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The Operation Tomodachi

Since the M9.0 earthquake and the towering waves of tsunamis left North-East Japan in devastation, so many countries offered us help, including those which I'd imagine could ill afford to do so: in fact, 132 nations and regions, and 34 international institutions to this day. After the crisis broke out at Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Plant, some nations - most noticeably the USA and South Korea, among others - promptly came to our rescue again. It was uplifting, to say the least, to know that the world cared about us, about the tragedy that befell those families who were torn asunder by the awesome natural disaster.

I will never forget how much relief I felt in hearing the news that South Korea was on its way to Japan, immediately after the disaster struck us. How much strength the international aid gave us. Most of all, America has proven to be our staunch ally.

The US took to the task of rescuing Japan full-scale; it was named "The Operation Tomodachi." When I heard the news, I couldn't help smiling at the slight cheesiness of it, but at the same time, nothing was more moving, and reassuring. Approximately 13,000 personnel are mobilised for this operation.

The US Air Force has been transporting relief goods such as food and clothes from the US Kadena airfield in Okinawa, and has been flying unmanned recon planes over the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant.

The US Army has sent medical and engineering teams, and has been engaged in the restoration of the airport in Sendai.

The US Marine Corps has been transporting relief goods to the affected areas from the super carrier acting as a relief centre.

The nuclear powered super carrier Ronald Reagan, with its fleet of 20 warships, had been on its way to military maneuver with South Korea, but changed its course on hearing about the news from Japan. It positioned itself 50km off the coast of Sanriku, and has been acting as an impromptu maritime base for rescue efforts since 13 March, only two days after the disaster struck Japan.

As the roads were severed in the coastal areas in Iwate and Miyagi by the tsunamis, the US rescue teams send relief goods from the temporary maritime base by helicopters. They spot shelters cut off from roads from above. They discovered 17 such isolated shelters in one day alone. In the news coverage, I saw old women bowing their heads deeply, holding the American soldier's hands, wordlessly thanking him. They have delivered 230tons of relief goods.

As a nuclear powered super carrier, Ronald Reagan is uniquely equipped with radiation monitoring equipments. Although the carrier is positioned 90km away from the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant, they take meticulous precautions against any possibility of exposure to radiation. They carefully monitor the radiation levels of personnel, check the wind directions, and provide pilots with iodine preparations against contingency. If the radiation level should go up, they would move the carrier to a different spot and continue with their rescue operation.

The US is fully engaged in the operations to pump fresh water into the reactors, sending two large vessels that can contain 1,100tons each. The US government also offered that it was ready to send a nuclear specialist troop of 450 men, on the Japanese government's request.

This shan't be forgotten in a hurry, how much our big tomodachi has been doing for us; indeed, how much our tomodachis both within Japan and abroad have been doing for us.

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Come Live with Us and Be Our Neighbour

The world has been giving us so much support in this time of dire need. If nothing else, this tragedy in Japan has taught me that emergency draws out our true colours, and what I've seen is more beautiful than I'd imagined. There is much hope for humanity yet. Of course, there are some ugly stories as well, like a certain hospital where elderly patients were deserted by staff, but that is only to be expected. Who can accuse anyone of trying to save themselves, when we are not the ones who were tested? There are also those stories, where staff refused to leave their elderly charge, and where a young girl in a village office kept issuing tsunami alerts, saving many lives, until she was swallowed by the tsunami herself. And the international response showed us what mankind was capable of. It was enough to make me believe that we are indeed in the Age of Aquarius, if it hasn't passed on to some other sign of zodiac since the 70s.

Yet, I have some reservations about the international media's reaction. When the nuclear crisis broke out at Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Plant, the world media seemed to go into a full meltdown frenzy. Nuclear scare is riveting. Fascinating. No doubt, it was aggravated by the scarcity of information at the initial stages of the ongoing crisis. Foreign media was quick to offer speculations and criticisms of the government's management of the crisis. It sounded as if they all grasped the real danger of the apocalyptic end for those of us in Japan, and knew just what had to be done, while the Japanese government simply hadn't a clue that we were facing a full-scale nuclear crisis. They seemed to relish saying that Japan wasn't aware of the gravity of the situation, while what the nation was trying to do was to keep calm in the face of the most serious nuclear accident we have experienced.

The noticeable lack of panic in the public and the Japanese media during the height of the crisis does us some credit, I believe, as Japan is the country with most reasons to react hysterically to nuclear scare. Most people have visited the Peace Museum in Hiroshima on their school trips, and certainly have some extensive visual knowledge of what atomic bomb victims had gone through. When I was a small girl, I used to look at fallen hair on my pillow and wonder if we had been bombed during the night (I seemed to have mixed up air raids and atomic bombing), for a while after learning about atomic bombing. So, our apparent calm took me by surprise. I guess we couldn't afford to panic. It is only those in safe distance who are allowed the luxury of nuclear scare frenzy.

While the world media was gripped by the nuclear apocalypse for Japan,  which seemed to overshadow the Middle East crisis, it was only the British media (or the British Embassy in Tokyo, to be more precise) that offered any calm perspective, from my not-at-all extensive search of foreign media. Trust the Brits to keep their cool in time of emergency; their upper lips stayed as stiff as ever even when talking about a nuclear scare in some other country.

It was only natural, I suppose, that a rational voice in defence of nuclear power should be raised from that quarter of the world, in the middle of increasing distrust of nuclear power. Guardian's journalist wrote a piece titled "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power" on 21 March, 2011. I personally think he spoke too soon, when the crisis is not even over yet, but I do understand why he would feel the urge to speak up for nuclear power right now. What he says may or may not be valid; there are so many conflicting opinions about the world's electricity situation that I cannot say if renewables alone (or in combination with fossil fuels), without nuclear, could cover the demand. (One thing for sure, we need to have a serious look at energy portfolio and at how much electricity we waste daily. We are trying to be extremely frugal with electricity in Japan at the moment, due to power shortage. It seems we should be able to live with much less electricity, at home at least.) Anyway, you can judge for yourself what he says here: "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power" by George Monbiot.

He says, "I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective." I'll give him perspective from the ground level, as it were.

It is too early to speak of the consequences of Fukushima No.1, when the situation is still far from over and done with. It may take some time yet until we hear the words, "cold shutdown," while continuing to hear reports of contamination in water and agricultural produce. There are restrictions on distribution of the vegetables which are contaminated over the safety standards; the sales of vegetables from those areas in general have been negatively affected. This is a grievous blow to the already earthquake/tsunami-stricken areas. Some countries already have placed restrictions on imports of vegetables from the affected areas. There is no knowing, as of now, how extensive the total damage brought on by the nuclear plant accident will prove to be, on our mental health (if not physical health, touch wood), and on our economy. These farmers and dairy farmers, who were spared in the unprecedented natural disasters the country has seen, are now threatened of their livelihood.

So far, the specialists tell us we needn't panic. The scientific data doesn't seem to warrant mass hysteria on a national scale. There are some who argue strongly that we shouldn't discard the vegetables which would not affect our health, even though they are contaminated over the safety standards (the provisional safety standards are very stringent, with the idea that the total radiation exposure should be below 5mSv even if the contaminated food/drink was consumed regularly at the national average rate for a year). It is shocking to see vegetables and milk go to waste, and to imagine what impact this will have on the farmers' lives. I understand these outcries against the restriction, although I do not see any other realistic response that the government could have taken. (Say, if there was no restriction placed on the risky vegetables, there would surely be mass hysteria, and the government wouldn't be able to claim that all "other" vegetables on the market were safe. If they lowered the very strict safety standards, rationally reasoning that regular consumption of the affected products over a certain period of time wouldn't affect our health, there still would be panic when foreign countries started banning imports from Japan, according to the strict safety standards.)

So we do our very best to be rational and to eat our greens, drink our milk, and not to rush to supermarkets to buy bottled water, so mothers with infants will have water to buy. (And just to preempt any criticism from those living outside Japan in a safe environment at those who do buy bottled water just now, we do not know when this crisis will come to its end, how it will play out, or if water might not become contaminated beyond the safety standards for adults as well. Our fear may prove irrational, and I hope it does, but who could call them selfish and inhuman when it is not their safety that is threatened, and it is not their integrity that is tested? Fear of nuclear is deeply rooted, and no amount of rational reasoning can eradicate the uneasy feeling that you might be taking in toxic substances that would eventually harm your health.)

But surely it is not normal to have to stop and think, "So the radiation level is only this and that, so we needn't worry," every time we drink tap water or go out in the rain. I don't know how long we must stay rational. The cleanup of Three Mile Island reactor 2 took 12 years. I would appreciate the journalist's rational approach, bigger perspective and all that, but there comes a point when I'm simply done with being rational. Reading this article was one such point for me. I'd love to shout out at him, "No you twat, nuclear isn't safe or viable."

He says in the conclusion, "Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power." The crisis ain't over yet. So, there has been no death attributed to the plant accident, as yet. Nuclear people tend to point at "no death" (during nuclear power plant accidents) as if that's proof positive that nuclear is so safe. But "the impact on people has been small"? Say that to those workers, firefighters, policemen, and SDF men, who are risking their lives to contain the situation. And to those farmers and dairy farmers who may lose their livelihood. If he really wanted to show rational support for nuclear power, he should raise his voice against the restriction of Japanese vegetables' imports. Or, better still, he could move to Fukushima, preferably within the 30km-zone. There'll be any number of empty houses, and plenty of free vegetables and fresh milk that he can drink to his heart's content.

Sometimes "rational" sounds only sanctimonious when it's not your thyroid glands that are on the line.

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East Japan Earthquake - Evacuees' situation - 17 March 2011

Some supply routes have been secured, and supplies have started arriving in the afflicted areas. Japan Ground Self Defense Force has sent 280 personnel and 100 vehicles to send supplies to evacuees. Also, the government has secured 300 tanker lorries from the western parts of Japan, to send fuel to the afflicted areas. People from all over the world have started sending supplies to Japan. South Korea has decided to provide Japan with gasoline preferentially.

Some evacuees, however, have already died from sheer cold (and hunger, fatigue, illness, etc). Elderly people are under serious threat. Many "shelters" (mere schools and halls; any big place really) are coming to their ends of supplies (food, water, petrol, kerosene). Here is a summary of what I've seen on the news (NHK news).

In Iwate, even those who are trying to send medical supplies to the area must get permit from the local municipality to receive petrol, as five petrol stations within Iwate that are set aside for emergency vehicles are running out of petrol.

In the badly stricken Rikuzen Takada, at least one shelter is coming to its end of kerosene. An old man told the media that they didn't have any more kerosene left after tonight. He said, "Though it's cold in the morning. Well, it just cannot be had, so nothing we can do about it," and smiled.

A private tour company started transporting patients to several hospitals for free. As the company is running low on petrol, the driver wasn't sure if they could provide the service again tomorrow, but he said they'll continue it as long as petrol lasts.

Evacuees are still trying to find their family members in other shelters. As there's hardly any petrol left, however, this is very difficult. I saw a woman cycling from shelter to shelter, looking for her parents. A few days ago, I saw a man cycling around, looking for his wife. He covered his back wheel with a piece of paper with her name written on it, and he carries his wife's photos to show people.

Yesterday (Wed, 16), I saw a girl, taking shelter in (possibly her own) primary school with her friends. They looked all very cheerful, as only primary school children can be. The girl said, "I don't know where my parents are yet, but they must be in other shelters," with such implicit faith, so matter-of-factly, without any trace of doubt.

There are many isolated shelters, completely cut off. An old people's home, whose residents are mostly elderly people with dementia, is one such example. As so many others in the Northern Japan, this place was hit by tsunami; however, there was no casualty, not even one of all 100 residents. This is because the 50 staff members carried all 100 of them upstairs, just as they practiced in their regular tsunami drills. Most residents are not mobile, so sometimes it took four staff members to carry them in heavy wheelchairs upstairs. They finished moving everyone upstairs five minutes before the tsunami struck them. Mercifully, it didn't reach the second floor, unlike in so many other places.

They were urged to evacuate to other shelters, but the staff refused to go, as it was not likely that they could find any shelter that would accept their residents, who need special care, and as they thought their charge wouldn't be able to survive in any other place. The staff managed to procure some supplies. The power is down, so they use a power generator. As they are very low on the fuel, however, they turn it off, save four hours when they cook food for all of them.

A dairy farmer in Aomori says he's very much afraid that people may leave off farming if the situation goes on much longer. He continues to milk his cows dutifully, since they will become ill otherwise. After discussing the matter with his friends, he decided to spray the milk in the field as fertiliser. He is wishing to deliver his fresh milk to evacuees.

I've seen some people shedding tears, telling us how they have no food, blankets, or medicine. I saw one old woman tell us she was concerned about her eye drops, as she'd go blind unless she has them. Isolated evacuees may be suffering even more than those in shelters, although these "shelters" offer hardly any comfort against the bitter cold winter of the northern Japan. They are mostly sleeping on hard floor with hardly anything but blankets, and a stove or two if they're fortunate enough to have both stoves and fuel. They have very insufficient information, and not knowing what is happening must be extremely trying for the already tragedy-stricken evacuees.

Finally, life goes on even in midst of all this; new lives are brought into this world. I saw a new mum, telling us about her labour in complete darkness (electricity was down). She said he'd be a strong boy, coming to life at a time like this. Her glowing smile was so radiant.

These mothers need food, however. Nursing mothers need to eat. And new-born babies cannot survive harsh winter without any heating.

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