Thoughts on life after the PhD
It’s been a little over two months since the earthquake, and here in Tokyo you can almost forget that anything is amiss. Until you notice the absence of neon and fluorescent lights, that is.
The aftermath, of course, continues and will continue for some time. Recent estimates say that it will be at least five years before northeastern Japan is rebuilt. The 30-km evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima power plant remains a no-go zone. More than 100,000 people are still living in shelters, and while the vast majority of them are getting enough food and water, living on a gymnasium floor with hundreds of other people for more than two months is taking its toll.
The situation at the power plant remains volatile, though there still appears to be no real health risk to anyone living beyond the evacuation zone. TEPCO recently admitted that a meltdown of several fuel rods may have occurred immediately after the quake hit. A New York Times piece painted a bleak picture of working conditions at the plant, where day laborers with little training were often hired and exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. TEPCO’s president recently resigned after the company reported net losses of more than 1.2 trillion yen (around $15 billion). TEPCO is starting to look a lot like BP–the two are basically poster children for why you can’t let corporations regulate themselves, or allow corporations to get too cozy with government regulators.
More than 130,000 residents from the Fukushima region may never be able to return permanently to their homes. Recently they were allowed to return for just a few hours to collect valuables, but only as much as they could fit in a 70 cm x 70 cm bag. Elderly residents who could not go themselves made detailed lists for friends and family members who went in their place. I wondered offhand what I might ask someone to collect for me–in the digital age I have very few tangible valuables that can’t be replaced, but I imagine it’s a different story for people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Maybe I’d just ask for my passport and my computer.
Farmers in the Fukushima region have been forced to burn produce and discard thousands of gallons of milk due to restrictions placed on food produced near the power plant. Many are uncertain how they will earn a living for the foreseeable future, given that it may be years before Fukushima soil is declared safe.
In Tokyo, large numbers of foreign nationals who fled the country after the quake have returned, but many have not, and businesses that cater primarily to foreign nationals are suffering. Tourism is slowly creeping back, but many universities have canceled summer Japan programs or evacuated their exchange students.
As the weather gets warmer everyone is wondering what a Tokyo summer with limited air conditioning is going to be like. Granted, limited air conditioning is a minor inconvenience compared with what refugees in the northeast are dealing with, but if you’ve ever experienced a Tokyo summer…yikes. The government is already urging companies to keep their AC levels at 28 degrees Celsius, meaning that productivity is likely to decline sharply. I rode a train the other day with no fans, no air conditioning, and no open windows for about twenty minutes and honestly thought I might pass out (luckily in the last week or so most trains seem to have at least either opened their windows or turned on their fans). Beyond power outages and low productivity, one of Tokyo’s main concerns this summer might be train rage.
Regular aftershocks have mostly stopped, though we still feel a mild trembler every few days. My evacuation bag is no longer packed and ready to go next to my door, though I’ve kept it full and tucked away in a suitcase on top of my closet.
Some of the best coverage of the situation in the northeast continues to be done by 37 Frames.
Finally, one of the more haunting stories to come out of the disaster is that of Miki Endo, the woman who warned residents to get to higher ground as the tsunami approached. The video of the wave sweeping through Minami-Sanriku as Endo’s voice is heard over the loudspeaker has been aired repeatedly on Japanese TV. The tsunami engulfed the municipal building where she was making her announcement, and her body was identified in early May.
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