safe

Is it safe to go into the ocean? Probably not, but . . .

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日本の海は危険でしょうか。暑い日に、海はまだ楽しいです。千葉の御宿で。

In the heat of August, who can resist a visit to the ocean? Despite the on-going revelations about nuclear leaks, the ocean is irresistible. This is Onjuku in lower Chiba. Below is the river that passes near the station. The tall skinny palms remind me of California.

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Elaborate send-off ceremony on ferry’s departure

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小笠原から船が出るときに、儀式があります。陸上では、はっぴを着ている人が太鼓を演奏します。港では、小さな船がたくさんついてきて、さよならのあいさつとして、皆一緒に海に飛び込みます。

When leaving Ogasawara, there is an elaborate send-off. Men, women and children in Shinto happi jackets pound drums and ask for a safe voyage. A flotilla, including kayaks, fishing and diving boats, follows the ship through the harbor. And as the boat nears the edge of the open sea, in a scene that all the regulars seem familiar with, people in the small boats dive and jump into the sea in showy unison.

Truly, this is the most jolly transit send-off I could imagine.

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Inside a Japanese nuclear power plant

原発についてたくさん勉強になりましたけれども、毎日の生活とエネルギーの本当のコストの問題が残っています。

A fascinating short video from IDG News Service’s @martyn_williams shows the inside of a functioning nuclear power plant in Japan. It’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear plant, on the Japan Sea, also known as the East Sea of Korea.

In the past two weeks, we have all learned many details about nuclear power generation: from containment vessels to doughnut-shaped torus, steam venting, cooling pools, basement pumps and generators, and dangers from radioactive iodine and cesium. While the Daichi survived the earthquake, several days without electricity led to pressure build-up, exposed fuel rods, explosions, and radioactive releases.

Most Japanese school children are given tours of nuclear facilities to encourage familiarization and acceptance. Watching the video above, I am struck by the incongruity of these images of rational organization with the recent realization that a lack of power can quickly turn these engineering marvels into a grave threat to human existence.

It is interesting that the video above, and I am certain the hundreds of school tours, fail to mention that the reactors serve a second and equally dangerous function: they are the storage locations for spent nuclear rods. While the active rods have control rods and secured cases, the spent rods seem to be in less protected parts of the reactors.

The explosions at the Daichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima have literally blown the lid off a scary reality that is normally kept far from conscious thinking. Everyone knows that nuclear waste and the long-term dangers it poses are the by-product of this “clean,” low carbon energy. What is less known is that these spent rods remain near population centers and alongside ocean coasts that routinely experience tsunamis and earthquakes. They remain hidden from view within the plants because the rods are difficult to transport safely and few communities would welcome them.

I expect that as the crisis becomes less acute, there will be more attention to the questions of how much energy we need, how to balance what is possible with what is prudent, and how to make visible the true costs of energy production, including the wars used to “secure” petroleum from hostile regions, and the potential contamination of people and land from nuclear power and waste.

In the coming weeks, this blog will focus on recovery from the nuclear crisis, including increased city bicycling, reduced power consumption, and other positive developments. I will also show signs of Tokyo’s spring, and other evidence that the natural world continues in spite of human activity.

“Protect Your Personal Space with Mace”

「 催涙ガススプレーで個人のスペースを守って」アメリカでは、危険じゃないときにでも、催涙ガスを使ってもいいのでしょうか?

Riding the BART, the San Francisco Bay Area transit line, I was surprised to see this ad for mace, with the offer to get a 30% discount by typing in BART during the online check-out.

The idea that you can use a powerful chemical irritant to create a four meter wide personal space in public seems laughable in a dense city like Tokyo. Here, you can wear a face mask and maybe get a few extra centimeters of personal space as people may be afraid of influenza. To get 4 meters of space, you would have to smell very bad.

Are there other ways to feel safe in public? In the US, is it really OK to use mace when you are not being attacked and just want some extra breathing room?

Summer vegetables growing on the sidewalk

Walking down a large boulevard in Higashi Koenji, I was surprised to see these potted vegetables on the sidewalk. In addition to ginko trees, this street has many azaleas between the vehicle lanes and the pedestrian sidewalk. In this spot, there’s a semi-permanent row of pots. But these eggplants and tomatoes are an extra row that someone temporarily set up.

I love how seasonal and impromptu this vegetable gardening is. And, after almost two years in Japan, I am still startled that people can place plants they love on the street, and no one eats the vegetables, vandalizes, or steals the plants. A city that’s safe for vegetables and plants is one that also welcomes people.

Meeting Yamada Yoriyuki at Kajima

Recently I met with Yamada Yoriyuki (山田順之), Manager of the Office of Global Environment at constructino company Kajima and a leader in bringing biodiversity ideas to Japanese corporations. He showed me the new interactive illustration Kajima created of an integrated sustainable city, where bees pollinate community gardens, school fields are mowed by goats, falcons provide crow control, rivers support animal life, hospitals have healing gardens, and plants and animals contribute to a better environment.

Yamada’s vision for new urbanism is holistic, with the widest variety of wildlife improving human life. Contrary to the government’s minimal regulations, Yamada boldly states, “I am not interested in greening.” Instead of applying green to existing projects, Yamada emphasizes habitat and culture. Habitat requires links between insects and birds, bees and food, trees and birds, clean water and fish. As an anthropologist, I was also pleased to hear Yamada emphasize culture as key to creating social change in cities. Yamada cites the importance of “eight million kami” (ya-o-yorozu no kami or 八百万の神), a Shinto belief in animism and the presence of spirits in an infinite number of natural beings and materials.

In addition to working with Kajima and the Japanese Business Initiative for Biodiversity, Yamada is very hands-on. He explained how he monitors honeybees on Kajima’s Ikebukuro dormitory using GPS and biking along a 2 kilometer radius. From his observations, he sees urban honeybees avoiding park and street trees because pesticides have made them unsafe, and preferring instead small gardens grown by residents.

Yamada also cites the Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker as a key indicator species. Because it travels relatively short distance, urban habitat requires a series of interconnected parks and street trees creating a green web. I find this idea of the ecological connection between large public spaces and individual gardens very inspiring.

I also highly recommend the article he co-authored: Kumagai, Yoichi and Yoriyuki Yamada. “Green Space Relations with Residential Values in Downtown Tokyo: Implications for Urban Biodiversity Conservation.” Local Environment, Routledge Press, Vol. 13, No. 2, 141–157, March 2008.

Drunk salary man passed out in flower bed

Drunk salary man passed out in flower bed

Friday night outside Shinjuku station, I noticed a salary man lying unconscious in a flower bed. The two young women sitting next to him wondered what this foreigner was photographing. I mentioned that in the United States, it’s not safe to be passed out in public, but they laughed and said, “It’s OK.”

I marvel at the safety of Tokyo, the world’s largest city, where it is not uncommon to see well-dressed people passed out from inebriation on sidewalks, train platforms, and occasionally on top of plants. There seems something poetic almost about the juxtaposition of office worker, flower and soil. Like seeing early elementary school children riding the trains alone, seeing adults passed out in public makes me reflect on how rarely we can feel free, unguarded and safe in United States and European cities.

In both cases, Japanese hardly notice that these things are happening. It’s just normal and “OK.”