newspapers for people to have a place to sit down while waiting for the trains to start back up.

Me, Takeshi and two of his coworkers found that one of the train lines that go to our place was up and running if we were willing to walk for 20 minutes. So we hiked through the city, the streets jam packed with cars not moving an inch, but mostly people sharing excited conversation about the scraps of news we had heard. It was the voice of people who got away by the skin of their teeth and knew it.

When we finally got to the Oedo line, we stopped and looked at each other. The line was worse than a major disneyland attraction, it stretched out of the large station and around the block.

"Should we stay over at your company? They have futons there, right?"

We dejectedly walked back, dreading the 'told you so's of the employees who stayed behind. As a last resort, we checked the Yurakucho line, which was miraculously running and not even crowded. Amazing. So thanks to that, we were able to get home unscathed, only 7 hours after the earthquake.

Now I'm watching the news... it looks really bad up north.