Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Concerns about the coming months

My previous post described the situation in Tokyo and explained why I thought there was no reason to leave Tokyo at that time. There have been a couple of developments that are cause for concern though.

Power shortage in eastern Japan

As I mentioned before, residents in the suburbs of Tokyo have been coping with scheduled power cuts. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have started publishing their daily electricity demands and capacity. Here's a snapshot for today:

They're updating this in real time. As you can see, the efforts being made to save electricity are paying off. This year's demand is substantially lower than last year's. The corridors in my office are dark, the hand driers are switched off in the toilets and escalators have been cordoned off. However, we're dangerously close to full capacity. Last week, TEPCO issued an emergency warning stating that a power cut could occur at any moment due to high levels of demand. My whole office was told to go home at 4:30pm.

So we're struggling now, and it's only March. Demand for electricity will go through the roof in the summer and TEPCO is already warning that power cuts may occur during the summer months. I am NOT looking forward to relentless 35 degree humidity day and night with no air conditioning. This post at Spike Japan takes a detailed look at the situation and the outlook is not good. In addition to the Fukushima nuclear power plants, there are a large number of other power plants that are no longer functioning. Looking at the numbers, it looks highly unlikely that supply will be able to meet demand in the summer.

Foodstuffs and Drinking Water

With the exception of those living in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima powerplants, radiation carried through the air has so far been a non-issue. This site has an excellent set of graphs showing radiation readings taken in various locations in Japan. Tokyo appears fine.

Food and drink is another issue. The government has already moved to deal with contaminated milk, spinach and other foods that are produced in Fukushima. Today, the Tokyo water department has stated that infants should not consume tap water due to high levels of radioactive iodine. I have a 9-week-old baby boy. The shelves in supermarkets are already empty most of the time as people buy rice, bread and other basics. Similar panic buying of bottled water could be unpleasant for those with infants.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To People Worried About Us in Japan

A note to all of my friends who are worrying about us here in Japan.

We seem to be in a situation where the global media coverage has caused more panic abroad than in Japan, which is remarkble. While the concern is touching, my fellow expats in Japan and I are spending a lot of time reassuring friends and family. I'm going to try and write about what things are like over here for us.

For those of us in Tokyo, the earthquake on the 11th did relatively little damage. All of the horrific images and videos that we have seen have come from areas north of Tokyo – specifically the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. Almost all of this damage was done by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, which demolished defenses that had never been designed for such an onslaught.

Life here in Tokyo has mainly been affected by two things.

The first is a power shortage due to power plants outside Tokyo being damaged or taken offline. The nuclear plants in Fukushima are an obvious example. We are all being encouraged to be conservative with our electricity usage and for certain sections of the Tokyo area, scheduled power cuts are taking place. I haven’t experienced one yet. The biggest impact of the power shortage is on the trains. Tokyo’s trains do an outstanding job of transporting a phenomenal number of commuters every day. At my local station at rush hour, a train comes along every couple of minutes. The number of trains running was reduced dramatically on Monday meaning that crowding was severe and it was very hard to get into work. I’m very pleased to report that the situation has improved drastically and most trains are running very well today, two days later.

The second is a succession of aftershock earthquakes that continue to rock eastern Japan. There are a lot of these (maybe 30 a day?) and some of them are quite strong – we had one last night that was magnitude 6.2. They’re very unnerving but none of them have been as powerful as the first earthquake and none of them have caused any damage in Tokyo.

As a result of both of these things, people in Japan are buying all of the rice, noodles, bread etc. available in supermarkets and shops. There are empty shelves everywhere. As a friend of mine said, this is not a food shortage, it’s a food hogg-age. If you arrive at the shop at the right time, just after the shelves are filled, you can get anything you want. If you don’t, they empty quickly. I’m sure this is temporary and will end soon. We are still getting newspapers and deliveries to our house every day, even Monday. Everything works but demand for staples has shot through the roof and supply isn’t catching up.

The final thing I’ll mention concerns the situation with the nuclear power plants. Understandably, everyone is very concerned about this. Unlike an earthquake or a tsunami, the dangers are less visible. At the moment, the situation with the Fukushima reactors is not affecting people in Tokyo at all. There is an evacuation radius of 20km and Tokyo is over 200km away. I know very little about nuclear reactors and their dangers but I see no reason not to believe the official advice being given by the Japanese authorities.

I have heard some rumours that the Japanese authorities are playing down the dangers. Having spent a lot of time in Japan frustrated at the overly worrisome and cautious nature of the Japanese people on so many occasions, the idea that the Japanese authorities suddenly want to take risks with the lives of their people seems absurd to me. The Japanese are the most diligent, conscientious and cautious people I know. I often feel that they are overly so.

Nevertheless, it’s not just the Japanese who think that there is no reason to leave Tokyo or Japan. From the advice issued by the British Foreign Office:
# We are actively monitoring the situation at nuclear facilities and urge British nationals to observe the advice being given by Japanese authorities, including the 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima facility and to remain indoors, keep windows and doors closed and not use ventilation if you are between 20km and 30km from the facility.  This is consistent with the severity of the reported incidents across reactors numbers one, two, three and four, with the independent information that we have, and with international practice.  We are keeping our advice under constant review, taking into account statements from the Japanese authorities and informed by independent UK scientific and health experts.

# On 15 March the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, spoke on the Today programme.  He said that this was an entirely different situation from Chernobyl; and that: "the exclusion zone of twenty kilometres… is entirely proportionate."  He stressed that people should not go into the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities.  He went on to say that, apart from those living in the 20 km area around the reactor, there is no real human health issue that people should be concerned about.
Other embassies are issuing similar advice, with the notable exception of the French, who are encouraging people to head west from Tokyo. They have been severely criticized for this attitude but it did occur to me that they are probably more nuclear savvy than most…

UPDATE: A report from a conference call held at the British embassy featuring the chief scientific adviser to the UK government and other experts (Facebook link). I hope something official can be made public soon. Quotes:
* In case of a 'reasonable worst case scenario' (defined as total meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an exclusion zone of 30 miles (50km) would be the maximum required to avoid affecting peoples' health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.

* The current 20km exclusion zone is appropriate for the levels of radiation/risk currently experienced, and if the pouring of sea water can be maintained to cool the reactors, the likelihood of a major incident should be avoided. A further large quake with tsunami could lead to the suspension of the current cooling operations, leading to the above scenario.

* The bottom line is that these experts do not see there being a possibility of a health problem for residents in Tokyo. The radiation levels would need to be hundreds of times higher than current to cause the possibility for health issues, and that, in their opinion, is not going to happen (they were talking minimum levels affecting pregnant women and children - for normal adults the levels would need to be much higher still).
UPDATE 2: The conference call described above has been transcribed and posted on the British Embassy web page. You can read it here.

UPDATE 3 (17 Mar 6:51 JST): US Embassy recommends 80km evacuation radius 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Getting a SIM card in Japan

After upgrading to the iPhone 4 last year, I had the option of trading my old iPhone 3G for cash. Instead, I decided to keep it so I could jailbreak it and unlock it from Softbank for use abroad. Unlocking the phone means that I can pick up a local SIM card, put it in the phone, and avoid roaming charges that would be incurred if I used my Japanese SIM abroad.

Of course, I would like to take my iPhone 4 abroad but I didn't feel that the upsides of the latest model were worth the risks. If it were possible to unlock my phone without jailbreaking, as it is in several countries, I would have done this. Unfortunately, Softbank does not allow this in Japan...

My family came to visit a few weeks ago and I decided to lend them my old iPhone 3G for their stay. After unlocking it, all I needed to do was find a SIM card for their short stay.

No easy task. I don't think there are any pay-as-you-go SIM cards available for purchase in Japan, especially not with data included. With the help of some friends, I did find a SIM card available for a 1 month contract at b-mobile.

b-mobile use NTT Docomo's network, which has the best coverage of any carrier in Japan. They have lots of different SIM cards available for various time periods and with various levels of service.

I chose this SIM card, which costs JPY 2,980 for 30 days use of data only. No voice or SMS.

Ordering the SIM card was quite easy - I just applied online and put in my credit card details. No English support that I could find but not too hard if you know a bit of Japanese.

The SIM card arrived at my house a few days later. Activating can be tricky though. They give you a number to call which directs you to an automatic touch dial response system with both English and Japanese support. You then have to enter a code found in the package the SIM card came in.

This is all fine but you have to call from the phone that you wish to use with the SIM card you ordered. My iPhone 3G had no SIM card and the SIM card I purchased was data only. How was I going to make a call? I called the help desk (with a different phone) who told me that they would send me an application form IN THE POST! that I would have to fill out and send back to them. I didn't have that kind of time so I told them how inconvenient that was and then hung up.

Instead, I took the SIM card from my wife's iPhone 3GS and put it in my iPhone 3G to call the activation number. I would have used my iPhone 4's SIM card but the iPhone 4 has a micro-sim which doesn't fit in the iPhone 3G.

Everything worked very well after that. In general use, I found that it took a long time to determine your location using GPS. Having GPS and google maps in your pocket is very handy in Tokyo where there are no street names and this was one reason I wanted to sort this out for my family. I suspect the delay is due to the SIM card being data only, meaning that you don't get assisted GPS, which uses nearby mobile phone towers to accelerate the process. Data speeds seemed pretty good - I guess I should have done a speed test, but it didn't cross my mind at the time.

3000 yen for unlimited 3G data use for a month is pretty good in my opinion. Recommended.