Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tōhoku Earthquake Part 2 (東北の地震パート2)

For Tokyo, the after effects had much more of an impact than the earthquake itself.  The first couple of weeks afterwards showed me a lot about herd mentality and the fragility of large cities.  Tokyo, with all of its size, population and power in Japan came to a standstill the week afterwards.  Even though it was far from the earthquake and had negligable damage.  However, any large metropolis would probably experience similar problems.  While cities are the powerful centers of any place, there's also a fragility that gets forgotten until something like this happens.  Cities constantly need an influx of supplies to keep it running as it can't support itself nor has the space to produce its own needs.  If the supply chain was to ever be cut off, then...

For a few days this was the scene in every grocery store, convenient store and hyaku yen (dollar store) in Tokyo.
What happened to Tokyo was multiple logistic failures at once.  The first being the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami in the north and along the eastern coast of Japan.  It destroyed some of the production centers of goods.  The longest effects were egg factories and milk containers which caused both products to be off the shelves for a few weeks.  However, damage to other areas also caused delays in supplying Tokyo.  The next failure was a combination of destruction of road and rail systems and transport needed to send supplies to and from the disaster areas.  This led to difficulties and a shortage of getting the items to stores in Tokyo.  The last problem for supplies was entirely a societal failure due to herd mentality.  People overreacted to the situation and started hoarding supplies because of the situation.  What would have been minimal problems for the first two failures developed into a very big one.  Goods couldn't be delivered to stores fast enough due to a huge demand and a delay in supply.  What would have been a relatively normal situation quickly became widespread food shortages.  The now food shortages exasperated the situation and fully developed the herd mentality.  People now seeing no food in stores also started to hoard food that they found leaving nothing.  Government officials explaining the situation fell on deaf ears as people could only see empty shelves and weren't going to trust the government about it or think through the situation.  So for a few days, stores were empty to the point that they wouldn't open and people would wait for delivery trucks to come or a store's opening in the morning to rush in and buy the food they needed.

I wasn't really affected as I had done grocery shopping before anything happened.  Also, restaurants still had food to sell even if the stores didn't.  Nobody was going to starve and the crisis was over in a few days as delivery was able to get back on schedule and people had already bought anything they could need.  Seeing how quickly Tokyo could go bad without damage in the city itself was almost the biggest shock of the whole thing for me.

While the shortages were resolved quickly, the rest of the after effects are going to be much longer lasting.  Obviously the biggest one on the international news cycle was the disaster at the Fukushima Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, however I'm going to leave that as its own post for next time.  Related though is one of the other large crisis for Japan.  After the earthquake and continuing until at least the fall will be energy shortages / an energy crisis.  A lot of the electricity used in the Tokyo / Kanto area is produced in the northeast or Tōhoku region, the area hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami.  Many of the plants were damaged or forced offline.  Fukushima's Dai Ichi Plant supplied electricity to Tokyo and obviously its 6 reactors are permanently shut down.  Other nuclear plants in the area that supplied Tokyo were also shut down due to safety concerns.  Making things worse is there has been little rain in the area and hydroelectric plants are also below usual production.  This led to an energy crisis very soon after the earthquake.  The first couple weeks were a huge problem, but everyone has figured out how to conserve energy and it's no longer the problem it was presently.  The first couple weeks, a widespread grid failure with random blackouts seemed possible.  To save the region from the chaos of widespread unexpected blackouts, planned blackouts were instituted.  Every area was divided into one of five groups that was given a 3 hour planned blackout, where they would turn off the juice for wide areas.  For a few days, some of the groups had to go through 2 blackout periods in a day.  This affected the whole Kanto region, except for areas deemed vital.  The area I'm in was actually one of those areas and while I feel bad about not sharing the burden, it was fortunate to not have to worry about the refrigerator.  That and the laptop were the only things I ever had on at home even though the still cold weather and typical Japanese insulation (basically none) made things uncomfortable for a while.  At first, lots of companies didn't take what was happening so seriously, although the electric company was also downplaying the situation so it initially didn't seem so bad.  After a few close calls to widespread blackouts, both started to work a lot more on fixing the situation.

Shibuya 109: A famous department store on one of Tokyo's busiest intersections.  These spots are usually a sea of neon.

The huge video advertising screens silent for once.
The first thoughts that come to mind when thinking about Tokyo are the bright neon and the mass crowds of people.  That first month, Tokyo had switched to a strange alter-ego.  During the day, it had become quiet like a town with nobody out.  A far cry from its usual bustling metropolis.  At nights, it had changed from a sea of neon to incredibly dark.  Only the first floor was allowed its usual light to help people on their way.  Over time things have gotten more back to normal for the moment.  This was due to more supply getting to the area along with better conservation.  Other regions have sent excess power to the region and many of the trains and stations are supplying some of their own power.  Conservation has also gotten better with large companies working with the electric company and the natural byproduct of spring arriving and people no longer needing their heaters.

However, the situation isn't over yet.  With the electrical infrastructure unable to be rebuilt by the summer and the increase demand due to the hot and humid summers, the energy crisis this summer might be worse than it was initially.  At least there will be more time to plan for this, but I imagine this summer could be unpleasant.  Already the trains have been hot and humid a couple of days and this was only in May.

The train saving electricity campaign / awareness poster.  These are on posters in train stations and stickers  inside the trains.

The other major impact being economical.  First being the money in damages lost and the costs of rebuilding along with the loss of production.  The two other big ones being taxes raised to pay for the cost and the impact on the yen due to everything.  The sales tax has been 5% in Japan, but that is likely to change.  A proposal has been in place to raise it to 7-8% soon for the next few years and for it to go to 10% after that. [1]  The yen has also felt a strong impact.  While at first, I thought the yen might get weaker due to everything, the opposite has taken place.  The yen is at 80 yen to the dollar now, where before it was at the 90-100 yen to the dollar and a few years ago at 130 yen to the dollar.  This is even after Japan, United States and EU market intervention.  The explanation for this is monetary investors have speculated Japanese businesses will be buying yen to help the rebuilding process of Japan, so investors have been buying yen making it stronger.  While painful to exchange dollars to yen, it could work out for me making yen if it stays like this when I go to exchange back.  It has added another headache for the Japanese economy as demand for Japanese exports (now more expensive due to exchange rates) has dropped.

While the first few weeks had some serious after effects, most things in Japan besides the disaster areas have returned to normal now.  Summer will bring a new set of problems due to energy shortages, but after that the energy crisis should be solved.  What hasn't really been felt much yet, but what will be the longest lasting effect will be economical.  The next part will cover the other long lasting problem dealing with the problems with the nuclear plant.


1. "Japan Eyes Sales Tax Hike, Using Reserves for Budget," Reuters.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tōhoku Earthquake (東北の地震, とうほくのじしん)

2:46 March 11, 2011

It's been 3 months since the Tōhoku earthquake.  I've decided that enough time has passed now to write about it without being insensitive writing about my experiences.  One that pales in comparison to people directly affected by the earthquake.  Nor will it cause worry or be sensational talking about the events at this point.  This is going to be a mixture of my experiences, what has actually happened and some commentary on the ongoing situation and what has happened.  It will most like be broken up into 3-4 posts.

Earthquake: (地震, じしん, Jishin)
Tsunami: (津波, つなみ)

The Tōhoku Earthquake was the largest in Japan's recorded history and probably of its past 1200 years.  In the world's recorded history, it was the 5th largest.  The 9.0 quake was off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, 232 miles (373 km) from Tokyo.  Not only did the earthquake cause damage on its own, but the worst of the damage occurred from the tsunamis created by the earthquake.  Waves reaching at least 30 1/2 feet (9.3 meters) [1]  have wiped out whole towns and cities, while devastating the coast of Eastern Japan.  With 15,467 losing their lives and 7,4822 people missing [2], it has been the worst disaster in Japan since World War II.  Most of this information isn't new for any of you as I'm sure you've seen the news and video of the disaster (which is why I won't be adding any here).  However, the rest of what I will be writing will be my experiences of living in Tokyo during the past few months and commentary about how the situation has unfolded, as well as the ongoing aftermath.  Hopefully this helps in understanding what has and is happening with me and the rest of Japan, along with some idea of the personal impact something like this brings.  Again, being in Tokyo is nothing like actually being in the disaster.  Tokyo has been fine throughout this whole time except for some minor inconveniences.

When the earthquake happened, I was sitting at my desk as I could feel the beginnings of an earthquake.  I've experienced a few earthquakes before this one; it's part of the territory.  Being on top of 3 different plates in the Ring of Fire tends to make the ground a bit active, but the earthquakes have always been very small and only happen once every couple of months.  They were always around a magnitude of 3 or 4, just enough to feel it but not enough to do anything else.  When you're by yourself when it happens, the earthquake registers and you take a quick mental note and then continue whatever you were doing.  When near others,  everyone looks at each other to see if everyone else felt it and then continue working.  Up until this one, that was basically my reaction scale.  Afterwards, here's my new reaction scale giving my reaction and impact on the apartment from this earthquake.

"Oh, earthquake"

Light rattling noise.
"Heh, that's a strong one"

Loud rattling noise, Noticeable shaking.

Stuff Starts Falling.
"This isn't good"

Lots of things falling.
"Time to bail the house?"

In Shibuya, it was somewhere around 5.5-6.  Considering the 232 miles (373 km) from Tokyo the epicenter was, it was an incredibly powerful earthquake.  The other shocking part was the length of it.  I'm guessing it was very slow to reach its full power due to the distance travelled.  At first, it was the same as any other; but it kept going and was also slowly building power until 2 1/2 minutes in, it had reached full strength.  I went from continuing to chat with friends ignoring the earthquake, to being concerned, to preventing things from falling and finally to standing next to the front door debating on bailing or not.  After a minute of the worst, it calmed down a little to still shaking but not as violently.  The ground still shook for over 2 hours straight and aftershocks happening every 15-30 minutes after that.  That first day the ground shook more often than it did not.

My reaction was probably different than what you might expect and even what I was expecting.  Maybe because it was slow in developing, but more likely being a natural reaction.  Once the earthquake started getting strong enough to knock things over, I went into damage control mode.  Moving things away from the edge, catching items falling and moving fragiles onto safe areas on the ground.  At the 5.5-6.0 level, it was strong enough to knock over smaller items and narrow based items.  All of the small knickknacks in the apartment had fallen on their sides and it knocked most of my books and some small items unto the floor.  Luckily there was no damage, as the closest that came to happening was the glass that holds our chopsticks fell over, but the chopsticks inside of it wedged the glass between the space behind the stove.  I also still have no idea how some of the frames hanging on the wall survived as they were rocking a good 3-5 inches off the wall and then crashing back into it.  Somehow they stayed intact and on the wall.

At the strongest point, I grabbed my stuff and waited at the door running through the scenarios that would make me leave.  However, after a minute of everything violently shaking everywhere, it finally started to calm down a little.  At this point I sat back down and started to search for news about what was happening.  At this point it was no longer violently shaking, but the ground was still moving.  The power and duration of the earthquake was equally astounding.  After the big initial quake, the ground movement was side to side action. My guess (Warning: not a seismologist) is due to those waves being the only ones that could last the distance to Tokyo.  The best way I can explain the rest of that day and much of the first week was like living on a boat.  For an earthquake of this size it's not something that is a one and done.  The past few months have had numerous earthquakes with 5 over magnitude 7, 82 over magnitude 6 and 502 above magnitude 5 [3].  Since the aftermath it has been almost like a cooling down effect where the aftershocks have gotten smaller and less frequent gradually.  Although there are still bad days of high activity every once in a while.  The end of the first month still had at least 2-3 noticeable earthquakes in Tokyo a day.  At this point it's maybe a couple a week, but now it depends more on active periods and more dormant periods.

In terms of any damage in Tokyo, it has been incredibly minimal and only of things must susceptible to earthquake damage as the pictures should be pretty easy to see why.

Hatsudai, Tokyo: The closest noticeable damage near my house.
Shinjuku Gyoen
Besides the wall in the first picture, stone lanterns were the only things I saw that took damage from the earthquake in Tokyo.

Tokyo has been less affected by the direct effects of the earthquake, but has had some difficulties due to the problems created by the earthquake.  These have included shortages, an energy crisis, the failed nuclear reactor in Fukushima and its impacts.  I will discuss about these in the next parts along with commentary about the media coverage, the 'flyjin' effect, how things are currently and of the future of Japan.


1. "The 2011 off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake," Japan Meteorological Agency.

2. "Damage Situation and Police Countermeasures Associated with 2011 Tohoku District - Off the Pacific Ocean Earthquake June 20, 2011," National Police Agency of Japan.

3. "The 2011 off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake," Japan Meteorological Agency.