Sunday, March 20, 2011

Global anxiety and the disaster in Japan

This morning, for the first time in more than a week, my in-box was eerily devoid of panicky messages urging me to get out of Japan. The melodramatic media coverage of the Fukushima nuclear crisis seems to have cooled. In turn, my parents are no longer pressuring me to come home. I feel like I can breathe again.

There's a discrepancy between the way people inside Japan are reacting to the disaster and the way people from outside Japan are reacting to the disaster. Most of the panic is being generated by people from other countries. My Canadian friends are more freaked out about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown than I am. People in Vancouver are stocking up on potassium iodide tablets, afraid of a toxic cloud of radiation blowing west across the Pacific Ocean.

I can't blame the rest of the world for thinking the apocalypse is upon us. A nuclear crisis on top of a tsunami on top of an earthquake -- just one of these things would have been horrible enough. But to deal with all three at the same time? The aftermath has been overwhelming (8,100 people dead, 12,000 people missing, half a million people homeless, entire towns wiped off the map, nuclear reactors exploding, radiation escaping, electricity failing, shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine, aftershock after aftershock).

But through it all, life went on elsewhere in Japan. People went to work. Kids went to school. The trains ran on time. The buildings remained standing. This ordinariness was nowhere to be seen in the media coverage coming out of Japan. And why would it be? It's not news. Journalists rightly focused all of their attention on the unfolding tragedy. There wasn't room for subtlety and nuance, which maybe partly explains why the foreign reaction seemed to verge on panic while the Japanese reaction was comparatively calm. Maybe it's because people from outside the country were looking at Japan through a very narrow lens. And what they saw looked terrifying.

Even though I am in Kyoto, hundreds of kilometres away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, people back home worried about my safety. I've spent a good part of the past week trying to convince family and friends that I'm okay. Not that I'm complaining. I'm extremely touched by all of the concern. I received emails from friends I haven't heard from or seen in years. It's nice to know that so many people are thinking of me. It has been the best part of a very long week.

Other people are frustrated with all of the fear-mongering from the foreign media. There's a sense that the media focus on the nuclear crisis is overshadowing the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami. They complain that it's taking attention and aid away from the earthquake survivors up north. It's also causing people outside the country to panic needlessly. Their panic feeds our panic.

I don't think it's fair to blame the foreign media. Yes, there has been some sensationalism but I can live with a bit of sensationalism if it helps draw attention to the disaster. I'm far more comfortable with a few inaccuracies than I am with media outlets that serve as propaganda tools for the government. Most people in Japan don't trust the Japanese media to look for government cover-ups and half-truths when it comes to nuclear safety. The Japanese media simply reprints what the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company are saying verbatim. The foreign media is working much harder to find out what's really going on.

I'm no longer worried but I'm still not taking what the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company are saying at face value. There has been too much confusing and contradictory information. At first, the Japanese government said people living outside a 20-kilometre radius of the power plant were safe. Then they changed that to 30 kilometres. And then the Americans stepped in and said that the evacuation zone should actually be more like 80 kilometres. (I don't know what distance is truly safe. Personally, I'd take their best-case scenario and double it. Just to be sure.)

The Japanese government is desperate to avoid mass panic and they've done a good job of keeping people relatively calm so far. In a country of 127 million people, mass panic would only lead to mass chaos.

We've already seen small pockets of panic, as some people in the Tokyo area started hoarding supplies -- buying rice, noodles, bottled water and toilet paper in bulk. Imagine if everyone tried to flee the country at the same time or ran to the supermarket and stripped all the shelves of food. It would make things much, much worse, especially for the hundreds of thousands of people in the evacuation centres who are already running short of food, water, fuel and medicine.

A handful of friends have flown home. The rest of us are staying put. The nuclear situation seems to be somewhat under control -- for now, at least. The media is starting to shift its attention away from Japan and toward Libya and Syria. For the first time in a week, Japan is no longer the top story. By this time next week, most of the foreign journalists will have left Japan. The country will start to recover and rebuild, without much attention or fanfare.

How you can help:

Japanese Red Cross

Canadian Red Cross

Doctors Without Borders


Second Harvest Japan

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear meltdown: To panic or not to panic?

I am still in Japan and I am still safe. But the very real possibility of a nuclear meltdown is making me increasingly nervous. I'm not panicking but maybe I should be.

I don't know what to do. The news changes hourly and it's often full of contradictory and confusing information. There was an explosion. There wasn't an explosion. Radiation is leaking. Radiation isn't leaking. Radiation levels have risen. Radiation levels have fallen. There's a risk to human health. There's no risk to human health. I don't know what to believe.

My Japanese isn't good enough to follow local media reports so I'm relying on western media outlets to keep me informed. It's an incredibly strange feeling to be sitting inside my Kyoto apartment watching Canadian, American and British journalists report on the disaster in Japan. I'm counting on people from outside the country to tell me what's happening inside the country. Life is still so unremarkably normal in Kyoto that it feels like I'm watching the disaster unfold half a world away.

The disconnect -- between the unfathomable devastation in the northern half of Japan and the absolute normality in the southern half of Japan -- is huge.

But I'm starting to wonder if this disconnect, and its accompanying feeling of safety, is just an illusion. The mask of calmness across Japan is starting to crack. For the first time since the earthquake and tsunami hit, Japanese people are starting to get angry. A lot of people don't trust what the government is saying and have chosen to get as far away from the nuclear power plant as possible. It's difficult to gauge the real level of panic because people communicate in an indirect way here. What is unsaid is often more important than what is said. You never take a sentence at face value. You have to read the subtext and decipher its unspoken meanings. So when a government minister appears on TV to tell people the risk of a nuclear meltdown is low, it's difficult for people to accept that as the whole truth.

Not only am I getting nervous but I'm also getting frustrated. There is no information about what a nuclear meltdown would mean for those of us in other parts of the country. Kyoto University has not contacted its students. City Hall is not publishing any information in English. The Canadian Embassy is telling us to stay away from the disaster zone but offers no advice to anyone anywhere else. No one is telling us whether or not we need to take potassium iodide tablets. If you were to trust what the Japanese government is saying, then only people living within a 30-kilometre radius of the Fukushima nuclear plant need to be concerned. Everyone else can remain calm.

But some people aren't buying it. A friend of mine left Tokyo and came to Kyoto a few days ago because she was worried the city would become chaotic if things got worse. She decided it was better to leave while there was an easy way out before becoming stuck if millions of people decided to flee at the same time. Another friend and his wife decided the radiation risk just wasn't worth it (they have a baby) and they're flying out of Japan tonight. My mom, who booked a flight to Japan several months ago, is debating whether or not to cancel the trip. She was supposed to fly into Tokyo two weeks from today. But that's looking more and more unlikely.

My friends and family back in Canada are becoming increasingly worried and it's starting to make me anxious. I'm getting emails on a daily basis urging me to leave the country. I don't blame them. Life north of here is a nightmare. The earthquake and tsunami have killed more than 10,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless. Food, water, fuel, medicine and electricity are in short supply. And as if all that wasn't bad enough, we're dealing with a nuclear crisis at the same time.

But I'm not panicking yet. No one has given me any reason to believe Kyoto is not safe. People here are still going about their daily lives. Everything is so remakably ordinary you wouldn't know there was a disaster to the north of us.

Any suggestions?

Monday, March 14, 2011

After the earthquake

I was sitting in my apartment, organizing files on my computer, when the earthquake hit. I didn't feel a thing. Not even a tremor.

Kyoto is far away from the earthquake's epicenter so we were oblivious to the violent shaking and the speeding wall of water that would devastate northern Japan within a matter of minutes.

The earthquake and tsunami came and went unnoticed in Kyoto. It wasn't until friends from Canada starting posting on my Facebook wall, asking if I was still alive, that I knew something horrible had happened.

I turned on the TV for the first time in a week. Every channel was showing the same thing -- wall-to-wall coverage of the earthquake and the tsunami. Someone in a helicopter had managed to shoot footage of the tsunami as it roared inland. Ten metres high and moving at the speed of an airplane, the tsunami devoured everything in its path. We saw houses ripped from their foundations, cars bobbing along like toys, utility poles snapping like sticks. We saw people in offices ducking for cover as the shaking shelves toppled and crashed to the floor. The same videos played on a loop throughout the day. At that point, there wasn't much information. The full extent of the damage was unknown. But it was obvious the earthquake was bad.

During the next few days, the news got more and more grim. Hearing the frequently updated death toll is the worst part. The numbers just keep getting higher. The official death toll now stands at nearly 2,000. But the last report I read said at least 10,000 people are missing from a town that was virtually wiped off the map by the tsunami.

Life was so normal and so ordinary and then one tectonic plate moves under another and everything is suddenly turned upside down.

I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been.

Stories from the survivors are now starting to trickle in. A reporter interviewed a young Japanese woman who survived the tsunami. She had been holding her daughter's hand but lost her grip when the water rushed in. She hasn't seen her daughter since. The woman told the reporter that she saved herself but couldn't save her daughter. It's horrible and heartbreaking.

But here in Kyoto, life goes on. You wouldn't even know anything had happened. People are working, shopping and just generally going about their daily lives. I feel so far removed from the tragedy and yet so deeply affected by it. Japan is my second home and it hurts to know that so many people here are suffering.

I want to do something to help but I feel useless and powerless. I donated money but it doesn't feel like enough. I want to go up there and help dig through the rubble. But I know I can't do that. I'd just be in the way. If everyone headed up north, it would be a logistical nightmare. We need to make room for the professionals -- the doctors, the nurses, the soldiers, the search and rescue teams, the journalists, the people actually trained in disaster response. The last thing these places need right now is an influx of people with good intentions and no skills.

And yet, in the midst of all of this horror, Japanese people remain polite and civil. There is no looting. There is no shouting or pushing in the long line-ups for food, water and gas. Two nuclear power plants are on the brink of blowing up but no one is panicking. Everyone appears calm and orderly, pulling together for the common good. It's an inspiring thing to see and my friend Mark MacKinnon, a journalist with the Globe and Mail, captures the stoicism well.

For now, the best thing the rest of us can do is donate money.

The Japanese Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross and the American Red Cross are all accepting donations.

Google has set up an excellent 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami crisis response site.

I don't know what else to say or do. Even though I didn't suffer through the earthquake, I still feel shaken up by it. It's just such a blunt reminder that life is unfair and death is around every corner. Things can go from good to bad at any moment. You can be holding your daughter's hand one minute and have it ripped away by a tsunami the next minute. It's just so fast, so uncontrollable and so unpredictable. It could happen to any of us at any time.

My heart goes out to all of the victims and all of their families.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Tokyo Marathon (from a hedonist's point of view)

I am not one of those people who think the marathon is some sort of mythical challenge reserved for all but the fittest and strongest among us. Nope. I'm one of those people who think pretty much anyone can complete a marathon. All it takes is a commitment to a training plan that slowly and steadily builds up the mileage.

Finishing a marathon is an admirable accomplishment, to be sure. But let's not pretend it's something bigger than it is. If someone held a gun to your head and said, "Run 42 kilometers or I will blow your brains out!" you would do it, even if you had never run more than a mile in your life. You would somehow force your body across that distance -- run, walk or crawl. It would be painful but not impossible.

So why is the marathon held up as example of something that pushes the limits of human endurance? (I'm not talking about the elite runners here. They actually are pushing the limits of human endurance. They run the marathon at a pace that is so blisteringly fast they practically sprint the entire 42 kilometres.) But for the vast majority of us plodding along behind the front runners the marathon isn't all that difficult (assuming we've trained properly).

I'm not disparaging the marathon. Forty-two kilometres is a long way to run and it's a distance that demands respect. I just don't buy into the whole "massive challenge" mystique that the race wraps itself in. It's a bit of a smokescreen. In reality, the marathon is accessible to almost anyone. If you want to run 42 km, you can. People in wheelchairs do it. Blind people do it. Intellectually impaired people do it. Overweight people do it. People in their 80s do it. And, now, I do it too.

Sergey and I ran the Tokyo Marathon last weekend. And while it was tough, it wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I didn't hit the wall. I didn't cramp up. I didn't even break a sweat. This is probably because I was on cruise control the whole way through. My only goal was to cross the finish line feeling good. And while I wouldn't exactly describe the way I felt when I crossed the finish line as "good," I certainly wasn't destroyed.

I took my time getting to the finish line -- a whopping five hours, 40 minutes and 57 seconds. A time so slow it pretty much puts me at the back of the pack. A time so slow it prompted a flurry of emails from friends and family who assumed something had gone horribly wrong. My dad asked if I'd walked most of the marathon. A friend asked if I had injured myself. Another friend wrote, "You have some explaining to do!"

The simple truth is I plodded through with minimal effort on purpose and I'm okay with that. I know what it feels like to push yourself to the limit and it's not a fun feeling. I used to be able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. But the pain barrier is now something I shrink away from rather than push towards. I wanted to make the Tokyo Marathon as pleasurable an experience as possible. Hedonism is the new masochism.

The only other marathon I've ever run was at the back-end of an Ironman triathlon. And I think the reason why the Tokyo Marathon felt relatively easy was because I didn't have to swim four kilometres and then cycle 180 kilometres beforehand. (Although, amazingly, my Tokyo Marathon time was half an hour slower than my Ironman marathon time.)

Admittedly, I did the bare-minimum amount of training needed to cross the Tokyo Marathon finish line. And Sergey, hobbled by knee pain for the past month, did even less. We signed up for the marathon last summer but our names weren't drawn in the initial lottery (the race is limited to 36,000 participants but because more than 360,000 people sign up each year, runners are chosen randomly. It's more of a challenge to actually get picked to do the marathon than it is to run the race itself). After we lost the lottery we also lost our motivation to train. And then, out of the blue, we got an email in November saying there had been a second lottery and our names had been drawn. So we signed up, with only three months to prepare.

Because of our bare-minimum training, I figured it was better to play it safe and run a conservative race. I planned to be out on the course for a long time so I decided to run with a backpack and fill it with all of the things I needed to keep propelling my body forward for 42 kilometres. What I lacked in terms of raw physical ability I would offset by a constant intake of sugar, caffeine and ibuprofen.

My backpack contained the following items. Six energy gels (taste like crap but they work), some money (in case I decided to stop at a convenience store for a more filling snack), a tube of chapstick, lots of painkillers, sun block, a bottle of coke, a coffee, a bottle of water (not pictured), and my camera (also not pictured, obviously).

Sergey wanted to run unencumbered by extra weight and figured he'd just pick up food and drinks along the course. We started the race together but agreed to run separately. He ended up finishing 20 minutes faster than me. Not bad for a guy who quit smoking six months ago, took up running in the summer, and suffered shin and knee pain throughout the entire race.

Unlike Sergey, I didn't have to deal with too much pain during the race but I did have to deal with a brain reluctant to push my body the entire distance. To keep my mind occupied, I divided the time up into regimented little chunks. Every 10 minutes, I walked for one minute and drank two gulps of water. Every 60 minutes, I walked for two minutes and popped one gel and took two ibuprofen. Every aid station, I drank a cup of gatorade. Every food station, I ate one banana. I was so busy focusing on these little tasks it took my mind off how tired I was feeling.

Things became mentally tough at kilometre 28. I was ready for the race to be over. I needed to find a way to keep myself going so I invented a hackneyed Hollywood plot and put the marathon at the centre of it. I imagined we were running through the streets of Tokyo 100 years in the future. But it was a bleak future. The world's population had grown so large it had strained the earth beyond its breaking point. Life was a post-apocalyptic nightmare. There was not enough food to eat or water to drink. The air was dirty and gray. Famine, disease, and death were widespread. Totalitarian governments were in power the world over. They wanted to cull the population and create a superior race of human beings. Their solution was to force people in the biggest cities to run marathons. Anyone who dropped out of the marathon before reaching the finish line would be shot and killed. Imagining there was a sniper by my side ready to shoot me in the head if I stopped running helped keep me going. (Zero points for originality but whatever works.)

Things became physically tough at kilometre 37. I felt a sharp pain in one of my toes that was so intense it almost brought me to a dead stop. I assumed one of my toenails had ripped right out of its bed and my shoe was filling up with blood. I could feel the detached nail shifting around inside my sock and the blood squishing between my toes. I didn't want to stop and assess the damage because I was pretty sure I would faint if I came face-to-face with the mess inside my shoe (turns out it was only a blister that had popped).

By kilometre 38, the pain had dulled and I hobbled through the last four kilometres. My legs were so leaden it felt as if someone had joined them together with elastic bands at the ankles. I wanted to lift my legs but I couldn't. I crossed the finish line feeling okay. Not great but not destroyed.

Still, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. The weather couldn't have been better. Blue skies, 15 degrees and only a hint of a breeze. From start to finish, the organization was top-notch. Everything went so smoothly it was like floating from one cloud to another. From registration to the bag drop to the start line to the finish line there was not one wrinkle, not one kink. All 36,000 of us got the Japanese white-glove treatment from the organizers, volunteers and supporters. It was, hands down, the best-organized event I've ever seen. Every little detail was handled with meticulous care, right down to the bananas handed out to runners on the course.

(Side note: The bananas are actually kind of a funny story. Dole developed a banana specifically for the Tokyo Marathon. According to the company, the banana was created in the Philippines where growers played "runners' favourite songs to help in cultivation and make it even tastier." The songs played included the theme to Rocky and Queen's "We are the Champions.")

If I had one complaint, it would have to be the toilets. There's just no way to set up enough porta-potties along the course to satisfy 36,000 runners. There were several porta-potty stations but the line-ups were at least 15 minutes long. But there were plenty of convenience stores along the way and a few enterprising runners (myself included) decided to get off the road, push our way through the crowds, run down the sidewalk and jump into the nearest 7-Eleven toilet.

Also interesting to note was the large contingent of runners dressed in costume. I counted at least three salarymen running in full business suits. There were a few men dressed up in schoolgirl uniforms and wigs. Another runner went as Michel Jackson (black shoes, white socks, black pants, white t-shirt, single glove, fedora) and moonwalked most of the marathon. Dozens of runners dressed up as Japanese anime characters. Darth Vader, Spiderman and Captain America also made an appearance. It was somewhat demoralizing to be passed by a man in a Pikachu costume but my spirits picked up when I kicked Jesus' ass.

Would I do another marathon? I don't know. I think, like the Ironman, it's something I only want to do once. To cross it off my bucket list. I don't like the way the regimented training puts a stranglehold on spontaneity. The reward isn't big enough to make the sacrifice -- the huge investment of time and energy -- seem worth it.

I like running. I like the purity and simplicity of it. I like the solitude of it. I like the low-cost, low-tech, low-skill freedom of it. And the marathon is kind of the opposite of all of that. That's not a bad thing. I'm just not really sure it's my thing.

I'm happy I ran the Tokyo Marathon. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. I set a goal and I accomplished it. It wasn't a mythical challenge but it was good.