REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: What I Saw in Japan 4 Months after Tsunami
Next week will mark four months since the ground shook, the ocean heaved, and a wall of water and fear slammed into Japan.
I spent a few days last week traveling the Asian island nation, from Tokyo to Kyoto to Nara. All of these cities are hours south of the Sendai region, whose homes & fields were nearly wiped off the map on March 11 when 33-foot waves, stirred up by a history-making 9.0 seismic jolt, obliterated hundreds of miles of coastline & northeastern countryside.
Even though the resulting nuclear crisis seemed to climax in the days & weeks after, it's not over. Not for almost any Japanese resident.
I landed last week at Tokyo's Haneda airport. As soon as I stepped off the monorail in downtown Tokyo, you could tell this was not a city humming along as normal.
Half to two-thirds of the lights were off in the Japan Rail station and in many businesses, department stores, and malls (see video above for an example of the stark measures in place). The air conditioning was either off or cranked up to the upper 80's everywhere you went. Signs were omnipresent reminding people to save power, or reminding them what the country's energy-saving targets would be for the summer. Some factories are now closed on Thursdays & Fridays, and open weekends instead, shifting work to days when there is less demand for electricity. And the government is promoting "Super cool biz" a new dress code for the Japanese "salarymen": sans tie & suit jacket, open at the collar, perhaps, even, short sleeves to work to beat the heat while using less electricity to cool the office. (see slideshow for pics)
Why the sudden fervor for conservation? Because Japan, whose economy is the third largest in the world (recently supplanted in the number two spot by China), could soon run out of juice.
With some nuclear plants either destroyed, hobbled, off-line for routine maintenance, or turned off while the country does some nuclear soul-searching, Japan faces an electricity shortage & the real prospect of rolling blackouts (remember California a few years ago?).
Here are some of the stories leading the front pages while I was there:
- "It's an order: 15% power-cut goal now official" The first such restriction here since the 1974 oil crisis, The Daily Yomiuri noted Saturday, July 2, 2011, will force large electricity users, like companies, to shave 15% off what they used at this time last year. If they don't, the government is threatening fines of up to 1mil Yen (about $12,400)
- "Budget tags Y96bil. for (nuclear) health checks" That's $1.9 billion US dollars to screen residents, including children, for nuclear fallout.
- "Evacuees to leave hotel for gov't-paid housing" Four months later, 352 evacuees were still staying at a closed-down Tokyo hotel, a newspaper reported. That would be like a disaster so large in the Twin Cities, that shelters were set up in Duluth - and were still open a third of a year later.
Many of the convenience stores have collection boxes now for tsunami & earthquake relief assistance.
Despite the ongoing struggles, the Japanese people were unfailingly polite & willing to talk about what the disaster still means for them. And they were even apologetic that the buildings weren't cooler for visiting tourists (it is mighty hot & muggy in Japan in the summer. Think: Washington, DC).
But the Japanese seemed so resilient, despite a disaster not yet over. One wonders how long these measures will last and at what cost.