30 March 2011

Apocalypse Now - Part 2 現代啟示錄-下卷

The sakura season in Tokyo has barely began, but the city is already draped in dazzling shades of pink and white. The blossoms arrived just in time to welcome the all-important day of April 1, when, by tradition, the first day of school coincides with the first day of work for hundreds of thousands of university graduates entering the work force. Crisp white shirts, new black suits and brown leather attaché are as ubiquitous as the spring blossoms themselves.

This year, the triple threat of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis have cast a thick shadow on the season of hope and renewal. Each day citizens wake up to the new reality of a nation teetering on the brink of a Chernobyl-type disaster. Nearly a month after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO, operator of the damaged Fukushima (福島) nuclear plants, remains utterly incapable of containing the radiation leaks. To cool down the overheating reactors, sea water, fresh water and water with neutron-absorbing boric acid were dumped every which way from helicopters, fire engines and a 20-story tall truck donated by China. And when contaminated water started to build up and leak into the ocean, the power company tried to stop it using liquid glass, saw dust and even old newspaper. TEPCO’s kitchen sink approach to a mounting environmental catastrophe takes us right back to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a year old, where every solution seemed just as bad as the problem itself. And if the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history had raised public awareness over the safety of offshore drilling, the Fukushima crisis has no doubt rekindled worldwide debate over the wisdom of nuclear power, even when used in resource poor, energy hungry countries like Japan.

So much has been made of the Japanese people’s patience and self-sacrifice in the face of extreme adversity. Words like gaman (我慢; endurance), muga (無我; selflessness) and omote-ura (表里) – that national requirement to keep all negative emotions locked up inside – were tossed around all over the Western press. At evacuee shelters, men and women of all ages organized themselves to keep the premises clean and the rationing of provisions orderly. Residents stranded within the radiation zone became self-reliant, melting snow to make drinking water and chopping up bamboo to make chopsticks for themselves and others. In big cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, citizens unplugged all home appliances except for their refrigerators to conserve electricity for those who needed it more. A legion of anonymous power plant technicians dubbed the “Fukushima Fifty” stayed inside the pitch dark facilities to resuscitate the backup cooling systems, despite lethal exposures to radioactive iodine and cesium. In a true collectivist society, not even certain death is a price too high for the greater good.

While the nuclear crisis has brought out the best in the Japanese people, it has also brought out the worst in their government. The Kan administration has been widely criticized for being less than forthcoming about the true extent of the radiation leaks. Is it simply a case of bureaucratic tendency to downplay bad news with vague language, or is it a reflection that government officials have become far too cozy with powerful corporations? Instead of pressuring TEPCO to get their act together, the government turned to the people and called on them, with the help of Emperor Akihito (日皇明仁) no less, for more understanding, more patience and more sacrifices. But all that gaman, muga and omote-ura is about to run out, as citizens struggle to grapple with the political reality that the frequent changes in leadership – 14 prime ministers in the past 20 years – have brought about little or no change in policy and accountability.

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The southwesterly wind strengthens as spring rolls into early summer, carrying with it traces of iodine-131 that will slowly thin out over the South China Sea. Just the same, the new round of radioactivity blown from northeastern Japan promises to throw hypochondriac Hong Kongers into renewed paranoia. Days after the nuclear explosions in Fukushima, hundreds in Hong Kong along with many more in Mainland China overran supermarkets buying up table salt, soy sauce and anything that contained iodine to fend off thyroid cancer. There was a run on all things Japanese, from baby formula, abalone and dried scallops to camera lenses and even cars. Ugly human behavior in times of an epic disaster is not uncommon, but exposing our selfish, every-man-for-himself true nature because of a disaster 3,000 miles away had to be a first. Our tendency to panic and switch off all common sense becomes all the more laughable when you consider how Hong Kongers inhale massive amounts of much more harmful carbon monoxide and lead particles from vehicular exhaust and factory emissions on a daily basis and yet no one bats an eyelid. Whatever the situation, it seems, we can always count on a few bad apples to embarrass us in front of our Asian cousins.

A far more intriguing aspect of the Chinese’s reaction to the continuing nuclear crisis in Japan is perhaps all the conspiracy theories that have been swirling around on the Internet. Reports that trace levels of the highly toxic plutonium were found near the crippled power plants have, rightfully, drawn our attention. Japan’s decision to use plutonium (purchased from France and England) in their nuclear reactors when uranium is much more abundant and much less expensive has fueled suspicion that the country has been secretly turning spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium in a furtive attempt to counter China’s rising hegemony. It would be months if not years before we find out whether these conspiracy theories hold water. For now one thing is certain: nearly six decades after the Pacific War, many of us still wonder whether Japan has really learned its lessons from World War II, and whether that frightful imperial flag would one day fly again and lead the country down the same gruesome path it did two generations ago. For why else, we wonder, would the Japanese government still leave out the truths about its wartime atrocities from history textbooks?


  1. Looking forward to it ! BTW, what say you to my view of the imminent apocalypse in HK or elsewhere outside Japan? : >


  2. Dear Jason,

    Wonderful piece as always. I truly believe in the conspiracy theory that the Japanese were secretly producing nuclear weapons in these nuclear power plants, which explains why the government hasn't been too forth coming in releasing information on a timely manner. I do admire the Japanese people for their patience and self-sacrifice. It is truly a collective society indeed. In comparison, I think the HK'ers have much to learn from their neighbors in Japan when it comes to self-sacrifice and consideration for other people.


  3. Thanks, AB, for being the first to read and comment on this article! I quite agree with you that acts of selfishness and inconsideration abound in Hong Kong.


  4. Lets be honest if a nuclear disaster hit Hong Kong- people would probably jack their neighbors. It is in their DNA to run. It would be so ugly. I have seen people push over elderly to run in the MTR and I have seen elderly run over the young. (That was just a regular day in Central too.) I wonder if it would be some Jonathan Swift, a modest proposal where people will eat their domestic worker slaves. Just like Kanyne West said, "George Bush doesn't like Black people"- it is way worse in HK. As HK people (youth and adult) have no qualms about saying they do not think highly of their domestic workers.

    The elite would get on an airplane and leave- never looking back. The different passported HKers would get on a plane to the US or Canada. The rest.....hmmm I try not to think about it. Hong Kong people have a healthy distrust of the government. I am not sure how they would react. I mean SARS and Bird Flu maybe some indicator? Well I do think they have a pretty good health care. Lets pray this never happens to HK.

  5. Jason,

    The last paragraph on Japans conspiracy theories was completely new to me so I am quite shocked!

    The paragraph immediately preceding that really sums up what I've been thinking inside (though unable to articulate it so precisely), especially when I see those "fly-jins" (click on link below - not as intellectually stimulating as yours but it's still interesting and a fair observation) who are heavy drinkers and smokers and .... not sure what else they might be on +_+



  6. Thanks, Soonja, for the WSJ article. Very interesting indeed. It really is "every man for himself" when bad things happen.


  7. Certainly an insightful and riveting prologue to your Apocalypse Now Part I piece (or is there more to come ?)

    So I guess you buy my earlier comment to you (which I never received your response, guess you are too bogged down with verything), that the Apocalypse now in HK is our crazy runs on salt and milk powder and the like, it is as if we will the Apocalypse to happen here instead of dealing with it in a wise, rational and considerate manner.

    Thank goodness, in a way, you haven't written much about the HK government this time, and certainly haven't attributed much credit to them. Remember Phil and my comment over your Apocalypse Now I piece? Despite Phil's mentioning that there are emergency plans by the government or whatnots heartily scoffed by me earlier on, my question now is, has the HK government done anything concrete to stall the salt runs or milk powder runs or educate the populace in HK to face the situation rationally? i.e. to really deal with the situation instead of ignoring it or sitting complacently wishing it'll while away? And I am not even asking them to do the impossible like changing the direction of the wind such that the radiation gusts won't hover above HK?!

    Your photo, and AB's comments, really shocked me, as it shows how people are literally ravaging the stores to reach those "rations", crushing the more elderly ladies in front. So much for the Chinese Confucian concept of courtesy in our society today! Their faces betrayed nothing except a determination to get what they want irrespective of the costs to others, be it inconvenience or injuries to them. Guess if we want a snapshot of hell, it would be akin to that.

    I'll give them the benefit of the doubt regarding the conspiracy theory. It wouldn't surprise me if they are, given their nationalistic spirit with the dragon raising its head to its west in recent years. But how far they have gone in the furtive enterprise remains to be seen. Let's hope we won't live long enough to witness a WWIII with nuclear bombs mushrooming up both sides of the Pacific. Your final pic of the Japanese soldier with the bandera on its head is enough to send shivers down my spine, as to how one human being (albeit) not of the same race and nationality) and commit those atrocities to another?

    My dad just commented just this morning: 66 years ago Japan was brought to toes by a nuclear bomb (the Manhattan Project) and now 66 years on the country is wrecked by another nuclear disaster. Is history repeating itself one way or the other? And is it brought about by ourselves (or the Japanese themselves?) No offence to your Japanese readers, but somehow my gut reaction is they would not own up to what happened in Nanjing half a century ago irrespective of the nuclear episode now, they are too proud and imperialistic to admit the invasion into our country, the rape on Nanjing and the ultimate defeat (this is a bad joke, but it does remind me of the chauvinistic Japanese males). If history is repeating itself, let's hope Japan will overcome the present crisis soon, it's not nice to wake up to the news every morning to see one country invading the other, natural disasters washing up a second and human folly wrecking up a third.


  8. I do believe that people will show their ugly human nature when there is no way out, no matter what race they are. It seems that we saw the best of the Japanese in the past few weeks with those national qualities. However, time can show us everything. As time goes by, some news about raping, rushing to supermarkets to get what they need, no one sending the resource packs to those people in need because of fear of radiation began showing up. Most of them can still maintain their manner when they are still not lack of resources. But how long can this last? Can they still be so noble when they lack of resources and are dying? Do we think too high of the Japanese? Here, I mean nearly all people with different races are the same, will think for themselves only when they are dying. We should admit that this is human nature.

    We all know that there are often earthquakes in Japan. As you have said, Japan is a resource poor and energy hungry country. That’s why they may seek what they lack by hook or by crook from other countries. They can’t have their own army, so in the past decades, they have “invaded” other countries by developing their economy--- another way of invasion. So the so called conspiracy theories may be true. Do people expect the Japanese Government will admit these? Every country will think for their own good. This is the ugly human nature.

    BTW, why didn’t you send us a message on FB to inform us of the new article?

  9. Jason,

    Thanks for writing and posting: Apocalypse Now - Part 2. Another great article. You have well depicted alot of interesting details on myths, facts and theories of Japanese authorities/people to intriguing reactions from China - with laughable disgrace of Chinese people including HongKongers - in response to the triple threat.

    Japanese, young and old, may have stoically face the calamity with calm and restraint. It is an undeniable fact that these are their fine qualities embedded in their culture and partly trained as values while young at school. With all said, there were isolated incidents of petty thefts and lootings, although not serious, were reported by my Japanese friend. Evidently, there appears to be some form of censorship in Japanese media to portray selective scenes of the aftermath where foreign press may not reach. In an interview on Japanese TV, a sickly old woman told reporters calmly that she could rebuild her family and home with her husband and needed no external help. By looking at the sludge of what remains of her house in the background, it was a great shocking pride.

    The HongKongers' mean and selfish attitude once again surfaced for the world to laugh at. However, there were also NBC reports on many US citizens hoarding and stocking up iodine tablets from pharmacy and internet bid. While China had donated a 20-storey tall truck to help fire-fight and defuse the burning flames, some bottled distilled water donated to Japan by China did not appease the Chinese authorities when Japanese authorities have asked them to deliver directly to the quakes affected areas.

    The worst fear of this triple threat is yet from over. My Japanese friend living around Tsukuba prefecture reported that apart from collapse of a section of roof in his house, he could rebuild it easily. His family biggest fear is however from emission of the short distanced nuclear radiation plant.

    The many stories circulating in internet authored by some Chinese writers may worth a few cents as a prelude as and when further pieces of news unfurled. Hopefully, the nuclear radiation emission is now fully contained.


  10. Thanks for your comment as always, Christine. I particularly agree with your last paragraph. I really cant figure out why the Japanese government still wouldnt own up to what it did during WWII. It's unfathomable.


  11. Martie, thank you for sharing your Japanese friends' experiences. Their authentic accounts of what actually goes on in Japan is most helpful to us observers looking in from the outside.


  12. Dear Jason,
    for me as an European here in Asia, the mutual suspicsions here in Asia are quite sad. And there are dangerous for the development of mankind. There is more communication needed in Asia. And conspirary theories are not helpful for this. I don't blame you telling it, but the last paragraph of your blog was a bit extreme in my point of view. Every year the people are gathering in Hiroshima, there is strong movement in Japan against the possession of nukes. I didn't found this in your blog. Do you think the movement against the possession of nuklear weapons in Japan is only propaganda?
    Alexander (from Nagoya)

  13. Alexander,

    The annual commemoration in Hiroshima is to pay tribute to the Japanese civilians who perished during the bombing, and not necessarily an apology to the Asian countries Japan invaded during WWII.

    As for the "mutual suspicions" among Asians, I suppose that's not much different from the ones that other Europeans harbor about Germany.