Monday, May 30, 2011

The Japanese government reflects the Japanese people

While Prime Minister Naoto Kan was struggling to dispel doubts about disclosure on the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in the G8, a lot of politicians were lobbying in Japan to get him to step down as PM. Lamentably, some who are supposed to support him started criticizing him, saying that he should not have done things in that way. Former PM Hatoyama, who is often considered as a troublemaker, says that PM Kan is doing things wrong. The power broker Ozawa is engineering something to get an opportunity to come back to center stage. I am speechless. The Democratic Party of Japan (which is the ruling party, and the party of the three aforementioned members) has been spending time dealing with power games within the party since it took power in September, 2009. Even after the 3/11 crisis, there is no sign that all the members work closely together.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Party, which held power for 54 years until it suffered a major defeat in 2009, seems to be making more effort to recapture power than to overcome the current crisis. It often criticizes the Kan administration, but it hardly offers alternative plans. Despite being largely responsible for our nuclear energy policy, it seems to pretend as if it doesn't have the responsibility. The party still doesn't seem to understand why the public said no to it in 2009.

Throughout Japan, there is a lot of criticism of the government because of growing concerns about the Fukushima plant. However, when I hear it, I can't help but wonder how many people have prepared themselves for bearing the heavy burden of overcoming the crisis. Given our country's outstanding debt and fiscal deficit, I'm sure that we have to be ready for crushing tax burdens and other such phenomena. Personally, I think that unless every single person prepares themselves for the struggle to overcome the crisis, Japan won't have a future.

Many people are complaining about the government, saying that it can't make quick decisions according to the situation and that it often tries to shun its responsibilities, although people prefer doing things"step-by step". I also don't approve of some of the government's responses to the crisis. However, I think that our government reflects us. As I wrote in my previous post, Japanese people are not good at making quick decisions by themselves and taking actions especially when they have to make decisions under unexpected circumstances. In my opinion, unless we all try to change and improve this ability, a capable government won't appear in Japan.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

iRobot Roomba and PackBot

These days, iRobot Roombas, which are vacuum cleaning robots produced by iRobot Corporation, often come up in conversation with my friends. Some who have one insist that Roombas are amazing and work better than expected. Some are seriously thinking about purchasing them. Some are intrigued by them. Are Roombas popular in your country?

Speaking of iRobot Corporation, another kind of robot "PackBots" are playing a role in the crippled Fukushima nuclear plants. When it was announced that PackBots would be introduced there, I was wondering if there were no Japanese robots which could play roles there despite Japanese manufacturers having a high global market share of industrial robots. According to WSJ, like me, a lot of people worldwide were wondering if Asimo, which is produced by Honda, could play a role in the Fukushima plant. I've heard that American robots were introduced since they have experience in playing roles in battle fields whereas Japanese ones have no such experience.

Asahi newspaper reports that Japan has twice launched a project to develop robots which can play roles in case nuclear power plants have problems. The first project was launched in 1983 responding to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. Although twenty billion yen was invested, the project was terminated in 1990. The other one was launched right after the Tokaimura nuclear accident in 1999. However, the projected lasted only a year. The reason why it was scraped was it was thought no more serious accidents could happen.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Have Japanese people realized that they always have their guards down ?

Every time I move back to Japan from other countries, I realize how peaceful Japan is. Few people intend to steal things which have been left on tables at cafes. Nobody checks his bill before paying. Home electric appliances hardly ever break down. There are no problems with electricity, water, and gas supplies. Good services are provided without asking. Nobody needs to dispute with a taxi driver over his fare. would say that they are things that we can be proud of. However, I'm wondering if Japanese people have realized that they always have their guard down even after the 3/11 disaster.

Due to the peaceful atmosphere, many people aren't used to dealing with unexpected things. They are not good at making decisions by themselves on what to do under unexpected circumstances, especially when they have choices. When it comes to business, I think that Japanese companies still tend to lack awareness of risk and aren't good at risk management. As for myself, outside Japan, I prepare for any situation since things which are unlikely to happen in Japan could happen. If I don't try harder to persuade others to do something or I don't make decisions quickly, I won't survive outside Japan. This is not because I'm a foreigner there. In Japan, I'm still more vigilant than ordinary Japanese people, but I'm not as vigilant as when I'm outside Japan. I always try to keep in mind that anything could happen.

Anyway, I read an article in WSJ. The article says that American specialists appearing on TV are wondering why both TEPCO and the Japanese government haven't yet improved risk management on nuclear power plants despite Japan having such a large number of earthquakes. I'm wondering as well. When I'm looking at responses to the Fukushima plant taken by TEPCO and the government, I can't help but wonder if they didn't have a risk management plan, considering power plants could be disable by terrorists attacks and so on.

Speaking of the crippled Fukushima plant, there is still no sign that the plant is getting back under control, despite a lot of workers wrestling with problems under dangerous circumstances.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fireworks were in the sky where huge flames were on the 11th of March

I'm living on the 11th floor of a condo in a town where it takes about half an hour from Tokyo Station by train. Fortunately, in front of my condo, there is nothing to block my view from my living room. The view isn't wonderful, but I still enjoy it. The day before yesterday, I saw fireworks going off in the distant sky from my living room. As soon as I saw them, I noticed that the fireworks were rising from a baseball field. For the past few years, fireworks have sometimes been set off there when the bottom of the fifth inning was over. At the same time, the fireworks surprised me, partly because there are more baseball "day" games this season in order to cut electricity consumption, and partly because many events have been canceled in the past two months. Actually, on the 11the of March, I saw huge flames in that sky from my living room, and I was glad because the fireworks made me feel that things are getting back to normal little by little.

On that day, I felt a small shake at home around a quarter to three in the afternoon. I assumed that it would stop soon. However, I felt something unusual, and then I went to check for sure whether or not the gas main had been turned off already. Although I felt that at least a minute already went by, there was still no sign that the quake was going to stop. On the contrary, it became stronger and stronger, and then ended up becoming so strong that all I was able to do was stand in a narrow hallway while steadying myself by pushing against both sides of walls with my hands. I was thinking that the time to come was now. I was upset not only by how powerful the earthquake was but also how long it lasted. On top of that, loud clashes, clatters and noises at home fueled fear.
About half an hour after the massive earthquake hit my house, I felt another huge quake again. This made me realize that I had to prepare myself for any situation. The M 7.7 aftershock was smaller than the M 9 first quake, but the epicenter of the aftershock was much closer to my city than that of the first one, so I felt that the aftershock was even stronger. When it was getting dark, I noticed that my living room wasn't as dark as usual despite me not having turned on a light. Then, I discovered huge flames in the distant sky. It turned out that the massive earthquake had caused an oil refinery inferno. The refinery was far from my house. Still I was able to see the flames rising from it from my living room.

A few weeks after the earthquake, it was reported that tall buildings in the Tokyo area had shaken for longer time due to sympathetic vibration despite them being very far from the epicenter.

The pictures of the big flames are in the link below.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Japanese tradition: Land passed down from one generation to the next

When I was involved in town planning before, I realized that Japanese people still had special feelings for their own property and houses (In Japan, we can acquire ownership of the land). Some didn't want to sell their land and houses where they lived even if they were offered very good prices.Can you guess why?

The Japanese were originally an agricultural race.This means that they lived by agriculture.Because of this, there is still a tendency for people to stay living in their hometowns or a single town for a long time. In the past, land and houses where families lived were traditionally passed from father to son. Those who took them over were expected to protect them and hand them down to the next generation. These days, they are usually inherited by children. It's already very common to sell them especially in large cities. Still, many people feel guilty when they sell or give up their property.

Actually, some comments by the victims of the 3/11 earthquake remind me of this tradition. Some say, "I'm afraid of tsunamis since my town was washed away by the huge tsunami, but I don't want to move to a hill. I want to rebuild my house in the same place as before since my land was handed down from one generation to the next for many years" ( I've heard that houses which were washed away by the tsunami will be rebuilt on hills based on a resuscitation plan which is being made, and many of the victims involved are showing a positive response to it ).

In the disaster-hit areas, I think that there are many people who were born and raised in those towns, and have never moved to areas far from their hometowns. They love their hometowns very much. This feeling seems to help inspire them to rebuild their hometowns.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do Japanese people want to feel the warmth more than before ?

There are some phenomena that make you realize how much Japanese people were shocked by the 3/11 earthquake. I'll talk about some of them.

The disaster seems to have inspired people to marry. Since the earthquake, the number of people who have signed up with marriage agencies has been sharply increasing. Both engagement and wedding rings have been enjoying good sales. On Mother's Day (the second Sunday of May), carnations, which are the most popular gifts in Japan, sold much better than last year. It's reported that before Mother's day, department stores and electronics stores were more crowded than last year with people who wanted to buy gifts. Goods which are useful in cutting electricity consumption or helping mothers beat the heat during summer had good sales. Expensive pressure cookers were one of them.
In downtown Tokyo, where the restaurant industry has been suffering from poor sales especially since the earthquake happened, places where many traditional style, casual restaurants gather have been attracting people, regardless of gender and age. These casual restaurants offer good food at low prices, but the tables and chairs are cheap and shabby. They don't provide enough elbow room for their customers, so frequent physical contact with others is inevitable. On top of that, they are noisy. However, the cramped space and loud noise seem to make the customers feel easy, and it even cheers them up when they feel uneasy.

As you can see, the 3/11 earthquake has reminded a lot of people of things that they are apt to forget. Some have realized how much their families are concerned about them. Those who live alone have realized how uneasy they feel when things like the earthquake happen. Some have realized that other's concerns for them encourage them.

A place where many traditional style, casual restaurants gather

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nuclear power plant addiction !?

Last Friday, Prime Minister Kan urged the Chubu Electric Power Company/中部電力 to shut down the Hamaoka nuclear power plant 浜岡原発 until stronger defenses against earthquakes and tsunamis could be built there. Then, the day before yesterday, the company complied with the request. To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to nuclear power plants before the Fukushima disaster. Still, I knew how controversial the Hamaoka plant has been for many years. Actually, it's been said that the area where the Hamaoka plant is located has the highest chance of being hit by a massive earthquake in the near future. On top of that, Shinkansen bullet trains -- important transportation to connect three major cities:Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya--run within 20 kilometers of the plant. A major highway that connects these three cities is also in these area. Given that, there is no wonder that the Hamaoka plant has been controversial.

Since the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant was announced, many local people living near the plant have shown mixed responses to it. The crippled Fukishima nuclear power plant seems to have inevitably heightened their concerns about the safety of the Hamaoka plant. From this viewpoint, the shutdown would relieve them and be good news for them. On the other hand, however, there are their concerns about their local economy and their city's finances. As a matter of fact, they and their city have been depending on the plant to varying degrees for many years - like other cities where nuclear power plants are located.

Towns, cities and prefectures where nuclear power plants are located can receive a large amount of central government subsidies and taxes related to the plants. Near nuclear power plants, there are good public facilities built with the subsidies. Since some of them look out of scale with what the residents really need, the local governments which built them are sometimes criticized for not making effective use of the subsidies. I've heard that a town near the crippled Fukushima plant has been suffering from financial difficulties mainly because the public facilities built with these subsidies requires high maintenance and operation costs. It's been said that the town made decisions to build them without due deliberation. Other than this, it's reported that another city where a nuclear power plant is located has already requested an electric power company to build two more reactors in the plant in order to improve its finance.

As you can see, once local governments start relying on subsidies, taxes and businesses relating to nuclear power plants, they won't be able to get out of the dependence. Because of the addiction, nuclear power plants are expressed in such a way that they are like drugs , and the phrase "nuclear power plant addiction/原発中毒" is used.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sutetekos (a sort of underwear) are taking center stage!!

The 3/11 earthquake and tsunami have seriously damaged not only the Fukushima nuclear power plant but also other power plants. Because of this, people living in eastern Japan have been required to save electricity as much as possible. As summer is when power demand soars approaches, the issue of how to save electricity during summer is being discussed seriously. Given that a lot of people suffered from heat stroke even at home last summer because it was much hotter than usual throughout Japan, many of us are taking the issue very seriously and thinking about how to deal with heat. On top of that, to avoid massive blackouts caused by the demand overwhelming the supply, both corporations and individuals in Japan are required to make further efforts to find new ways to deal with heat without relying on air conditioners as much as they used to.It's been said that we need to change our both life and business styles dramatically.

Under these circumstances, things that became unpopular are drawing attention and coming back to thecenter stage. One of them is the traditional summer underwear "suteteko/ ステテコ" (The right picture). In the Meiji era (from 1868 to 1912), suteteko became popular as stuff to wear under the traditional Japanese garment/clothes "Kimono/着物". As Western clothes became popular, men came to wear sutetekos over underpants and under trousers. Sutetekos are made from breathable and absorbable fabric to adjust to hot and humid summer in Japan. They don't stick tightly to the skin. Because of this, at the time when air conditioning wasn't popular, I guess that many men felt comfortable wearing trousers over sutetekos than without them. On top of that, it was thought that wearing sutetekos helped to protect business pants from getting dirty. It also helped sutetekos gain popularity.

Until two or three decades ago, during summer, there were a lot of men at home who relaxed in sutetekos and another kind of underwear which is worn under shirts and looks like a white t-shirt (Link #1). When ordinary families didn't have air conditioning, this style might have been the best way for men to beat the heat. However, as Japan became affluent, people, especially women, became less fond of the style. In the wake of it, wearing sutetekos in itself came to be considered to be unfashionable by younger generations regardless of gender. On top of that, thanks to the widespread use of air conditioning, sutetekos became less useful to men. Due to these reasons, Suteteko was forced to step back from center stage.

This year, however, the shortage of electricity is bringing Suteteko back to center stage. To attract younger generations, fashionable sutetekos are going on sale (Link #2). On top of that, many shops are offering sutetekos for women. I think that they have been drawing considerable attention.

Link #1: Men relaxed in Sutetekos at home
Please see the picture in the link below.
Please see the third picture in the link below.

Link#2 Fashionable sutetekos 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lots of events to cheer up children and a lot of carp steamers swimming in the sky

May 5th is Children's Day in Japan.In the day, families with small boys fly colorful carp streamers called Koinobori/鯉のぼり(Link #1) outside their homes to celebrate the holiday.

Yesterday, at many places throughout Japan, a large number of carp steamers were swimming in the sky in the hopes that disaster-hit areas would be rebuilt as soon as possible. At the disaster-hit areas, various events were held to cheer children up. At a shelter, many carp steamers which were made and sent by non-victims throughout Japan were flown (Link #2). Under these carps swimming in the sky, children enjoyed a sort of games. At another shelter, many children enjoyed kite-flying. Actually, children at shelters remind me when I was a child. It goes without saying that no children who are playing video games there. They are playing the same way as I did when I was a child.

At Ishinomori Manga Museum in Ishinomaki, Miyagi/ 宮城県石巻市, a manga festival was held as planned although the museum was seriously damaged by the 3/11 earthquake and Tsunami. Amid piles of rubble, many children enjoyed a show where famous superheroes like Kamen Rider/仮面ライダー appeared (Link #3). Have you heard of Kamen Rider before? The museum was established and built by Shotaro Ishinomori /石ノ森章太郎, a manga artist and the author of Kamen Rider. He was born and raised in a town near Ishinomaki. At an elementary school where many students were killed by the 3/11 tsunami, some parents were seen praying for their children. There were a lot of flowers and sweets placed

At disaster-hit areas, grown-ups often seem to be encouraged by the children. At a shelter, some children write articles and publish their newspaper everyday (Link #4). They say that a few days after they started living in the shelter, they noticed that many of the grown-ups there always lowered their eyes, so they wanted to do something to cheer them up". The editor is a seven-year-old girl. The deputy editor and reporters are also children, but older than her. It's interesting that there isn't a seniority rule which many Japanese companies have been struggling with.

LinK #1 

Link #2

Link #3

Link #4

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The yellow has screwed up the gold !?

The week from the 29th of April is referred to as Golden Week in Japan. Around Golden Week, generally, international airports are filled with tourists. However, this year, these airports aren't very crowded. I think that you can guess why. This is because the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March, when many people usually start making reservations for their trips during Golden Week. Since Japanese people were very shocked by what happened on the 11th of March, and felt that serious things could happen again, many of them didn't feel like they should make plans for their Golden Week holidays.Rather than this, they couldn't afford to pay attention to their holiday plans. However, since Golden Week started, there has been heavy traffic on the highways. Tourist spots in Japan have been busy contrary to expectations.

Since a week before Golden Week started, it has been frequently highlighted in the mass media that people other than the victims should try to enjoy their holidays and spend money to boost the Japanese economy, and then it will surely help to rebuild the disaster-hit areas. On top of that, strong aftershocks haven't occurred for about the last two weeks although small ones still frequently hit various areas. I think that these things have encouraged people to travel in Japan. It's been reported that two giant pandas at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo-- they came from China two and half months ago---have been busy pleasing people, especially children since Golden week started. The zoo is much more crowded than it was during the same period last year. When I passed by Tokyo Station yesterday, I was surprised by how many people were there. At the same time, I was glad to realize that some things had gotten back to normal.

However, unfortunately, many areas in Japan have been covered by a very high level of yellow dust (黄砂) mainly from the Takla Makan Desert, the Gobi Desert and Loess Plateau in China for the last few days. Beautiful scenery in many tourist spots have become hazy because of the dust. On top of that, the yellow dust level is high to the point where people are discouraged from going out. As far as I remember, the dust is the worst it's been in the last few years. Why has such high level dust come to Japan during the time when many people are finally trying to enjoy their holidays?

Monday, May 2, 2011

We should be aware that anything could happen

These days, I feel like there's a manual for everything, and people always go by the book in Japan. For example, shop staff is first educated according to the manual. Since Japanese society always requires all the shop staff to provide a certain level of service, the manual might be necessary and useful. However, I think that people rely on the manual so much that when unusual things happen, they often don't know what to do and how to deal with them. Needless to say, it's very important to judge a situation well and decide what to do by yourself both in daily life and at work.   I feel that now is is the perfect time to acknowledge that fact.

After the 3/11 devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, the Japanese phrase 想定外/souteigai is often heard. This means beyond what we predicted or beyond our assumptions. I'm tired of hearing that the 3/11 earthquake was a lot more powerful than many specialists had predicted, and the tsunami was much higher than their assumptions. Those things are true, but I think that they shouldn't be used as reasons to explain things.
Great efforts made in Kamaishi/釜石, Iwate prefecture/ 岩手県 by Professor Katada from Gunma University /群馬大学 have drawn considerable attention since the 3/11 earthquake occurred. According to the news, the due to great efforts, all the children from the 14 schools there could escape from the huge Tsunami. In the past few years, Professor Katada would often visit the schools to teach the children what to do in the event of a massive earthquake. When conducting an evacuation drill, he'd insist " When you evacuate, you don't need to follow the manual which you've learned from the drill. The drill says that you should evacuate to the community center on the hill. However, tsunamis are extremely powerful. Tsunamis much bigger than expected could hit your town. Nobody knows how far you'll have to go to be safe. The drill isn't perfect. You have to judge the situation by yourself and decide where to evacuate by yourself. When you evacuate, you have to focus on protecting yourself from Tsunami".

Japanese people sometimes cannot evaluate risks properly because they are afraid of facing the true danger that might be in store. Some of them seem to think that things which they can't think of couldn't happen. That's not true. There are various kinds of people in the world. It's sometimes very hard for us to understand the things some people do. There are things that science cannot explain. So, we should be always aware that things beyond our expectations could happen. Even if we don't know what to do when these things happen, it's very important for us to be aware of the possibility. At the same time, we should establish or get more used to a habit of taking the best actions based on our own judgement and taking responsibly for our actions under any circumstances.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Let's travel throughout Japan by bullet train

In Japan, there are four national holidays between the 29th of April and the 5th of May. We refer to the week as Golden Week. This year, if you take two days off,  you'll get a ten-day holiday. If nothing had happened on the 11th of March, today's news would be filled with people departing from Japan and tourist attractions. People really understand that those who are not suffering from the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami are expected to spend money to boost the Japanese economy, and that it will help the victims and the disaster-hit areas. Because of this, they are trying to enjoy the long holiday, but still many of them apparently can't bring themselves to enjoy it as much as they used to.

Anyway, have you heard of Shinkansen/ 新幹線? They are bullet trains. Right before the Tokyo Olympics were held in 1964, the train service started between two major cities: Tokyo/東京 and Osaka/大阪. In 1975, another bullet train service started between Osaka and Fukuoka/福岡. Fukuoka is a business hub in the northernmost part of the Kyusyu region/九州地方. Since bullet train services have played a important role in local economic developments, both the Kyusyu and the Tohoku regions hoped that bullet trains would run longitudinally through their regions (The Tohoku region /東北地方 is the northern part of Japan and has been seriously damaged by the 3/11 disaster).

Last December, Shin-Aomori/新青森 in the northernmost part of the Tohoku region was finally connected to Tokyo by bullet train. Only six days before the 3/11 nightmare, new bullet trains were introduced. It enabled you to travel to shin-Aomori from Tokyo for about three hours. It's amazing to me. However, the devastating earthquake cut ”the large artery”. On the first day of the so-called Golden Week, the 29th of April, the entire route became available.It's reported that many local people in the disaster-hit areas are encouraged by the big, visible improvement. Since many inland areas of the Tohoku regions weren't seriously damaged and have already gotten back to normal, people there expect tourists to visit their towns. It'll surely help seriously-damaged coastal areas rebuild themselves. Actually, in Aomori/ 青森, now is the best time to see cherry blossoms.

As for the Kyushu region, a big ceremony was supposed to be held on the 12th of March in order to celebrate a full bullet train service between Fukuoka and Kagoshima/鹿児島 (the southernmost part of the region). It means that you can travel between Kagoshima and Aomori by bullet train (about 2000 kilometers). However, the 3/11 earthquake forced the ceremony to be canceled. Needless to say, all the Japanese people--no matter where they live and whether or not they felt the huge quake--were really shocked by what happened in Japan on that day. I want to travel throughout Japan by bullet train some day.