Reading the news from Japan these days makes me want to cry, punch someone, and stop reading the news, all at the same time.
The thing about Japan - ask anyone who has lived there - is that it is in no way as technologically advanced as its public image would have you believe. Maybe some people are getting the picture, now, but for years - since the days of the Bubble economy, when the west was terribly threatened by Japanese dominance of various markets (...especially cars!), we've tended to vastly overestimate their capacities; the fantasy - which in many cases is all you'll see represented over here, even still - is that they all are computer geeks, have a plethora of weird electronic gadgets, can manufacture anything to higher standards than the rest of the world, are perhaps the most advanced nation in the world, technologically speaking.
There might be some truth to some of these claims - but there's also a deep confusion about the realities of life in Japan, which the Japanese won't ever do much to correct, since they LIKE this public image an awful lot. Japan HAS had a powerful economy at times, and DOES have some stunning tech, but when I was over there, I also witnessed all sorts of total backwardness - X-rays being given without lead vests to protect one's bits; powerlines strung right over houses (or were they houses built under powerlines?); and a nuclear accident at a plant where it seems some Japanese Homer Simpsons, in a rush and not necessarily so well-trained, were mixing materials in buckets (see here and here). While it seemed like EVERYONE had a cellphone that was smaller and more functional than the ones we were using at that time, there was also a surprising amount of computer illiteracy, with most of the students and many of the teachers at the high school where I taught - admittedly not an elite school - having great difficulties doing even the simplest tasks on a computer (not that they weren't without special challenges; just ask yourself how one would go about typing in kanji. This was in 1999-2002, by the way, when most westerners, especially kids, were already online).
Nevermind the bizarre construction projects and misguided public works - I heard tales of bridges built without roads at the other end, of land harvested from the sea that it turned out no one actually wanted, and saw with my own eyes rivers that had been drained so their banks could be lined with concrete and "fortified," seemingly needlessly. Nevermind the degree of unregulated noise pollution, the weirdness of seeing vending machines smack in the middle of two ricefields, or the giggling insanity behind SOME of the gadgets on hand (from toilet seats with control panels that heated the seat in the winter, to UFO catchers filled with sex toys; I never saw the vending machines with schoolgirl's panties in them, myself, but we've all heard stories, right?). These can all be seen as relatively harmless eccentricities, present in every culture.
No, if you really want to know how behind the west some aspects of Japanese culture can be - rent an apartment there for a couple of years.
For the three years that I spent in Japan, I lived in a Leo Palace, one of a chain of apartments that among other things, though being relatively recent constructions, like many apartment buildings, had no central heating and maybe no insulation (everyone had to pay exorbitant fees to heat or cool their apartment, depending on the season, with an air conditioner; without running the aircon, my thermometers often read that the apartment was colder inside, during the winter, than outside). The hot water, rather than operating through a central hot water tank, was heated outside individual apartments, as well, with un-insulated pipes out on my balcony that froze up every winter (this was not in the backass of the countryside, but the suburbs of Tokyo. Imagine not being able to shower in the morning in a supposedly first world country because the hot water was frozen in the pipes!). My stove in the tiny, tiny kitchen was a single electric burner placed right next to the sink, as if water and electricity are a good mix; I shocked myself more than once and shorted out the burner a couple of times, which was hard to avoid doing. At one point during a cleaning I noticed a black smudge on the living room wall, which I tried to clean off with a wet rag, to discover that whatever material the wall was made of was WATER SOLUBLE, turning into a gooey, muddy, irrepairable patch, much worse than it had been, because of my gentle attempts to clean. The front door wasn't flush with the door frame, with a half-inch gap at the bottom to let cold air, dust, and insects in (leading to one memorable ant invasion in my kitchen, when a whole colony discovered where I had stored my spent pop cans, awaiting recycling day); no wonder there were billions of cockroaches everywhere, even in new buildings. When there was a windstorm, too, there would always be a very visible line of dust that had blown in my front door that I had to wipe up. During rainstorms, meanwhile, drainage was so poor the streets would routinely flood, so that everyone had to contend with walking, cycling or driving in five inch rivers of water for a couple of hours, as a regular feature of life; maybe there was no way, given the severity of storms, to construct drains that worked - but there WERE deep, narrow ditches lined in concrete at either side of the road; they just weren't EFFECTIVE. Plus I'm really not sure if the concept of lessening damage to homes with the use of lightning rods has made it over there, since when lightning hit near my apartment one time, not only my computer, but my TV and the control panel for my hot water system were both completely, irrepairably fried.
Meantime, there were all sorts of exorbitant we're-fucking-you-because-we-say-we-can fees that came with renting an apartment, like a surprise gift I had to give to my landlords of around $250, over and above the rent, that was required to renew my lease: because more than a lot of places in the world, shit rolls downhill in Japan. (Anyone ever seen Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well?) The wealthy, the powerful, and the connected royally fuck the average consumer on a regular basis, and being a good Japanese means taking the fucking with grace: bowing deeply, muttering "sho ga nai," and thinking of the Emperor while you're being plundered. That's how you get phenomenon like karōshi - death from overwork, doing insane amounts of unpaid overtime to prove your loyalty - or what were, when I was there, comically exorbitant fees for internet usage at home. The average Japanese is trained from elementary school on to take a fucking without complaint - read Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power for a serious analysis, if you don't believe my rant. Everyone KNOWS that that's what it's like, too - you just don't admit it publicly.
When the system backfires enough that a public scandal DOES emerge - like the horrifying historical example of the Minamata disaster or, from my time there, the Snow Brand milk scandal, where it was discovered that a major producer of dairy products was just dumping returned, expired milk products back into the vats of new milk, to be repackaged and resold, leading to widespread and serious food poisoning - the government and the media are generally bent on minimizing any face-losing shame that might attach to the corrupt incompetence that flourishes in the shadows, rather than taking steps to make sure such things can never happen again; public image trumps public safety, nine times out of ten, and if you ever do fuck up - well, you just have to bow deeply enough to be forgiven... It's un-Japanese to make a fuss about such matters, after all... you're supposed to "gambatte" and endure...
And so: for those of us who have actually LIVED in Japan, when we read a story like this one - "Radiation in Japanese seawater spreads north" - we feel a sense of horror, sorrow, and rage that might not be present in the hearts of those of you who actually buy into the Japanese myth of hyperefficiency; and we read all sorts of things between the lines that others might not.
"Highly radioactive iodine seeping from Japan's damaged nuclear complex may be making its way into seawater farther north of the plant than previously thought," the article begins, and we ask ourselves how it can be that anyone could have been UNDERESTIMATING the dangers at hand in a case like this, and whether in fact the trouble was not that the "previous thoughts" were wrong but were LIES that someone has now been caught in, forcing an admission of error. "Mounting problems, including badly miscalculated radiation figures" - NO SHIT! - "and no place to store dangerously contaminated water, have stymied emergency workers struggling to cool down the overheating plant and avert a disaster with global implications." And we think, sorry, folks but it's a bit late for that...
Skipping down a bit, we read, "the contaminated water, discovered last Thursday" - because no one realized that pumping a plant damaged in a tsunami full of corrosive seawater, as TEPCO had started out doing, then replacing it with fresh water, would lead to contaminated water coming out; hell no - "has been emitting radiation that measured more than 1,000 millisieverts per hour in a recent reading at Unit 2 — some 100,000 times the normal amounts, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said... Airborne levels outside the unit are more than four times the level that the government deems as safe for humans." And cynical or not, what we think here is that the numbers don't add up, that radiation is being emitted at 100,000 times the normal amounts, leading to airborn levels "four times" what is safe for humans... but wait, 100,000 times the radiation leads to four times the risk? What?
"Plutonium — a key ingredient in nuclear weapons — is present in the fuel at the complex, which has been leaking radiation for over two weeks, so experts had expected some to be found once crews began searching for evidence of it this week. As such, its presence is no threat to public health, officials insisted." These officials should be made to eat said plutonium, then. And what a nice word that is, what a fine rhetorical device: "insisted." The subtext of that word is, "look, WE'RE not saying this, THEY'RE saying this." Riiiight. "Only some of the plutonium samples were from the leaking reactors, they said. The rest came from earlier nuclear tests." (Whose face is being saved here, exactly - and how can you save your face and bury your head in the sand at the same time?). "Years of weapons testing in the atmosphere left trace amounts of plutonium in many places around the world." To which we must add a measured, "yeah, right." And even here, you notice the reporter using nice distancing measures like the words "they said," because it's starting to be obvious that what officials say in Japan doesn't always attach to reality - unless it's the reality of needing to cover their own asses.
"Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano repeated Monday that the contaminated water in Unit 2 appeared to be due to a temporary partial meltdown of the reactor core." Appeared? Temporary? Partial? ...you see how truth leaks out, a wee piece at a time, in public statements like this, but note that none of this means that the meltdown has been averted. It IMPLIES that... but it doesn't MEAN that. "He called it 'very unfortunate,' but said the spike in radiation appeared limited to the unit." "Appeared" = "they don't know and don't want to get in trouble when it comes out that it isn't, which it inevitably will" - maybe as soon as the next paragraph. "However, new readings show contamination in the ocean has spread about 1.6 kilometres farther north of the nuclear site than before. Radioactive iodine-131 was discovered just offshore from Unit 5 and Unit 6 at a level 1,150 times higher than normal, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, told reporters Monday... He had said earlier there was no link between the radioactive water leaking inside the plant and the radiation in the sea. On Monday, though, he reversed that position" - does that mean that he admitted that he lied, or that he was merely capable of making public statements that were completely, dangerously wrong? Which would be worse? - "saying he does suspect that radioactive water from the plant may indeed be leaking into the ocean." Suspect, right? It's not KNOWN, regardless of the fact that it's pretty much fucking OBVIOUS...
"Closer to the plant, radioactivity in seawater tested about 1,250 times higher than normal last week and climbed to 1,850 times normal over the weekend. Nishiyama said the increase was a concern, but also said the area is not a source of seafood and that the contamination posed no immediate threat to human health." I mean, Jesus Christ, folks, read between the lines there. It's not a source of seafood? (It's not connected to other parts of the ocean? Fish never swim through it? What?). It poses "no immediate threat to human health?" (But please don't ask us about the long term risks?).
"On Sunday, TEPCO officials said radiation in leaking water in the Unit 2 reactor was 10 million times above normal — an apparent spike that sent employees fleeing the unit. The day ended with officials saying the huge figure had been miscalculated and offering apologies... TEPCO vice-president Sakae Muto said a new test had found radiation levels 100,000 times above normal — far better than the first results, though still very high... 'We will work hard to raise our precision in our work so as not to repeat this again,' he said, but he ruled out having an independent monitor oversee the various checks despite the errors." ...because, however overwhelmed TEPCO and the Japanese government actually are, the last thing these people will do is admit that they need help: half of Japan can melt before they'll lose face by asking a foreign body to step in, it would be the biggest humiliation the Japanese have endured since losing the war, because it would mean that their precious myth of "technological advancement" really was nothing more than that - a myth.
Don't get me wrong: I loved much of what I experienced in Japan, have often thought of returning there, but none of this horrifyingly black comedy of errors unfolding comes as a surprise to me. I don't wish to be NEGATIVE, or to EMBARRASS anyone, but if a "state of emergency" could ever exist that merited a foreign intrusion into Japanese turf, this is it. It makes me very angry, it makes me very sad, and it makes me very scared for my friends in Japan - all of whom are in Saitama, to my knowledge, but that's close enough for discomfort. Sad, sad days for the Japanese people - the disaster has only just begun.
PS - oh, by the way, certain episodes of the Simpsons have been pulled for being in poor taste, in light of the current situation.