Voices from Japan (IV): Kazu

With Kazu (left) and our general manager Kotaro (right) at Kamakura (2008)

Shanghai/Tokyo -- Kazu and I have been briefly co-workers, back in 2008, at the Devex office in Tokyo. We used to have loads of conversations about int'l aid programs, emergency situations around the world, how we want to work in this field since we share an interest in int'l development programs. And now, I find myself talking to him about a disaster he's experiencing first-hand and in his own country...

In his mid-twenties, Kazu is currently working as assistant strategic planner at an ad company in Meguro, in Tokyo prefecture. The interview he kindly offered to provide me offers another exclusive insight into the strength and nobility through which the Japanese are coping with this unprecedented challenge.

S.: Where were you when the earthquake and tsunami occurred?
K.: At the office, on the 11th floor. My office is in Meguro, Tokyo. Close to Shibuya, two stops away by Yamanote-line.

S.: Did you notice anything yourself at the moment?
K.: It shook dreadfully. It was an “unusual, exceptional” shake I haden’t ever experienced, even though we experience earthquakes on daily-bases. It shook quite dreadfully as I was on the 11F and those high buildings are intentionally built to shake in such occasions, so that the building itself secures safety.
Tokyo’s transportation was paralyzed. Streets flooded with people who had to walk back home for like 5 hours. Almost all the trains stopped until late at night when some of them restarted (the quake attack occurred around 14.30). My mother stayed at my place as she didn’t have any means to get back home and my place was closer; she still had to walk for like a couple of hours (but it was lucky that day if it was just for a couple of hours.).

S.: How do you estimate the size of this disaster to be?
K.: Ones immediately killed by the quake and tsunami: 15,000.
Ones suffering PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]: 10 times?
Ones financially heavily damaged: several hundreds times.
Ones who have to rebuild and reestablish everything: thousand times.
Ones who have to change their way of living for the sake of the people directly attacked: basically everybody in the nation or at least the ones in metropolitan areas: tens of millions (right now, we are having planned black outs for 3 hours a day in the metropolitan area).
If the nuke plant explodes, it’s a different story. Tokyo will stop and the entire economy of the nation will be affected.

S.: According to some news, many people are starting to feel uncomfortable with the information they are being provided. They claim the reports are inconsistent, they don’t know whom to trust and they fear that not all the truth is being told to them. What’s your take on this? Do you feel reassured by the public information you are receiving at the moment? Do you trust what authorities are telling you?
K.: I can’t trust the authorities as they always tend to be as conservative as possible on information as I believe is the case with any other country in such occasions. And, I believe it cannot be helped to prevent panic. I trust more the info from the academics and experts. I also read the info from the overseas media to see how others talk about the worst case scenario and compare with the info from the authorities, then I somewhat find the middle ground which probably is the real case.
Twitters and Facebook are always the major media of gathering information (stories and links to the articles) as much as possible and as fast as possible. I could even read the voices of the people who work at the very nuke plants which was the most trustworthy information.

S.: Do you feel safe now?
K.: Yes, in general. In the end, it’s not about whether you feel safe or not, it’s about doing all you can for the time being.

S.: What are you afraid of?
K.: The nuke plant’s explosion. If it does, Tokyo will be affected too badly and we cannot recover. And, a huge quake hitting right at Tokyo. They have been predicting that it will come in the near future. And, the after quakes are coming closer and closer gradually to Tokyo.

S.: Are you considering to move out?
K.: No, as for the time being I don’t have another place where I can get the work I want. And, it might be worth staying to contribute to the revitalization of the economy here. (I was always the one who wanted to be away and work abroad if I can get a decent job, but more than ever, I now feel like I have a reason to stay because of this.)

S.: How has your personal life changed since last Friday?
K.: I worked at home this week as they closed the office due to the power cuts (for some of the people who commute by train for 1-2 hours, it’s hard at the moment as the trains are lessened due to the scheduled power cuts).

S.: What do you think Japan is mostly in need of at present?
Tangible “professional” help ( which doesn’t include volunteering) and warm civilian voices from around the world to cheer up people.

S.: How does daily life around you look like now? What difference do you notice?
K.: As I mentioned, I had to work from home. I don’t feel like going anywhere as the trains are not in the right conditions, the TV shows only depressing news and they don’t play the normal shows or dramas or commercials, thus it makes me feel sick. Foods and groceries are running out of supplies as people buy a lot to store at their home.

S.: What’s your impression about the way how the Japanese people are coping with this situation? To the outsiders, they look very cool-minded, very calm, very compliant with the instructions they are given and not panicking. How do you explain that?
K.: We are not in panic. We are raised disciplined and we value that virtue in our culture. The first thing we learn from childhood is “do not annoy others.” This is the worst time to annoy others and is the best time to cooperate with each other. And, we are trained and ready for the earthquake and tsunami. We knew that this can happen a few times in your life.
What surprised us were the reaction of the foreign people: we didn’t expect to receive such warm messages and attention from the world as we thought the world wouldn’t care or respect about Japan even though we were the second largest economy in the world after the US until 2010.

S.: How do you think the Japanese culture is contributing to handle this massive disaster?
K.: Resilience is the word (see this article here).

S.: What’s your impression about the way how the institutions are reacting to and coping with the difficulties? Are they well coordinated?
K.: They don’t look disorganized. And the head of the organizers of the government is doing the job so we trust him. And, most importantly, we know that this is a kind of disaster that nobody can “be in control of” (see this article here).

S.: Do you think Japan was prepared to cope with something of this nature and scale?
K.: Not of this scale, or more accurately, you cannot fight back a disaster of this scale by preparation. In terms of preparations, I believe we did the quite a good job as only 13,000 are missing or dead considering the fact that the cities were washed out for 500km. Almost everybody managed to escape in like 10 – 15 min before the tsunami.

S.: The Emperor made a very rare appearance on tv broadcasting a public message. How is that being perceived?
K.: We thank that. Nothing more, nothing less. That just made as reassure that this is a disaster of unprecedented scale as he didn’t make his appearance that way even at the quake that attacked Hanshin area back in 1995.

S.: Do you believe the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear problem could have been prevented?
K.: No. We have to move out of this planet if we don’t want that. Global warming and such destructions have got nothing to do with a disaster of this kind. Maybe for the nuke plants, we could have “prevented” if we didn’t have any, but then, how do we maintain our daily life? Like it says on the first article mentioned above, “it couldn’t be helped.”

S.: Do you think there’s anyone to blame for these or part of these problems?
K.: Nobody. Maybe god?
If there’s somebody to blame, then all of us. We are the ones who let the government build the nuke plants, we are the ones who wanted to live in a way that requires a tremendous amount of electricity.

S.: What’s your viewpoint on the nuclear threat: do you feel at danger?
K.: Not for the time-being (see these two articles).

S.: Japan has already experienced an epic atomic disaster, a scar that still hasn’t disappeared from the public opinion and that has greatly shaped the mindset of modern Japanese civilization. Even though you haven’t personally experienced the 1945 nuclear disaster, how do you relate to that now?
K.: To this current problem? Not much. But, one thing that was disgusting, disappointing and humiliating was that “Pearl Harbor” was listed as the trending word on twitter as some Americans started to say that it was all karma for that. Just google about this and you’ll find many disgusting comments.
And, as for the ones who have suffered because of the nukes, we are among the peoples who are most afraid of the nuke’s side effects, which is something that they don’t really report enough outside of Japan. The plants that are now in troubles are those built in the early '70s and way before Chernobyl. They were planned to be closed down since they are old, but still, they managed to at least shut down the activities even when attacked by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. The newer ones didn’t have any trouble, which I believe is something surprising.

S.: How do you expect your life to change after this catastrophe?
K.: Good question!
I’ve been rethinking what I work for even more since this catastrophe. I guess, the next step of my carrier will be indirectly influenced by this experience. It gave me the opportunity to refocus on my goals in life, what you live for.

S.: How and when do you think Japan will recover from this situation? What do you think are key challenges in the short-term? And in the long-term? How long do you think it will take Japan to get fully back on its feet?
K.: In the sort term, the electricity problem is the key. Since we cannot use the plants that provided 14% of the entire electricity used in the metropolitan area, we will be having continuous troubles especially in the summer. It takes 10 years as it did for the one in Hanshin.

S.: The world seems to be currently undergoing some major changes with the large scale upheavals unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East, on top of the ongoing challenges (climate change, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, recent economic crisis etc.). How do you look at the status of the world at the moment? Do you think there’s any lesson for us to learn? What is the message behind all of this?
K.: We can be united if we can share the same goal. This is the most important lesson the world can learn. It can be said of all the problems, no matter whether man-made (like conflicts) or non-man-made (like natural disasters). It’s a matter of will to overcome and solve them.

S.: Is there any further comment you wish to add?
K.: The Japanese people really thank and are encouraged by the warm messages from around the world. Both the ones of the official and civil sphere.
As for the official sphere, the one of Ban Ki Moon and Obama.
Ban Ki Moon said something like “Japan has been one of the countries that has helped people around the world the most. Now, it’s our turn to help them with any possible means.”
As for Obama, he also emphasized our friendship and the American operation assisting Japan now is called Operation Tomodachi (Operation Friends).

#prayforjapan was the trending # tag on twitter for several days (http://prayforjapan.jp/message/?lang=en)

These are pages that my friend in Columbia University established: