Friday, March 18, 2011

Good news, bad news

Interesting, how each day we wait and watch the progress at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant the focus changes. Many more people have reached conclusions about how they want to deal with the crisis. Some want to turn away and are annoyed at the endless chatter. Some are angry at the media coverage and believe they are simply fanning the flames of fear. Some are angry at the lack of transparency on Tepco’s part (Tepco - the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owners of the plant). Others come to their defense and argue they don’t know themselves what is going on. Some are angry at government because it’s clear lots of people are waiting for help and not getting it. Others argue Prime Minister Kan is acting unusually courageously in demanding more transparency and is doing the best he can. Some see the suffering and agonize. Some see the courage and stoicism and admire. It’s amazing how conflicting the reports are, and how many lenses there are to see through.

The American media have shown their colors. Even people I’ve long admired are falling down. Like Anderson Cooper, who just pulled the same number CNN pulled. The networks send their own people to Japan to pose in front of a camera and report yesterday’s news, the only difference being they are now in the picture. How do you feel losing all the members of your family?

Only NHK and the BBC seem to be on top of events as they happen. I understand Al Jazeera is pretty good, but I have not been following their coverage myself. Rachel Maddow is doing a pretty good job of explaining how things work. I just wish she would get the Japanese pronunciation right – it’s Daini (die – knee; not die-eeny) and it’s Sendai (sen-die; not sen-day). I know, I know. I’m polishing the silver when we all ought to be feeding the poor, but these things annoy me.

Americans are not the worst panic-mongers, it would appear. At the moment it’s possible that place of honor goes to the Germans. They were among the first to pull out their people from Tokyo, including news people. (Although no doubt many good reporters ignored those warnings.) People are gulping potassium iodide pills. Angela Merkel is shutting down power plants. Why? Because of the possibility of a tsunami in Frankfurt? And my favorite newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, had a headline today, "Erdbeben, Tsunami, Atomkatastrophe: Japan steht seit einer Woche am Rande des Abgrunds." (Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Catastrophe: For a week Japan at the edge of the abyss). Others, too, are using the term "Super-GAU." GAU is German for größter anzunehmender Unfall, or "maximum credible accident," the German equivalent of "worst possible scenario." And note, on top of GAU, they are using "Super-GAU." Shame. Anderson Cooper, and now the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

There is good news. The radiation levels are not climbing at the moment, and it appears work is progressing on getting the power back so the pumps will work so the temperature of the rods, both working and stored, will not continue to rise. We’re in an OK holding pattern, in other words.

And that means we can stop worrying about the worst case scenario for a minute and look at other aspects of the aftermath. Several friends of mine have now left Tokyo, some for the United States, some for Western Japan. Others are staying and arguing against the tendency to overreact. And complaining about the lack of food in the stores. And being able to get around.

Stories pour in about missing people, heartbreak story after heartbreak story. To watch is to cry non-stop, especially when you hear expressions like "pockets of extreme suffering." I don’t want to turn away, but I watch only sporadically. And I don't cry any more. Familiarity has set in. But I did choke up there for a minute in my local supermarket yesterday when I saw a sign at the check-out counter, "Relief donations for Japan accepted here." Talk about cognitive dissonance. Something in me wants to insist, "Not Japan! They're rich. They can take care of themselves. Their economy will not be affected by this longterm. Save your money." But we sent money, too. It's the right thing to do. Not because it makes you feel better about yourself, but because the usual systems are all strained at the moment, and your donation is likely to make a difference.

Taku asked last night, “Have you seen the list of the dead?” I hadn’t, because I’m not checking the Japanese sources. “Only in Japan” was a game we used to play all the time, those of us who were grounded in other countries and cultures. I heard myself say that last night. They are putting the names, ages, and addresses of the victims online, as the information comes in. They’re up to nearly 7000 now, and everybody believes they’re going to go over 10,000.

If you do look at the list, you notice something striking. The number of very old people. I picked a list at random and did a quick estimate and found an average age of 55. But look at this list, for example. It’s clear they are not stopping to check the actual ages of the victims, because all ages are rounded out to tens. But look at the ages. Several are listed as 100 years old. Many more are in their 80s and 90s. Maybe this is why we don’t look too closely at these things, and stick to information such as “In the end, the earthquake may be a boon to the Japanese economy, because there will be an enormous amount of construction work to do.”

Isn’t it nice to be able to look on the bright side.


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