New Signs at the Grocery Store

I buy a large percentage of my groceries from a Japanese food co-op normally.  The co-op makes everything easy because it’s one stop shopping and it comes with an English list of all the foods. Everything in the catalog lists the origin of the food, which is great because these days, people in Japan need to know where our produce is grown.  We particularly need to know from where the milk originates.  Like all people in Japan right now, we have an idea which prefectures are safe and which are not with regards to possible radiation in the soil or groundwater.

It takes two weeks to start up my co-op again after a prolonged absence like I had recently, so in the meantime, I have been shopping at the international supermarket, where I can read all of the signs.

Here are a few of the new signs at the Nissin, which is my market of choice right now:

One per customer please!

They use Tokyo groundwater for this OJ. I didn't buy it.

I'll buy things that originate in Chiba, pretty much.

This milk is from the northernmost island of Hokkaido - it's fine

For most of the expats, grocery shopping that used to take half an hour suddenly takes half a day by the time we read all of the signs and figure out which prefectures are safe and which are not quite.   The important thing, though, is that we are here.  I am here and I am fine and I am out supporting the local economy the best that I can.
Yes there are a few aftershocks here and there, but nothing intolerable.  The sun is shining and the people in Tokyo are smiling – mostly because it is finally spring. So if this is my biggest hardship, I think I’m in really excellent shape.

Back in the Saddle

There was a spot on the bench in Arisugawa Park today at noontime.  To some people, that might not mean much, but some people know that generally on a beautifully sunny day like today was, generally all of the park benches are full of lunchtime revelers who are taking a few precious moments away from the office to enjoy the weather.   When I saw the benches, I was momentarily flustered, but then I shrugged and sat down to enjoy my own lunch.

Yep, I’m back in Tokyo.

I’m so happy to be here.  This is home to me.  I know some of my friends and many of my family members think I’m crazy to be here and I spent a lot of time before I left reassuring people that I’d be all right.  But in the end, it truly doesn’t matter; I’m the one who has to believe it.

Other than yogurt, we can get everything we want from the grocery store.  The streets are quiet, but not overly so.  I’ve been here four days now, and I can’t see too many differences from before the earthquake, six weeks ago.  I suppose people are more anxious and there are fewer students in my kids’ classes now, but really, it’s not so different.  My suitcases still arrived on the Takkyubin (a delivery service) truck before they were supposed to; the streets and shops are still as neat and clean as ever; the five o’clock ding-dongs still chime; and my favorite sushi vendor is still in business.

Japan is an amazing country in which to live, and I’m so proud to be here.  Come visit any time!

The Media and Its Bias

Beyond earthquakes, radiation, economic woes, or anything, it’s the media that is going to drive us insane first.  Having been in the U.S. for about a month now, I can see why everyone here has gone so crazy about the situation in Japan.  Please know that I do not at all mean to downplay the seriousness of the circumstances, but given what I know, the media is not doing such a great job in general of accurate portrayals.

One of my most serious war-cries in recent years has been that not only don’t people read, they don’t read critically.  With all of the information available right now, most people choose one news outlet and follow it.  I say that optimistically.  Some people ignore the news, which is another problem entirely.  News has bias – most journalists, even the best ones, have a point of view from which they write/report.  A guy writing for the New York Times, for example, is not going to slam President Obama because the newspaper for which he works is a supporter of the liberal viewpoint.  This extends to advertisers.  Companies hawk their wares in the New York Times because they know what news stories will appear there.  Okay, Tiffany’s has had a standing ad on the top right corner of page 3 for a hundred years, but other companies decide very carefully in which papers or on which websites, their ads will appear.   News from any outlet must be read, understood, and considered.  People have a duty to not just believe what they’ve read, but to think through it, including the potential bias contained therein.  It’s a bit of a viscous cycle because the writers and editorial board might pander to the advertisers, while the advertisers, in turn, look at the newspaper and what they publish.  I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t read a newspaper – please support the newspaper industry!  But just be a  thoughtful reader.

All of this is important because yesterday I had a conversation with someone who is concerned about whether or not I should return to Tokyo.  She called because the Japanese government had upgraded the “accident” in Fukushima to a level 7 from a level 5, where it had stood for weeks already.  I explained to this person that the level change was indicative of the original disaster and nothing beyond the number had changed between Monday and Wednesday.  She argued with me.  She had read a headline that the situation had worsened.  I tried to be patient.  No, I said, if you read further, you’ll see that they’re still working to get things under control there.  It’s not great – things are not nearly as far along as I would have hoped a month after the quake – but certainly nothing serious has “happened” in the past day or so.

The Associated Press headline on Yahoo at 5:30am Eastern Time today was that there are “fresh woes” at the plant.  Well, that’s not really what they meant.  In fact, the story is about how the radiation levels spiked, but are now down and people are able to don suits to look for bodies in the area.  Now, an hour later, the headline is changed to say that the Emperor and Empress visited the coastal towns where the tsunami hit. It’s just so confusing and hard to follow.

In Japan, perhaps there’s a different problem – the media and the government are downplaying the extent of damage and disaster.  The Japanese people have to live there, though.  They don’t want to see or hear so much negativity.  They want to be calm – the government wants them to be calm.

What do we take away from all of this?  Well, the media in the U.S. is sensationalizing the story pretty well, which is a problem.  Disaster not only sells papers, it attracts advertisers.  Just be careful what you read.

More on this to come.  I’m not nearly done with this topic.

Guest blogger: Larry Greenberg

My friend, long-term resident of Tokyo and Jewish Community of Japan Board Member Larry Greenberg has remained in Tokyo throughout the earthquake and tsunami disaster, as well as the ongoing concerns about the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Larry reflected on his reasons for choosing to stay in Tokyo despite the quick exodus of many other foreign residents.

At 2:46 pm on Friday afternoon March 11th I was seated in a narration booth at a studio in downtown Tokyo.  As I read out the lines of my narration script the microphone in front of me began to shake.  “Earthquake!”  That word flashed into my mind and I looked out through the glass window that separated me from the director and the sound technician. Our eyes met and in a flash we shared the same thought “Everything is fine.  Let’s keep on going.”

So, we carried on for 15 seconds or so until the entire room began to shake and we all knew that “this was a big one” and that it was time to get outside.  As we walked down the steps the entire building was rocked by tremors and when we finally got outside we saw crowds of people rushing out of the surrounding buildings.  We all knew that this was a serious quake and that something bad was happening and that this was going to affect us all.

After about 15 minutes the intensity of the tremors fell off somewhat and I looked at the director and the sound techie and simultaneously we all said the same thing: “Let’s go back in and get it done!”  And so we went back inside and over the next 90 minutes we finished the project despite the constant aftershocks.  Afterwards, as I walked 90 minutes back to my office amidst the crowds of people who were calmly walking home, I thought back on how spontaneously and naturally my Japanese colleagues and I each knew that something big had happened, that this was serious, but that right now we each had something important to do.  And we did it.

It’s been 19 days since the disaster struck. During these 19 days we have learned that close to 30,000 people have lost their lives.  We have seen images of entire towns being swallowed by walls of water.  We have learned that in fact the Earth was shifted into a new orbit.  We have watched as selfless heroes have struggled to bring the situation at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant under control.  We have been concerned about an array of indices that have shown that there is radiation contamination across a wide range.

And yet there has been calm.  People in Tokyo have gotten up, watched the news, eaten breakfast and gone to work.  Some people have chosen to send their children away and many entire families have gone.  But the overwhelming response on the part of the people of Tokyo has been to get on with it, to do what we each need to do and to stay calm and ask ourselves one by one what each of us can and should do.

And that is why I am here, why I am glad to be here and why I am proud of Japan and proud of her people.  It is also why I am confident that once again Japan will recover from the challenge that it currently faces.

In Defense of Nothing

The crisis in Japan began on March 11th with two terrible disasters, but it has continued with the unfolding challenges at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  In the face of these problems, people have made various decisions for their families.  Some people were forced to make decisions that they otherwise would not have made – like evacuating from the recommended radius around the reactor itself.  Some people made choices to leave Tokyo and some people chose to stay.  After the main quake, there were hundreds of frightening aftershocks; there were runs on food and milk; then came the reactor fears. There was a lot of hype surrounding everything happening in Tokyo.  However, there was not one right answer for all people.

All people, however, have to believe that they are making the right decision.  This goes for decisions as small as what sweater to wear, and as large as leaving Japan after an earthquake and tsunami. People must make the decision and then stick by it and believe in it.

Where I draw the line, however, is at deriding others for their decisions because they were different from your own.

I will not use this space to defend my decision to leave Japan after the quake; I don’t feel that I have to.  I will tell you that I’m not going back right now because my son has a trip with his class (from Japan) to New York in two weeks that has been planned for months and months, so it doesn’t make sense to go back now and then make him fly again so soon when we can easily stay put and meet his class in New York.

It disappoints me that so many people judged my family for our decision.  Even the Wall Street Journal did it, with its validation of the term “fly-jin.”  A guy who reads this blog (and believe me, I appreciate all of my readers and their comments)  wrote a rant calling me a coward for having left.  These are just two examples of many, public proclamations that we are wrong and they are right to have stayed in Tokyo.  I respect people’s right to have stayed put.  That’s the decision that was right for them and their families.

And that’s what it comes down to: respect.  I freely made my decision and I respect that you freely made yours.

There is so much rebuilding that needs to happen in Japan right now.  Now is the time to come together to help those in Northern Japan who need it most.  It is certainly not the time for anyone to sit in judgment of any other person.

#Quakebook

Here is the cover of Quakebook

Right after the earthquake of March 11th, one man, simply called @OurManInAbiko on Twitter, put out a fledgling idea to the Twitterverse.  His dream was to put together a book of people’s experiences surrounding the quake, and publish it, with the proceeds of every sale going to relief efforts in Northern Japan.  The universe replied to him with enthusiastic passion for the topic.  Within a week, he had a huge number of submissions and even some celebrity support.  He got help editing the submissions from a dedicated few people who have such experience.  But largely it was his effort, and his vision, and his direction that made it happen.  (Well, he admits to having a supportive wife and family!)  Once he got the ball rolling, it really took off!  In two weeks he had all of the submissions together and began the process of editing it into final form.

Less than three weeks after the horrific events, I’m pleased to tell you that the book will be published first online shortly, with a print version available soon too.  As promised, all proceeds from the sale of books go directly to the Red Cross for relief efforts.

The title of the book is 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake and already the media coverage has been terrific.  It’s been mentioned in several Asian papers, including a huge excerpt in the Japan Times, and even in a Wall Street Journal Blog and the Huffington Post.  It’s a great cause and it’s going to sell millions.

You can pre-order your copy of the book here.

I have a piece in the book, and I’m honored to have done a teeny tiny bit of editing for it.  Just knowing that it’s out there and that people have come together and worked so hard for this project is humbling.  I am in awe of this group of dedicated humans.

Social Networking is amazing.  I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I thought I’d reiterate it for emphasis.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was the great sociologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Japan has been made stronger by the mere existence of this group and this book.  Please not only buy it, but tell your friends too.

The Facebook Effect

In the movie “The Social Network” Marc Zuckerberg is portrayed pretty much as a jerk.  Heck, not even “pretty much” – he’s portrayed as an emotion-free idiot! I’m sure it’s exaggerated for the sake of film, but it doesn’t really matter much.  I’ve been thinking these last days, though, that Facebook has made this earthquake experience easier.

Immediately after the earthquake on March 11th, the cellular and land-line phones were not working.  However, for reasons that are not clear to me, the internet was working.  With the 3-G networks and the internet up, it was easy to email our safety to friends and family around the globe.  But beyond email, the easiest thing to do was update my status on Facebook as to our safety.  My friends and family were also able to respond to me and send messages of love and support.

In the days following the earthquake, we looked at many different news outlets.  On Facebook, we could see which of our friends were seeing which news items because they posted the articles they found most useful.  We could pick and choose what was the most reliable from our point of view.

And now, from a viewpoint slightly over a week after the quake, I’m still looking at the news items my friends are posting and I am still updating my status as to where I am and when I’m planning to return to Tokyo.

I can’t imagine something like this happening twenty years ago without the technology available to us today.  It would have taken weeks to find loved ones and more weeks to find proper news.

Facebook has made our lives easier.  We keep in touch with big groups of people at a time, find news, and read about our friends’ happenings.  So Marc Zuckerberg, we thank you.  Your tool has been invaluable to those of us who were most affected by the quake and its aftermath.

When Writing Isn’t The Answer

In my life, I’ve written about everything.  I wrote about my feelings at all of my major life events – bat mitzvah, graduations, wedding, and reams and reams of paper about my children.  As you readers well know, I write about minor crises, and I write about major crises.  But for some reason I have no urge to write about this earthquake and tsunami and the aftermath.

I’m not sure precisely why I can’t write about it.  I do know that I feel a little numb having arrived in Florida last night.  I am watching American TV – watching image after image of destruction and doom in northern Japan.  We have so-called experts giving us bits and pieces of information and it’s up to us to sort through what is accurate and what is not.  Our biggest problem is figuring out what is real and what is sensationalized.

And then there’s the kids.  We have to keep our “game faces” on all the time for them – we don’t want them to get scared.  We really have no idea what the next few weeks will hold but we have to stay positive for the kids.

Please excuse me for sounding muddled, but that’s really how I feel – muddled.  For one of the first times in my life, writing about it is not the answer.  I don’t know what the answer is yet, but for now I have to just relax, listen to my heart and try to move forward as best I can.  I’m sure I’ll be able to write more later.  Patience, dear readers.

Tokyo Tuesday – not in Tokyo

I am not sure what else there is to say about this earthquake.  Everyone can tell their story – as I suppose you want to hear mine.  I was at home.  Nothing remarkable about it except that the shaking lasted too long and felt too hard.  I ran for my kids, who were at school, luckily only a few blocks from home.  The kids, when I found them, were under tables in their classrooms.  They were not traumatized and they were not affected for weeks on end – so we can tell now.  The one effect was that they slept in my room on the floor for days afterward, and had we not left Tokyo already, would still be sleeping there.

It’s the leaving that is bothering me now, as I sit, writing, winging away to New York.

Right after the quake, and after I got the kids, we headed out to the park for a while.  Finally, as it neared 5pm (the quake had been at 2:45pm), and the aftershocks lessened – at least their frequency did – we went home, saying goodbye to friends with whom we had shared the immediate terror and subsequent survival.   We had one close friend who came over for dinner with her daughters. Her husband couldn’t get home from Nagoya, where he had been on business.  She and my husband and I spent the evening on our iPhones, watching CNN and barely talking.  She, darling that she is, kept apologizing for being rude, but it wasn’t rude; it was practical.  We were coping the best that we could.  The next day, she gave us brownies that she had made as a thank you for having her family with us.  But what she doesn’t understand fully, is that her presence was a gift to our family.  It lent a sense of normalcy to the oddest Friday night in history.  All of us being Jews, we lit the candles to usher in the Sabbath with a heavy, yet grateful heart.   The four children put money in our tzedakah box and felt lucky to be able to do it. All of that gave Marc and me an outlet for our feelings beyond each other.  And she’s a thoughtful human being – hearing her point of view on the day and speculation of what would happen next was helpful for us.  I will always thank her for being with us that first, awful night.

Mar c, to let you know, had a harder time than I did, even though I had the kids.  His office is on the 25th floor of a new-ish building near the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and it really SWAYED with the quake.  After he walked down the 25 flights, he then had to walk home about an hour.  And he was grateful.  We heard of people walking 8, 9, 10 hours to get home with the lack of available public transport or taxis.  He was so happy to be home.

In the days that followed, there was an eerie sense of normal around the city.  We went about our business as usual.  Sure, a lot of things, including Bailey’s basketball, the kids’ Sunday school and other various city-events, were cancelled, but the sun shone, and it the weekend was beautiful.  On Sunday, we met friends for a play in the park followed by a great lunch.  It was wildly normal.

But we couldn’t ignore the news.  Up north, the devastation was horrific.  As you know, entire communities of people were wiped out.  Families, businesses, livelihoods, lives – all gone from the map.  The earth shifted on its axis.  The shoreline shrunk.

In Tokyo, things were normal, yet not normal.  There was an odd sense of quiet.  People spoke softly.  There were actually fewer people around.  There were announcements to conserve energy.  With the nuclear reactors, which provide a large percentage of Japanese electricity, out of commission, there was a serious lack of power expected.  Blackouts were planned.  I waited more than thirty minutes to put gas in my car and then spent $100 to fill up my small sedan. And people speculated.

It’s Tuesday, only four days after the big event, and my family and I have fled the country.  To be fair, next week is the kids’ spring break from school and the school cancelled class for the rest of this week, so it seemed like the easy thing to do.  But also, more nuclear reactors are on the verge of breakdown and it seems prudent to get out of its way.  Then there’s the extended family to consider. They have been pressuring us and pressuring us to leave.  The news that they are seeing overseas is a bit sensationalized, like all news tends to be.  They see the images of Sendai, and don’t necessarily remember that in Tokyo, we’re over 100 miles from the hardest hit areas.   Still, they pressure us and we feel badly putting ourselves in harm’s way when they are counting on us to stay safe.

So we left.  We got out of Dodge.  It does not feel 100% right to have done it.  I have lovely friends who I’ve left behind.  I have other friends who are going to other places, so I wouldn’t be with them anyway, but that doesn’t stop me from missing them.  And I’ve left my home.  Marc and I have made a home in Tokyo.  I don’t mean just our house, though that’s a big part of it.  We have made our house a home with pictures, art, and our stuff.  The stuff that makes up a life.  For us, that life is in Tokyo.  It was hard to leave it.  Logic says that we have a return ticket for two weeks from now, but my practical, disaster-minded, emotional brain wonders when we will actually get back on that plane.  When will we get our life back?

I’m rambling a bit and I hope you’ll forgive me for it.  It has been a very long four days, which followed a very long two weeks prior.

I’m sitting on this plane, Bailey on my left and Sydney to his left.  One more to the left is my husband, Marc.  We are together.  We were able to leave together, which is a complete luxury, I am aware.  There are many husbands left behind in Tokyo, and those, according to the people I know, were the hardest goodbyes.  I am in a position to be extremely grateful for the gifts I have been given.  All of this will reconcile in my head; it just might take a bit of time.  But with my family around me now, time is a luxury in which I’m happily indulging.

Please go kiss your family right now.