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    The elements

    Posted by Sean at 04:37, September 5th, 2005

    Atsushi flew back to Kyushu yesterday before any flights were canceled. That’s a good thing because he was back to go to work today. It’s a bad thing because the latest VERY LARGE typhoon is now preparing to engulf the island. They’re already giving people shelter warnings in Kagoshima Prefecture (toward the south). The typhoon is expected to pass northeast-ish over Kyushu, then over the Sea of Japan, then over Hokkaido. Japan’s compact boomerang shape makes it great for rail lines, but it also means that a single huge storm can drench almost half the country. Wind speeds near the center of Typhoon 14 are around 100 mph. NHK was showing the usual footage of palm trees bent almost 90 degrees (I sometimes think they’re just recycling a single videotaped sequence from 10 years ago.) If anyone’s reading from down that way, stay safe and dry.

    Fables of the reconstruction (of the fables)

    Posted by Sean at 01:38, September 5th, 2005

    A few days ago, Dean’s World contributor Mary Madigan posted a short entry tentatively comparing the reconstruction of New Orleans to that of Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake ten years ago. She cited the Kobe municipal government’s shiny, happy version of the Kobe rebuilding. A commenter piped up with the observation that Japan is a law-abiding, conformist society, the implication being that we can expect things to proceed more efficiently in Japan than in the US, with its competing needs and preferences.

    I don’t think there’s any problem with placing the emphasis on Kobe’s recovery. Human beings live on hope, after all, and the reconstruction of the city really does demonstrate many of the upsides of social and economic liberalization. Given what New Orleans looks like now, it’s a significant comfort to have a real-life example of another first world city that was wrecked and rebuilt in recent memory. Let’s not get too high on those shrine-incense fumes, though, and forget that government screw-ups regarding the Kobe earthquake didn’t stop with inadequate building and land reclamation codes. Reason has what, in my experience, is the best summary of the multitude of little problems that helped delay recovery in Kobe:

    A post-quake report issued by the Kobe YMCA is filled with anecdotes such as this one: Three days after the quake, two women from Kobe Citizens Central Hospital appeared at city hall asking for 10 volunteers to help carry water at the hospital, located about a mile away. Water duty, they explained to city workers, pulled too many skilled nurses from more-urgent medical tasks. Officials on the first floor of city hall turned the women away. Yet on the eighth floor of the same building was a list of 5,000 registered volunteers willing to help any way they could. When the women came back for more help, officials told them to return later with a written request.

    Similar bureaucratic procedures beset rescue and recovery efforts at the national level as well. Officials turned away doctors from the United States because they were not certified to practice medicine in Japan. They quarantined European search dogs while Kobe residents picked through the rubble by hand. Even offers of help from within Japan were refused: Although a disabled phone system presented a critical problem to search-and-rescue efforts, officials refused to distribute cellular phones donated by Nippon Motorola because they didn’t want to issue the required telephone identification numbers. Officials initially rejected an early offer of medical help from the Japanese Association of Acute Medicine because they were unfamiliar with that organization; they changed their minds a week later as a flu virus raged through evacuation shelters.

    Such responses were in marked contrast to succor offered from less-official sectors of Japanese society: Immediately after the earthquake, the Kobe YMCA was swamped with volunteers, many of whom had been turned away by city hall. YMCA managers quickly established an emergency headquarters and organized the volunteers into teams that canvassed damaged neighborhoods and reported back on what victims needed most. By bicycle and on foot–and wearing identifying numbers normally used for YMCA sporting events–volunteers delivered food, water, clothes, and blankets. Even members of the yakuza–Japan’s organized crime gangs–used their networks to bring food, water, and other supplies into the area. Right-wing political groups, whose loudspeaker trucks regularly roam city streets calling for the restoration of the emperor, dropped their act and used their trucks to deliver hot tea to stricken neighborhoods. This all happened as boxes of instant noodles donated by local merchants sat outside city hall in the rain, untouched and undistributed.

    Surveying the post-quake landscape in April 1995, the then-editor of Tokyo Business Today, Hiroshi Fukunga [sic–I assume the name is Fukunaga and this is a typo.–SRK], summarized a disturbing but inescapable lesson from the Kobe experience. “It now seems clear that even in a national emergency the nation’s pen-pushers will not swerve a millimeter from official procedures, even if fellow citizens’ lives are at risk,” wrote Fukunga. “While the hours slopped by and thousands lost their lives in the fiery ruins left by the Kobe disaster, Japanese officials’ top priorities were observing protocol and following precedent.”

    The above is only a tiny fraction of the piece, which follows the reconstruction through 2000 or so.

    In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, immediate relief is still the highest priority; but as recovery in structural terms begins in earnest, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that the Gulf States could be in for some of the same problems as Kobe was. America doesn’t have Japan’s idiosyncratic property laws or collectivist society, no; but red tape is red tape in any culture. (Remember Hurricane Andrew?) There is plenty of time for more recriminations to be hurled back and forth…with the attendant guilt-fueled increases in funding for programs that have proved useless this time around, creation of redundant new agencies of dubitable use, and adventures in showy micromanagement designed to reassure everyone that the government is “doing something.”


    Posted by Sean at 08:53, September 4th, 2005

    Years ago, a friend of mine announced that there was an International Conspiracy of Raisins. I loathe raisins as much as she does, so I knew what she was talking about immediately. None of our other friends had a clue, so in between guffaws we had to explain. See, you’ll be at a diner or somewhere, and you’ll order the apple pie. What will come to your table will be a slice of pie in which there are raisins all among the apples, and when you say, “Oh, if I’d known there were raisins in it, I would have gone for the coconut custard,” the waitress will start noticeably and say, “Oh, yeah, there are raisins in the apple pie. Never noticed before.” The raisins have clearly found a way to hide in plain sight from people. With such advanced capabilities, they’ll take over the world within our lifetimes.

    The reason I mention this is that I just realized for the first time that every gay man in Tokyo has a goatee. I mean, everyone. People have been commenting on my beard–no one’s ever seen me anything but cleanshaven or just slightly scruffy–and I keep starting to say, “Well, you know, I actually don’t like goatees much at all…” then looking up into a drily expectant face and having to keep going with “on myself, I mean–but just because I can’t carry one off as well as you do, big guy!” This is seriously weird. If you’d asked me before this week, I would have told you that a good 80% of my acquaintances were cleanshaven. I don’t think I’m all that unobservant, but I really didn’t notice how many guys with little beards there were around me before. Now I’m wondering what else I’ve never noticed.


    Posted by Sean at 06:10, September 4th, 2005

    I feel much better after my weekend with Atsushi. I always do, of course, but it was especially good to have him here while watching, say, Céline Dion melt down on Larry King over how New Orleans rescue efforts are going and scold people for getting cross at looters.

    I tell you, I already felt pretty prepared for the next disaster that could hit Tokyo, but after watching this week’s events, I decided the Atsushi-Sean household needed reinforcements in a major way. That now-infamous woman who showed up at the Superdome with a Diet Coke and outstretched hand was…wow. And you don’t even have to bank on people’s being complacent–despite the newness of our building, it’s not inconceivable that part of it could fail and take out a neighbor’s stash of earthquake stuff. I doubt the weird foreigner in Apt. 3## would be the first place people would go for help, but there’s no reason not to overdo the readiness bit.

    So I bought a sterilizing jug that holds 4-ish gallons of in addition to the several bottles of Suntory Natural mineral water I’d been keeping. My old radio had more or less conked out, so I picked up a crank-chargeable one that can also be used to charge a cell phone. I’d never bothered stabilizing the freestanding cabinet in the kitchen; I got a brace for it. An extra candle-in-a-can and an all-in-one kit for Atsushi to take back to Ultima Thule with him, and we were good to go.

    Oh, except that what John’s been saying about carrying around a space blanket and purification tablets piqued me, so I snagged those, too. Actually getting into the sleeping bag would make me feel as if I were dressing as Madge’s Sex book for a costume party, but better to look silly than to be hypothermic.

    Campaigning continues

    Posted by Sean at 00:26, September 3rd, 2005

    Leaders of the major parties showed up on NHK this morning to discuss their platforms for the election on 11 September. Koizumi appeared alone for the LDP, still doing the cool-biz thing. He spoke with conviction as he always does, but I’m not sure that if I didn’t already agree with most of his policies he would have convinced me (not that it matters much, since I’m not a Japanese citizen).

    The two women who appeared to speak for the Social Democratic Party were clearly aiming for the housewife/working woman vote. They played up the number of people with at-will contract and part-time jobs instead of full-time regular positions. (One of their proposals is legislation to guarantee that part-time workers are compensated exactly the same as “comparable” company workers.) They talked about the SDF’s non-combat involvement in Iraq as a dangerous blow to Japan’s vow of non-aggression in the constitution. Their conversation was clearly rehearsed, but sounding artificial is not the sin in Japan it is in America.

    The DPJ was next. Man, has Katsuya Okada slept at all this year? He looked green. He was sunken-cheeked and hollow-eyed. He was accompanied by Ho Ren, who was well-spoken but has a smile that the television camera made look like Mother Bates’s grinning skull at the end of Psycho. From the looks of things, they were representing the Cadaver Party. Even so, it must be admitted that Okada presented the DPJ’s opposition to Japan Post privatization in a way that was pointed and internally coherent. What needs to be done to stop the wasteful use of so much capital that goes through Japan Post is to (1) change the way money is allocated in the government and (2) shrink the amount of household wealth citizens can pour into postal savings accounts and insurance policies. He succeeded in presenting it in a way that made Koizumi sound as if he were obsessed with proving a political point rather than interested in fixing the government. Very shrewd. Too bad he looked as if he’d had to be exhumed for the occasion. The next week will be interesting.

    FWIW, the Nikkei‘s latest web-based poll indicates that 54% of decided voters who responded plan to vote for LDP candidates for single seats. Of course, only 55% of respondents were decided, so WIW may not be much.

    Calming influence

    Posted by Sean at 13:38, September 2nd, 2005

    Atsushi is coming tomorrow–first time in a month, and not a moment too soon. I spent the night of 9/11 quivering with anger and staring at the television while he came in from time to time to make me more tea and sit with me for a bit; he had to get up at 6:30, but I don’t think I was alone for longer than 45 minutes the whole night.

    The hurricane coverage isn’t the same, because it didn’t involve an initial jolt followed by days of looking for answers. If there’s one thing you get used to from living in Japan, it’s seeing the initial reports of minimal damage after an earthquake or typhoon give way to far grimmer discoveries in succeeding days–but of course Japan hasn’t had anything near the broad and deep destruction that was just worked on the Gulf Coast. Poor Atsushi has spent the last few weeks working overtime every business day and going into the office on Saturday and Sunday. I’m going to do my best to provide the two-day respite he deserves, but I’m afraid he’s going to come home tomorrow to a boyfriend who can’t stop bellowing at CNN but can’t stop watching it either.

    I’m also scruffier than usual: my dermatologist told me to grow a beard. Well, she didn’t put it that way, but she told me that some of the treatments I’ve gotten lately would heal better without having a razor dragged over the affected area. I grew out the whole thing for a week. Last night, I was told approvingly by friends that I looked “very hard-gay.” There was unseemly speculation over what color leather goods would best complete the look. But by today I was ready to claw all the skin off my jawline. I’m not fond of goatees, but I have one now as a compromise; it’s my chin I’m not supposed to be abrading, so at least I was able to clean up my itching cheeks. My poor Atsushi may look kind of scuffed up by the time he goes back to Kyushu, though.

    A friend in need

    Posted by Sean at 13:07, September 2nd, 2005

    Japan’s public and private sectors are pledging disaster aid to the US:

    Toyota Motor Corp. led the way with 550 million yen [around US $5 million], and the government pitched in half a million dollars, as Japan rallied to assist victims of the hurricane that ripped through the southern United States.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda announced that Japan will offer up to $500,000 worth of emergency relief: $200,000 for the American Red Cross and the remaining $300,000 for the U.S. government in the form of tents, blankets, generators and other supplies.


    Posted by Sean at 02:59, September 2nd, 2005

    Irma Thomas made it out of New Orleans–great news. (Thanks, Dean.) No, celebrities are of no greater intrinsic worth than any other human beings, but Thomas is beloved by many in her city (and plenty elsewhere). If she’s able to perform over the next few weeks, it ought to be good for morale.


    Posted by Sean at 01:15, September 2nd, 2005

    Yes, and yes (also via Michael). And while we’re at it, Dean’s new contributor Aziz Poonawalla has this to say. And Eric is worried about whether all the finger-pointing going on is creating a serious emotional rift in America–spooky for me to read because I’m over here and have no way to gauge what he’s talking about.

    We don’t control nature, people. There’s a lot we can do that we couldn’t do even a century ago, but natural disasters are still disastrous. Even relatively routine storms can stop air and rail transport or cause flooding that traps people. This was a huge storm in an especially vulnerable area. It’s beginning to seem that the local governments involved could, indeed, have prepared better, but let’s not kid ourselves. To hear some people talk, there should have been a way for the Big, Benevolent Government to make Hurricane Katrina little more inconvenient than a fire drill at the office.

    Please. Even if every single soul in New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile had evacuated and were now safe and sound, there would still be sunken oil platforms, inoperative ports, and thousands of non-existent houses and livelihoods to contend with now. As it is, many people decided to stay and take their chances, and some didn’t have the means to evacuate. The area is large and full of hazards. Law enforcement, search-and-rescue teams, and medical personnel are going to be receiving a steady stream of conflicting information and competing emergencies. They’ll be making snap decisions that don’t always put them on the better side of public relations when CNN shoves a microphone in the face of someone who ended up getting the short end of the stick. This is heartbreaking, but it’s not really avoidable.

    Despite our wondrous transport and information network, there are people still alive now who will not be saved. We’re in the best position out of all the peoples in history to deal with this sort of situation even so. The global warming crowd is braying about fossil fuel use, but that’s what powers the helicopters and buses and trucks that are many people’s only hope for getting out of the afflicted areas in one piece. Or getting clean water (in plastic bottles) and non-perishable (processed) food. Now that nature has finished her spree, all those in charge can do is, essentially, muddle through as best they can. That’s no one’s fault.

    Added on 3 September: Connie has a few choice words for people who think they can rely absolutely on the government to save them from harm. Yes, protecting its citizens is a primary government responsibility. But one of the ways natural disasters tend to cause devastation is by incapacitating and isolating people; responsible individuals have to recognize that they may be on their own for several days and prepare accordingly.

    Get ready

    Posted by Sean at 01:12, September 1st, 2005

    This morning’s Nikkei editorials were about earthquake preparedness. Hurricane Katrina isn’t mentioned, but having the current situation in Louisiana and Mississippi in mind while reading certainly adds heft to the warnings for Japan. The writers begin by noting that 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes of Magnitude 6 or above are concentrated in the Japanese Archipelago and that, since the technology to predict earthquakes effectively doesn’t yet exist, preparation to deal with a quake immediately after it happens is our only recourse:

    The Tokyo Metropolitan District, which is supposed to be the leader in measures such as reinforcing structures against earthquakes and developing hazard maps [that predict where the greatest damage is likely to be], made major slip-ups in handling information. Serious problems for urban disaster prevention–people’s being trapped in elevators, the phenomenon in which resonance occurs between super-skyscrapers and low-frequency vibrations, and the vast numbers of people who are stranded away from their residences–have been cropping up continually.

    Looking at the situation nationwide, there are still 20,000,000 houses that are insufficiently earthquake-proofed; in areas along the ocean to the southeast and east, not even 1% of municipalities have warning and shelter systems to deal with the tsunami that an off-shore earthquake could very well cause.

    In the event of a temblor with its epicenter at the plate boundary just off the mainland, there would be something of a time lapse between the vertical P waves, which would be transmitted immediately, and the S waves from the original quake, which would follow. In the August Miyagi Prefecture quake, the gap was 14 seconds in Sendai. We should use this gap, developing as fully as possible “real-time disaster prevention,” which would allow people to seek shelter rapidly and implement safety measures on rail and gas lines.

    There are many tasks for the public sphere, including retrofitting schools and hospitals; however, in the event of an earthquake, most individuals’ fates will be determined by whether they prepared by getting their houses inspected and reinforced and by securing their furniture.

    As we’re seeing now in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, staying alive through the initial catastrophic event can be just the beginning of the battle. Tokyo’s doomsday scenario would probably be a quake at 8:30 or so on a weekday morning; during extreme weather conditions (February, early August, or right before a typhoon); and with a tsunami, which might not be kind to the parts of central Tokyo that are below sea level or built on infill. There are also, IIRC, fewer streets wide enough to serve as firebreaks than is considered advisable. Like New Orleans, Tokyo is also a port. Unlike New Orleans, it’s the economic center of the country; a few days of shutdown would affect a lot more nationwide than gas prices. If we’re fantastically fortunate, the next big Kanto earthquake won’t hit until at least rudimentary forms of prediction are available to help people brace themselves. The probability of that isn’t high, though. It’s encouraging that the defects in planning are being publicized (the elevator problem was all over the news after the Chiba earthquake last month), which is the first step on the way to addressing them.

    Added on 3 September: It was actually the Chiba earthquake right at the end of July that left people in the area trapped in elevators and highlighted that problem. I’ve fixed it above. Lots of earthquakes lately; not easy to keep them all straight.