Foreign news reports bring preconceived notions to the forefront of the stories. Combined with on-camera theatrics and selective video and photos, the parachute journalists present a distorted version of the Fukushima effects on Tokyo.
"Can you tell me the reason you think living in Tokyo is safe? My son's school teachers had to go out from Japan because their family in USA and Canada believe the news in their countries. Teachers want to come back and need information they can prove Japan is safe. They are worrying about radiation in food and water system!"
– Email received from a friend in Tokyo, a Japanese mother of a one-year-old and a three-year-old
The parachute journalists have left Japan for Libya. Thank you for going.
Here’s my response to some of the reports presented by international broadcasters, print publications, and websites.
Tokyo is open
The Fukushima nuclear power plants supply electricity to the Tokyo area.
On March 13, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced a schedule for rolling power outages for the Tokyo region and areas of the Kanto Plain of Japan. The outages began on March 14.
There is a difference between "Tokyo" and "the Tokyo metropolitan area”.
With some areas undergoing rotating power outages, the special 23 wards that comprise the city of Tokyo have not ever been subject to any electricity outages.
Sensational reports by foreign media - Tokyo
Reports: Everyone is wearing masks in Tokyo!
Mark Weitzman: It’s pollen allergy season. It’s particularly common to see masks at this time of year. The citizens of Japan wear masks year-round when they have a cough, cold or the flu. It’s also the end of winter, cold season. Those wearing masks right now are doing so for any number of reasons.
I have written about mask-wearing in Japan on my blog.
Reports: People are rushing to catch trains and flee Tokyo!
MW: People are always rushing to catch trains. Point those TV cameras in a different direction and you’ll see people walking to catch trains.
Reports: There’s not any food, water, gasoline or toilet paper in Tokyo!
MW: Some people have purchased more of some foods than they would purchase under normal circumstances.
Sign at supermarket in Tokyo offers apologies for low stocks of rice and instant noodles.
For example, when the first power outage schedule was announced, some stores, in some localities, experienced a run on instant ramen noodles. Even in the case of a lack of noodles, based on what I saw in my local stores and what four people here told me they'd seen in other areas of Tokyo, Nissin Cup Noodle instant ramen couldn’t be found but other brands were available here and there. At my local supermarket today I saw full shelves of instant noodles.
Some supply routes – rail and roads – in north-central Japan and northeast Japan were washed away by the tsunami or damaged by the earthquake.
Deliveries from those areas to other regions had been hampered, but now major roadways are open.
May I also suggest that available goods that could have been sent to supermarkets and convenience stores in the Tokyo area were diverted to supply the people displaced by the tsunami or to re-stock stores in the areas receiving survivors of the tsunami.
The majority of homes in Japan use gas for cooking. Instant ramen noodles are cooked by boiling. Due to the scheduled electric power outages and the possibility that some refrigerated foods could spoil, some people stocked-up on foods that can be cooked over a gas stove. At some stores, there had been low or no stocks of rice (again, cooked by boiling), and of bread and batteries.
Again, at the store today, I saw shelves full of rice, bread, toilet paper and a full supply of batteries of all sizes.
Hoarding toilet paper has a long history in Japan, stemming from the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 1973.
I wrote about previous shortages in Japan:
Japan went into “oil shock” in 1973 when Arab members of OPEC set policies that would quadruple the price of oil. Reports predicted a shortage of goods, including detergent, and toilet tissue. Panicked Japanese consumers rushed to stock up on toilet paper.
Gasoline supplies in Tokyo dipped slightly in the days following the quake and then returned to near-normal levels. There is not a shortage of gasoline in Tokyo.
Areas affected by the quake and tsunami experienced gasoline and kerosene shortages. At least one oil refinery that shut down following the quake has started-up again. Supply routes are being opened and gasoline tanker trucks have been arriving in the quake and tsunami affected areas.
Reports: Tap water in Tokyo is radioactive!
MW: On March 23, a radiation level above the government’s normal standard was detected in water at Tokyo’s Katsushika water purification plant. The Katsushika facility is one of 11 water purification plants in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government issued an advisory for people in Tokyo's 23 wards and five of its suburban cities – Musashino, Mitaka, Machida, Tama and Inagi – that tap water should not be given to infants and children up to age three.
The advisory was cancelled March 24, following a decline in the radiation level to within the normal range.
Clerks answer questions from customers at produce section in a Tokyo supermarket March 24, 2011. Clerks are usually not stationed at produce counters.
Reports: Tokyo food supply is radioactive!
MW: On March 24, radiation above the legal limit was detected in a leafy vegetable called komatsuna, (mustard spinach) growing in a government research field in Edogawa ward, Tokyo. Vegetables from the patch at the research center are not for sale.
Reports: Public transportation has stopped in Tokyo, people can’t get to and fro and are sleeping the streets!
MW: On Friday, March 11, following the earthquake, due to quake-damaged power lines in some areas, and railroad tracks washed away by the tsunami, and the subsequent need for inspections of all railroad tracks for earthquake damage, all rail service was suspended.
On the night of March 11, thousands of people who normally rely on the rail system to get to work and home, spent the night in more than 60 government offices, in arenas, university campuses, their offices, and other locations.
Many train lines resumed partial service the morning of March 12, and full service in the Tokyo area was restored by March 14.
Scheduled power outages that affect rail service outside the Tokyo city limits may disrupt train schedules within Tokyo.
Reports: Shops are dark! All business has stopped in Tokyo!
MW: Due to the scheduled rolling blackouts in some areas, some business operations are being suspended during the outages.
In other areas, lighting has been reduced in stores, and other measures are being taken to reduce the need for electricity.
Some of the reduced electricity usage in a busy part of Tokyo, Japan
In my neighborhood, a huge new retail complex postponed its Grand Opening 3 days, and has now opened and is packed with shoppers.
There are currently 5 groups of localities in the list of rolling blackouts. On March 28, TEPCO will split the 5 groups into 25 groups.
Reports: TEPCO, business owners, the government, the Prime Minister – everyone’s apologizing!
Apologizing and accepting responsibility is a way of life in Japan. It is cultural.
I don't need batteries or emergency supplies. But I went out a few days after the big quake to get some ice cream at the convenience store. Half the lights were on. The store was out of batteries. I asked the clerk if they had batteries. She apologized and bowed apologetically several times for the store causing great inconvenience to me by not having batteries during this crisis.
Domino’s Pizza in Japan once apologized for a price rise due to increased costs of cheese.
Japan is open
Reports: Foreign nationals flee Japan!
MW: Foreign nationals who were residing in the areas damaged by earthquakes or by the tsunami, or who have evacuated the 30km zone around the Fukushima power plants, may be desiring to leave their areas to relocate elsewhere in Japan, or to leave Japan.
Foreign nationals have special needs relative to being a citizen of another country and living in Japan. For example, foreign nationals might not drive in Japan. Or they might not speak Japanese. Their housing may be provided by their employer.
Foreign governments have a responsibility to their citizens abroad to provide the necessary assistance in certain circumstances.
Some countries arranged for chartered buses to bring their nationals out of the area affected by the quakes and tsunami. Some countries authorized and arranged a few dedicated flights for their citizens who wish to leave Japan.
I know a whole bunch of foreign nationals of all occupations who have no plans to leave Tokyo or “flee” Japan.
Reports: Hundreds of quakes hit Japan!
MW: Japan experiences about 1,500 earthquakes annually.
In my account of experiencing the magnitude-9 quake as it happened in Tokyo, I wrote:
Technically, quakes are happening all the time, but their magnitude is so low we can’t feel them. Japanese are used to quakes, but not used to quakes of this magnitude.
Earthquakes in Japan, according to Wikipedia:
Magnitudes of four to six on the Richter scale are not uncommon. Minor tremors occur almost daily in one part of the country or another, causing slight shaking of buildings. Major earthquakes occur infrequently; the most famous in the twentieth century were: the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, in which 130,000 people died; and the Great Hanshin earthquake of 17 January 1995, in which 6,434 people died.
Japan has advanced quake warning systems. We can get a reliable :10-second alert. So that warning pops up on TV and radio with warning sounds, and the predicted earthquake area is shown on TV and announced on radio. Some dedicated devices are sold that bring warnings into homes wirelessly or by Internet that will show a pop-up warning on your computer monitor.
Daily quake count: Earthquakes within the last week.
In 2008 and 2009, I wrote about earthquake warnings and devices and emergency vending machines.
Reports: The big quake caused a tsunami that wiped out towns and killed thousands. The tsunami evacuees have lost their homes and possessions. Many of the survivors lost relatives. It’s cold and snowing up there and the places in which the evacuees are sheltering may or may not be the predetermined buildings for emergency shelter purposes. Some people are sleeping in the corridors of arenas, in cars, and in shipping containers. Many of the buildings sheltering refugees still do not have adequate heating capability, fuel, power, food, running water, or phone service.
MW: That’s right!
Concurring opinions about sensational news stories
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