I’m not so sure of the days any more. I know that today is Saturday, but what and how we got here is unclear. I have to count back through the nights. Back to Monday night, when I was working another shift as cameraman for the live feeds from Sensoji temple in Asakusa. We had been broadcasting from the bayside of Tokyo Bay, but we were without a permit and the police made us move on as there had been another tsunami warning.
The reporters were becoming familiar faces now, returning every few hours for another live cross. One Swiss man was worried that his tone might be too alarmist about the Fukushima issue — while another Frenchman was being far more optimistic. Some Bloomberg reporters showed up — a young girl with her young, male producer. They both looked a bit plastic, and they were flirting with each other the whole time. The girl clearly knew very little of what she was talking about, and even fumbled her cross, calling it a “nuclear attack” instead of a meltdown. Other reporters were happy to engage and learn from any of us who had been living there about what was going on.
The Bloomberg kids didn’t want to learn anything from us. They were trying to please their superiors back in the States, who were telling them to try and sound more “newsy”, whatever that means. Her main concern was asking if I had a spare clip to pin back her jacket so that she wouldn’t look fat. I have Norwegian residency, so speaking to the Norwegian reporters was comforting or familiar somehow, but reading some of the headlines of some Norwegian rags made me angry — like they wanted an unimaginable disaster.
The week was kind of laid out for me. Finally we had established doing 12-hour shifts (kind of) so that we could get a decent rest before working again. Getting home in between was so uncertain and time consuming — two hours travel each way if I was lucky, that I was managing about four hours sleep. The head of the broadcast team practically didn’t sleep for almost five days. Food was becoming more and more difficult to come by. Not impossible, but our diet had descended into junk food and little real sustenance.
When I did get home, just when my head was on the pillow, another aftershock would hit, filling my body with adrenalin making it difficult to sleep. More cameramen were to arrive soon from other parts of Asia, which should begin to relieve us from our duties. I had been booked to edit for SBS on Thursday and Friday and was really looking forward to the challenge, not to mention some quality TV instead of these live feeds written at a moments notice and based on little first-hand experience.
My wife was having a hard time of it. Alone with our three-year-old son and trying to keep him occupied, while hearing from our neighbours about how terrible the whole situation was at the nuclear plant. She wanted to get out of Tokyo. We were fortunate to have been lent an apartment by a Norwegian Missionary organisation where my father-in-law works. (My wife grew up as a Norwegian in Japan. She had returned to Norway just days before the Kobe quake of 1995, whilst the rest of her family were still in Japan, caught up in that quake.
To now be the only member of her family here for this quake was making her extremely anxious, not to mention that I had been swallowed whole by the media machine now coming through Tokyo, and wasn’t around to support her.) The zeitgeist in Tokyo was gradually shifting, but we were ahead of the curve. My responsibilities became clear — the situation was far too uncertain now regarding not just the threat of radiation — which really isn’t that high for Tokyo as of writing — but rather just the tension in the city, the uncertainty of supply chains returning to normal with access to food a real concern.
And of course the constant aftershocks — more than 150 by Monday, as well as warnings of new quakes expected to hit seven or above on the Richter scale. Living on adrenalin like that was just all becoming too intense. I wanted to get my wife to Kobe, and then possibly return to Tokyo to do the edit for SBS. She insisted that we stay together. What was I thinking? Of course we would stick together.
The thrill of the work since the quake — the rush of it all — had been my reaction to trauma, to remain rational, and have something to do with my hands. But it was not my duty. My duty was my family and their safety. It was time to go and stop being such an idiot. I had to bail on my colleagues who I believe remain in Tokyo, working. I fear for their well-being, and hope they are getting food and rest.
We had to pack. What to pack? Looking around the house I grabbed some clothes, and then all of my hard drives. My work and family photos from the past 10 years — it was all on these hard drives. Anything else was replaceable. There was some fresh food remaining, that we gave to our landlord who is also our neighbour, which they took, but when we offered them our kerosene — maybe 10 litres — they wouldn’t take it. He assured us it could remain in its storage spot just outside the house. Still so polite. Still so unobtrusive. And they were resolved to stay.
Where would they go? They have their parents living close by to look after, and their lives are in that house. We embraced. I can´t tell you how much that means. I have rarely seen any physical affection of any kind in Tokyo. When I kiss my son goodbye at the day-care centre the staff there giggle as it is so unusual. So for two men to embrace like that in Japan … We stood and just held each other for a good minute. I unlocked my bike and left it visible in front of the house for anyone who may need it. And then our landlord drove us to the train station. We didn’t want him to use his petrol on us, but he insisted.
We were slightly ahead of the curve in getting out of town, (it was now Tuesday afternoon) and it seemed many Japanese people were denying the seriousness of the situation, or were just unaware of it. The train was relatively empty and the trip to town trouble free. It all seemed at odds with the sense of urgency that we now felt, but the difference in the press between local Japanese reporting and that in the West … they were oceans apart, and I think many Japanese were not allowing themselves to fear the worst. But on Tuesday night, Japanese journalists started getting angry at Tepco officials in a live press conference as the officials were simply not answering any questions. That cultural trait really needs to adjust in times of need, and maybe this event will be the tipping point, at least for the manner of their journalism.
How long would we be gone for? First stop, the Norwegian embassy who were holding a meeting for any Norwegians in the country. The ambassador was visibly shaken. They had been a bit caught out — they knew how many Norwegians were in the country but not exactly where they were and how to contact them. We had filled in a form to register us over a year before, but it had never been entered into the computerised database so we weren’t receiving any of their updates in the preceding days. They were not prepared for this to the extent that they could have been.
Was it just laziness on the part of the staff here? Was it the same at other embassies? The ambassador could get in some serious sh-t if things went bad, and he clearly knew it. At the meeting, another member of the embassy had just returned from a Japanese government meeting about Fukushima attended by all the embassies in town. He presented the latest figures and the case regarding the mission at the plant.
By this stage I had learnt that Tepco, the operator of the plant, had a history of fudging the books. Together with the Japanese cultural trait of obfuscating the truth if the truth is a bit too uncomfortable — in order to save face — this made me believe that there were legitimate questions about the honesty of the information coming out of the plant. None of the information coming to the world had any kind of independent verification. No one else was in the room to read the gauges. Some of them weren’t working anyway apparently.
I asked the embassy member whether that had been raised at the meeting he had just attended — was anyone questioning Tepco from the diplomatic level? He didn’t give me a straight answer. Would the IAEA be involved in the actual mission that was under way, or any kind of external assistance / international experts? No answer.
We also discovered that of all the embassy staff that had children and who had been there during the earthquake had already left the country. That was the last straw for us. We were getting out — and felt a little bit stupid for still being there. Should we go straight to Haneda Airport? I became extremely flustered at this point — which way should we go? It was almost 8pm and the bullet trains were running to uncertain schedules, affected by the power situation and the constant aftershocks. Trying to find info in English on the web about the exact detail of rail changes was impossible. Likewise searching the internet for flights was all too confusing. I could no longer think straight, and nor could I find a moment of peace to try and consider the options we had.
Some semblance of a plan evolved in my mind. We would head for the nearest bullet train station in a taxi, and if they weren’t running we would head for Haneda to try and find tickets to fly out, but foreigners were on the march now, so the chances of getting tickets felt slim. A hotel in town would be the third option, but the trains were running thank goodness and we caught one of the last trains of the night bound for Osaka.
A friend in Norway started looking at flights out of Osaka online while we were travelling, reporting back through skype chat with prices and options. Australia to my family or Norway to my in-laws? It all seemed so far, so damning of Japan´s situation to fly that far. Abandoning all these friends to this uncertain fate — such an invisible threat, and so insidious. The immediate need was just to get away from the aftershocks and the lack of supplies, so I began to think maybe a short trip to another part of Asia would keep us close but allow us to relax.
The hysteria was starting to get into my head, even after reassuring myself for days that the threat of radiation was minimal. I didn’t grow up with all the training that the Japanese receive to prepare for earthquakes such as this, and no one is really prepared for this nuclear event either. The days of remaining rational and collected were now behind me, and the trauma of the first quake and the realisation of its power, its randomness was overwhelming us — our nerves were shot.
In Osaka we got a hotel room and managed to sleep a little, cry a lot, and try to gather our wits, all the while glued to the Japanese media on the TV and Western media online. Victims in the north were holding up messages naming the missing and what they had lost. It was heartbreaking to watch. Snow was coming and it was freezing at night in the shelters and there was nothing more we could do for them.
I logged on to skype in the morning and saw my friend online who lived in Vietnam. Then a plan finally crystalised for us. I called him straight away. Could he get me into Vietnam for a few weeks? He is a producer of films and is flying in workers all the time — this is what he does. He chatted to his assistant who started checking flights immediately. The visas would take a day to arrange, but the last flights for the week were the very next day at 10.30 in the morning. There were only three seats left. Perfect. One more night in a hotel followed by a five-hour flight and now here we are in Ho Chi Minh. It´s warm, and noisy, brash and a bit dirty, and just awesome.
Our Japanese friends started to get out the next day, (Thursday now) and it was then that the exodus had really begun. The French were providing extra planes. The Norwegians were chartering a flight to Oslo. All the European countries were actively removing people by now. My university was providing an international SOS flight to Hong Kong for any non-Japanese citizens as per the SOS charter. Buses to Osaka. US flights to other parts of Asia. We just beat it.
Thousands of people lining up for train tickets, thousands more trying to get their re-entry visas organised. Pets abandoned. Local trains to the airport packed. Packed. Queues at the train stations limiting the number of people allowed onto the platform. When Tokyo people start telling you that the trains are packed … need I say more. Interestingly, Malaysia and Vietnam had started pulling their citizens out the day after the quake. Tickets home for Vietnamese nationals were half-price from the day after the quake.
Five to six days later, Western governments were only just starting to assist their own citizens. Clearly, major economies are spooked about the real impact of this event. They don’t want Tokyo to stop, to become a ghost town. The implications of all this are beyond our imaginations at this point, but the economic ramifications could be devastating to our status quo.
Over the next month, the flow of money around the world is going to be ruptured in unprecedented ways. International supply chains — of which Japan is an essential part of in so many industries — are about to be drastically altered or held up. A net exporter and the third largest economy in the world is about to potentially become a net importer, with increased demand for oil and gas to help rebuild and make up for the loss of power from nuclear power.
I have a very tenuous understanding of economics but can understand now that we are in a new paradigm. Add some more uprisings in the Middle East to the mix, messing with oil production, and it seems highly likely to me that from within the next six months to a couple of years from today, we are going to need to rewrite the book of how we conduct human affairs on this planet. Energy production, living standards, manufacturing and materialism, food production.
Stop the talk and start mobilising some serious forces to speed up climate change measures, genuine financial reforms, international bodies that have some bite. These feel a bit like end times, but this is a phenomenal opportunity for humanity to realign itself, much like the planet literally just did. I remain an optimist.