Thursday, March 31, 2011

A struggle continues...

A week ago I wrote about our experience of the earthquake and the ordeal that followed. I had also shared it as a note on Facebook since many people are not aware that I also write a blog. Many of my friends responded to it with kind words. They said that my note had given a different view of the crisis from what they had seen or read about it in the media. Being in India now, like most of my friends, my family and I have to rely on the foreign media for “Breaking News” on the Japan crisis. Thanks to our friends in Japan, we get to know more realistic updates on the continuing crisis in Japan. 

In this blog, I decided to share my views on what makes Japan and its people differ from the outside world :

  • Having seen the media coverage of the entire crisis in Japan on NHK and other Japanese channels, I have stopped relying on the foreign media. Japanese media gives complete clarity about the news items. Minute to minute details with video footages are broadcast on the Japanese news channels. This is something the non Japanese media needs to learn. Most other foreign channels usually provide updates followed by the correspondent’s personal views leaving the audience with no choice but to believe it. Whereas the Japanese news correspondents are rarely seen expressing their own views. At most we see a few citizens expressing their feelings. While in other countries people rarely leave a chance to point fingers at local authorities and administration, this is not the case in Japan. The Japanese people have full faith in their government and are rarely seen blaming the government or other authorities. Instead they are hopeful that things will improve and they follow every advisory or instruction with sincerity. I feel this is what makes things easier for the authorities as they can go ahead in their duty without having to worry about resistance and criticism.
  • The Japanese government’s way of handling the situation is worth mentioning. The government website is up to date with information, advisories and facts. As such people have full faith in information provided by the government. Also in most other countries, the head of the government appears in a televised message expressing condolences to the affected families and declaring a monetary compensation. The Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano were appearing on news channels 5-6 times a day with the latest information and advisories and were also answering media’s questions. Infact we read in the newspapers that Mr Edano had not even gone home for few days since the quake as he was on duty. Something we cannot expect from our politicians or government officials.  
  • The nuclear crisis that began due to earthquake and tsunami continue to affect millions of people. In most other countries, the blame would have been passed on to natural causes beyond human control. The Vice President of TEPCO ( the company to which the Fukushima nuclear reactors belong) visited the evacuation centers personally and apologized to the evacuees for the disaster at the plant. This can happen only in Japan. Elsewhere there would be a series of criminal proceedings, blame game, absconding officials and bailable arrests.  
  • The Early Early Warning (EEW) system in Japan probably saved lot more lives. Under the EEW, earthquake warning could be sent out to millions of people a minute before the quake struck. This warning message is sent out on local TV, radio and mobile phones so that people can take safety measures immediately. All earthquakes above a certain magnitude are covered under the EEW system and in the days after the big quake, we continued receiving these alerts during strong aftershocks. Moreover even as other news items were being broadcast on TV, the EEW message would flash on TV with the epicenter being marked on the Japan map. All this even as the aftershocks were being felt. A far cry from the “breaking news” which is telecast much after the damage is done in most other nations. 
  • What is most important in any crisis situation is the public behaviour. All relief and rescue operations, efforts and aid are useless unless the general public cooperates. In my view, Japan will rise from this current crisis sooner than any other nation in similar situation would have. And this purely possible because of the Japanese people. The Japanese people and their attitude during the entire ordeal cannot be ignored. In my previous blog, I had mentioned about the patience, helpful nature and the amazing qualities of the Japanese people. What needs to be appreciated is that these qualities are evident even a fortnight after the crisis began. We can see this in the mails and messages that our Japanese friends and colleagues continue to send. The people have accepted this crisis as a struggle and are making best possible efforts to overcome the situation in a peaceful, calm and patient manner. Food, water and fuel are still in short supply. Most stores are open for few hours during the day but they do not have much supplies. Especially water, drinks and vegetables are in short supply due to radiation threats. There is a limit on the quantity of drinks and water that a family can purchase. What is admirable is that people do not resist or argue but are cooperating. There are still no incidents of looting or plundering. Since tap water has been detected with high iodine levels, it has been declared unsafe for consumption especially for children. In the affected areas, government or municipal authorities are providing bottles of drinking water to families with children. People queue in long lines (sometimes 3-4 kms long) from as early as 5 am for gasoline. There are no instances of traffic jams or breaking of traffic rules. People do not speak of suing the government or power company to compensate them for losses. They just seek the government’s help in rebuilding and relief operations. Even the demonstrations against Nuclear power in the country are not marked by any kind of violence. Some of my friends who could not evacuate from the city due to personal reasons have shown amazing confidence and positive attitude. Instead of cribbing and complaining about their helplessness, they have been volunteering in evacuation centers. What is worth mentioning is that the entire nation is collectively fighting this crisis. When scheduled power outages were introduced in areas not affected by the quake or tsunami, people cooperated instead of cribbing. Moreover these power outages were not applied in the affected areas because it would hamper relief work. People started using lesser electricity, fuel and water in most of Japan as the same would be useful in days to come. This amazing self restraint is something people the world over can learn. Graduation parties in schools and universities, Cherry Blossom ceremonies, annual firework festivals have all been put off for the year in most parts of Japan. Restaurants and shopping malls close earlier than usual timings. Decorative lights and neon signs are not being used to conserve energy. Infact people have stopped using elevators,heaters, toilet warmers etc unless it becomes necessary. Even local election campaigning is subdued, something unheard of in other nations. All this without even being asked to do it as a rule. This amazing sense of restraint can only be expected from the wonderful people of Japan.

  • While the government and the people are doing their bit, things are looking positive even on the corporate front. Many companies which were affected by the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis had to suspend operations. My husband’s company too had to suspend the Iwaki operations for two weeks and reopened only this week (28th March 2011). A colleague of his who happens to be my close friend writes that all the employees of the company turned up at work with high spirits and a boosted morale to resume work. They gathered in the company premises and waited for instructions from the Administration manager. All employees collectively helped clean the mess and restore the work environment. Even in this situation, the company’s president has sent a mail apologizing for the inconvenience caused to our family and expressing his hope that we will be able to return soon once the crisis ends. Further the HR manager sent a mail apologizing that they could not do much for us, despite arranging for our safety and immediate evacuation to India in no time. Even now most employees have had to leave their families in other parts of Japan as the radiation threat continues in Iwaki.  
While the nuclear threat continues, elsewhere things are looking positive and life is slowly returning to normalcy. Rebuilding operations are in progress in the northern parts of the devastated region. In other times, this would have been the peak tourist season because of the famed "Sakura" or cherry blossom season. With the Cherry Blossom season beginning in Japan, hopes are alive that Japan will recover from the crisis soon. 

When Nature plays Havoc....

A fortnight after disaster struck, Japan is still suffering from the effects. Slowly life is returning to normalcy even as the nuclear radiation continues to be a major threat in East Japan.
This time I decided to share a few pics that I got from various sources, some from my friends and some from the internet. These pictures are proof of the fact that when Nature decides to show its fury, all fails.

Few scenes of the destruction caused by the Earthquake

  Tsunami waves which caused most of the destruction :

Onahama port in Iwaki city where we live after being hit by Tsunami

An aerial view of Iwaki city's coastline after the Tsunami

Whirlpools off the Ibaraki coast caused by the Tsunami and intense Seismic activity

 Fires raged in few places due to the combined effect of Tsunami and Earthquake :

 Words cannot describe the destruction caused by this disaster

 Finally few scenes as shown on Japanese television

It is sad to see such images of a beautiful country like Japan, images which I would prefer to forget as a bad dream.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the week after................

The idea behind this article is not to recount problems faced by us but to emphasise on the current situation in Japan, the people's behaviour and the lessons that we have learnt in the last one week.
When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the Tohoku region of Japan and almost devastated the prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi, Aomori and Iwate. This earthquake has reportedly shifted the earth by 10 cms from its axis while Japan's main Honshu island has moved by 2.4 meters from its place. This explains the intensity of the earthquake. The media has covered the damages done in this part of the country extensively. The videos and pictures are enough proof of the extent of devastation and as such I am not writing much about it. 
I was at home with my parents who had come from India to visit us. My daughter was in the school bus on the way back home from kindergarten while my husband was at work. We felt slight tremors but ignored it. We had experienced many minor earthquakes in Japan during the past year and thought this was another of those harmless earthquakes. Just then I happened to receive an area mail alert about the earthquake on my NTT Docomo Cellphone. It was common to receive such messages as part of the Earthquake Early warning system during all earthquakes above a certain magnitude.  My husband called up that instant to inform us to go out of the home as the tremors began and they experienced the first impact in his workplace. We ran outdoors but were unable to even stand straight. A few neighbours who were home also came outdoors and kept saying “Kowai ne” and “Jisshin”. “Kowai” means scary in Japanese while as strange as it may sound, the word “Jisshin” means Earthquake as well as confidence!  It took a long time for the tremors to stop. Everything from the electricity poles to trees shook but nothing fell. Parked cars also shook. Houses were swaying too but hats off to the Japanese earthquake resistant construction techniques, none of the houses in our locality fell or crumbled. Also in most videos seen on TV, it is evident that very few structures had fallen or collapsed due to the earthquake. The after shocks began almost immediately and in quick succession. Some of the aftershocks were full fledged earthquakes and measured above 6.0 magnitude. The aftershocks continue to rock various parts of Japan even a week later. We had sleepless nights right from the day the earthquake struck till we arrived in Mumbai. My daughter said that she wasn’t scared when the bus shook. The bus was stopped near an open ground when the tremors began and moved further only when the tremors had completely stopped. She said that their teacher told them to be calm and also told them to hold on to their seats. I am not sure how the teachers managed to stay calm, at the same time taking care that the children were safe and kept their calm. They did a great job because perhaps my daughter was the only one in our family who remained calm in the week that followed. My husband said that at his workplace, the entire building swayed and computers and other things fell off desks and shelves. Flooring was ruined in the buildings while a new building which was under construction was badly damaged. The real extent of the damage remains to be ascertained as of now.
The Tsunami which followed the earthquake caused more widespread destruction than the earthquake itself. The rubble and debris resulting from the earthquake was washed out into the sea or into the interiors. We still cannot forget the images we saw of Ships lying on home roofs, cars lying on building tops or people’s houses being washed away.  
Lightweight houses built to withstand earthquakes proved to be fatal as the 7 metre high waves washed them out into the sea. In Sanrikucho, Ofunato the tsunami waves are reported to have been 23 m high. Thousands of people have been reported missing and whole cities and towns have been vanquished. Lots of unfortunate people’s entire lives savings were washed out in no time. Lots of families were separated or displaced. Nature was showing its worst fury. Our house was about 10 kms away from the coast and on an elevation. As such, the tsunami waves did not reach our place. But the coastal areas of Yotsukura and Onahama port in Iwaki were badly affected. I have been unsuccessfully searching on the internet for information on what happened to the Iwaki La La Mew and Aquamarine Fukushima during the Tsunami.  The Tsunami caused much more damage to most of Tohoku’s Pacific Coast than the earthquake.
But this wasn’t the end of the ordeal for Japan. A newer and perhaps more deadlier problem arose in the form of the Nuclear crisis. The Earthquake and Tsunami waves led to the Nuclear reactors malfunctioning. Media has covered this event extensively so I will not go into the details.
Our home in Iwaki is about 50 kms from the Fukushima Nuclear plant. When the radiation threat was detected, the Govt had issued an advisory for people within 10 kms radius of the plant to evacuate. This was gradually increased to 20 kms and people within 30 kms radius were asked to stay indoors if they could not evacuate. The immediate threat is of the nuclear radiation which is likely to affect residents of this area and also likely to spread to other areas of Japan. It is sad that the same country has to experience yet another nuclear threat 66 years after the World War II. The recovery of Japan from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing has been a true example of the determination of the Japanese people. Hiroshima was not only rebuilt but it is one of Japan’s most modern cities. The resurrection was swift and while most other nations would have continued to enjoy sympathy, Japan came out of this strongly. This is a lesson that most other nations need to learn from the Japanese people. I am confident that Japan will rise from the current crisis within no time with their kind of determination and attitude.
The triple disaster disrupted normal life beyond imagination. The first effect was Phone lines stopped working and internet connection was down. Water supply stopped from the next day. Department stores and Convenience stores ran out of supplies and had to be shut down early the next morning. But hats off to the Japanese people for maintaining an amazing discipline and calm even in this crisis situation. In other nations, usually shortage of food and basic essentials leads to a looting and plundering situation. In Japan, there were no reports on any such instances. We did not even witness any such incident ourselves.  This shows that Japan as a country has raised its level much higher than all of this. Even in the queue for water collection, there was a sense of discipline as no one objected to other people filling up lot of containers with water while the people standing behind had only one or two containers.  All this at a time when the people in the queue behind were not sure that the water would last till their turn came. Since they had never needed to store water, people did not even have adequate containers and were collecting water in plastic bags.
 Even in such times people were helping others. Even in the videos showing the conditions in the evacuation centres, we could see people realized the need of other people and restricted their food requirements to a bare minimum. This is something the world needs to learn from the Japanese people.
 It was the first time for us to see a different side of Japan. It was the first time to see people queuing up for water near public places. It was the first time to see people queuing up outside stores in the hope that they would reopen. 
It was the first time to see a fuel shortage – Petrol bunks were closed and there were long line of cars waiting in the hope that the petrol bunks will reopen soon. 
Long queues for kerosene were a common sight
Expressways were closed and people moving out to Tokyo area or other prefectures had to use the Highway 6. Highway 6 was congested and we even heard rumours that it took almost 24-30 hours to reach Tokyo from Iwaki (a distance of approx 200 kms which normally takes approx 5 hrs driving time on Highway 6 and 3 hours on Joban expressway). I have lived in other countries before but the Japanese people have come across as the most humble and straightforward. Most people will agree with me when I say that the Japanese people are disciplined, polite, calm, brave and selfless. But to be able to control our emotions and fears and respect other peoples’ needs in trying times is very difficult. The patience and understanding that the Japanese people have demonstrated shows why the country has achieved so much. Shortage of food, fuel, electricity, water and fear of further problems have failed to change the people's attitude. Relief and restoration work started almost immediately and it was surprising to see that the badly damaged roads (at places the roads had been displaced by a feet or so) had been repaired/fixed quickly to help rescue and relief operations and evacuations. My family and I will always have the highest respect for Japan and its people. We consider ourselves lucky to have learnt most valuable lessons in life from the Japanese people in the current crisis.
We got to experience the best of Japanese care, concern, support and hospitality in the week following the earthquake. My husband’s company and his colleagues and friends took utmost care of our family. At times they have given priority to our wellbeing and safety even before they arranged basic necessities for themselves. Since English broadcasts are not continuous on the local TV, they even kept us informed of the latest advisories. A few friends had planned to take us along with their families to Tokyo area knowing well that we had no relatives in Japan. My husband’s company’s President himself arrived at our doorstep with water and food items and assured us about their concern for our wellbeing and safety. Even people having limited fuel in their cars came to our home first to check if we had enough food and water to last till we evacuated. One friend whose brother had gone missing during the Tsunami and parents were in an evacuation centre, came to our home to check about our safety because she was unable to call us. As the Nuclear crisis worsened, my husband’s company arranged for our immediate evacuation from the city of Iwaki to Tokyo and for further movement to India. Flight tickets were almost impossible to get but the company managed to find tickets for us. The company arranged transportation and interim accommodation till we moved to India. Since fuel was in short supply and no taxi service was operating, we were driven down to Tokyo by a director of the company who stayed with us till the time we boarded the flight from Narita. We feel guilty to have been a major concern for our friends and company in Japan in these times. Our return to India was essential in order to relieve them from worrying about us. Many of our acquaintances in Iwaki and vicinity had not been able to evacuate due to fuel shortage or other reasons like old relatives who could not be moved. A week later the situation is slowly improving but there is still a long way to go. My friends write to me that fuel and food shortage is still a concern in the region. Radiation levels were high but are slowly falling with the latest developments at the Fukushima Nuclear plant.  The personnel at the plant who have been working day and night to resolve the crisis are the real heroes. Their selfless service in this crisis situation cannot be forgotten.  
On our way to India, we stayed in Tokyo for 3 days. Contrary to media reports and rumours circulating at the time, people in Tokyo were living a normal life and there was no panic whatsoever. Buses to the Tokyo immigration bureau were crowded and we saw many foreigners queuing up for Airport buses or buses to the Immigration bureau. Narita airport was crowded beyond imagination and we saw many people waiting for tickets or for their flights days later. 
We reached my hometown Mumbai on 17th March 2011. Though we have returned to India, our heart and mind is still in Japan and we pray for the country and its people to overcome this situation and recover at the earliest. And we hope to be able to return to this wonderful country at the earliest. 

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Hina Matsuri- Girls' Festival

We recently received a unique gift from our Japanese friends. They had visited the Tokyo Disneyland resort recently and had brought a gift for our daughter. The instructions that we got with the gift surprised us. They told us that the dolls should be displayed only for about a month beginning after the Setsubun festival and should be removed from display on 4th March. This was our introduction to the Japanese festival of “Hina Matsuri”. This festival is also called “Doll’s festival” or “Girls Festival” and is celebrated on March 3 every year.

The main focus of this event is the display of dolls called “Hina Ningyo”. This festival is to pray for the healthy development and happiness of girls in the household. It is believed that by touching these Hina Dolls, the bad luck and illness will be transferred to these dolls and the girls will lead a healthy and happy life. The doll display usually begins in mid February and is kept till Hina Matsuri. It is believed that displaying the dolls after March 4th will delay the marriage of girls and as such the doll display is taken off before March 4th.  

The festival owes its origins to the Heian period when it was common practice among girls in the royal families to play with Cloth or Paper Hina dolls. It was believed that these dolls had powers to contain bad spirits. Towards 19th century the common public adopted the custom and thus began the tradition of displaying dolls.
The dolls are modeled after the lifestyle and fashion of the Imperial court and family as existed 1000 years ago. The display of dolls is usually on a shelf called “Hina Dan”. The traditional doll arrangement is on a seven tiered shelf. A red carpet is used to cover the shelf. The highest shelf has two dolls – one male and another female. The male doll is called “Obina” or “Odairi sama and is modeled after the Emperor while the female doll is called “Mebina” or “Ohina sama” who is modeled after the Empress. The Emperor doll holds a ritual baton while the Empress doll holds a fan. This is the aristocratic couple and they are seated in front of a golden folding paper screen called “byobu”. At times two lampstands or lanterns are placed on the side. Some arrangements have various accessories placed between them. One interesting thing to note is the seating of the female doll. In traditional arrangements the female is seated on right side of the male doll. This is because the Emperor was seated on the right side of the Emperor till the 20th century when the Empress began to sit on the left side of the Emperor. This change was incorporated even in the Hina doll placement. In modern displays the female doll is seated on the left side of the male doll. However in places like Kyoto the dolls are placed in the traditional positions.

Three female dolls are placed on the second shelf. These are called the “San nin Kanjo” and are modeled after the ladies in waiting. They serve the aristocratic couple. At times these dolls are shown holding sake equipment . Occasionally other pieces of furniture holding other food items are also displayed alongside these dolls.  

The third shelf has five male dolls called “Gonin Bayashi”. They are the court entertainers and are shown holding various musical instruments. One of these five is shown holding a fan and he is supposed to be the singer.

The fourth shelf has a set of two dolls who are Ministers- Minister of the Right and Minister of the Left. The Minister of the Right called “Udaijin” is usually shown as younger in age than the Minister of Left called “Sadaijin”. Sometimes tables with food items are shown between these two dolls.

The fifth shelf holds three helpers or samurai. They are protectors of the royal couple .

The sixth and seventh shelves usually hold various pieces of furniture and accessories, tools etc. The sixth shelf usually holds things in use while at the royal palace while the seventh shelf holds things which are used while away from the royal palace. Most often a calligraphy set is seen. This was generally placed in the hope that the daughters of the family will become well educated young ladies. Other things on display include sewing kits, mirror stand, chest of drawers, and tea ceremony utensils.  
Some Hina Ningyo displays are elaborate and extravagant. The cost of few such sets ranges between a few hundred thousand yen to millions of yen. Keeping the cost and space factor in mind, it is now a days common to see smaller versions on displays at homes. These days the most common display is a set of two dolls depicting the Emperor and Empress.

(The above video is a link which I viewed on Youtube and liked it. Since I felt it is informative, I am sharing it on this blog.)

And finally here is the cute “Mickey and Minnie” Hina ningyo set that we received as a gift from our Japanese family friends:

On the day of Hina Matsuri, our daughter came back home with a small package containing a greeting card and a special Hina Matsuri cake. 

At the kindergarten, they were taught the Hina matsuri song which goes like this...

Akari wa Tsukemashou Bonporini
Ohana wa Agemashou Momo no hana
Gonin Bayashi no Fue Taiko
Kyou Wa Tanoshii Hina Matsuri

Odairisama to Ohinasama
Futari Narande Sumashigao
Oyomeniirashita Neesamani 
Yokunitakanjono Shiroikao

Kinno Byoubuni Utsuruhino 
Kasakani Yusuru Haruno Kaze
Sukoshi Shirozake Mesaretaka
Akai Okaono Udaijin

Kimono wa Kikaete Obishimete
Kyou wa Watashi mo Haresugata
Haruno Yayoi no Konoyokihi 
Nani Yori Ureshii Hina Matsuri.

To all the little girls in Japan, here's wishing you all a "Ureshii Hinamatsuri".