TOKYO – I landed in Tokyo last week – for the first time since the great earthquake and tsunami hit Japan 75 days ago.
While the reason for my visit was to see my aging mother, I arrived with much trepidation— largely driven by what I didn’t know. I had no real feel for the magnitude of impact the recent disaster must have had on the country and its people. Everything I learned about what happened on March 11th — and what I deduced about it — seemed almost theoretical.
Walking through the customs at Narita airport initially calmed me. People, places and things were as efficient, clean and as orderly as always. Nothing at Narita was broken; the whole scene screamed out the Japanese national motto: “Business as usual.”
The rude awakening, however, hit when I attempted to buy a train ticket at the airport. Narita Express trains are running on an irregular schedule, “due to the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake,” according to a woman at the Japan Railway ticket counter. The next available Narita Express train I could take wasn’t due for three hours. While surprised, I told myself, “Oh, well. So, I’ll take the bus to Yokohama.”
Arriving at Yokohama station after 90 minutes on the bus, I discovered that Japan Railway had stopped running every escalator to every platform at every station. I could either hike up a stairway that looked like it went to the stars, or I could line up at one lonesome elevator — which I did, not because I’m not fit, but because I was schlepping a suitcase. I looked wistfully at a nearby escalator, chained and motionless, bearing a notice that read: “Please cooperate with us in conserving energy.”
In the public rest room at the station, the toilets — thank God — were flushing. Everything seemed normal until I went to dry my hands. Every dryer had a notice, saying: “Please cooperate with us in conserving energy.”
I walked out waving my hands, and resigned to the message of post-tsunami Japan. Forget the little conveniences we’ve all come to take for granted. It’s post-war all over again — and saving energy was everybody’s job, just like it had been in 1946.
Finally installed on a local train, I opened a newspaper. While the Asahi Shimbun had a number of stories related to the quake’s aftermath, the most eye-catching was a large map of Tohoku and Kanto.
It mapped out each village and town affected by the disaster, complete with death tolls, the missing and those evacuated to temporary facilities in each municipality. The newspaper also devotes a sizable space for a list of full names of “Those who passed away.” This has become a regular feature of each newspaper, day in and day out. Clearly, Japanese authorities are still discovering bodies. When those bodies are identified and publicly acknowledged, the newspaper adds a measure of finality.
But the thing that really freaked me out was the daily nuclear report (it looks a lot like a weather forecast map) – listing radiation levels in the air in various cities in Tohoku and Kanto. Again, this is now a regular feature -- both on NHK (Japan’s public broadcast) news, and in the paper.
I learned that Chigasaki, where my mother lives, registered 0.052 microsieverts per hour the day before my plane landed. Although this was a marked difference from the 6.6 microsieverts found in Namie-cho, a town 31 kilometers northwest of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of either number.
I was supposed to feel reassured about the low-level of radiation in the city I was heading for. But then, I also know that there’s no scientific data, at this point, on the impact on human bodies of a low-level dosage of radiation over a long period of time. It’s the unknown that fuels everyone’s fear.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) six-reactor complex on Japan’s northeastern coast continues emitting radiation into the air and water. Tepco itself has said it will not be able to bring the three heavily damaged reactors under control until late this year or early next year. That’s the hard reality.