If you read past the headline, you should know that I actually believe Japan will be okay, and this post is primarily to make a point. A lot has happened since my last articles regarding the situation here (over a month has passed), and there’s a lot to say (way too much for one post). I will explain more later, but the first thing I want to do is discuss the gravity of the disaster in the same way the foreign media has been doing since the start – focusing entirely on the negative.
The “Great East Japan Earthquake,” as it was later dubbed by Prime Minister Naoto Kan three weeks after it happened, was the fourth-largest ever recorded anywhere in the world. Let’s briefly compare the four most famous earthquakes since 2010:
- Haiti (January 12, 2010): Magnitude 7.0, at a depth of 13 km underground. Exact number of casualties have not been concluded, but estimates are around 300,000. Number was so big because unfortunately the epicenter was close to highly populated areas, as well as the lax infrastructure.
- Chile (February 27, 2010): Magnitude 8.8, at a depth of 22 km. 562 casualties. The number is low because the epicenter was fairly far from populated areas.
- New Zealand (February 22, 2011): Magnitude 6.3, at a depth of 5 km. 172 casualties.
- Japan (March 11, 2011): Magnitude 9.0, at a depth of 32 km. If there was no tsunami, the casualties from the earthquake would probably be in the low hundreds, perhaps similar to NZ. The death toll is still rising (projected to be around 25,000).
When you hear an earthquake comparison of magnitude 4 and 8, you might think that the 8 is twice as powerful as the 4. Actually, 8 is ten thousand times more powerful than 4. What determines the effects of earthquake is: magnitude, depth, location, and preparedness (i.e., infrastructure). Suffice it to say, Japan’s M9 was powerful (3 times more powerful than Chile’s). So powerful, in fact, that it literally shifted the entire island by 8 feet, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s specialist Richard Gross says that it threw the entire planet off its figure axis by 15 centimeters. Also, some eastern parts of Tohoku have sunk as a result of the earthquake, to the point that some places are now permanently flooded. The worst sinking was almost 3 feet, seen in Iwate Prefecture.
I initially heard the tsunami was about 10 feet (3 meters) high. That didn’t seem consistent with the footage I saw, but it turns out that number was far too low. I can’t even fathom what it must have been like to look up and see that wall of junk-water. Researchers who returned to the devastated areas found traces of water reaching levels up to 38 feet. So that 11.5 meter wave could top a four-storey building, which it did throughout eastern Tohoku.
The tsunami was responsible for most of the death and destruction in Japan. As I have mentioned before, Japan can’t prepare for a tsunami, only an earthquake. It is expected that debris from the tsunami will reach Hawaii in 2012, and the U.S. and Canada around 2014. There is a debris timeline, which is not looking good for Hawaii, but then again it’s just a small taste of what Japan faces in the battered regions on a much more massive scale.
About a month and a half after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, enough radiation has been emitted to register this on the same level as Chernobyl – a 7 on the 7-point nuclear-accident scale. Now, people living within 20 kilometers of the plant (including 5 towns outside the radius) will be forced to evacuate in May. From now on, they will not be legally able to enter that zone, except for a visit of up to 5 hours, which will be permitted in May.
Recently, Japan sent in robots which determined that radiation levels are too high for workers to repair the power plant, and now TEPCO says it will take about the end of 2011 to bring the plant to a “cold shutdown,” which would result in a sharp reduction of radiation emission. The governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Satou, said the plant will not be allowed to run again, after this mess is over. For now, even though things have become more stable, the government has been saying that more radiation has been released in April than previously thought.
Life Goes On
The Japanese government has said that reconstruction from the earthquake and tsunami will be more than $309 billion U.S., making it more than double the most costly disaster the world has ever seen previously. The next most expensive was Hurricane Katrina, at $125 billion. Big name manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, and Sony have been forced to shut down operations in various plants, and many companies are struggling to make products with limited electricity and a shortage of parts. Numerous countries have implemented strict restrictions on importing Japanese food, and obviously all the negative press has had foreigners fleeing in droves.
More than 6% of all jobs in Japan are involved with travel and tourism. A record high of 8.6 million foreign visitors came to Japan in 2010. Around what is supposed to be one of the biggest tourist peaks of the year – cherry blossom season – an estimated 352,800 foreigners came to Japan in March, down 50% from last year. As of April 8, 560,000 people have canceled hotel reservations since the earthquake, not including Chiba and Iwate prefecture (so the number should be higher). From March 11 to the 31, the number of foreign visitors plummeted by 73%. Among 71 universities in Japan, 4300 foreign students canceled admission or fled the country. One immigration officer says 161,300 foreigners have left Japan from March 11th to the 22. Another source says 240,000 foreigners left within a week after the earthquake, compared to 100,000 from the week prior to the earthquake.
Food & Water
The most damaged prefectures produce a significant amount of the country’s crops, and various countries are banning food coming from several prefectures near the power plant. Schools have recently started removing radiation-contaminated soil from the schools grounds, and increasing radiation levels have recently been detected in the seawater near the plant.
The tsunami put a huge dent in the already diminishing fishing industry, and the government Fukushima has been dispatching workers to cull starving livestock within the prohibited 20 km zone, for public health purposes. Animals who have been abandoned seem to either have succumbed to starvation, or resorted to cannibalism (warning: this link contains disturbing graphics).
Among 266 shelters in Miyagi Prefecture, 90% of evacuees fell short of their caloric intake target since March 11, which was 2,000 kilocalories. They averaged about 1,546 at most shelters, or 1,340 at some of the large-scale ones.
New Living Situation
In Iwate and Miyagi, many schools have been trying to juggle being a shelter for tsunami survivors and a functioning school. Unfortunatlely, many survivors are now being asked to move out so students can resume regular classes. School has already been delayed in many areas, as the academic year in Japan usually starts in April. Now, many former home owners are going with construction teams to tear apart their houses, looking for mementos or anything else important, which is a slow process because they are being careful not to damage any bodies that might be buried under the wreckage.
To make matters worse, many survivors around the Fukushima power plant have been accused of being tainted by radiation. These rumors are groundless, and they just add to the pressure and torment of those who have already been through so much. Numerous children who have moved to schools in other prefectures have been finding it hard to cope due to bullying based on this kind of nonsense.
Hopefully May will be hot enough so there will be no need for heaters at night, which would allow us here in East Japan to conserve more energy. Otherwise we will have more blackouts during the summer, which will make living in the scorching heat extremely dangerous.