I can’t believe it happened again. What is it about international flights with a South-East Asian destination that causes our two children to excrete bodily fluids in unpleasant yet spectacular ways?
This time it was ID’s turn to put an airline sick bag to test. He waited until half way through the flight, and then after he had a full stomach he enthusiastically emptied its contents into a paper bag 10 kilometres above the ground.
Wise from history, however, we were prepared. We sat him up straight and pushed his head forward into the sick bag that we had pre-opened for his convenience. This time the only other collateral damage was his T-shirt. We were calm. We remained relatively clean. No other passengers visibly gagged. What a relief.
Despite one year passing since the original “unpleasantness” I can confirm that the designer of airline sick bags still doesn’t actually test them prior to manufacture. They still can only be opened by tearing along a near-invisible perforation, and they still have a tendency to rip down the side rendering them useless for their intended purpose.
This is why we now have a new family ritual. Each time we are initially seated on a flight we carefully open all the sick bags in the pockets in front of our seats. Our fellow passengers must think we’re about to perform a magic trick, or perhaps make our own in-flight popcorn. Later they’ll only wish it was so.
So, there you have it. A moderately absurd year sandwiched by high-altitude vomit. I’ll leave you with one final thought to chew over, and perhaps regurgitate at some unexpected time in the future: Airline barf bags… they still make me sick.
Relations between Asia’s two giants China and Japan are rarely straightforward. Despite being the second and third lagest economies in the world and doing hundreds of billions of dollars in bilateral trade, a few choice words by a prominent government official or a territorial incursion by a small fishing boat can quickly escalate into an international diplomatic crisis.
This week saw heightened tensions due to a Japanese government announcement that it intends to nationalise the Senkaku Islands, a group of islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan. China responded by sending “fishing vessels” into Japanese-claimed territorial waters around the islands. It was the top story on the evening news. Everyone was very upset. The Japanese government’s hand had been somewhat forced into making the purchase, as the right-wing mayor of Tokyo was already arranging for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to purchase the islands on behalf of the country.
In a seemingly unrelated issue, Nicewife was watching TV on Wednesday when a Newsflash (the type that is usually reserved for earthquakes and typhoons) announced the death of a newborn baby panda at Ueno Zoo. The zoo director was in tears. The Prime Minister described the death as “very disappointing”. A major department store cancelled its “Happy Panda Week” sale. (Apparently dead pandas don’t sell handbags.) The country is in mourning.
Given that Ueno Zoo is also owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, one can’t but help wonder if the baby panda death is an unfortunate metaphor for the future of Sino-Japanese relations.
In an attempt to make nuclear radioactivity easy to understand, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency has got itself in hot water over a poorly-conceived analogy it published on its website. The analogy was presented as a cartoon of an angry wife, with text drawing the following comparisons:
The angry wife is the radioactive source.
Her animated state is radioactivity.
Her screaming, angry voice is the radiation itself.
After garnering a little too much attention the cartoon was taken down yesterday.
It is exactly one year since the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan triggered a huge tsunami that claimed around 20,000 lives and left tens of thousands homeless. The world watched in horror as live broadcasts carried high definition video of a churning black waterfall, 10 metres high in places, advancing up to 10 kilometres inland, swallowing whole townships in its wake. The tsunami disabled critical cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station which lead to a serious nuclear incident, explosions and the release of radiation. Japan thus considers the events of March 11 to have been a “triple disaster”, and the Prime Minister at that time declared it to be the largest crisis to face this country since the end of World War Two.
In Nagoya we feel quite removed from what happened on March 11 2011, and what is continuing to unfold in Tohoku – some 500km north-east of here. None of our friends or relatives have been directly affected by the disaster. We have not visited the area, so I cannot provide any information that is first hand. Despite all this I still want to try to convey, however inadequately, something of the suffering that continues to face the people of that region, and the immense challenges yet to face the region and the country as a whole.
March 11 has dominated the TV schedule for the last week. What is clear is that Japan has changed – forever. People who have lived near the sea all of their lives now fear it. Towns and cities scramble to prepare for future tsunamis much taller than have hitherto been forecast. Faith in Japan’s advanced technology has been shaken, and the myth of totally safe nuclear power has been shattered. An incestuous, self-serving relationship between the government nuclear regulator and the nuclear industry has been exposed, one report at a time, compounding what seems to be a loss of trust in government amongst the general public. With the temporary suspension of all nuclear power generation in the country, “Energy Conservation” has become a national religion. People have stopped buying rice and vegetables produced in Tohoku – even from agricultural areas not affected – causing further economic hardship for the region. Fresh produce from China is, for the first time, an appealing alternative. Tourists have stopped coming to Tohoku. Foreign tourists have stopped coming to Japan all together.
The myriad of TV interviews with disaster survivors being broadcast this week echo common themes: Insatiable emptiness. Deep anger. Deep grief. For men who have lost their livelihoods, a general loss of purpose. Regrets. The guilt surviving when your child didn’t. There is anecdotal evidence of families and marriages falling apart; people turning to drink; committing suicide. For thousands who are living in temporary accommodation, either because their homes were destroyed in the tsunami or because of forced evacuation due to radioactive fallout, there is anxiety about when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes and land. Roots in Japan run deep.
Regarding things physical, reconstruction has barely begun. But it has begun. Debris has been stockpiled but not removed, as prefectural governments squabble over where it should be dumped. Master plans for reconstruction of each town are being formulated. Design guidelines for reinforced concrete buildings have been rewritten in a bid to make these structures tsunami-resistant. In Minamisanriku, a town in Miyagi Prefecture that was mostly wiped out, the government plans to remove the top of a couple of hills and build two new hamlets at a safe altitude. Funding to do this is still in question. It is likely to still be half a decade or more before residents can return.
What is clear is that the disaster of March 2011 didn’t occur in March 2011… That’s just when it began. The impact of the disaster in the tsunami-hit region clearly still has a long way to run. The human aspects, psychological and emotional, are only now coming to the forefront of public consciousness. The catchphrase found on goverment literature, billboards, on signs in schools and on cross-promotional products is “Ganbarou, Tohoku.” Hang in there, Tohoku. Keep persevering. Work hard. But the burden of this exhortation is in fact, contrary to the best of intentions, crushing upon the spirits of the survivors. How can a pain so deep from the loss of a son, the disappearance of a wife, be conquered by mere stoicism alone. Contrarily, I believe people need to hear that it’s OK not to cope. This is, in a strange paradox, the only way they can.
This is not the way the world was meant to be. Yet this is how it is. We all need a Saviour to save us from death.
Japan’s rapid development following its humiliating defeat in the Pacific War has been well documented. During the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s the country’s infrastructure developed at an unprecedented rate and to a very full extent. Highways and bridges were built servicing areas with no need for them. Airports were constructed in remote, lightly-populated areas to fly vegetables to the cities. (Have you ever bought a radish that has its own Air Miles?) Unused concert halls and empty art galleries were built in the smallest of hamlets. Railways were expanded to every corner of the country and sprawling subways (underground railways) were built under most of the major urban centres. While current residents enjoy the fruits of this investment, they are increasingly having to shoulder the burden of maintaining it all.
On NHK news last night there was a story about the increasing cost of maintaining Japan’s now ageing public infrastructure such as roads, highways, bridges, and municipal public buildings. Maintenance costs for public infrastructure have been increasing year on year for the last half-century, and last year, for the first time, more money was spent maintaining current infrastructure than building new stuff. In the last couple of decades Japan has been stuck in a cycle of deflation, so these increases in costs are real, not inflationary.
This would all probably be OK if the economy was growing (it’s barely moving), the population was increasing (it’s declining), the number of taxpaying workers was going up (it’s not), there was little public debt (it’s now at a whopping 220% of GDP), and there were no other budgetary surprises (it is now forecast that decommissioning and decontaminating Fukushima will take 40 years). Living in Japan in 2012 really feels like living in a post-developed economy that is just starting to go into gradual but terminal decline.
So what’s the solution? On the news story last night NHK looked at how the municipality of Hamamatsu was dealing with the problem. Their solution is a public fire sale. Assets that can be sold will be sold, and the small amount of money raised will be used to demolish assets that have no value. The national government is currently pursuing legislation to increase sales tax. Further tax increases along with cuts to social services and the national pension scheme are inevitable.
Unless some other radical step is taken (such as opening the country to mass immigration) I think that residents of Japan in 2030 will look back to 2012 as the end of a golden era for Japanese public services, taxes, and infrastructure.
The devastation has been visible through Google’s satellite images for some time, but Google has now released Streetview imagery of the Tsunami-hit region of North-eastern Japan. The images were taken in July this year and allow you to take a 360 degree virtual tour of the devastated area.
Although the images were taken some 4 months after the tsunami swept inland killing 20,000 people, the immense scale and horror of the disaster is still clearly evident, with mountains of debris, houses swept from their foundations, and cars upturned in the middle of fields.
On Tuesday we took a trip to a small city north of here called Inuyama. What I like the most about Inuyama is that its name translates literally as “Dog Mountain City”.
Absurd juxtapositions aside, the most interesting thing about Inuyama is that it is home to the oldest original wooden castle in Japan. This trip we completely ignored that fact and instead spent the day visiting the grounds of Jakko-in (寂光院) temple, which sits atop a hill covered in beautiful deciduous trees.
There were a few minor disasters during the day. The half-hourly free shuttle bus from the train station only runs on weekends – we discovered so after arriving at the station and attempting to board the non-existant bus. The result was a long and precarious walk along a road sandwiched between the river and mountains. At some points the road narrows to just one lane and the footpath disappears completely, bringing goods trucks and infants in pushers uncomfortably close.
Half way along the 2.5km walk a wheel fell off our 3-wheeled pusher. To the amusement of passing motorists I spent 5 minutes imitating a primate, using a rock as a hammer in an attempt to fix it. (Appropriately, this area is also famous for its monkeys.) This affair was generally embarrassing, but not disastrous. However, these minor issues were soon forgotten when we arrived at the grounds and were able to enjoy Japanese Maples aflame in brilliant reds. We joined the throngs of very old people in tour groups and made our way up the hill.
Viewing the changing of the leaves is something of a seasonal tradition in Japan, and with the beauty of the vibrant display of colours on offer, who can blame them?
Yesterday I went to the library to do some work. I thought it might be a nice and free alternative to paying $5 for a cup of mud-like filter coffee and 2 hours at a table. I set up my laptop at a nice spot near the window and was just about to get down to work when I noticed a sign:
No Mobile Phones
No Food and Drink
No Portable Electronic Games
No Office Equipment
Always anxious to make a positive impression to locals of foreign residents in Japan, I thought I better check with the librarian to make sure that “Office Equipment” did not include laptop computers. Surely it wouldn’t. After all, what serious student nowadays studies without the aid of a laptop or iPad or something? That sign must be there to prevent people from bringing in their own fax machines and making atonal sounds at the nice table near the window.
Me: “I’ve brought my laptop from home. It’s ok to use it in the library isn’t it.”
Librarian: “I’m terribly sorry.”
Me: “You mean it’s forbidden? Really?”
Librarian: “I’m terribly sorry”; now looking ashamed of this meaningless rule.
Librarian returns to typing on her Office Equipment.
No wonder the library is empty! They turn away anyone who doesn’t think it’s 1975. Dejected, I got on my bike (literally and metaphorically) and followed the footpath along the river until I saw this.
I stopped to take a photo on my phone and these two middle-aged ladies (who I’d just overtaken) walked past and straight towards the snake. They were moving so confidently that I thought they must’ve seen it… after all, it was right in the middle of the path – how could one miss it?
“That’s unusual”, I said.
“Seeing a snake, here, in October.”
They froze for a second or two, quietly freaking out. A little knowledge is dangerous: they now knew only that a snake was somewhere nearby without the vitally important data of its exact location. I watched them closely and I could pinpoint the exact instant that their eyes had locked onto it.
A few seconds later I looked back over my shoulder to about 5 meters behind me, where the two middle-aged ladies now stood.
“Do you think it’s poisonous?”, I asked.
“No. But I hate snakes!”, one of the ladies replied.
“I’ve lived here all my life and this is the first time I’ve seen one.”
We watched the snake, apparently now having gotten cold feet, slowly disappear into the adjacent playground.
The design concepts employed in airline vomit bags these days makes me sick. Do they ever actually test them? Once a prototype has been developed, does the design lead chug half a bottle of vodka and then try to successfully deploy the bag? I think not.
The reason why I make this assertion with such confidence is that, after almost 20 years of uneventful flying experience, I actually had to use one on our flight to Kuala Lumpur. Our 2 year old, H, managed the impressive and alarming feat of suddenly vomiting while sleeping in his mother’s arms.
Please allow me to just take a moment to describe the nature of this vomit. It was not projectile. It was not unidirectional. Instead it was like a slow spring bubbling up from the foot of a hill and flowing to lower ground in any direction gravity would take it. This would’ve made it quite hard to direct the flow from the mouth into a sick bag. Notice that I speak hypothetically.
To the distinctive ambiance of gasping passengers (some gagging) and screaming children (some gagging) I attempted to separate the sides of the bag by blowing from the top, and once that failed subsequently by pinching the bag between my fingers. It would not open. Strange. And annoying. After several moments of pure panic, I finally realised that the top was indeed sealed, and that the user was required to tear along a near-invisible perforation in order to open the bag.
The first bag ripped across the top and all of the way down the side rendering it useless. The second bag ripped across the middle, leaving the bottom half as a semi-usable vomit receptacle. I held it up to the mouth of the vomiting 2 year old, by which time the flow had all but stopped.
Once the airline staff decided that they actually would try to help by providing some facecloths, we wiped the vomit out of his hair, face and neck as best we could, and thew his clothes, a pillow, 2 airline blankets and about a dozen face towels in a plastic bag which we then sealed. We asked the hostess to collect it but she wisely refused, leaving it at the feet our our seat – a proud marker to the exact location of the inconsiderate vomiting passengers that had stunk out the plane.
The silver lining? Never has a shower at a transit hotel felt so good.