Archive for March, 2011

Want to help Japan disaster victims? Here’s how

March 31, 2011

It was more than a week after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami before I finally made a financial donation to the efforts to help the victims.

If you wonder why I didn’t just sit down and write a check in the first day or two, you must be reading this from outside of Japan. The Japanese banking system – unlike that of, say, the United States – does not include personal checking accounts.

For most purposes, the system manages to function. For example, when people receive a phone bill or a utility bill, they are likely to take it to a convenience store and hand it to the cashier with the correct amount of cash, and receive a receipt in return. Or they may set up an arrangement with their bank to have their bills paid via automatic withdrawals from their account. Both options are very convenient. And there is no check-writing involved.

But for payments that are not regularly recurring transactions, things get a little trickier. To write a check in the United States or elsewhere, all you really need to know is the other party’s name – and your own physical location is irrelevant. For a one-off transaction in Japan, you have to travel to a bank or post office in person to do a transfer, and you will need to know not only the other party’s name but also their account number. This can slow things down considerably.

If you are in Japan and are wondering how you can financially help, read on for instructions on how postal money transfers work, including the account numbers of the Japan Red Cross Society and the Yomiuri Light and Humanity Association. I’ll also mention a few other international fund-raising efforts at the end of this post.

I decided that I would channel my donation through The Yomiuri Light and Humanity Association  (Yomiuri Hikari to Ai no Jigyodan) after the following announcement ran in The Daily Yomiuri:

The Yomiuri Shimbun and the Yomiuri Light and Humanity Association are accepting cash donations to aid residents of areas affected by the massive earthquake that struck eastern Japan…
Donations will be delivered via local governments and other institutions. Cash can be sent by postal transfer to account No. 00190-8-72319, account name “Yomiuri Hikari to Ai no Jigyodan.” Please write “Higashi-Nihon Kyodai Jishin” in the postal transfer form’s message box.
Donors are asked to pay the postal transfer fee. Only cash donations will be accepted. No goods or materials can be accepted.
The names of donors will be listed on The Yomiuri Shimbun’s regional news pages. If you want your name to be withheld, please indicate so in the message box.
For details, phone the association at (03) 6226-7633.

This announcement contained all the information I needed to make a donation, but I still had to get to a post office during their normal business hours to complete the transaction. (You can also donate by bank transfer: details here.)

At the post office I visited in Tokyo, there was a stand near the door that held postal transfer forms, called “hiraikomi toriatsukaihyo,” that were already partially filled out with the names and account numbers of several Tohoku earthquake-related charities, including the Japan Red Cross Society and the Central Community Chest of Japan. I requested a blank form at the counter, and filled it out with The Yomiuri Light and Humanity Association’s details.

For a model of how to fill out a hiraikomi toriatsukaihyo, see the image at the top of this post. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) You’ll have to write most of the information twice because the post office will keep the larger left-hand portion of the form while tearing off the smaller right-hand portion to stamp and hand back to you as a receipt.

I paid the amount I wanted to donate, plus a 330 yen processing fee. (Disclaimer: I don’t know whether this fee is a set amount or whether it varies with the amount of the transfer, but if I wait until I have perfect information I will never get this blog post out.)

The image above shows what the top of a pre-printed form for the Red Cross looks like, and what the top of a form filled out for The Yomiuri Light and Humanity Association looks like. Note the way the digits of the account numbers are distributed in the boxes. Also note that – according to the guy behind the counter of the post office I went to – it is acceptable to write the recipient’s name using the Roman alphabet.

This morning’s Daily Yomiuri ran a brief article that told me where my money went:

The Yomiuri Shimbun and the Yomiuri Light and Humanity Association have decided to send a total of 800 million yen in donations from around the country to areas struck by the March 11 earthquake.
The money–the first tranche of contributions to be disbursed to quake victims in our fund-raising campaign–comprises 200 million yen donations each to Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, as well as 100 million yen each to Ibaraki Prefecture and the Central Community Chest of Japan’s earthquake disaster relief fund.
As of Tuesday, our national campaign had received a total of 815.7 million yen from about 19,800 individuals and institutions.

The Central Community Chest of Japan, by the way, is part of the international United Way organization. They are in the process of setting up an English-language donation page here.

Even if you are outside of Japan, there are still many ways to donate. One that I would strongly recommend if you are far away but have a little time to put into it is to find out whether your town or city has a sister-city relationship with a municipality in Japan. You may be surprised. These relationships get much more attention in Japan than I remember them getting in the United States, and it is not unusual for a single Japanese town to have sister-city relationships with counterparts in several different countries.

A U.S. government article that you can read here describes the way some Japanese municipalities came to the aid of their American sister cities after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and how the Americans are now returning the favor. (I don’t often find government documents touching, but I admit this one moved me.) U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos has mentioned many other such projects in his Twitter feed, which you can follow here.

If there is a sister-city relief effort going on in your town, you should consider getting involved. In doing so, you may be able to learn about a very specific place that you are helping, and perhaps you will even hear from specific people in Japan. It could turn out to be an enriching experience, as well as an opportunity to help.

Another option is to support charity the modern way: Go shopping. There are more charity auctions and ad-hoc benefit sales going on right now than you could shake a stick at. Most of these projects are legitimate, or at least well-intentioned, but I am generally skeptical of such efforts. Instead of buying trinkets that you wouldn’t otherwise spend your hard-earned money on, why not cut out the middleman and send the purchase price (or more) directly to a charity?

Having said that, however, there are two earthquake charity items that I do intend to buy – because I would be interested in them anyway. These are books. There are at least two projects that I am aware of that are currently working to publish anthologies of English-language writing about the earthquake, or about Japan in general, to benefit earthquake and tsunami victims. One of the projects is called Write for Tohoku, and you can read about it here. The other is the Quakebook project, which you can read about here. Both projects expect to have an e-book ready for purchase in the very near future, and contributors to the latter one include my esteemed colleague, the Reverend Paperboy.

If you want more ideas, you can read some Daily Yomiuri articles about giving to charity here and here, and a Japan Times article here. You can also see various charitable organizations rated here.

Kawaguchi in the dark

March 18, 2011

The city of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, just outside of Tokyo was dark for several hours this evening as part of the rolling blackouts that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has implemented in response to a power shortage following last Friday’s major earthquake.

The damage to a nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture has been the focus of much media attention, but according to a recent article in The Daily Yomiuri (which you can read here), the quake and tsunami also shut down the Onagawa nuclear power plant in Miyagi Prefecture, and damaged some conventional thermal power plants as well. Moreover, a rundown of damaged factories (which you can read here) includes one belonging to Hitachi in Ibaraki Prefecture that is “a major production base of equipment for thermal and nuclear power plants. If the suspension of production stretches on for weeks or months, it could hurt the company’s performance and hamper its construction and repair of power plants at home and abroad.”

So, it looks like these blackouts may be part of life in the Tokyo area for quite some time.

Advertising blackout in Japan

March 18, 2011

Enjoy our fast food! Look sexy in our cosmetics! Feel powerful behind the wheel of our car! Have fun drinking our beer with your friends!

These are the messages that TV ads usually convey. Now is not the time for them in Japan. Juxtaposed with endless news footage of tragedy and destruction from the tsunami zone, conventional advertisements would defeat their own purpose by making the sponsors look grossly insensitive.

As a result, ads have been almost completely absent from television in the Tokyo area this week. But many TV programs are designed with gaps for ads, and those gaps have to be filled with something. Hence, a handful of pre-existing public service ads have been run over and over in the ad slots. It hasn’t been unusual in the past few days to see the same one repeated two or three times in a single commercial break.

Most common, at least in my intermittent viewing, is the one in the video at the top of this blog entry. I’ve seen it so often that I almost have it memorized now. It’s a morally instructive story whose simple message is presented in such clear visual terms that you really don’t need to understand Japanese to get the point. But here is my approximate translation of it anyway:

Visual: A boy sits on a train and doesn’t move as a pregnant woman walks by looking for a seat.
Narration: “Although no one can see your heart…”
Someone else offers the woman a seat.
“…they can see what your heart makes happen.”
The boy walks up an outdoor staircase, passing an elderly woman making slow progress with a cane.
“Although they can’t see your thoughts…”
He goes back to help the lady along.
“…everyone can see the thoughts you act on.”

I’ve seen this ad dozens if not hundreds of times in the past few days, and its message that we all need to help each other is certainly timely now.

Another frequently shown public service ad is the one in the video below, which encourages recycling.

Here’s another recently repeated ad, illustrating in very literal terms the idea that reading books and newspapers gives you a wider view of the world.

And finally, here’s one reminding us that all living things are connected, and that many of them are disappearing.

These public service ads were produced by AC Japan (Advertising Council Japan), which used to go by the tongue-twisting but ear-catching name of Kokyo Kokoku Kiko. Read more about them here.

Ginza dimmed

March 14, 2011

On most evenings, the luxury stores that line the boulevards of Ginza, Tokyo, sparkle like electric jewel boxes. But tonight, with an earthquake and tsunami having just killed thousands of people, and amid calls to conserve energy as a series of nuclear mishaps disrupted the regional power supply, most of the big stores left their exterior lights off – if they opened at all. Ginza had a quiet, somber feel as dusk fell.

The March 11, 2011, earthquake

March 11, 2011

It is just past midnight as I begin writing this, so it is now March 12. But earlier on what still feels like today – Friday, March 11 – Japan was hit by what seems to be one of the biggest earthquakes in history. It occurred offshore far to the north of Tokyo, and the resulting tsunami in that part of the country has caused stunning destruction and horrific loss of life.

I was in the Tokyo suburb of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, when the earthquake hit. Although we are well out of the tsunami zone, this area was still shaken pretty hard.

What follows is a purely personal account of how I experienced the event, very far away from the worst of it.

Tokyo had been shaken by a smaller but still significant earthquake on Wednesday morning that had been centered in the same general part of the Pacific Ocean off northern Honshu. As I was preparing breakfast in the kitchen on Friday morning, the vibration of the closing refrigerator door caused a coffee cup to fall off a high shelf and smash on the floor. It was one of those “nice” coffee cups we save for guests, on a high shelf we hardly ever touch. While cleaning up the mess, I surmised that the earthquake earlier in the week must have moved it just close enough to the edge of the shelf for it to fall off a few days later.

Events later in the day would show that I shouldn’t have bothered cleaning up just yet.

That afternoon, I discovered that my computer’s printer had run out of ink, so I set off on foot for Yamada Denki, a giant electronics store about a 20-minute walk away. I was within 50 meters of the place when an air-raid-style siren began to whoop a few blocks away, followed by a public-address system announcement that was so tinny and so garbled by echoes as it came down the street that I had no idea what it was trying to say. As you might guess – but as I did not yet know – this was an earthquake alarm.

My Japanese language skills are far from perfect, but I would have gotten the gist of it had the transmission been clear – and if I had bothered to pay it any attention. But there are so many recorded announcements played over public address systems in Japan – “Please hold the handrail on the escalator”… “This is a no-smoking building”… “Thank you for shopping with us today”… “The train may stop suddenly in case of an accident, so please be careful”… “Please set your cell phone to manner mode to avoid bothering others”… “Please follow the instructions in this recorded announcement” – that many people, including me, simply tune them out.

I had no curiosity about what the announcement was saying. There was no reason to think it was any more relevant than the usual ones. Instead, I strolled along trying to think of how to best describe the whooping alarm that had preceded it. In its mix of musicality and harshness, it might be likened to an industrial-strength bird call. Or perhaps the mating cry of a giant robot.

It was in this frame of mind that I arrived at the Yamada Denki store’s sliding glass doors, which were rattling violently in the wind.

Except that there wasn’t any wind.

Inside the store, I noticed that everything was rattling. And the floor seemed a little unsteady. The signs hanging from the ceiling to identify different departments were swinging back and forth like trapezes, and everyone in the store seemed to be looking around in alarm.

It finally hit me that we were having an earthquake. I decided I liked my chances better outdoors, so I quickly turned around and left.

On the sidewalk, I ran into an old Japanese man who greeted me with a broad grin. This is not as odd as it sounds. When a foreign-looking person such as myself is caught in an earthquake, Japanese strangers nearby will often smile reassuringly. Don’t worry. It’s just an earthquake. We have them all the time. You’ll get used to it.

But before the old man could vocalize any of these messages, the shaking grew even stronger. With that, his smile disappeared, and he bolted for the parking lot.

I decided to follow him, because once I was out of the building I realized that I had put myself in danger of falling glass should any of its many windows break. I also didn’t like the way the overhead electrical wires were twirling like jump ropes. The open center of the parking lot seemed like the safest bet.

Most earthquakes don’t last very long, but this one was still going strong by the time I reached the center of the small parking lot. In fact, it got stronger.

In the movies, earthquakes are depicted as rumbling. But most of the ones I have experienced have been silent, while the larger ones are accompanied by a lot of squeaking and creaking. This one had plenty of that, especially since the building housing the electronics store was wiggling and jiggling like a seven-story Jell-O mold. I saw this with my own eyes.

In fact, I saw it a lot closer-up than I would have liked, but there was nowhere else to go. Any direction that I might have run would have taken me closer to another building, and they were all shaking. An earthquake is not like a fire, from which you are safe as soon as you move away from it. One of the defining characteristics of an earthquake is that it is happening everywhere.

Damage was clearly occurring not far away, as I could hear the clanging and bonging of metal pipes falling to the ground somewhere. Off a truck? Off a construction scaffolding? I didn’t know, but I hoped that no one was getting hurt.

Standing still in one place was an effort, as the ground was moving like the deck of a ship. The old man crouched down and put one had on the ground to steady himself. This looked like a good idea, so again I followed his example. Around us, the two dozen or so cars in the parking lot were all bouncing madly on their springs. I was grateful that car alarms never caught on in Japan the way they did in the United States, or the noise would have been deafening.

At last the action of ground abated. As soon as I felt safe to stand up, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and tried to make a call. Unfortunately, millions of other people had the exact same idea at the exact same moment, and the phone system immediately overloaded. It was more than an hour before I could get through to anyone.

It is hard to tell when a big earthquake is over, as it can give you a rush of adrenaline that may keep you shaking after the ground has stopped.

I had the is-that-an-earthquake-or-just-me experience several times over the rest of the day, as too many aftershocks to count came rolling through. The first one was in the parking lot a minute or two after I thought everything was over. But I looked around and, sure enough, the cars were bouncing again – but gently this time.

Eventually, people started to go back into the store, and I followed them. After all, I needed an ink cartridge for my printer, and what else was I going to do – stand outside in the parking lot all day?

As I stood looking at the array of ink cartridges hanging on metal pegs, most of them began to sway back and forth. Was that another earthquake, or had someone heavy just walked by? There was no one there but me, but as heavy as I am, I wasn’t moving my feet at the time. Ergo, another earthquake. Throughout the day, inanimate objects would seem to move of their own accord.

The Web site of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) lists all the earthquakes in the world that rank 4.5 or higher on the Richter scale. You can find the list here. On Friday, the list had eighty-seven earthquakes in that range off the coast of Japan. The largest was the magnitude-8.9 temblor that kicked off the rest of the sequence at around 2:45 in the afternoon.

As I was walking home from Yamada Denki, I noticed a lot of people out in the streets, especially women standing in clusters on residential side streets. It reminded me a little of the aftermath or Hurricane Frederick, which I experienced in Mobile, Alabama, in 1979. There were very few deaths in that storm, but widespread property damage. Everyone in the suburb where my family lived – including people we had never seen before — came out of their houses back then, too, pitching it to help clear away downed trees and rebuild smashed fences. It seemed that the people of Kawaguchi might enjoy the same social benefit.

Sometimes I’m almost too light-hearted for my own good. I was strolling along lost in cheerful reverie, thinking about how I would go home and write about this pleasant little adventure in my blog, when I became unsteady on my feet. More to the point, the ground became unsteady beneath my feet. The overhead wires began to dance again. It was another big earthquake. I would later learn from the USGS list that there was a magnitude-6.8 aftershock at 3:15 p.m. and a magnitude-7.1 aftershock at 3:25 p.m.

In any case, I once again ran for the nearest area of open pavement, which happened to be by the open gate of one of the small metalworking factories Kawaguchi is known for. As I got there, a middle-aged man came trotting out, followed by an older man walking more slowly, shaking his head and grinning as if in amused disbelief that this was happening again.

The three of us stood there not saying anything until the ground stopped moving, after which we exchanged brief greetings and the men went back inside.

As I got on my way again, I saw more people standing outside of more factories, and at one point I went down a side street with the idea of photographing a large group I saw standing around in the street in white coats and white hats near what turned out to be an industrial laundry. But when I got closer, I saw that the group was mostly women who appeared to be from the Philippines, and many of them still seemed shaken. Since I wasn’t wearing my journalist hat at the time – and only had a cell phone with me rather than a real camera – I decided not to add to their distress by being the weirdo trying to get a picture.

However, this took me down a street I had never noticed before, and beyond the laundry I spotted a little mom-and-pop izakaya pub with a chalkboard menu out front. Restaurant menus are one thing that not even an earthquake can dampen my interest in, so I stopped for a look. A woman who must have been the mom popped out to tell me that they didn’t open till 5 p.m., but she also seemed very eager to talk about the earthquake, and I happened to be the first stranger to pause at her door since it hit. She was impressed at how much of her menu I was able to read – but then, reading menus has long been my main linguistic strong point, just as heeding seemingly irrelevant public announcements is one of my major weak points – and I told her, sincerely, that I would come back to sample some of her cooking on another day.

Continuing toward home, I began to see minor bits of damage such as a dangling overhead wire that had been intact on my earlier walk to the store, and a section of wall that had collapsed behind a gas station. At the local Family Mart convenience store, the manager met me outside to apologize for the store being a mess, and but said that I could still buy a drink if I wanted. Going inside, I could see why people had to stay out of the food aisles – several shelves worth of potato chip bags and instant ramen bowls had fallen to the floor. Amazingly, the bottled drinks were all unharmed.

Finally, I got back to the building where I live. There were a lot of residents still standing around outside, but after a few minutes I decided to take my chances and go in. The elevators had shut down, so I had to climb the stairs to the 8th floor. Entering the apartment, I found a terrific mess, as these photos show.

I was very relieved not to have been home when the quake hit. Surfing the parking lot at ground level was one thing, but being in an 8th-floor room with furniture tumbling about would have been entirely too much.

I had only been home a few minutes when yet another aftershock hit, so I headed outside again for a while to continue trying to make a few phone calls and waiting for the earth to finally settle down.

Eventually, I came back inside, and started catching up with the world via the Internet. The videos of the tsunami areas were just horrifying.

Very late in the evening, I cleaned up some of the mess on the floor, and then tried to get a bowl for my dinner of leftover mapo dofu. As soon as I opened the cabinet door, a drinking glass jumped out at me and smashed onto the counter. As they say in the airline business, be careful when opening the overhead bins, as items may have shifted in flight.

So this rather bizarre day ended, for me, just the way it began – one earthquake set up a cup to smash itself in my kitchen that morning, and another earthquake set up a glass to smash itself in my kitchen that night.

Oh, and there goes another aftershock.

A sense of scale for 600-meter Tokyo Sky Tree

March 3, 2011

The height of the Tokyo Sky Tree, a communications tower under construction in Taito Ward, recently passed the 600-meter mark. It will be 634 meters tall when completed, and it is already one of the tallest structures in the world.

But what does 600 meters tall really mean?

The above photo (click on it for a larger view) is a panorama of the Tokyo skyline I shot last month that shows just how enormous the Sky Tree is when compared to everything else in the city.

I hardly need to mention that the Sky Tree is the tower at the far right-hand side of the photo. But if you look at the far left-hand side, you will see a needle-like structure sticking up above the surrounding skyscrapers. This is Tokyo Tower, a 333-meter tall communications tower with a basic design resembling that of the 324-meter Eiffel Tower in Paris. For a long time, this was the tallest structure in Japan. But now the still-unfinished Sky Tree makes it look puny.

Two other noteworthy pieces of Tokyo infrastructure related to this photo are the Tokyo Gate Bridge and the Aqualine highway.

The Tokyo Gate Bridge, also still under construction, can be seen to the left of the Sky Tree. It will be 87.8 meters tall, with 54.6 meters of clearance above the water, and a total length of 1,618 meters. (That’s just over a mile.) Ironically, it will probably not become a major Tokyo landmark, because very few parts of the city have a good view of it from ground level. Then again, visitors to the Sky Tree will be able to see this bridge just fine.

The final piece of infrastructure connected to this photo is the Aqualine highway, which cuts across Tokyo Bay between Kawasaki and Kisarazu. The road goes over a long bridge and through an even longer tunnel, with the transition made on an artificial island called Umihotaru, which has a rest area with shops and restaurants. When I took this photo last month, I was standing on an observation deck there.

By the way, you can see an earlier Sky Tree photo I took, next to the smoke from a burning building, at this earlier post.

Waiter, there’s a man in my beer! (But at least he’s safe)

March 1, 2011

While waiting for a train at Oji Station on the Keihin Tohoku Line in Tokyo today, I noticed a group of men putting a beer ad up on a trackside billboard. The glass of beer at the center of the ad, and the faces of the celebrity athletes gathered around it, were significantly larger than life-size, which made an amusing contrast to the real-life men who were putting the ad up.

So, I snapped a few photos.

No sooner had I put my camera away, than a flagman standing several meters up-track of the rest of the work crew blew a whistle and started waving his flag. A train was coming. Hearing his whistle, all the men in the work crew, whether standing down on the ground or up on a ladder, turned to face the oncoming train and raised their left arms. It was a very smoothly choreographed simultaneous move.

It reminded me of groups of Japanese schoolchildren I’ve sometimes seen crossing the street, each of them with one hand held overhead. I’ve wondered if raising a hand while crossing the street really makes a child much safer. It’s pretty unlikely to make a tiny person more visible to a careless driver, but it probably does impress on the kid’s mind the idea that, “I am crossing the street.” That thought probably heightens their awareness of their surroundings slightly, and that may add a bit to their level safety.

Kids crossing the street that way are endearingly cute. But the workmen seemed a little old for that sort of thing.

But then it dawned on me that the point was not to make sure the driver of the train saw them. Instead, it was to make sure the driver knew they saw him. If a train driver spots a group of people each raising an arm, he knows they aren’t about to step onto the tracks. But if anyone in the group doesn’t have an upraised arm, that person may not know the train is coming. In that case, the driver would probably toot the horn or tap the brakes.

Once I realized how much sense this made, I pulled out my camera for another shot, but by then the arriving train had blocked my view of all but one of the workers.

(Click on photos for larger views.)

And by the way, what I called “beer” in my opening paragraph is technically a beerlike beverage called happoshu. But that’s a topic for another time.