Alby in Tokyo: Trying to be Normal

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I shared a note from Albrecht Stahmer a while back. He’s the Louisville native now living in Tokyo, who also happens to be involved in bringing an NBA team to town. As you can read here, his perspective on the situation there is not so bad, and he’s certainly not panicked. And I’m hoping he does make his regularly-scheduled flight back here, where he’s part of a big event involving the NBA. Reading Stahmer’s piece, it’s evident that there is misleading reporting coming from mainstream media. Here’s the latest from our man in Japan:

Earthquake:   Aftershocks continue, but the notion that another massive aftershock is imminent has started to fade from news reports.  All of the utter devastation that is shown on television from the earthquake and tsunami occurred in northern Japan.  I want to again emphasize that here in Tokyo there was almost no physical damage, just inconvenience from the panic buying and reduced electrical output.  The biggest impact from the earthquake in Tokyo has been psychological, which is beginning to impact the Japanese economy.

Economic impact:   Sadly, sensationalist media coverage and questionable reactions by some foreign governments are preventing Tokyo, and in turn Japan, from settling back into a normal routine.  While it will be years–or even decades–before Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori prefectures return to normal, it is critical for the rest of Japan to return to some sense of normalcy as quickly as possible to make sure the economic impact of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear plant disasters is not exacerbated.  Japan’s economy has been struggling for two decades with 22 years of flat growth and was further hammered by the Lehman Shock.  As things seemed to be looking up for the local economy in Q1, the last thing Japan needs is another deep recession.  Given that national economics is often a self-fulfilling collective prophecy, the economy is going to suffer if people succumb to paranoia and stop going about their daily lives.  Sadly, this is already happening.  The domestic tourism industry has taken a massive hit already as locals are canceling domestic pleasure trips and foreigners are shunning travel to Japan.  Understandably, some companies have been impacted by power reductions or the inability of employees to commute to work due to train schedule reductions (from the aforementioned power reductions).  However, of greater concern is the damage being done to the economy by consumers who are not spending aside from unnecessary panic-induced buying of bottled water, dried foods and chicken.  Not only is this unnecessary, it is a gross mis-allocation of capital and resources.  Sadly, many of these goods will wind up gathering dust in closets or being disposed of in landfills while there are people up north who really needs these goods.

Keep calm and carry on!   The best thing those of us here in Tokyo can do it to go about our normal lives and spend money as we would normally spend.  Of course, conserving electricity should be a priority, but canceling domestic trips and staying holed up at home or leaving the country is the entirely wrong thing to do.  As Mayor Rudy Guiliani said to New Yorkers after 9/11, “Go out to dinner, go see a show.”  To that end, I spent four days snowboarding on the northern island of Hokkaido over this past weekend–a trip that I planned in January and decided not to cancel after thinking about the negative impact of such a decision.  Why impact the livelihoods of people in the hospitality and tourism industries by canceling my trip?  I can`t see who would benefit from such a decision.  Not only did I enjoy my trip immensely, but the resort, bar and restaurant staff that I encountered were very thankful that I did not cancel as many others had done.

Food & Water: I am not hoarding anything at home other than four liters of bottled water and four liters of jasmine tea.  And to whoever keeps buying up all of the bread as soon as it hits store shelves:  Damn you!  I want some bread, too, so leave some on the shelves!  Yes, there appears to be minor amounts of radiation in the water, but it would only be harmful if ingested over years and years.  I will drink bottled drinks until the radiation drops to normal levels again but this is an extreme precaution.  I have yet to hear a single radiation expert claim that the air, food or water in Tokyo are unsafe for consumption by adults.

Security: As usual, Tokyo remains safe and secure.  There has still been no looting (thanks, Edwin).  Despite all the silliness of panic buying and the necessity of gasoline rationing, there are no fights–or even arguments–at stores or in the streets (however, this may change should I find the person/people who keep buying up all of the bread!).

Nuclear reactors: While I was happy to spend a few days in the fresh country air of Hokkaido, aside from some wild claims by the foreign media, there is no imminent danger here in Tokyo.  While I have noticed some additional hair loss–to which some of my friends have made dubious claims as to a possible connection with my recent 40th birthday as opposed to radiation exposure–, I do not feel threatened by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima.  A business acquaintance of mine here in Tokyo, a German national named Axel Lieber, has penned a very lucid opinion on why he is staying in Tokyo.  As he has done so much more eloquently than I can, I have linked to his essay here.

One thing I would like to add is a correction to my note from last week.  I said that three reactor housing vessels had blown up, which was incorrect.  In fact, only the outer housing structures of the reactor housing vessels blew up, not the actual housing vessels themselves.  There may be damage to one housing vessel, but nothing like Chernobyl.  This is still bad, but is nowhere near apocalyptic.

Evacuation:   At this point, I don`t see any need to evacuate.  The U.S. military evacuations of military dependents were optional, not mandatory.  Delta has canceled hundreds of flights in and out of Japan, but I am already re-confirmed on a flight for my previously scheduled trip to Louisville from March 31-April 5.  I do not anticipate leaving Tokyo prior to that.

Contact info: Mobile phone services are running more or less as usual in Tokyo, although the networks appear more congested (read slower).  I can be contacted on my Blackberry, but there are occasional delays, particularly with SNS messages.  Some overseas calls were not connecting last week, but things seem to be improving this week.  The internet is running smoothly so email and Facebook are easy ways to reach me.  Postal services are supposedly behind schedule with warnings that delivery of international packages could be delayed by up to four weeks, but snail mail is being delivered more or less as usual without said delays as far as I can tell.

Thank you!   Thanks again for all of your thoughts and concerns.  I promise that things here are safe right now and I don’t anticipate things changing drastically for the worse here in Tokyo, aside from the economic environment.  I will try to post something again next week to assuage any concerns or fears you may have.  Hopefully, the nuclear reactors will be cooled down in the near future so that that story can die and focus can be placed where it belongs–on the victims and reconstruction of the four affected prefectures in northern Japan.  With that said, the TEPCO workers who are fighting to cool the reactors deserve the biggest thank you imaginable for their courage and effforts.  A big shout out to those guys!  Similarly, the senior executives of TEPCO who have mismanaged this affair deserve all the scorn cast their way and then some.

Keep in touch!

P.S.  While not a perfect parallel, a great read that might help you appreciate the TEPCO workers fighting these fires is Haruki Murakami`s book, `Underground`, about the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack, which details some of the selfless behavior of many subway staff in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.