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Blizzards in the North – Japan Simply Can’t Catch a Break

Japan just can’t catch a break. After one of the most powerful earthquakes in history plunged the country into darkness, we were getting scorched by record-level heats. While the East coast was busy (and still is) recovering from the devastating tsunami, the region of Kansai, West of Tokyo, was being flooded by the most powerful typhoon Japan has seen in over thirty years. Yesterday was the holiday known as “Setsubun,” which officially marked the transition from winter to spring, but many prefectures are facing another round of hardships that contrast to the debilitating heat. Blizzards have come to remind Japan that there’s still plenty more to be concerned about.

Killer Snowstorms

The first snowfall that stuck in Tokyo was on January 23, and it caused railway problems, traffic accidents, and hundreds of injuries within the first few days. But the real problem is in the Northwestern coast of Japan, where prefectures are getting massive amounts of snow. Some places of Aomori, for example, received 4 meters of snow this winter. The snow-related death toll since November reached 31 by January 25, and rose to 51 by February 2. A total of 35 of these were aged 60 or above. As the Yomiuri newspaper reports:

According to data compiled by the Akita, Aomori, Ishikawa, Nagano, Niigata, Toyama and Yamagata prefectural governments [. . .] This winter’s heavier snowfall has seen more than 500 people across seven prefectures die or become injured in snow-related accidents, including cases in which they had been trying to remove snow, it has been learned.

[. . .] In Goshogawara City, Aomori Prefecture, a 61-year-old man fell and died on Jan. 19 after falling while trying to clear snow from his roof the previous day. According to the Aomori prefectural government, all nine people who died in the prefecture were aged 60 or older, and removing snow alone at the time of their accidents.

In Aomori City, the municipal government recently conducted intensive snow removal in residential areas. But the snow removal was five days behind schedule and much of the snow had compacted. Asked about the reason for the delay, an Aomori municipal official said, “It’s because we don’t have enough dump trucks.”

Sadly, this is not simply because the government is negligent. As everything seems to be in Japan nowadays, it had to do with 3/11:

People are trying to remove snow themselves using shovels and other tools because of delays in municipal-led snow removal. The delays have been caused by a shortage of dump trucks–many of which are being used in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake for reconstruction work–to transport snow.

Bloomberg’s February 2 update raises the death toll to 56, saying:

Warnings of strong winds and heavy snowfall for 12 of the nation’s 47 prefectures, all facing the Sea of Japan, are in effect as of 3:42 p.m., according to the Japan Meteorological Agency’s website. Three people were killed yesterday [by avalanche] at a resort in Semboku City in Akita, Kazuto Sato, a police spokesman, said by telephone. More than 100 cars were abandoned on a highway in Aomori prefecture after heavy snow made driving impossible, public broadcaster NHK reported.

The following video is of a news broadcast which shows clips of the current snowstorm.

In the Zone

There are issues within the prohibited zones around the Fukushima #1 power plant. Over 100,000 people have been evacuated from municipalities inside the no-entry zone, and new revisions may see another 25,000 relocating. Unfortunately, this is despite a recent government commission which stated that the computer system known as SPEEDI, which predicts the spread of radiation, is unreliable, and therefore should not be used. So while many Japanese people are struggling with soon-to-be-implemented new rules, it’s clear that they aren’t the only ones suffering there.

As Reuters reports, the abandoned pets and animals that were once taken care of by the Fukushima residents have been forced to fend for themselves for almost a year.

“If left alone, tens of them will die everyday. Unlike well-fed animals that can keep themselves warm with their own body fat, starving ones will just shrivel up and die,” said Yasunori Hoso, who runs a shelter for about 350 dogs and cats rescued from the 20-km evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear plant.

The government let animal welfare groups enter the evacuation zone temporarily in December to rescue surviving pets before the severe winter weather set in, but Hoso said there were still many more dogs and cats left in the area.

“If we cannot go in to take them out, I hope the government will at least let us go there and leave food for them,” he said. [. . .] More than 150,000 people from Fukushima prefecture still cannot return to their homes, with nearly half of them from the exclusion zone.

While Japan focuses on containing the nuclear accident and protecting people from radiation, Hoso, representative director of United Kennel Club Japan, has been trying to save as many dogs and cats from the no-go zone as possible, or keep pets for those who are living in shelters where pets are not allowed.

[. . .] “When dogs are returned, many owners are really grateful and a limited few are not so grateful. But when it comes to dogs, all of them, without exception, become really ecstatic when they get reunited with their owners,” Hoso said. “That is what keeps me going, what makes me determined that I have to push ahead until the last one goes back to its owner.”

The Bottom Line

Now with over 800 winter-related deaths and injuries, we have yet another reminder that nature is cruel to Japan. There’s not much that can be done here, because these things are unpredictable. But hopefully, like the miracle tree of Rikuzentakata – pictured above – Japan can weather the storm despite all odds.

Then again, even the miracle tree will meet its end, due to salt-water destroying its routes. The closest thing to seeing the tree live on is having the trunk preserved or taking a smaller part of it to grow a new tree.

I suppose this is not the analogy of Japan I was hoping for…

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