Tag Archive: JPQuake

Mar 11

Three Years

Three years ago, I was walking out of my Japanese class near Yokohama station and was headed for my bicycle. I had no idea then that just over two hours later, I would be cowering under my kitchen table or standing outside watching the earth roll while people just a few hundred kilometers away were dying terrifying deaths or having their homes destroyed.

After the dust cleared, I did just over a week of volunteering, and it really doesn’t feel like I did enough. I also started a (largely unsuccessful) attempt to call out journalists on their shoddy and sensationalist reporting of the event, particularly the brouhaha surrounded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I think I made a few people defensive, but I don’t think we really effectively called anyone out on their bullshit. And such reporting continues to this day, largely forgetting about the real victims of the tsunami, many of whom are apparently still homeless.

My wife and son are out for a couple of hours, so I’m using this quiet time to think about all the people that we lost on that day, and those we still haven’t effectively helped; to think about all the stories yet untold, and all those that can never be told.

The plum blossoms are blooming in my yard again, just as they were then.


Feb 08

Post Showcase Discussion

Last night’s rehearsal, our first since the showcase, was disappointing in some ways, and great in others. Disappointing because most of us weren’t there. Great, because Takahiko, Mayu, and I had a really great follow-up conversation about what we discussed with the audience on Saturday after the show.


I learned more about Takahiko in that 90 minutes than I had in the last six months of working together. I found out that he’d seen Seven Streams of the River Ota (my favourite show ever) when it was in Japan, and that he also like the same Kurosawa films that I’m in love with (Ikiru and Jigoku to Tengoku in particular).


The YT Ensemble performs a musical number being tested for the "Wall of Shame" show.

Mostly, though, as I said, we reviewed the 30-minute discussion we had with the audience after our showcase this past Saturday. During that discussion, I asked  the audience what they thought about two scenes in particular.


Both scenes were based on Rosie DiManno’s Toronto Star article entitled No Escape Valve for So Much Grief.


The first scene, which we called No Escape Valve, consisted of an underplayed scene playing out the events of the scene described by DiManno prior to her self-insertion into the narrative. A cub reporter for a Japanese radio station, assigned to her first story, speaks self-consciously into her IC recorder, setting up the time and place of the scene: March 19th, 2011, outside a sports stadium in Miyagi-ken. The stadium is serving as a holding facility for recovered bodies. The other characters in the scene include a woman who is looking for a relative, a stadium employee working as a guide to those coming for the first time, and the family described by DiManno’s article.


The rest of the scene is played out almost sub-vocally, with overlapping dialogue. We’re very conscious of not wanting to put big speeches in the mouths of victims, so the speech is improvised and not at normal performance level. As the scene begins, a man (that was me) sits at a desk, reading to himself.


About halfway through, as the scene in Miyagi continues to play out, the man at the desk tells the audience that he’s reading the article by DiManno and starts to read excerpts aloud to them. Initially, he distances himself from the article, but in the last few lines, he throws on a scarf and becomes the writer herself, gradually moving to a histrionic falsetto that matches the tone and character of the article. His loud voice easily overpowers the scene, and as he reads the last few lines, the other actors become aware of him and turn to look at him, puzzlement playing over their features.


The second scene consisted of me dressed in a headscarf and african-style wrap skirt to complete the out-of-touch hippie look, playing guitar and singing a song entitled I Will Make the Japanese Cry while various Japanese stereotypes unenthusiastically performed a broadway-style dance number behind me.


What I wanted to know from the audience was what their feelings were about us covering this topic. Not so much the bad journalism aspect (I think we’re all agreed on that), but about actually representing tsunami victims in the scene itself, as we did in the No Escape Valve scene.


Interestingly, the opinion was divided, with Japanese members of the audience feeling uncomfortable with the scene, and expats not being put off by it. There was a little more nuance to the conversation than that, but that was the general gist. On the other hand, no one was offended by the musical number (unless they were simply offended by my terrible singing and simply refrained from telling me so).


Since we didn’t have anyone in the audience who was actually from the affected areas in Tohoku, we were getting feedback by people who had friends or relatives there. The way people worded their concerns about the scene was interesting and mirrored what I’ve heard from others when I’ve asked them about it and what Mayu said when we first started rehearsing No Escape Valve. To wit: “we’re worried that people from the Tohoku region will be offended by this.”


While I sympathize with the feeling, I wonder if it’s worth worrying about. We plan to approach the scenes like this carefully, as we did with this one. The applicable section of No Escape Valve was done in what one audience member called a “documentary” style. If it’s okay to go up to Tohoku and point cameras at things and people, then my feeling is that we’re okay recreating a similar effect on stage. As I wrote earlier, we don’t plan to put any big long speeches into the mouths of tsunami victim characters or try make their lives into entertainment. (That’s not what the Wall of Shame show is about, anyway.) However, to explore the topic seriously and honestly, we certainly can’t shy away from scenes like this.


We still have more discussion to do within the whole group itself before we resolve this, but I wanted to post my feelings on this while they’re still fresh.

Jul 25

Arnie Gundersen – The Facade of Believability

Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen is in some ways the opposite of Michio Kaku. He’s not flashy, he avoids sounding over-the-top, even when he talks about grim scenarios, and he doesn’t wave his arms around like a mad scientist.


Gundersen talks a hot load of crap.


The first time I saw Gundersen, I thought he looked like the kind of man I could trust. He looks like somebody’s kindly grandpa. He was doing a demonstration in his back yard with a blow torch about the effect of heat on the cladding of a nuclear reactor fuel rod. It was informative and educational, and not at all dishonest, as far as I could tell.


I realized quickly that Gundersen was anti-nuclear power, but in the early videos that I saw, he was very cautious and said very few things that made me think he wasn’t being honest. It seemed to me that he was just interpreting the information coming out from Japan. I didn’t find his commentary particularly interesting, so I didn’t pay much more attention to him. I also missed his statement early on on “Russia Today” that the Fukushima incident was “Chernobyl on steroids”.


Then, on March 31, Gundersen posted a video claiming that the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 was dry and that the spent fuel rods were exposed to the air. He based this not on information released, but on his analysis of a low-quality video of the reactor building that he found on Ustream. This video started spreading on Facebook, and so Arnie Gundersen once again wandered into my field of view.


Something felt wrong. He was more slippery than Michio Kaku– he wasn’t saying anything that I as a non-scientist could pinpoint as factually incorrect. As far as I could tell, he was just extrapolating a little more than I felt comfortable with.


Over the days and weeks that followed, I found his videos being posted on Facebook and Twitter more and more, saying more and more scary things that just didn’t sound right. It was around this time that he started being interviewed as an expert by the mainstream media. So I did a little digging to see if this grandfatherly man who seemed so trustworthy was really what he appeared to be.


What I discovered was that Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates, is a for-profit company that hires him out to provide expert testimony and write research papers for anti-nuclear groups. He has a lot to gain then by making sure his appearances in the media make nuclear power sound dangerous.

Gundersen is the “Chief Engineer” of Fairewinds Associates, and is often introduced as such on news programs. That title is meaningless since Gundersen is the only engineer at Fairewinds: the company consists of just him and his wife.


On RT (“Russia Today”) in a clip that has been translated into Japanese and posted on YouTube, the host talks about Gundersen being “part of the nuclear industry” in what seems to be an effort to make Gundersen look more credible. “Oh!” thinks the viewer, “He works for the nuclear industry and he’s saying all these terrible things about Fukushima and nuclear power. He’s speaking against his own interests, since he won’t have a job if nuclear power is abolished, so he must be telling the truth!”


The truth is, as I’ve shown already, that Gundersen is a for-hire anti-nuclear consultant, and although he claims “39 years of nuclear power engineering experience” on his website, that is not the case. Since Gundersen has been an expert witness in several cases, his accurate resume is available online in the public record for anyone to see. According a version of his resume from 2006, Gundersen’s career did start 39-40 years ago in 1971, but he only worked in the industry until 1990.


In 1990 he was dismissed from his job in the industry. He claims that he was a whistleblower, his company claimed defamation, and they settled out-of-court. From that time until at least 2006 he seems to have worked full-time as a teacher at various private schools in Vermont, doing “expert” consulting in order to supplement his income. I don’t think either teaching or being paid as an “expert” witness count as “nuclear power engineering experience”.


Gundersen also claims that he was a licensed reactor operator (he calls himself a “critical facility reactor operator, instructor” on that portion of his resume), but some investigation reveals that the reactor in question was a 100 Watt “critical assembly” at a school. That reactor generated no power and cannot be said to have provided Gundersen with any experience in operating or maintaining an actual nuclear power plant.


A browse through the Fairewinds Associates website is also telling. There is no video content on the site that predates Gundersen’s March 15, 2011 appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. His first self-produced video appears on March 17. It appears very slick from the get-go, with good production values, and makes me wonder if Fairewinds, smelling money in the air, hadn’t suddenly hired a PR firm right after the Fukushima crisis began. I don’t have any information to prove this, but the timing is a bit suspicious.


So why am I picking on poor Grandpa Gundersen? Because as he got more media exposure, his international profile grew, and his statements were being accepted without question by the English-language media and then being spread around in Japan. And as time went on and less new and exciting information emerged from Fukushima, his exaggerations and distortions became easier to spot, even by a guy with a Fine Arts degree.


For instance, you’ll remember that Gundersen claimed the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 had gone dry. According to a June 15 story in the Associated Press, a new video emerged proving that the Japanese officials were right and the spent fuel pool had not gone dry, as the U.S. officials (and Gundersen) had insisted. Gundersen has not removed the video about the spent fuel pool going dry from his website, which is to be commended, but neither has he issued an apology or retraction now that evidence has emerged that contradicts his analysis.


On June 12 Gundersen released a video on the Fairewinds Associates site that I think is very illustrative of the kind of nonsense Gundersen is spreading into the media. He records about one “update” on Fukushima every week, but I thought this one is the most illustrative of how he is becoming bolder in his claims as time goes on.


Gundersen claimed:


  • The stricken reactors had released more “hot particles” than TEPCO had originally thought and that people in Tokyo were breathing in 10 of these every day in April
  • These “hot particles” are undetectable with a regular Geiger counter
  • These “hot particles” were detected by “independent scientists” in Tokyo using air filters
  • These “hot particles” are undetectable inside the body
  • These “hot particles” latch onto tissue and irradiate a small area (he expanded on this in a June 14th interview on CNN) (this is “hot particle” theory)
  • “People” in Japan are reporting a metallic taste in their mouths
  • People also reported metallic tastes in their mouth near Three Mile Island, when undergoing medical imaging, after Chernobyl, etc.


These claims, particularly those of “hot particles” were repeated in interviews on CNN, Fox News, and other TV networks, as well as in many online articles.


As we’ve already discussed, “hot particle” theory is pretty solidly debunked, but more worrying in this case is that Gundersen has started being cagey about where his information is coming from. For instance, the “independent scientists” in Tokyo who were allegedly sending him data on “hot particles”. Who are they? There doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to hide their identities… unless they don’t exist.


Also, assuming for just a moment that any of what Gundersen said was true (I cannot find anyone other than him originating information on radioactive particles in air filters; all links about it lead back to him), my question would be: how many “hot particles” per day were we breathing in before this? Radioactive particles were already in the air, long before Fukushima Daiichi got hit by a tsunami: particles that were put there by other industry, from bomb testing during the cold war, etc. So the missing piece of information is what’s the difference now? But even at 10 particles per day– if we’re talking about particles with radiation levels so low that they cannot be detected, it seems odd to hit the panic button.


The whole story about people reporting metallic tastes in their mouths is also a bit of a shocker, coming from a scientist. There are many things that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth. Here is a partial list:


antibiotics and medications used for treatment of

  • kidney stones
  • antidepressants
  • prenatal vitamins
  • anaesthetic ~ lidocaine
  • heart failure ~ captopril
  • giardiasis ~ metronidazole
  • trichomoniasis ~ tinidazole
  • CT scan ~ contrast medium
  • chronic alcoholism ~ disulfiram
  • rheumatoid arthritis ~ auranofin
  • high blood pressure ~ captopril
  • low calcium treatment ~ calcitriol
  • weight loss, diabetes ~ metformin

dental problems

  • gingivitis
  • periodontitis
  • tooth infections


  • cancer
  • food allergy
  • peptic ulcer
  • lichen planus
  • marine toxins
  • too much iron
  • hypercalcemia
  • lead poisoning
  • bleeding gums
  • kidney disease
  • eating pine nuts
  • copper overdose
  • selenium toxicity
  • iodine intoxication
  • mercury poisoning
  • cadmium poisoning
  • acute kidney failure
  • burning mouth syndrome


Tokyo is a city of over ten million people. Given all the possible causes, surely every day a number of people experience a metallic taste in their mouths. Reporting on anecdotal evidence like this is not only unscientific, but unethical given the anxiety that it causes.


Gundersen has got a lot of play in the international media, and his videos have spread virally via bilingual Japanese people who have translated and posted them on the Internet. I hope that I’ve shown that Gundersen is not a trustworthy source of information about Fukushima for the following reasons:


  • He has been dishonest about his qualifications and work experience
  • He misrepresents himself (or at least allows others to misrepresent him) as part of the nuclear industry
  • He has an undeclared direct financial interest in increasing his profile as an anti-nuclear power consultant in order to attract new clients
  • He subscribes to a theory of low-level radiation damage that has been discredited
  • He has made claims that have been proven to be false
  • He has made claims that don’t stand up to investigation, are anecdotal, and are unfalsifiable
  • As time goes on and Fukushima produces less dramatic news, Gundersen’s reports become more dramatic.

I hope this has been helpful. I wish that the media would be a little less credulous when dealing with experts, and challenge statements that sound wrong, but failing that, it’s our job to not take whatever an “expert” says at face value and to ask questions.



The information about Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates is mostly available on the company’s own website at fairewinds.com.

Gundersen’s 2006 resume is available online here: http://www.necnp.org/files/docs/NEC_March_8_2006_Appeal_re_Docket_6812_filings_3_8_06.pdf pages 26 – 29.

The information about his claims about running a reactor were first reported here: http://atomicinsights.com/2011/02/arnie-gundersen-has-inflated-his-resume-yet-frequently-claims-that-entergy-cannot-be-trusted.html

The information about the spent fuel pool not being dry originally came from a June 15/16 Associated Press article (date depends on your time zone). That article has now been taken down, but the text is still floating around on various news sites:

The list of conditions that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth were lifted directly from an article at Healthblurbs.com: http://www.healthblurbs.com/many-causes-of-metallic-taste-metal-taste-in-mouth-and-taste-of-metal-in-your-mouth-symptoms/


Other references are the same as the ones for Kaku.

Jul 24

Michio Kaku Rant – Bibliography

Just a quickie bibliography for my recent post about bullshit artist Michio Kaku.


On Plutonium toxicity:

Most of my points about plutonium can be found in the plutonium article on Wikipedia.


The quotation about 5000 respirable particles was sourced from a plutonium human health fact sheet published by the Argonne National Laboratory.


More info about plutonium toxicity, and the list of organizations who have dismissed “Hot Particle” theory was sourced from Bernard L. Cohen’s book The Nuclear Energy Option, chapter 13 (see the section on plutonium toxicity) and his paper The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity. The latter is also the source of my statement that a microgram of ingested plutonium will give you one chance in a million of getting cancer.


Bernard L. Cohen is a controversial figure in the Nuclear debate, but he uses the most conservative model of low-level radiation danger (the Linear No-Threshold Model) to come up with his figures.


Information about MOX fuel comes again from Wikipedia’s page on the subject.


When using Wikipedia, I have clicked through to the references and read the source material whenever possible.

Jul 23

Michio Kaku = Douche

Here’s a section of the book chapter I wrote for ASIOS’s upcoming book. Since it’s only going to be published in Japanese, I wanted to share some of it with you. Keep in mind that it’s written for Japanese readers, and for each person or media source I wrote about, I was asked to explain why Japanese people should care.
Michio Kaku, despite his Japanese name, is American, and not very well known over here. Kaku is a MichioKaku_commonsrespected theoretical physicist, professor, and the co-founder of string field theory. He also is a populariser of science, meaning that he works to communicate science to the general population by making it easier to understand. He is also a futurist, which means that he attempts to predict what life in the future will be like. He frequently appears on science and news programs in the west, and has a definite facility for making science sound exciting. He’s a very imaginative man and can paint very compelling images with his words.

The problem is that as far as I can tell, Kaku will accept any offer to appear in the media and comment on science stories, even when they are outside his area of expertise. Kaku has said that humans have stopped evolving (“gross” evolution, he called it, using a word he just made up); opposed the Cassini space probe launch because it had plutonium on board; and has stated that UFOs are real and that aliens have visited Earth (and they’re invisible).


Regardless of how silly these claims are, I will limit my analysis to his comments on the Fukushima incident and its aftermath. He appeared on many television shows (Late Night with David Letterman, Real Time with Bill Maher, Fox News Insider, CNN, NBC’s Nightline, ABC news, Democracy Now, and more…) in the days, weeks, and months following March 11, saying whatever he could to make the situation sound even more dramatic and dangerous than it was.


But isn’t he an expert? He is a physicist, after all. True, but he is a theoretical physicist, not a nuclear physicist. Aren’t they close enough? Not really. An anatomy lecturer and a neurologist are both highly trained people who hold doctorate degrees, but if you had a rare brain disease, you’d want to consult the neurologist, who actually practices medicine, and not the lecturer, who mostly deals with paper and the occasional dissection of a cadaver.


As a theoretical physicist, Kaku works on paper with ideas and mathematics. He does not work with things that exist in the actual, physical world, the way an experimental physicist or engineer would.


Of course, this isn’t enough to condemn his opinion as uninformed or dishonest on its own. To get a clear picture of Kaku’s style, you need to look at what he’s actually said:



[Reactor] 3 is so dangerous because it’s the only reactor containing what is called Mixed Oxide Fuel i.e., plutonium. Plutonium is one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. A dust particle that you can’t even see, inhaled into your lungs, could cause lung cancer.

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 26, 2011


“Plutonium is the most toxic chemical known to science! A speck of plutonium, a millionth of a gram, could cause cancer if it’s ingested.”

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 25,2011



Kaku has a habit of saying things that are inaccurate and therefore misleading. In this case, his words make Mixed Oxide Fuel– the same MOX fuel that the Natural News was hysterical about– sound as if it’s just another word for plutonium. In reality, MOX is generally manufactured with 5% – 7% plutonium, the other 93% – 95% being uranium. 30% of that plutonium is consumed when the fuel is used.


He also describes plutonium as “the most toxic chemical known to science”, which begs the question: “Really?” Kaku seems no more informed on this subject than the people he is being interviewed by. Especially since he claims that ingesting a millionth of a gram could cause cancer. He’s right: ingesting one millionth of a gram of plutonium can give you about one chance in a million of getting a radiation-caused cancer. So yes, it could cause cancer. So can a sunburn, but people still go outdoors.



Plutonium Toxicity


Because I am not a physicist or a chemist or a medical doctor, I will keep this as short and as simple as I possibly can.


Along with beta and gamma radiation, plutonium emits alpha radiation. The alpha radiation is the biggest danger in terms of toxicity, because most plutonium isotopes release only very low energy beta particles, and very little gamma radiation. Harmless before it enters the body (alpha particles cannot penetrate the outer layer of human skin; even a sheet of paper is enough to block them), once inside the body alpha radiation is the most destructive form of ionizing radiation.


However, unlike other radioactive isotopes which make their way into the food chain, Plutonium tends to form itself into large molecules which have difficulty being absorbed by plants or animals, either through roots or digestive tracts. This means that the greatest risk of plutonium toxicity is by inhalation. When inhaled, about 5% of the plutonium gets absorbed into the body and migrates mostly to the bones and to the liver, where it can sit for many decades, irradiating surrounding tissue, possibly causing cancer (usually lung, liver, or bone cancers).


Despite how bad this sounds, this information is gleaned in part from laboratory studies of animals given relatively high doses of plutonium. Epidemiological studies of human populations exposed to plutonium dust do not corroborate the observations reported in animals. In other words, the results from high dose experiments are not reflected in studies of low-dose exposures.  Rises in lung cancer throughout the United States, for instance, generally correspond to areas with high air pollution, whereas in communities downwind from the Nevada nuclear bomb-test site where one would expect to see an increase of (plutonium-caused) cancers, there has been no such increase.


Further, according to a fact sheet released by the Argonne National Laboratory in 2005: “…breathing in 5,000 respirable plutonium particles of about 3 microns each is estimated to increase an individual’s risk of incurring a fatal cancer about 1% above the U.S. average.”


Plutonium is dangerous, but certainly does not deserve the moniker “most toxic chemical known to mankind” or the like.


What about Kaku’s other claim? That a tiny particle of plutonium can give you lung cancer? This is a claim we hear over and over again from the likes of Helen Caldicott and Christopher Busby. It’s mostly based on the “Hot Particle” theory, which has been discredited for years.


“Hot Particle” Theory


A “hot particle”, has no precise definition, but is essentially a very small (microscopic), highly radioactive particle that due to its electrical charge, will “hop” from one surface to another.


The “hot particle” theory posits that the hot particles are more dangerous than previously thought because once ingested or inhaled, their electrical charge will cause them to stick in one place. This has led to claims that the particles give a much higher than average dose to just a few cells, increasing the chance of causing a cancer by 100,000 times more than mainstream science would predict.


This theory has not been backed up by actual studies. In fact studies by


  • the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP)
  • the British Medical Research Council
  • the U.K. National Radiological Protection Board
  • the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
  • the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • the U.K. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution


have investigated and rejected the “hot particle” theory of increased cancer risk.


Nor is theory borne out in real-life incidents. According to the theory, the 26 workers who breathed in significant amounts of plutonium dust at Los Alamos during the 1940s should have developed about 200 lung cancers between them. As of 1991, just three of them had developed lung cancer. Those three were also smokers (in the United States, 87% of lung cancer cases are estimated to be caused by smoking).


This theory is considered to be discredited by mainstream science.



The leadership [in Japan] is disconnected from reality. They’re not physicists, they’re not engineers… -Michio Kaku, In the Arena on CNN, March 18, 2011


As early as March 18 and well into early April, Kaku was making the rounds on news and entertainment shows, urging the Japanese government to “call in the military” and “bury the sucker!” (meaning the Fukushima reactors). He didn’t seem to realize that the JSDF were already deployed, or that burying the reactors was a bad idea while they were still generating heat. (So apparently, he’s not much of an engineer either…)


Why do people believe Kaku, and why do news shows keep asking him to comment? Partly because he is able to talk in very simple, direct, and above all, entertaining language (“…we could lose a good chunk of northern Japan!”) that appeals to newscasters and their viewers, and partly because he obviously makes himself available.  In my opinion, he is a shameless self-promoter who cares more about getting himself public exposure than the truth.


On the same episode of “In the Arena” quoted above, Kaku slyly seemed to accept credit for Prime Minister Kan’s statement that burying the reactors was a possibility once they were stabilized:


I was on national television, and it got picked up by NHK… and their Prime Minister finally got around to saying ‘And oh gee, maybe we should think about this option.’ So it’s seeping its way now into the highest levels of Japanese government.”

I could probably write a whole chapter just on Michio Kaku alone, but I hope that I’ve given an overview of why what he says should not be taken at face value. My impression is that his comments have not been directly reported much in Japan. The problem is that because he is so widely respected, and appears on television so much, on American networks of all political stripes (from Fox News to Democracy Now), what he has said has shaped the tone of the reporting coming out of the U.S. He was leading the charge of people shouting to bury Fukushima, he was giving the American networks many of the doomsday scenarios that flowed back to us over the Internet, and in general he was feeding the fear machine and enabling other doomsayers with his thoughtless “science”.


UPDATE: Have added a quickie bibliography in a follow-up post.

May 28

Back to the Good Life

I’m typing this (or at least starting to type this; we’ll see how long the battery holds out) in Sendai city, waiting for the Curry Express to come and pick me up, ostensibly at 16:30, but we’ll see. While I wait, I’m burning a good ass-mark into a seat in the Starbucks near the station’s East exit.


Given that I’ve been occupying prime real estate here for over an hour, I should probably buy something else, but since I haven’t had a call from my rescuers yet to tell me they’re on their way, it might be wise to save that for later.


So how to sum up the experience of volunteering in Oofunato? I have no idea. I’m not going to get all drama-queen on you and say stuff like it was shocking, or that it was a life-changing experience. The images I’d seen immediately post-quake had prepared me to some extent, and I had been pre-warned about the various smells and such. None of my crews came across a human body (or even an animal body, barring one dead frog I found yesterday); maybe that would have changed things.


Despite my differences with All Hands as an organization, which I’ll deal with fully in a future post, I was very impressed with all the people (yes, even the ones I think are assholes and/or idiots) who came out from all over the world and volunteered to help the country that I love. Many of them have been and will be here for months, and we, as residents of Japan, owe them our deepest thanks. Even people who are assholes and idiots can be good people on some level, and I salute them for that. I particularly, though, salute the volunteers I met who not only worked hard, but weren’t assholes or idiots. I met some amazing people, who will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. In a good way.

 Cleaning the tambo in Rikuzentakata, Day 2.

The work itself, being out on the streets and in the fields, in many cases doing work that no one else was willing to do, made me feel like I was finally doing something concrete to help Tohoku. I only really did three days of back-breaking labour, a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, but it did feel good, and I want to do it again.


I read yesterday that there is a shortage of volunteers in Iwate-ken, so I will be looking for ways to get back there and ways to encourage others to go. We are just beginning to take the first few steps on the long road back to normal, and we’re all going to have to pitch in if we want to get there.


And wow! My ride’s arrived 45 minutes early. Will post more later in the week when I’ve caught up with all the work that’s been piling up.

May 27

Last Day in Oofunato–The Best of Both Worlds

Today I got back into the canals… the ones on the rice field, though, not the ones in the city. The ones on the paddies definitely smell better.


I’m so tired that I can hardly type. I’m writing this while I wait for my photos to transfer from my camera card to the PC. That will be done in a moment, and I will brush my teeth and go to bed. All I am waiting for is an appropriate photo to post with this entry.


Annnddd…. nope. Too tired. Will try tomorrow on train

May 26

Paddywhacking and Meetings

2011-05-26 12.48.24

Today I signed up for the Paddywhacking crew, which meant that we went out to a bunch of rice paddies in Rikuzentakata and pulled junk out of them. We also started work on the canals and ditches around the site.




I stuck with paddy work today because I was wearing my tabi workboots, which are not waterproof, and I hadn’t brought a change of boots to the HQ base at Sakari in the morning.


It was hard work, but my crew chief today was Brian, who encouraged hard work without making us feel like we couldn’t take breaks or rehydrate, etc. I drank a lot of liquids, but I must have sweated more than I thought, because there was no toilet out there, and I didn’t have to pee until we ended up back at the HQ, six hours (and about 2 litres) after we started.


Great lunch today, though. It was ebi fry, so I could eat it, and fellow crew member Xavier doesn’t like shrimp, so I got double portions for once, instead of half portions. Huzzah.


We got back to the HQ at about 16:45, and then waited a bit longer than usual for dinner. Then we waited an extra long time for the evening meeting to start because the staff wanted to get the 15 new arrivals today processed before we kicked off. Then the meeting went on forever. For. Ev. Er.


Finally, we got to sign up for crews. Despite a couple of interesting new ones, I picked the rice fields again for tomorrow. I nixed the idea of walking back to the FS centre (where the majority of us sleep) because it was likely too late to go to the grocery store anyway, which is what I wanted to do.


Looking forward to tomorrow’s crew; I plan to diving into the canals and clearing them. It will be nice to have a hard work crew for my last day. Then, afterwards I can come back, go to sleep, get up, and get away from all the organizational bullshit. I can then make plans to come up again, either on my own or with a smaller group of people.


I’ll try to post my other photos from the paddy tomorrow; I left my camera in the other room, so I can’t transfer them now. Well, I could, but I don’t want to go back to the sleeping room to get the camera. If I go back to the sleeping room, as I will in a few minutes, it will be to sleep.


Yes, so: time to hit the hay.

May 25

Of Ditches and Bitches, Of Pals and Canals

So I finally manned up this morning and joined a proper crew: the Ditch Bitches.25052011045


Our job was to clear out the canals that drain the grey water from local houses because they are totally blocked with tsunami debris.


Ow. I hurt.


My job was to shovel or otherwise haul muck that others lifted out of the canal into wheelbarrows and haul them over to the nearby refuse piles.


Mud is heavy.


Our crew chief, Mark, is a pretty hardcore worker. Within the first ten minutes, he’d got a huge gash in his arm, but when i pointed it out to him, he just said that he would let it, and I kid you not, “clot up”. Yes, while he continued to work in sewage.


As you can see from the photo, I was originally pretty kitted up. After lunch, I took off the safety glasses and the mask, as they just got in the way (and fogged up my real glasses so badly I couldn’t see).


I will probably not join that crew again, if I can avoid it. As I mentioned, Mark is pretty intense, and he expects everyone else on his crew to be similarly so. I didn’t feel like I could even stop and walk two minutes away to fill my water bottle, especially near the end of the day when he’d assigned my an extra (simultaneous) task. This was around the end of the day when my mouth was dry, I had a pounding headache, and obviously was in a state of dehydration. I was so thirsty, I was tempted to drink the canal water (bad idea).


Now Mark is a cool guy, but this is the reason that you need someone leading a team who has had some training in doing so. A trained team leader would be enforcing break times, not allowing team members to work through lunch (as one did), etc. Oh yeah, and probably notice when one of his team members was so dehydrated that he could barely walk straight.


I find it so weird that All Hands has all these rules governing our lives and behaviour (and endless meetings about those rules), but very few rules in terms of onsite safety.


But don’t get me wrong. I would not voluntarily do canal crew again (unfortunately, as the biggest crew, it’s the most likely crew one will end up on), but I actually do like Mark. He’s just one of those guys who kind of expects everyone to live up to his example.


There are a fair number of people I don’t like here (as there are in any communal living situation), and most of them are what I call the “Happy Camper” type. That means they’ve drunk the organizational kool-aid, and the organization can do no wrong in their book. They also feel the need to play the camp counsellor role and take over situations. I really hate that. They also frequently happen to be recent Business program graduates. I really hate that.


Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. We’re clearing debris from a rice field, and the team leader is a guy who I know I will feel comfortable with (meaning that I will work hard, but still do what I need to do to take care of myself).


Time to sleep!

May 24


I need to write this briefly, because I don’t find myself with a lot of time. There are a number of people here who are awesome and I’m loathe to trade time with them for writing on this blog or any one of the other things that I REALLY need to get done before Saturday.


Today was our day off, but try as I might to be productive, it just wasn’t going to happen. So I will just list some of  the highlights and lowlights of my volunteer experience thus far.



  • Cleaning photos at a local evacuation centre on Sunday * (see caveat on this in the lowlights section)
  • Working in the Greater Kitchen Co-Prosperity Sphere with Adam and Ranko to make dinner for the whole group on Monday night
  • Karaoke on Monday night and racing back to make curfew (the community centre we’re staying in locks the doors at 22:00)
  • Buying a 1000 yen microwave at a recycle shop and stealthily setting it up in our common room.



  • Getting told off by the person in charge of the photo project for not doing the work properly (despite the fact that we had no instructions and that she’d said she’d bring some over in the afternoon and never did)
  • Getting told I could eat any of the food on the food shelf and then being told off later by the project bigwig for eating bread outside of breakfast time
  • Being forced to change my clothes to go to the evac centre to do the bath cleaning/photo cleaning job by my team leader, a middle-aged uptight Japanese lady, because I would scare the residents. When i refused, she sic’d a bigwig on me who used his bullshit conflict-resolution voice on me to tell me that I basically had to do it. (If we had ended up cleaning the baths, my workpants would have been totally inappropriate, as they don’t roll up) All in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’, which is fine, except that I’ve been volunteering at evacuation centres now since April, and it’s never been a problem before (Tohoku people are really cool).


I’m really enjoying a lot of the people here, and I’m enjoying the work. I think that next time I come up here, though, I will try to come with a smaller group. The realities of a large group seem to mean that those in charge feel like they need to treat us like children. Now that I’ve made some friends, and sort of carved a place, I’m really looking forward to next week.

May 21

The First Night

Typing this on the air mattress, which turns out to be like, a queen-size.


I’m sleeping in the All Hands common room at the HQ tonight, because they didn’t want to move me over to the second set of facilities in the Evac center. Which is fine. Except they made a big-ass deal about quiet/lights out hours starting at 22:30, and it’s now 23:15 and the main gaggle have gone off to the sleeping room, while the admins continue to talk in here with lights blazing.


Given that this room is supposedly going to turn into Grand Central at 7:00, I’d really like to get some shuteye.


Also, it seems like I’m hearing a lot of drama stuff that I probably should—whoops, earthquake—should not be hearing.


Oh well, it’s the first night. I should be happy that I have a degree of privacy to write this that I likely won’t have when I move tomorrow.


First impressions of Oofunato:


  • Smelly: partly fresh, sea air (which I think I’m not a fan of), partly dust, partly sewage
  • Quiet (well, it is a small town)
  • That’s it so far: I arrived in the dark

First impressions of the group:

  • A little bit immature
  • A bit catty
  • A little bit disorganized (they really need a sign down at street level; I found the building no problem, but there’s no indication until you walk up the stairs, which I was loath to do due to my heavy bags… maybe something I’ll suggest when I get to know them better)

First impression of the HQ

  • No flush toilets (washiki that’s just a hole into a sack of some sort)
  • Stinky; toilets are particularly bad
  • Definitely worse for wear
  • More amenities than I expected (I may be able to have occasional sento privileges!)

Anyway, really not looking forward to waking up all bleary-eyed with a whole bunch of volunteers eating breakfast over my head, but I figure I’ll get into the swing of things tomorrow, and once I’m installed at the other place, cheek-to-jowl with my/the comrades, these first impressions will improve.


I’m really looking forward to it.


Maybe if I pretend to sleep now, they’ll be quiet and turn out the lights…

May 21

Oofunato Bound At last

21052011034I’m writing this on the bus to Oofunato, which I caught with just moments to spare, thanks to the help of @peacefulandjust (I mean, her help is the reason I caught it at all, not the reason I was running to catch it).


Where to begin?


About a month ago, I signed up with ALL HANDS to go to Oofunato and help out. They rejected me.


Then they changed their minds and un-rejected me.


In the meantime, I got involved in the Universal Brotherhood of Japan’s day trips to serve curry (see my last entry regarding the good ship Curry Express). When they offered to take me again this week to save me money on my trip to Oofunato, how could I have refused?


Packing. Well, there’s an interesting story, too. I’ve never really done this kind of thing before, and All Hands was a little bit vague about the exact work I’d be doing and the conditions I’d be doing it in. Plus, they made it pretty clear we volunteers would be living in our own filth for a week (only cold running water, no showers, 20 people in a small room). So I packed a lot. A LOT. Like the Zsa Zsa Gabor of volunteers. It didn’t help that I also bought 5000 Yen + worth of (heavy) art supplies to donate to local kids in shelters. That was the small grey bag I have dubbed “Megaton” right there.


Aside from that, I packed one pair of work clothes (Japanese carpenters’ pants I bought for a costume party two or three years ago, and a work shirt); a pair of underoos, socks, and an undershirt for each day; a set of good clothes, including a couple of extra underthings, not including the kilt I am wearing right now; two pairs of boots on top of the ones I’m wearing, one pair rubber, one pair tabi carpenter boots; a heavy sleeping bag and a hard hat (which, according to an email from All Hands that I received JUST AN HOUR AGO, I don’t need); an air mattress (probably a mistake); batteries for air mattress; charger for batteries; first aid stuff; safety stuff; my camera; my laptop, plus all adapters and AC… shall I go on, darlings?


Suffice it to say that my luggage consists of one small grey suitcase (carry-on size) filled with art supplies and snacks; a green canvas army surplus laundry bag filled with clothes and, apparently, bricks; the air mattress; my overfilled backpack; my camera bag; and my hard hat (which wouldn’t fit inside anything else.


They said “pack light”. Have I arsed this up?


Oh well…

May 14

All Aboard the Curry Express

I’m writing this aboard a school bus borrowed from the Indian School in Japan that I have dubbed The Curry Express (related more to its function as a curry delivery platform and less to famed actor Tim Curry), as we hurdle through the night at full bore to try to make Yokohama before 2:00 am.


This was a trip I’d planned to go on way back at the end of March, but plans changed.


The plan: this group, called the Universal Brotherhood of [I forget] is a mixed group of mostly Indian and Japanese folks was going to go to Tohoku to server a curry dinner at a shelter for tsunami evacuees. They would drive up to Tohuku, serve curry, and drive back.


I was actually going to be riding shotgun in one of the follow trucks carrying supplies for the volunteer center provided by Yokohama Country & Athletics Club members. The driver was my friend and occasional partner in Theatrical misadventure, Dave.


At the last minute, Dave got sick, but the fellow in charge of the operation, Chugani-san, assured me that there was room on the good ship Curry Express and that I could still be useful. So, I woke up this morning at 4:30 and hopped on my bicycle at 5:15, before the first train, to meet the group at the YCAC premises.


After loading the Express with supplies, we boarded it, and after much discussion about seats which I stayed out of, I sat in one of the jump seats.


This was fine at first as the jump seats provided slightly more legroom than the regular seats, but after the 7 hours it took to get to Iwanuma the metal from the seat was digging into one particular vertebrae so hard that I was sure there was a bruise there. I cracked my back painfully as I descended from the Express and onto the unsuspecting residents of the shelter, who had likely never before seen a 185cm tall gaijin man in a skirt. (Interestingly, I found that Northerners, despite what I’d heard of their reputation for directness, were actually really polite about it.)


Long story short (photos to fill in the gaps posted later when I’m on a non-bouncing and pitch-black platform), we served curry lunch (with me mostly filling a support/gopher role, making children laugh when my kilt blew in the wind, and shooting photographs), I donated some art supplies that I’d personally bought to the kids of the shelter, and then the good crew of the Curry Express hit the road again in order to make landfall at another shelter and a volunteer center to offload more goods and check needs for the Express’s trip next weekend. On the way, we stopped in Ishinomaki, in a neighbourhood hit by the tsunami in order to get a grip on what happened.


While it was awful, it wasn’t the bleak hellscape I had been expecting, possibly because a lot of the major bulldozing and body recovery work has been done. But seeing it still immediately made me feel like I was trying to swallow a fist-sized stone. I took a few photos, mostly concentrating on minutia, because I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the whole thing in a photographic way.


A quick stop at the second shelter, and then on to our last stop at Ishinomaki’s campsite for volunteers. What a bunch of great guys. Yeah, so much for being a great prose writer, but I can’t think of any other way to describe these man and women. I look forward to joining their ranks next weekend, although I am no going to be hardcore and camping out in a field like these rock stars were. We passed over the last of our supplies to the volunteers and then after about an hour (no kidding) of goodbyes, we were back aboard the Express and on our way.


Well, after stopping for alcohol we were on our way. Which, inevitably, led to a busload of Japanese and Indian ojisan singing a mix of very off-key Enka and Indian Bollywood songs; an inordinate number of toilet breaks; spilled beer; many complaints that the bus was too hot; and snoring. In that order, precisely.


As I type this, it is 23:00, and, barring the unlikely event of heavy traffic heading into the Tokyo area late at night on a Saturday, we should be back at the YCAC between 1:00 and 2:00 in the wee hours of the anti-meridian. One of the (non-intoxicated) crew members of the brave ship has offered to give me and my bicycle a ride home. Despite the fact that I managed to secure a non back-crippling seat for the return, I am way more tired and stiff than I’d like to be for a wee hours cycle, so I am very grateful for his offer.


This has been a great day. I should probably say that the whole thing kind of depressed me, but it didn’t. Wherever we went, I saw good people, tsunami survivors and volunteers alike, working hard to make the best of a terrible situation. I should have been filled with despair or pity, maybe, but instead I felt hope and pride, and I aspire to do the best that I can to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these men and women who represent to me the best of my adopted country.


Oh yeah. And I ate Fukushima manju and my skin isn’t peeling off, so fuck off Helen Caldicott, Chris Busby, etc.


Yeah, sorry. If I end too many blogs on an inspirational note, I’ll lose my reputation.

May 11

Finally Signed Up

It’s been two months today since the Tohoku earthquake, and nearly a month since I first talked about going up to Tohoku to volunteer.


I’ve done a couple of volunteer things here with a local group, and in three days I go up as part of a caravan delivering supplies and Indian curry dinners to evacuees. But that ride has been planned for more than a month.


In the meantime, I’ve finally managed to sign up with ALL HANDS for a one week tour doing backbreaking clean-up labour. I know that opportunities have existed before this, but I had problems either being accepted (due to my poor Japanese skills and/or inability to drive) or joining for logistical reasons (some groups have their volunteers sleep in self-provided tents; I neither have the money to spend on a tent, nor the skills to rough it like that, being 90% city-boy). Actually, ALL HANDS initially rejected me as well, but apparently, someone has dropped out, leaving a place for me. Huzzah!


ALL HANDS has secured part of an office building, cramming 20 or so people into a small room. Apparently we will have cold running water and a roof over our heads, which is enough for me. So this week, I’m spending my time scrounging the following items;


  • air mattress
  • proper mask (ALL HANDS gives me the type, but can’t tell me if they’re sold under the same designation here in Japan as well: N95 or N100.)
  • insurance (found a provider, but need to get my wife to read the terms; it’s all in 日本語.)

Anyway, I’m really excited to finally be doing something concrete, and a bit scared about what I’m going to see.


In any case, allow me to leave you with two photos. These are the ones that are in the MY JAPAN photo exhibition tonight:





And yes, you can tell by the (lack of) quality that these were selected by popular vote, not by a panel of qualified judges. But I guess it worked in my favour this time…

Mar 14

Quake News – Bits and Bobs

Just some miscellanea regarding my quake experience before I continue with my interview thingy.


  • My mechanical clock is running 20 minutes slow as of this afternoon; must be the continual bumping. I’m planning to leave it for a few more days to see how slow it will get.  It’s losing about 5 minutes per day.
  • During the 8-hour blackout on day of the quake, I spent 5 hours not flushing the toilet until I realized that the water was, in fact, running.
  • The upstairs toilet flooded. Salient points below:
    • This toilet has a small, random leak on the left side, under which I’ve placed a bucket
    • Japanese toilets frequently have a water-fountainy thing at the top (see picture)
    • We have incense cones sitting on the window sill in case of a particularly monstrous odour
    • I used this toilet only twice during the blackout, at which point it was already dark outside
    • I went back in yesterday morning while vacuuming, and discovered water on the floor
    • Inspection revealed that there was now way the normal leak could have missed the bucket
    • Further inspection revealed that an incense cone had fallen (presumably during the quake) near the hole on the top of the toilet where the water ‘fountain’ drains into the tank
    • The cone is smaller than the hole, so it must have originally fallen sideways
    • The water from my first flush must have pushed the cone towards the hole while simultaneously engorging it
    • Thus, said engorged cone blocked the hole
    • Second flush must have flooded the tank top
    • Interesting?  Probably not.
  • Around 12:30 today, two obaasan (Japanese old ladies) rang the doorbell.  They wanted to present me with an impeccably-written note in English informing me about the power outage from 15:20 – 19:00ish.  Of course, my wife is home from work today (trains too unreliable and crowded from here to Tokyo), so it was completely unnecessary, but they were worried that I was home by myself.  The hilarious part to think about is that, knowing how little old ladies do things here, it probably took them 3 – 4 hours from coming up with the idea to executing it, working solidly the whole time, with many discussions.  It gave me a bit of a smile to think about that and about how much my neighbours care about me.
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