Putting a face on the Anonymous 50
3/18/2011 11:00 AM EDT
When horrific events like Japan’s runaway nuclear disasters happen, they get minute-by-minute coverage from media all over the world. And yet, there is one thing that still remains invisible: Who are those 50 nameless people risking their lives while working around the clock on a radioactive tinderbox in Fukushima?
Besides employees of Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) who know all the nuts and bolts in the Fukushima reactors, a team of engineers is also required on-site. Their business is not only figuring out the best way to get generators back up and running again, but also devising plans B and C. They are racing against the clock, hoping to buy time, as Japan’s armed forces and firefighters try desperate efforts to cool the reactors and those deadly blue pools housing spent fuel rods.
Reportedly, 50 to 70 people are still at “ground zero.” They include Tepco employees and “those working for companies supporting Tepco,” according to the utility company. No breakdown (how many are Tepco employees?), no company names (who are those companies “supporting”
Tepco?), let alone individuals’ identities, have been revealed.
I had thought it likely that engineers from Toshiba and Hitachi are also among the Fukushima 50. Both companies, along with GE, were Tepco contractors in building the Fukushima nukes. My speculation was confirmed last night, when I was talking to a friend in Japan. She mentioned friend, Mrs. Saito (not her real name), whose husband is an engineer in Toshiba’s nuclear power development division.
Mr. Saito, who had to leave his family behind in Tokyo, has been living in Fukushima alone. Since the quake and tsunami, he has been working around the clock. Now, says his wife, he’s on the verge of a nervous collapse — as I would be, too. Wife and daughter are now planning to go into the epicenter to be with Mr. Saito. Damn the radiation; full speed ahead.
In a nation where anonymity is preferred over notoriety, many Japanese were shocked to see, earlier this week, a blog post by a young Tepco employee. The blogger was ordered to evacuate the area a few days ago, which meant leaving behind her fiancé, also a Tepco employee, at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. She chronicled the process and disclosed her fiance’s “good-bye” e-mail. She said those still there, who’ve had very little sleep, are fighting exhaustion and hunger.
While many engineers and operators at Fukushima remain invisible, this disaster might well create an accidental hero. An early candidate is Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano (real name!), who’s been Japan’s chief government spokesman since the tsunami hit.
Unlike every other Japanese politician or bureaucrat, whose largely incomprehensible speeches tend to be a hash of evasions and ambiguities, Edano’s been a breath of fresh candor. I’ve watched him speak every few hours on NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster). Edano, an attorney by training, has struck me (well, everyone! The public loves him) as smart and articulate. He has already all-time records for getting to the point in a Japanese press conference (which actually isn’t that hard. Most of them have no point!).
Lo and behold, Edano is now an unofficial star in Japan’s Twittering galaxy. People saw Edano working with no apparent break since last Friday’s disasters, and many started to tweet, “Edano, go to sleep!”
After a flood of “Go to sleep” tweets, 104 hours after the tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, Edano finally went to bed… for a while.
The idea of a “popular” cabinet member in Japan is literally unfathomable — because these drones are the quintessential faceless functionaries — but Edano has turned the trick. According to the Twitter network, fans of the U.S. TV show “24,” have dubbed Edano the “Jack Bauer of Japanese politics.” Ooh! Does this mean we get to see him torture the Prime Minister, in prime time?