VISIT JAPAN EXPO HIGHLIGHTS BID TO WIN BACK TOURISTS
Japan’s “Endless Discovery” campaign comes with an endless number of reassurances
C. James Dale
YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - The people who work in Japan’s tourism industry have the post-disaster script committed to memory by now. Wander around the Visit Japan Travel Mart 2011in Yokohama, where geisha greet guests and people bow and trade whole forests’ worth of business cards, and you’ll hear different iterations of it.
“Day-to-day life has come back to normal,” said Ryoichi Matsuyama, the president of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “Japan is now business as usual.”
Not quite, if this travel trade show (tagline, “Endless Discovery”) is any indication.
Members of the media and international buyers aren’t just handed glossy pamphlets advertising some of the best destinations this country has to offer.
Instead, they’re given fact sheets on the levels of airborne radiation in different parts of the country (apparently Tokyo is safer than Berlin and Singapore, in case you’re curious).
They’re also told in detail of how the tourism sector is recovering. JNTO said visits to Japan dropped 73 percent in the days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear accident.
As of October, numbers had recovered to a degree and were down about 15 percent on the previous year. They’re back in positive territory for visits from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“It is recovering rather quickly,” said JNTO’s Mamoru Kobori. “Probably by the springtime when we see the cherry blossoms in full bloom we will see almost the same level as the year before.”
Part of the reason for the turnaround is the Herculean effort Kobori and his tourism colleagues have made since the disaster to save a ¥1.5 trillion ($20 billion) industry, which accounts for about six percent of Japan’s GDP.
They subsidized trips to Japan for hundreds of journalists from different countries. They staged information sessions in 100 cities around the world.
And don’t forget the famous “10,000 free flights to Japan” campaign, which was leaked to the media before funding was approved.
“If everything goes well, we can actually start to do this promotion in April,” said Shuichi Kameyama of the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA).
Emotions at play
But multi-million dollar efforts aside, the fear and the questions still linger, especially when it comes to food safety.
“All the contaminated food will be driven out of the market, so that people in Japan and travelers to Japan have no risk of eating it at all,” said Kobori.
“Still some bad reports are still coming out occasionally. We need to overcome these emotional factors.”
Japanese tourism authorities are focusing on 15 countries and territories in their bid to lure back the millions of tourists who visit this country each year.
Selling the safety message to people in countries such as China, which accounts for more than 16 percent of foreign visits, is no small feat.
“They are afraid of [potential] radioactivity,” said Jojo Cao of her clients: the 27-year old expectant mother represents a travel agency in Nanjing, China.
“I was afraid because of radioactivity,” she admitted as she talked about a trip she just took to a village not far from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. “But since I went there, I found that it’s okay.”
Others in her field agree — things are OK. It’ll just take time before they become better than OK.
“For a lot of those natural disasters, as we’ve seen from experiences in different parts of the world, it does take one year to 18 months for things to get back on track in terms of numbers returning to normal,” said Michael Yiptong, who works in Toronto, Canada for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
“So we’re looking right now at the second half of 2012.”
In the meantime, Japanese tourism authorities will keep at it. And sometimes, they’ll get a question that veers away from the script they know so well.
“Are you taking more steps to make Japan more friendly to the English speaker?” asked Mannika Chopra of India’s Media Transasia during a briefing.
Shuicihi Kameyama of the JTA replied with information about what’s being done to help local communities with signage and the establishment of Wi-Fi zones.
“I believe that compared to a decade ago, the English-speaking environment is much better,” he concluded with slight hesitation.
Just don’t tell that to Justin Bieber, one of the celebrities who posted a video message online supporting Japan after he visited earlier this year.
The pop sensation, who has 14.7 million followers on Twitter, is referred to as “Justin Beaver” and “Justine Bieber” in the JTA’s handouts.
This country’s road to recovery will be a long one. But tourism authorities hope travelers will forgive their spelling and forget about how the March 11 disaster changed Japan.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” said JNTO president Ryoichi Matsuyama, giving voice to what’s at stake. “Japan is now a safe and attractive destination for tourism.”
THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL FACES OF JAPAN AFTER MARCH 11
Photo show organizer Liezel Strauss asks the world, “What does Japan mean to you?”
(Photo: Sasha Velvet)
C. James Dale
TOKYO - Liezel Strauss is proof that doing good deeds can be wholesome for the spirit. “This makes my heart sing,” says the South African expat, who’s lived in Tokyo for nearly two years.
She’s referring to the response to her charity venture, My Japan, something she makes time for in between running a busy art and design consultancy firm, BottegaTokyo, and a photographic art gallery, Subject Matter.
Her story of benevolence begins back on March 11. Strauss and her British husband, Jon, were in Tokyo when the earth started shaking. They, like many, watched the images from the northeast in disbelief and horror.
Then they worried about the nuclear accident. Then, almost a week after the disaster, they jetted to Singapore to work and take a breather. But Strauss couldn’t stop thinking about her second home.
“I felt so disabled and far away from the sadness the Japanese were going through,” she recalls. “I decided to look at all the photos I had of Japan and I realized many people must have beautiful pictures of this country.”
And so My Japan, a crowd-sourced photographic exhibition, was born. Strauss created a Facebook group and asked members a simple question: What does Japan mean to you? The response was overwhelming.
“Within the first five weeks, people from 21 countries sent in more than 400 photos,” she says. “We now have about 700 extraordinary photos.”
Call to visitors
Strauss held an exhibition in May of the 50 photos that won the most votes on Facebook. The next exhibition runs November 15 to January 9, 2012 at Nirvana, a restaurant in Tokyo Midtown.
A coffee-table book featuring 80 photographs will be available at the beginning of December. All proceeds (¥224,000 raised thus far) support Japan Emergency Network, an NGO that’s helping people in the devastated Tohoku region.
But with tourism in Japan suffering because of the March 11 disaster and ongoing nuclear crisis, My Japan, is also helping the country as a whole.
“I want to spread good news about Japan. I want people to come back here and see the beauty,” says Strauss. “Japan needs visitors now more than ever.”
SIX MONTHS INTO JAPAN’S CLEANUP, RADIATION A MAJOR WORRY
TOKYO – The scars of Japan’s March 11 disaster are both glaringly evident and deceptively hidden.
Six months after a tsunami turned Japan’s northeast into a tangled mess of metal, concrete, wood and dirt, legions of workers have made steady progress hauling away a good portion of the more than 20 million tonnes of debris covering ravaged coastal areas. The Environment Ministry says it expects to have it all removed by next March, and completely disposed of by 2014.
But a weightless byproduct of this country’s March 11 disaster is expected to linger for much longer.
The Japanese learned a lot about the risks posed by radiation after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Now, once again, they are facing this invisible killer. This time, the mistake is of their own making.
“I’m afraid,” says Shoji Sawada, a theoretical particle physicist who is opposed to the use of nuclear energy.
Sawada has been carefully monitoring the fallout from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. “I think many people were exposed to radiation. I am afraid [they] will experience delayed effects, such as cancer and leukemia.”
Sawada dedicated his career to studying the impact radiation has on human health, particularly among the survivors of Japan’s atomic bombings. His interest is both professional and personal. When he was 13 years old, his mother urged him to flee their burning home in Hiroshima. She died, trapped beneath rubble.
“I think Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO], as well as the Japanese government, made many mistakes,” he says.
Those mistakes have been clearly documented since the earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns and explosions at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi, some 220 kilometres northeast of Tokyo. Warnings to build a higher tsunami wall were ignored; concerns about the safety of aging reactors covered up; and a toothless nuclear watchdog exposed as being more concerned with promoting atomic energy than protecting the public.
The result: a nuclear crisis with an international threat level rating on par with the 1986 disaster in Chernobyl.
No entry zone
Tens of thousands of people have evacuated a 20 km no-entry zone around Fukushima Daiichi. In addition, the Japanese government has told residents living between 20 and 30 km away from the facility, and in so-called radiation “hot spots” beyond that, to leave their homes. Some may never return.
“The two-kilometre region is highly polluted, so I think it will be very difficult for people to go back,” Sawada says.
Then there are the concerns about the food supply. Unsafe levels of radioactive cesium, which has a half-life of about 30 years, have been detected in beef, milk, vegetables and tea leaves. Tokyo’s tap water was deemed dangerous for infants at one point. Sludge containing radioactive materials is building up at sewage facilities across Japan. And contaminants have been found in sandboxes at dozens of parks and school playgrounds in eastern Tokyo.
Government authorities insist they are taking precautions.
“We are doing our best, and counting and measuring the radiation level all the time,” says Maeko Nakabayashi, who holds a seat in Japan’s legislature for the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ). “We are extending that to every food product so that people can feel better [and] be assured that the food that they are eating is safe.”
But not everyone is convinced, especially parents.
“The Japanese government has a long history of lying or hiding the truth,” insists Gianni Simone, citing the cover-up of mercury poisoning in the 1950s and the HIV-tainted blood scandal of the 1980s. The freelance writer and Italian teacher lives just south of Tokyo with his wife, Hisako, and their eight and 10-year-old sons.
“We have started buying from food cooperatives whose products come from safe, or safer, prefectures located in the south,” says Simone. “My wife [and] her friends check suspect food by using instruments bought by local residents and stores, and directly calls the companies to make sure that the food she bought at the supermarket is safe.”
Simone and his wife are among a growing group of people in Japan who are carrying out independent tests on the food they eat and the air they breathe. They’d say they have good reason to be skeptical. The government and TEPCO dragged their heels for weeks before acknowledging three of Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors suffered meltdowns. In May, officials admitted they deliberately withheld forecasts on the spread of radiation.
“We did not provide the data to the public because we feared panic,” said Goshi Hosono, who is now Japan’s nuclear crisis minister. “We will make sure all data will be provided to the people without delay.”
Then last month, an investigation by the Associated Press suggested government authorities ignored their own computer forecasts and allowed thousands of people to stay for days in areas with high levels of radiation.
“In the initial stages, just after the hydrogen explosion, people needed to escape from the effect of radiation,” says Professor Sawada. “They deceived people when the level of radiation was very high.”
The Japanese government is now conducting extensive aerial surveys, from the northeast to the central part of the country, to track the spread of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi.
It’s also actively figuring out plans to decontaminate farmland, residential areas and public spaces around the nuclear plant, announcing it will power-wash buildings and scrape away topsoil from fields and playgrounds. It’s a mammoth job.
“The situation is more dire than most people would think,” says Lloyd Helferty of Biochar Ontario. The Canadian engineering technologist is trying to encourage Japanese officials to use a natural soil additive that would speed up the growth of plants, such as fungus, so they quickly absorb radiation.
“The faster your plants grow, the faster you can take these things out of the ecosystem, essentially.”
No matter how this toxic mess is cleaned up, it will no doubt take years. Then there’s the long, complicated and costly process of controlling and then decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi.
“The whole world is waiting for Japan to bring the nuclear accident under control,” said Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, last Thursday when he visited the plant. “The efforts of everyone here will be the key to whether the nation can overcome the challenge.”
Monitoring the health of tens of thousands of citizens who lived around Fukushima Daiichi is another challenge facing the Noda administration. Already, small amounts of radioactive iodine have been detected in the thyroid glands of hundreds of children in Fukushima prefecture.
“People who were exposed to the radioactive matter should be taken care of by the government and checked once or twice a year,” insists Professor Sawada. “Early detection is very important.”
Rebuilding Japan’s northeast coast, which at first blush seemed a hopelessly overwhelming job, might prove to be the easy part of the recovery process. Dealing with the aftermath of its unprecedented nuclear accident will likely be much harder and take much longer.
ENERGY ANGST: JAPAN’S POST-TSUNAMI POWER CRISIS
TOKYO - Spring is still in the air in the Japanese capital — the trees heavy with new leaves, the nights cool and clear. But Brent McCain, a former Montrealer, is already working up a sweat about what’s to come.
“I am dreading the summer more than ever,” says McCain, a marketing director here in Tokyo for the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi. Like millions of people in this country, he is more concerned than usual about the scorching days and barely tolerable nights of a Japanese summer.
In his case, part of the anxiety is because his wife and two children are heading back to Canada for the summer to escape the heat. But escape is not really an option for the vast majority of Japan’s 127 million people who are coming face-to-face with the country’s worst energy shortage since the 1973 oil crisis.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami not only disabled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but the resulting safety concerns closed a number of other reactors around this island nation. By June, forced or planned shutdowns will mean an estimated 65 per cent of this country’s nuclear power capacity will be offline.
“Japan is already one of the most energy-efficient countries on the planet,” points out Paul Scalise of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo.
With little margin for error, he says “that makes the situation all the more difficult as we approach the hot summer months.”
The problem is especially troubling in Tokyo and its surrounding area, which is serviced by the operator of Fukushima Daiichi, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
Even though TEPCO is firing up thermal power plants and pumped-storage hydroelectric generators (which use electricity to pump water to higher elevations), it’s expected to run well short of demand and lead to rolling blackouts.
“The biggest concern for us will always be our factory [northwest of Tokyo], which produces medicine for millions of patients,” says McCain. “This factory has been running at 100 per cent capacity. We will need to make allowances if there are blackouts.”
But a sudden loss in power isn’t just a mere inconvenience, particularly in a country where summer temperatures can close in on 40 C. It could also cost Japan’s already struggling businesses dearly.
“The machines are running right now, but if the line stops, all the parts being processed will go to waste,” Keiichi Hamano told NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.
Hamano owns a metal processing factory in the Tokyo area that makes parts for medical devices and the semiconductor industry. “Losing electricity would be a serious problem. It would significantly affect our output.”
A wave of sacrifice
To try to avoid blackouts, the government is asking everyone in eastern and northeastern Japan to cut power consumption by 15 per cent, a request that has prompted a wave of change.
Automakers will operate their lines on weekends and close them on two weekdays, to share power.
Businesses that make perishable products are buying or renting generators. IT companies are relocating energy-hungry servers. Coca-Cola Japan is turning off the lights in 250,000 of its vending machines and putting their cooling systems on timers.
Then there’s the government’s “Cool Biz” program, which encourages offices to set air conditioners at 28 C and workers to forgo jackets and ties in favour of short-sleeved shirts.
This year, the six-year-old campaign is being called “Super Cool Biz” because the ministry of the environment, for one, is allowing its employees to dress way down to polo shirts, cotton pants and sandals. It’s hoping the private sector will follow suit.
Retailers are hoping to cash in by selling sweat-absorbent T-shirts and undershirts, as well as jackets made of mesh-like fabric.
There’s no question the Japanese know how to pitch in during times of crisis.
Following the March 11 disaster, they diligently went about conserving energy, especially in the Tokyo area, where offices cut consumption and the video and music light show at the famous Shibuya scramble-crossing faded to black.
Power consumption has been at least 15 per cent lower than usual, according to TEPCO and other sources. But the question is, when the temperature climbs above 30 C for days on end and the country’s army of air conditioners kick in in earnest, will frugality and load shifting be enough?
The other issue here, beyond the anxiety of the summer’s looming power shortfall, is nuclear energy.
March 11 shook the foundation of Japan’s energy policy and is forcing this resource-poor nation to re-evaluate its decades-old promotion of nuclear power.
“Under the current energy policy, by the year 2030 more than 50 per cent of Japan’s electricity will come from nuclear power generation and 20 per cent from renewable resources,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said earlier this month.
“However, we now have to go back to the drawing board and conduct a fundamental review.”
Rethinking the country’s energy options has given hope to those who believe Japan should expand its renewable energy supply by investing in solar, wind, and geothermal power.
But Scalise, for one, believes the prime minister’s statement was more about winning political points than making economic or technical sense.
“Nuclear power costs TEPCO 6.1 yen ($0.07) per kilowatt-hour; hydroelectric costs 7.9 yen ($0.09) per kWh; thermal power costs 9.1 yen ($0.11) per kWh; and renewable a whopping 30.5 yen ($0.36) per kWh,” Scalise notes.
As in any country, renewable energy here faces hurdles.
Geothermal power would appear to be an attractive avenue, given there are more than 100 active volcanoes and thousands of hot springs. But some of the best locations are in national parks, so exploring that option could be problematic for the green lobby in particular.
Offshore wind farms also seem worthy of consideration, but they would likely draw the ire of fisherman.
Still, with many Japanese focused on the impact of their energy needs, now seems to be the time to consider all possibilities.
“In the wake of Fukushima Daiichi, what do we value more, energy security or energy efficiency?” asks Scalise.
“Stable energy supplies at affordable prices or uncertain green energy technologies that come with a higher price tag?” There are no easy answers to these questions, he says, but they must be asked.
BEFORE REBUILDING, JAPAN FACES MASSIVE CLEANUP
(Photo: Miguel Quintana)
C. James Dale
OFUNATO, JAPAN - The best way to grasp the depth of the devastation on Japan’s northeast coast is to go for a drive. The mess of crumpled cars, mangled houses, and a seemingly endless swirl of worldly possessions stretches on, block after block, town after torn up town. Pulling into Ofunato, a once picturesque fishing village surrounded by mountains and a temperamental sea, a woman walking with a floral sun umbrella strolls past low-rise buildings that have been gutted like the creatures this place has caught and sold for centuries.
Down the street, a stone’s throw from hulking fishing boats that were tossed inland, Yuko Shida surveys what’s left of her bakery and second floor apartment. When the 98-foot tsunami started spilling into Ofunato, Shida dashed up a nearby hill, the water licking at her heels. She points to the last bits of bread left from that horrifying Friday in March, hanging in a bag from the bones of the ceiling. While she talks, her husband and son, Yugi and Masatoshi, pick through the debris, searching for anything they can salvage. “Don’t come in here, it’s not safe,” Yugi Shida warns.
Like thousands of others on Japan’s northeast coast, the Shidas are facing the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. “It’s difficult to say if we can continue,” Shida sighs. Difficult, or muzukashii, is an oft-used word in the Japanese language, but its utterance is even more frequent among the survivors of the tsunami. It’s also what the Shidas’ neighbor, Michiko Takahashi, says when asked to guess when she’ll ever have a home again. She knows one thing for sure, though. “All the people in the town say they don’t want to live here anymore,” she says in front of the skeleton of her apartment. “They want to live on higher ground.”
This week, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to build safe, eco-friendly homes throughout the ravaged northeast, away from the reach of monster waves. But before that can happen, crews have to haul away the debris. And because the tsunami chewed up and spat out vast chunks of Japan’s Pacific coast, the cleanup process could perhaps be even more difficult than the rebuilding itself. Untangling the mess of metal, wood, and concrete will take many, many months. “The Kobe earthquake in 1995 generated 20 million tons of debris over an area of 50km,” says Kyoto University environmental engineering professor Nagahisa Hirayama. “Here we are talking of nearly 27 million tons over 500 kilometers.” Once roads are cleared, the debris has to be hauled away to temporary sites, separated, and either reused, recycled, or scrapped. He says the task will take years, but is not insurmountable. “People need to realize it’s not impossible to manage such an amount of debris, especially if everyone pitches in the recovery effort.”
But in many places, from Sendai and up the coast to Ofunato, the job looks all but impossible. Though some roads have been cleared, which helps with transporting people and supplies, that process itself has only magnified the mounds of dirt and debris that need to be hauled away. In some spots, heavy machinery claws away at piles of rubble that were once homes and businesses; in others, the smell of tons of seafood being scooped up from bayside storage facilities hangs in the early spring air.
The activity tapers off at sunset, when the light makes the landscape of these towns and villages appear almost post-apocalyptic, eerily similar to photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In the town of Rikuzentakata, flattened cars are scattered about like neglected toys. A railway line is twisted up like a ribbon. Eviscerated buildings stand somewhat proudly next to their weaker, crumbled counterparts. Here and there you’ll find a photo of a couple getting married in traditional Japanese dress, or a group picture of a school class smiling on a sunny day. Estimates suggest the sea inundated three quarters of this place, killing one-in-ten of its 20,000 residents. Here survivors, crammed into evacuation centers, say they’re relying on elected officials to give them their lives back. “In order to rebuild, we need to imagine what the ideal Rikuzentakata will look like,” says Takeharu Chiba, who lost his mother, sister, nieces, nephews, and neighbors to the tsunami. “The government must help us.”
Prime Minister Kan has vowed to give those affected by this disaster their lives back, but he can’t say when that will happen. Kan is planning to convene a national council before the one-month anniversary of this disaster to figure out a way forward. Until then, the thousands of Japanese who were touched by this catastrophe will have to live in temporary housing, with relatives, or move on. Sanichi Niinuma, a sushi chef in Ofunato, has made the painful decision to leave the fishing town his family has called home for seven generations. “I would like to rebuild, but it’s not like people are going to be eating sushi here for a while,” he says, standing on the remains of his restaurant. “I plan to go somewhere else. All I need is a knife. Once the situation has returned to normal, I want to come back to start again.”
— With reporting from Miguel Quintana
“MAGIC CARPET RIDE” HELPS TSUNAMI SURVIVORS
(Photo: Miguel Quintana)
C. James Dale
TOKYO - Afshin Valinejad’s dining room is crammed with carpets, food, and toys. “I’m really impressed,” he says, staring at the huge heap of supplies. “I’m just speechless.” Valinejad, an Iranian expat who has lived in Japan for nearly a decade, is on a mission to give back to his second home.
His motivation is clear. The need in this country is great in the wake of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Tens of thousands of people are bedding down in temporary shelters, either because they lived too close to the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, or because the sea chewed up their homes and spat them out.
While the government and major aid agencies are leading the charge to help out, people like Valinejad are also making a contribution.
His plan, as laid out in an email he sent to friends and acquaintances, was simple: he didn’t want money, just new goods he could take to the northeast to give to people who now have nothing. Days later, the floodgates opened: food, clothing, toys, stuffed animals, stationary, and other supplies. But the biggest haul came from a businessman friend who sent hundreds of kilograms of Persian rugs in all shapes and sizes. Some are for people to put under futons to keep out the cold when they sleep in drafty schools and recreation centres. Others, known aszabutons in Japanese, are small enough for someone to sit on, either on the floor or in a chair.
“People were so generous to give what they could,” he says, as a group of friends helps him pack up his big rental van. “The point is they gave everything in good quality.”
The journey starts about 1:30 a.m. one Saturday in March. Swiss freelance journalist Miguel Quintana, riding shotgun, sets the GPS. How many kilometres until we’re there, someone asks.
He replies, “536.”
“I thought it was 400-something,” counters Dutch expat, Monique van Kerkhof.
“It’s 536 if you stay away from the power plant,” he laughs. “Any complaints?”
Hundreds of kilometres later, the van is rumbling past Sendai, one of the places along the northeast coast that was inundated by the monster tsunami. Valinejad has been to this region several times since March 11, first as a driver and fixer for foreign media crews, and now as a humanitarian. While you could easily call his trip a “Magic Carpet Ride” given his cargo, he’s named this journey a “Tour of Love.”
“Afshin cares very deeply,” says his friend, Matin Gharachorlou, another Iranian expat who lives in Tokyo. “He’s a very good man.”
By mid-morning, the van is on the outskirts of Kesennuma, a fishing town that was first shaken by the quake, then swamped by the tsunami, and finally burned by fires that broke out. Valinejad prepares his passengers for what they’re about to witness.
“What we have to understand is that the earthquake did nothing. Everything is just by tsunami,” he shouts over the drone of the engine. “Everything is just ruined.”
As the group walks tromps the town, scenes of devastation appear around every corner. Houses lie in splintered stacks, the odd car squashed beneath them. A bent-over road sign points to Kesennuma city hall, which became a shelter for people who lost their homes soon after the massive tsunami. On one side of a dusty road, heavy machinery claws through the rubble in an attempt to make some order out of the piles of scrap metal and chunks of wood. On the other, a small market is selling vegetables, an island of normalcy surrounded by a sea of chaos. Down at the port, people race to get supplies to an island off the coast that was inundated by the tsunami and cut off for days.
Seeing the extent of the damage in Kesennuma, it’s hard to believe it could get worse. But at the next stop, in Rikuzentakata, it does. The tsunami swept away almost three-quarters of the city, and killed a tenth its 23,000 residents.
“It’s just otherworldly,” says Valinejad. “There’s nothing that compares to this.”
“Coming up soon on the right,” the GPS announces sweetly. “Rikuzentakata station.” All that’s there, though, is an eviscerated building and a railway line that’s twisted like a ribbon. Elsewhere, flattened cars lie about. Worldly possessions are scattered everywhere. Dust and a dank smell fill the air.
Soon, the van makes its way up a hill to a school-turned-temporary shelter and Valinejad and his friends start handing out their goods.
“Let’s give them to anyone who wants,” says Valinejad as he unloads the van, stacking carpets into the awaiting arms of his friends.
The Japanese they meet, still in shock over suddenly becoming refugees in their own country, bow and say not much more than a heartfelt arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much) as they receive the gifts.
The scene is similar at the next shelter, a chilly sports centre where people are sleeping in tents.
“The carpets should help you have a warmer experience inside this facility,” Valinejad tells the small crowd waiting in the entranceway.
After some chatting and some photos, it’s time to leave.
“Bye-bye. Thank you,” say three children, who have been made farewell ambassadors by their parents.
Valinejad angles the van onto the road and heads to the ryokan where the group will spend the night before returning to Tokyo. Miguel Quintana looks at his friend proudly.
“That’s exactly the kind of Afshin I’ve known for many, many years,” he says. “He’s the kind of guy that when somebody’s in trouble, he first starts wondering if there’s anything he can do about it.”
Valinejad, whose heartfelt humanitarianism is matched by his modesty, says he’s just a porter who has been given the honour to distribute goods to people in need.
“I’ve always believed that when you have something in your heart and you want to do it, you don’t look for planning or something that you have to organize everything,” he says. “I was sure we’d be able to do some good. I had no doubt.”
SAD TALES FROM TOKYO
(Photo: Voishmel/AFP/Getty Images)
C. James Dale
A freelance writer based in Tokyo, C. James Dale has been filing travel stories to the Star for some time. But his world changed suddenly — along with countless others — when a massive earthquake hit Japan. Dale filed several blog entries to Star Travel Editor Jim Byers over the following days. What follows is a sample of his postings.
Friday, March 11 — SHAKEN UP IN THE JAPANESE CAPITAL
My wife and I had just returned home from a late lunch and barely had our coats off when everything started to shake. We looked at each other and froze.
After a year in Japan, we were used to the odd tremor. But then the shaking became more violent and we knew this was going to be big.
We huddled against a wall in our second-storey apartment and waited it out. Our building rocked back and forth violently. We held onto each other tightly, looking across the street at the low-rise office complex as it swayed like a giant white sheet in a breeze. We said our “I love you’s.” My wife said she wanted to move back to Canada, and then after a couple of minutes everything stopped. After nervously getting to our feet, we headed outside. People were gathering, some in shock and others worried about friends and family elsewhere in Japan.
Cellphone networks dropped out, trains stopped running, and tens of thousands of people were stranded in Tokyo. Despite being scared, and likely in shock, I’m counting myself lucky as I look at the video and photos of the devastation along Japan’s northeastern coast. I know once my wife gets some sleep she won’t make good on that promise to get on the next flight out. But for the rest of the time that we’re living in Tokyo, we’ll definitely be a little more on edge.
Saturday, March 12 — THE HARSH LIGHT OF DAY
It’s now just after 10 a.m. here in Tokyo and life is slowly starting to get back to normal. Or whatever normal is when you’re still reeling from the strongest earthquake to hit since record-taking started 140 years ago. After spending the night sleeping in government buildings, schools, really anywhere they could find, hundreds of thousands of commuters are heading home. Most train and subway lines are running. But there’s a huge backlog, so stations are packed.
It may be because I’ve been up for more than 24 hours, but I have a persistent feeling the ground is swaying. This quake was pretty violent and pretty scary. But Tokyo got off lightly compared to northeastern Japan.
The video and photos show how the tsunami waves are to blame for most of the devastation. Some areas have been flattened by huge waves of mud and debris. Looking at the video now on NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, it’s hard to imagine how the country will recover. Rescuers are trying to save people who are stranded. But they’re also finding many bodies as they pick through the debris.
Monday, March 14 — SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO?
The sun’s about to come up here in Tokyo. It’s Monday. The Monday after the worst disaster I’ve ever lived through, the worst one on record for a country I’ve come to love and consider home.
Authorities are struggling to keep nuclear facilities in Fukushima Prefecture from melting down. Tens of thousands of people have been moved out of a large area surrounding the nuclear plants. The question for those of us farther south: should we stay or should we go?
The ex-pats I spoke with are divided. Robert Grou-Szabo, a Montrealer, isn’t planning on leaving. Eric Hamilton, a native of San Francisco who runs a business here, has an exit strategy so he and his wife and daughter can get out if things get worse. And then there’s me and the woman I love. I’ve been working so hard for a couple of news organizations these past few days and I know that, while I’ve told people in Canada over and over again about this terrible tragedy, I haven’t told her enough that I love her and that I couldn’t imagine living without her.
Our families want us back in Canada. Our friends in Hong Kong, Paris, and Los Angeles have extended their hospitality. Now we have to see what we learn after the sun comes up.
Tuesday, March 15 — ESCAPED TOKYO; GUILT LINGERS
When you’ve had an earthquake-tsunami-nuclear threat kind of few days, you get a good idea of who your friends are pretty quickly. I’m writing from the guest bedroom of a cozy apartment in this city’s leafy Pok Fu Lam neighbourhood as my wife enjoys some much needed down time. We wouldn’t be here without the help of our good friends, Peter and Helen, British natives who’ve called Hong Kong home for several years. I think this calm and quiet is what we’ve been looking for.
We’re survivors of Japan’s big quake, but we’re lucky enough to be away from the destruction caused by the monster tsunami, or the health risk posed by some of the country’s volatile nuclear plants.
“I can’t believe we’re out of there. I can’t believe any of this,” my wife just said to me, looking up from her magazine.
At a certain point it became clear that many people in Tokyo, ex-pats and Japanese alike, were planning their exit. The risks seemed too great, and the images of the misery from the country’s northeast weighed heavily. The time came when we started to think about what we would do. My wife and I had been staying with our friend in Tokyo, for no reason other than we felt safer watching this crisis evolve together. But soon we were checking travel websites, calling agencies, and strategizing. Should we take a high-speed train west to Osaka? Should we go somewhere else in Asia? Should we just go back to Canada?
It’s tough making decisions on three hours sleep a night. In the end, Peter and Helen made it for us. They called their travel agent and found a flight out. Minutes later, it was booked.
By the time we got to Tokyo’s Haneda airport Tuesday morning, we were doubting ourselves. Were things really that bad? Some food supplies were running low, but it wasn’t like what people have been facing in the hardest hit areas. The “abandon ship” guilt was gnawing away at us. So we asked the agent at the counter if we could put our ticket on hold until Friday.
“You can, but you’ll be on the waiting list,” she said. “The flights are all filling up.”
We looked at each other and decided to go.
Now it’s close to midnight in Hong Kong and this long day is almost over. My mind is racing. I’m worried about friends we left behind in Japan, Catherine and others, my fellow journalists who are working tirelessly to cover this disaster, and of course the people who are facing hardship in the northeast. In the end, this kind of decision is never easy. I’m just lucky to have friends, family, and a wife who have my best interests at heart. I promise to pay it forward.
Wednesday, March 16 —
TORONTONIAN WONDERS WHEN HE’LL GO BACK
After clocking 11 hours of sleep from Friday until Tuesday, an eight-hour slumber felt like an extravagance. Breakfast was spent watching the news, checking on friends in Japan, and giving technical advice to a colleague about to interview survivors of Hiroshima’s atom bomb.
When my wife and I headed out to get some groceries for our hosts here in Hong Kong, we bumped into Chris Yates, a Toronto native who has been living in Tokyo for more than a decade. He and his wife had been watching this story unfold, and the decision to leave and stay with his brother in Hong Kong happened quickly.
“I lived there (Japan) 11 years and I don’t know when we’re going to go back,” he said sadly.
Chris is one of many ex-pats who have fled Japan reluctantly. But there are many more who have chosen to stay, like David P., who wrote to me saying he was surprised to hear I’d left.
“There is no danger whatsoever here, nor was there yesterday. I was really disgusted by the way ignorant users of social media whipped up hysteria,” he said. “The panic and hysteria is more dangerous than the actual threat in Tokyo.”
Perhaps there’s some truth to that. But what I’ve told folks these past 24 hours, one’s reasons for getting out of (possible) harm’s way are varied, complex and ultimately personal.
When we’re faced with threats we should support and respect a person’s need to do what feels right for him or her.
Having said that, I’ve been actively pressuring a friend who stayed behind in Tokyo to join us in Hong Kong.
She won’t leave because she fears she’ll lose her job, and as a journalist she’s driven to cover the story, but she wants to get away, at least for a weekend.
“I am starting to get physically affected from the emotional turmoil of having to continuously present news about devastation, death tolls and problems at the nuclear plant so close to home,” she wrote, while noting that many Japanese are far worse off.
Instead of coming to Hong Kong, she went to Kobe for the weekend.
HANGING OUT WITH JAPAN’S LOST GENERATION
TOKYO - It’s a drizzly Friday night in Shibuya, central Tokyo’s bustling, neon-splashed shopping district and Ikuya Ueda is doing his best to stand out in the crowd.
With a smile and a nod of his bleach-blond head, he tries to tempt the crowd that streams past him into a nearby restaurant. But as he chain-smokes in the rain, it is easy to see his heart’s not in his work.
“The food’s not that great,” he confides with a smile.
It’s hard to fault Ueda for his lack of enthusiasm. This was supposed to be the year he followed Japan’s decades-long, springtime tradition that sees hundreds of thousands of students bloom into full-time workers.
“I couldn’t find a job, so I’m staying on in school for another year,” he admits with a shrug.
That makes him one of the more than 100,000 new university graduates — 20 per cent of the total — who hadn’t secured full-time employment as of May 1, according to a survey by the Japanese Education Ministry. Their ranks have been growing each year.
“If you talk to college students, they are scared if they don’t get a job after school,” says Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “They feel like they’ve lost their career track.”
That word again
The word “lost” keeps cropping up these days in reference to young people in Japan.
Media reports refer ominously to the emergence of a second “lost generation,” the successor to the 1990s graduates who were shouldered with unstable, low-paying jobs following the long, drawn-out Asian financial crisis.
Not much has changed in the years since. In fact, one can argue that things have become worse.
Japan is no longer the world’s second largest economy, its debt is approaching 200 per cent of its annual gross domestic product, its population is aged and shrinking, and, for a nation of legendary savers, it isn’t socking away as much as it used to.
All this is a far cry from the post-War boom when jobs were plentiful, thanks in part to a government-established system whereby companies hired students straight out of high school or university and moulded them to suit their purposes.
Over the years, legions of so-called “fresh graduates” obtained permanent working class positions or became “salarymen,” the name used to describe Japan’s devoted white-collar labour force.
However, the system started to unravel even before it was buffeted by the economic troubles of the 1990s. Fewer young people won employment straight out of school and, because Japanese companies favoured hiring fresh graduates, they were left hopping from job to job.
These people were called “freeters,” a label that evolved in the 1980s to describe Japanese who rejected the salaryman’s endless workweeks and corporate dedication in favour of freedom and creative pursuits.
In recent years, however, some have come to consider the moniker a stigma.
Back to school
“They are not choosing to become freeters” says Kyoto University sociologist Emiko Ochiai, “They just can’t find stable jobs.”
Ochiai paid for her daughter to stay in school for two extra years so she could keep her fresh graduate status while job hunting, which is not a problem that’s exclusive to Japan.
To put it bluntly, it sucks to be young the world over. The UN’s Labor Agency reported in August that global youth unemployment hit an all-time high at the end of 2009, with 80.7 million workers, aged 15-24, unemployed worldwide, up 7.8 million from 2007.
The reason this issue has special resonance here in Japan, however, is because young people are putting off getting married and having kids for a variety of reasons, including unemployment uncertainty, and the older generation is worried the country’s pension and social security system will collapse under the weight of its growing seniors population.
That’s why talk of this second lost generation here sometimes takes on a “what’s wrong with the kids?” tone.
In extreme cases, the term hikikomori is applied, used to describe young people, especially males, who all but cut themselves off from the rest of society, often living in a virtual world of online chat groups and social networking sites, and refusing to leave their homes.
“There are different names for the same group of people, just different degrees of social withdrawal,” says Michael Dziesinski, who is in Japan working on his PhD. “Hikikomori is just the most extreme example.”
Dziesinski, who taught English in rural Japan, spent time studying ahikikomori rehabilitation centre for his graduate work and his current research is focused on the transition between education and employment in this country.
He believes the disconnection and disenchantment among Japanese youth can be attributed to a number of factors. Among them, an affluent middle class that can afford to let kids to live at home almost indefinitely and an abundance of technology and entertainment.
But he also points a finger at the country’s rigid school-to-work system.
“So many kids are in the pressure cooker from elementary school to college,” he says. “A lot of students are saying, ‘What’s the point of all of this? I pass my exams, get into college, and I don’t get a job?’”
It’s the kind of question Yosuke Ebisu was asking himself earlier this year. After doing 24 interviews with eight different companies, the science major couldn’t secure employment to coincide with his graduation from the prestigious University of Tokyo.
So instead of heading to work next spring, he is planning to head to grad school.
Ebisu is particularly upset at corporations that only look to hire “fresh graduates,” a critique he shares with Kiyoshi Kurokawa, one of Japan’s top science advisers, at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
“Many establishments want to have fresh graduates so they are obedient,” says Kurokawa in a tone of exasperation. “It’s crazy in my view.”
Kurokawa believes Japan’s unbending, hierarchical system, which worked so well before the age of the internet and globalization, needs an overhaul and that CEOs need to be more creative.
“I asked one of them, ‘Why are you so concerned about fresh graduates? How about somebody who took a leave of one year?’ He told me he’d never thought about it.”
A new normal
The Japanese government is certainly thinking about it, though. It is nowactively encouraging companies, with financial incentives, to treat all job applicants who graduated from high school or university within the last three years as “fresh graduates.”
That is the kind of change many in this country will welcome. But it may not fully take into account the changing attitudes that a prolonged downturn has brought about.
As Kyoto University sociologist Emiko Ochiai points out, today’s young Japanese are adapting to their country’s new normal.
“Economic success is not the only value for these young people,” says Ochiai. “What I am observing is they are changing their attitude about life, and they’re not necessarily feeling unhappy.
“Many are adjusting themselves to the economic conditions, trying to find new ways to enjoy life.”
Yosuke Ebisu, the science undergrad who is now preparing for grad school, is part of this new wave. So is Ikuya Ueda, the back-at-school, part-time restaurant promoter.
“Last year, I wanted to be a salaryman, but I didn’t get a job,” says Ueda. “I started thinking about my future. I thought that being a salaryman would be boring.” So now he is thinking about saving his money and opening a small shop.
In a way, Japan could be viewed as a type-A workaholic who, more than a little burnt out, decided to slow down and figure out a new work-life-balance.
This approach might not be sustainable given all of the economic and demographic challenges the country is facing. But it might also just help bring about some of the changes so many in this nation feel are necessary.