Panda Death a Metaphor

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.

baby panda
Newborn Panda at Ueno Zoo  (Photo: Ueno Zoological Gardens)

Two Convenient

Despite poor economic times the number of convenience stores in Japan continues to grow. The sale of snacks, cigaretts and alcohol truly is a recession-proof industry.

There are 10 convenience stores within a 10 minute bicycle radius of my house. The most prominent chain around here is 7-Eleven, which has over 40,000 stores around the country. But what really takes the biscuit is this quiet nearby street featuring not one, but two 7-Elevens within 60 metres of each other.

If you stand somewhere in the middle you’ll have 7-Elevens at 7 o’clock and 11 o’clock respectively. Ladies and gentlemen, we have crossed from the realm of convenience to that of absurdity.

seeing double
Seeing Double.

P.S. If you want to find out why Japanese convenience stores are just so damn great check out this post over at This Japanese Life.

Oi! Oi! Nuclear is Back!

Prior to the accident at Fukushima, Japan relied on nuclear power for around 30% of its generation capacity (with plans to raise that to 50% by 2030), and had a total of 54 active reactors dotted around the country’s coast. For the last few months none have been operational because of ongoing public concern over their safety.

With the summer season now upon us however, demand for electricity for air conditioning will skyrocket leaving the Kansai area in particular with a significant shortfall unless some of the nuclear reactors are restarted. The most likely candidate was the plant at Oi, in Fukui Prefecture, part of Japan’s “Nuclear Alley”. This is a place close to my heart, because when I was last living in Japan it was close to my home!

For weeks we have witnessed a pantomime with the nuclear regulator, plant operator, prefectural governments and the Prime Minister all playing roles. This pantomime slowly conveyed to a largely sceptical public a carefully crafted message: this is safe, and this is inevitable. When the Prime Minister finally announced the restart he framed his argument around the importance of affordable electricity for maintaining the Japanese standard of living.

The Oi reactor was restarted this week and is expected to start to transmit electricity from today.

I have just a few thoughts to share:

Firstly, I think it’s incredible that Japan has to-date survived the loss of 30% of its generation capacity without rolling blackouts. This has been achieved through restarting mothballed thermal plants and encouraging people and businesses to save energy.

Secondly, I note with interest that there is no sunset date for the restarted operation of Oi, something which would seem sensible given that the extra demand will only last until the summer ends and that reaching public consensus over the future of nuclear power in Japan is still far off.

Thirdly, I think geothermal electricity generation could in future play a much larger part in Japan’s energy mix. For this source of electricity Japan’s unstable geology becomes a strength rather than a weakness.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo area still have no nuclear plants in operation. Several years ago TEPCO boasted in a TV commercial that 40% of its power came from nuclear plants in Niigata and Fukushima. I didn’t want them looking silly (again), so I took the liberty of updating their ad.

before
Before (view commercial)
After

Wrestling with Big Issues

This morning, a few minutes from home, we saw this:

sumo wrestlers practicing
These guys are in town practicing for the July Grand Tournament in Nagoya.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day”, I thought. But then I looked around and saw the general public completely unfazed and I realised that, in Japan, perhaps it is.

 

EDIT: In an even more surreal encounter, on Monday I saw two sumo wrestlers get into a lift at our local shopping mall. I wonder whether 10 persons or less still applies?

Uncrossable Crossing Closes – Nerds Get Emotional

Today is an historic day for Nagoya train nerds. The Atsuta Jingu Mae level crossing is permanently closing, and little wonder too. It crosses 8 tracks (4 JR tracks and 4 Meitetsu tracks) carrying a total of 1,300 freight and passenger trains per day. This means the crossing is open for an average of only 1 minute 14 seconds in every hour.

Other peculiarities that have train nerds foaming at the mouth are the pulley-operated rope barriers that are manually lowered and raised by station staff, and the island in the middle where one can end up marooned when both halves close at the same time.

Jingu Mae Crossing
Jingu-Mae Level Crossing. Source: This blog.

Rainy Season Precipitates Precipitation

We’re a couple of weeks into this year’s rainy season, which will last until mid-July. Although it doesn’t rain every day, the weather is generally wet, humid and muggy. Typhoons usually start rolling north-easterly towards the archipelago at the end of the rainy season, but this year we’re getting an early visitor. At midnight tonight Typhoon No. 4 will pass over the Tokai area. Winds in the eye of the storm are currently gusting to 126km/hour. Typhoon No. 5 is hot on its heels, and is currently expected to arrive around Friday, although whether it will come by this part of Japan remains to be seen.

Today our eldest son was sent home from Nursery School early, much to his surprise and delight. We’ve shuttered the large windows at home and are hoping for the best with regard to this year’s rice crop that has just been planted.

As you can see, typhoons are numbered rather than named in Japan. This helps avoid the feeling that one’s close friend (who happens to be called Katrina or Tracy) might be somehow responsible for misery, death and destruction. How thoughtful.

Typhoon No. 4
Typhoon No. 4. projected course. Source: Yahoo! Japan

Kei Cars and 30km per litre

Since I seem to be on the theme of cars recently I have another automobile-related post for you today, this time at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Japan has a special category of light vehicles called kei-jidousha (軽自動車) that are cheap to own and operate. When I was previously living in Japan (before I had kids) I owned one of these. To give you an idea of its size, when sitting in the driver’s seat I could touch all four corners of the interior roof with my left hand! They are perfect for short commutes and as a daily runner.

To qualify as a Light Vehicle, cars must have an engine size no more than 660cc and maximum power of 47kW, as well as meet certain physical size restrictions. These small cars are identified by yellow number plates and qualify for lower stamp duty on purchase, lower highway tolls, lower road tax, lower insurance, and lower vehicle inspection fees (weight tax component). Being so small, they also result in lower human survival rates in crashes. As we were told in one of our orientation seminars when first arriving in Japan, “If you get a kei car, and you have a highway accident, don’t expect to be able to use your legs again.”

There is even a category of ute known as a Kei Truck. My parents-in-law use one of these midget utes around the farm.

Of course a huge advantage with Kei cars is that they are fuel misers. Suzuki are currently advertising a new model that achieves over 30km per litre of petrol. Our Camry back home would go about 7.7km by comparison. (Incidentally, I like the km/litre metric that is used in Japan to measure fuel consumption. It’s much easier to calculate running costs compared to Australia’s litres/100km metric.)

Kei Car
Japanese light motor vehicle.

You bought what?!

Yesterday my father-in-law made a stealth purchase. He didn’t tell Nicewife or I about his plan. He didn’t tell his wife either. He just casually rocked up at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon with a Porsche, parked it, and went inside without any comment.

porsche

Thanks to the fact that older cars rapidly depreciate in Japan he bought this 1992 Carrera, with only 66,000km on the clock, for a fraction of what it would have cost in Australia. At least now the question of whether or not he’s in the midst of a mid-life-crisis is well and truly settled.

Radioactivity is Wife in Japan

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.
Radioactive wife
Cartoon Comparing Radioactivity to a Not-very-Nicewife. Source: tv-asahi

After garnering a little too much attention the cartoon was taken down yesterday.