Revenge of the nerds: Konkatsu Killer Kanae sentenced to hang

Kanae Kojima, an alleged black widow murderer, was convicted of murdering three former boyfriends and sentenced to death by hanging by a panel of professional and lay judges. I have watched the story with some interest due to her ultra-creepy trawling for victims on Internet dating sites. Her MO was to drain the men of cash and then drop them when they were of no use to her. The three she was convicted of killing were just the deaths they had the most evidence for.

I say this is “revenge of the nerds” because she would often prey on some of the more timid members of the male public, including one awkward-looking man who had a blog for his plastic models. I am a little concerned that she was convicted on essentially all circumstantial evidence, but it does seem to be a win in the name of justice for the lovelorn and downtrodden.

My Japanese sucks and always will

Not as good as this guy’s

Just want to get something off my chest. I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 15 years, spent two of them studying abroad, lived in Tokyo for five years now, passed the JLPT 1 and the Securities Representative exam in Japanese, worked as a Japanese-English translator for around 7 years, and on and on. I’ve done a lot of stuff that would seemingly require near-native fluency, and yet…

My Japanese still sucks. I feel like no matter how much I study or live in the country I am always going to have a rough accent, a low working vocabulary, and generally limited fluency. My reading will always be much much slower than a native, and I will forever be looking up kanji on my iPhone even to write my own address half the time. My wife will be afraid to let me go to the doctor alone lest I misunderstand some important detail. I’ll never feel comfortable speaking in public or leading a group conversation among natives. If someone doesn’t feel like being patient with me there’s not a whole lot I can do to take control of the situation.

I feel like I have improved a lot and developed a pretty good working use of the language, but on an objective level it’s just terrible. I’d like to go around thinking I have really achieved something by learning another language and making a career of it, but I need to be honest.

In the US there is a very simple standard for English fluency – either native or foreign. You don’t get any prizes for having 50% fluent English or even 90%. But of course here, Japanese people tend to be overflowing with praise for a Westerner who speaks the language. They make it sound like it’s such an amazing achievement. But anyone who grows up here will learn Japanese – it’s just a way for people to communicate. I don’t think knowing it means you deserve any special credit. I guess I should be grateful that the bar is so low and so many people are willing to be patient with me.

I can only speak for myself, but I get the feeling that a good deal of the long-term Western residents are like me. They’ve developed a good working fluency but will probably never really reach native level. I think that’s great and worthy in its way, but for me I don’t want to lose sight of reality.

There are ways that I could improve, maybe, and I do want to get better. I want to just live a normal life without worrying about the language barrier. It’s demoralizing to stutter and fumble words at my job or even just trying to ask a store clerk something. Having better Japanese and the social skills to use it (a big one here) would make it much easier to disarm situations where people are uneasy about dealing with a foreigner. I have definitely not been in the habit of actively trying to improve my Japanese for quite a while now – at this point in my life (almost 30) my priorities are work and spending time with Mrs. Adamu. Spending extra free time writing kanji is not my idea of fun anymore.

People laughed Debito’s column about not having male Japanese friends, but I actually kind of identified with it to an extent. I don’t hang out with many Japanese people, and next to zero men. Unlike Debito, however, I don’t really blame Japanese people for not being sophisticated enough to understand me. I instead put most of it down to the language/cultural barrier and my own social awkwardness. There are lots and lots of people with similar backgrounds who have successfully integrated, either going native or on some other terms, and they can just make it work in a way that I haven’t been able to.

Maybe what’s made things worse is that my Japanese has improved to a level where I know what it means to speak at a native level and the difference when someone falls short. At the risk of comparing myself to people with real problems, it’s like a disabled person who knows what it’s like to walk but just can’t make his body do what his brain is telling it.

Anyway that’s something I have been wanting to post on Mutant Frog for a while now because I don’t want to put out this image like my Japanese is so amazingly awesome when it’s not. That’s definitely not how I used to feel (I think I have written that I “get” Japan better than other people on more than one occasion) but I am way overdue for some humility.

AIJ – mini-Madoff or yakuza slush fund? It’s too early to tell

(Update: Jake Adelstein has left a response in our comments section)

Friday morning the news broke that Japanese regulators shut down AIJ Investment Advisors, a small investment management firm, because its 183 billion yen in funds under management had mostly gone missing. The company specialized in managing pensions for smaller companies. It seems likely that a massive fraud has taken place.

Scandals like these are not obscure, victimless crimes – they directly affect people’s lives. For instance, semiconductor equipment maker Advantest apparently had 8% of its pension assets invested with the firm. These funds are very unlikely to be recovered at this point. That’s 8% less the firm has to pay its workers post-retirement, which it will have to make up for somewhere. The unwitting employees of AIJ will no doubt lose their jobs as well. A company the size of Advantest might be big enough to weather a loss like that but 100+ other clients that were wooed by the attractive returns might not be so fortunate. Layoffs, bankruptcies, ruined lives, misery all around.

The fund reported consistent returns regardless of market conditions, achieved with exotic financial instruments–classic signs of financial fraud that corporate pension managers should have seen coming a mile away. It’s too early to know exactly what happened, though. According to the WSJ, the ratings agency R&I called attention to the suspiciously favorable returns in 2009.

Too early to call “yakuza”

Even though the facts have yet to come out, that hasn’t stopped Jake Adelstein, among others, from promoting a possible yakuza connection. That’s understandable since he bases his media career around being the West’s yakuza expert. However, I take issue with him coming out so early in favor of an organized crime angle. He doesn’t know any better than the rest of us, at least judging from the justifications he has trotted out so far.

He argued in favor of a yakuza connection in the Olympus scandal not too long ago, and the New York Times ran a report that the police were looking into yakuza involvement. However, the independent investigative committee found no evidence of yakuza and I have not seen any major refutation on that point.

Despite seemingly getting it wrong on Olympus, Jake has again taken to Twitter to play up a connection in the AIJ scandal. As with Olympus, the New York Times has run an article that echoes and bolsters his claims. The feed and the article make lots of claims that I will paraphrase here:

  • AIJ is a Yamaguchi-gumi front (Jake)
  • This is true because one of the board members (not the head) was convicted of paying protection money to a corporate extortionist (sokaiya). And once someone has paid millions in protection money and gotten caught, that means they will turn around and steal billions (I am assuming because the yakuza tells them to). (Jake)
  • The head of the firm is also ex-Nomura (NYT)
  • The DPJ-led government turns a blind eye to financial fraud because the former FSA minister may have accepted yakuza donations at some point. (Jake)
  • The Nomura connection and the dates when AIJ and another firm received approval to offer financial services means the AIJ scandal “shares many characteristics with the Olympus scheme” (NYT)
  • Jake sent an email to a friend explaining his suspicions about AIJ in 2008. He says that his sources told him AIJ manages the Yamaguchi-gumi’s pensions.

I am ready to be wrong, but at this point I am not convinced. These unconfirmed claims, appeals to authority, and guilt-by-association tactics do not amount to actual evidence to justify labeling this a yakuza crime. Yet, anyway.

It may well be that the Yamaguchi-gumi raided AIJ and took all the money, or demanded favorable treatment as a customer. But a serious and contemptuous crime has apparently taken place even without a yakuza connection, so there’s no need to rush to apply a label, in my opinion. Jake and Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times, I beg you to please rein in your speculation until we have more facts.

Actual damage possibly smaller than 183 billion yen

It’s also worth noting that the 183 billion yen number includes potentially phony returns, so if the entire cumulative return of 245% is phony but the cash remained, that would leave AIJ with 53 billion in cash. That would leave “most of” the money missing even with most of the principal intact. That’s still a lot it’s indeed gone, but we don’t even know that much right now. And if the company has only been lying about returns that means they have likely been fraudulently collecting return-based fees.

It’s my understanding that investment managers are required to keep funds in segregated accounts at trust banks, to avoid the easy temptation of embezzlement. For example, if I buy a mutual fund, the fund manager doesn’t get to touch my money at all (unless I am totally naive). It goes into a trust, and the manager simply gives instructions on which securities to purchase based on the contract. AIJ was a “discretionary” manager, meaning that the managers had free rein over (but not direct access to) the funds as long as the action fit a pre-determined investment policy. Of course that assumes AIJ was following procedures when collecting funds. If AIJ was somehow just accepting cash and managing without a trust arrangement, that is a dreadful problem and could warrant prosecution even without any theft. The regulators’ statement (PDF) orders AIJ to “immediately confirm” the status of funds, including fund segregation. Ick.

Update: According to a story over this weekend, the firm apparently invested most of the cash in a single Cayman-registered investment trust of its own creation, which it then outsourced management of to a British-affiliated bank in Bermuda. This would suggest they may have used the funds as a way to get around fund segregation and gain access to the funds.

A few more notes on energy conservation

During the very early stages of last month’s disaster I wrote A Note on Energy Conservation, in which I explained why, energy conservation in western Japan would have no immediate effect in relieving the shortage in eastern Japan. This is because Japan’s electrical grid is, for historical reasons, separated into a 60hz grid (same as North America) in the western half of Japan and a 50hz grid (same as Europe) in the eastern half.

I have been collecting links related to the energy situation and several other aspects of the ongoing crisis and recovery efforts and will probably be blogging quite a bit on such topics, but for now I want to just post translations of a series of brief comments on energy conservation in Kanto from Tokyo Vice-mayor Inose Naoki (who I believe will remain in his job allegedly doing most of the real work serving under Ishihara following his unfortunate reelection) that he tweeted a week ago.

#1: The pachinko industry said in a protest message to Governor Ishihara that “the maximum power usage of their 4000 game parlors in the Tepco region” is no more than 840,000 kilowatts” and this is where I learned precise numbers. Before this the only data I had was regarding a sort of “peak velocity” of 320,000 kilowatts. Since Toei and Metro [Tokyo’s subway systems] together are a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts, this is pretty big.

#2: Pachinko parlor electricity consumption is 40% air conditioning, 30% pachinko machines, 20% lighting. To reduce the gap in power supply during summer peak demand time, [we] must reevaluate [our] lifestyles. To speak half-jokingly and half-seriously, the pachinko industry must themselves come forward with plans such as operating only at night, or running without their coolers on during the day.

#3: Drink vending machines use 190,000 kilowatts. The real number may be even higher. Vending machines are refrigerators. The industry is voluntarily engaging in self restraint to halt the cooling function between the hours of 1 and 4 but do we really even need it during the day time? At the very least we do not need them next to a convenience store. Conserving energy at night has no relation with saving energy during peak hours.

#4: Energy Conservation Minister Renho says “vending machines are a large proportion of the drinks industry’s sales” and expressed a “contradictory point of view” regarding industry self restraint, saying “the industry is working to lower energy consumption” (Kyodo). She does not understand the meaning of revising our lifestyles to overcome summer. There is no need to put refrigerators on the street in order to raise the sale price to ¥150 from the ¥90 it is in a supermarket.

#5: The DPJ administration has finally decided to issue government directives, and although there are regulations for both industry specific controls and total volume controls [on energy consumption], they have only issued total volume controls. By issuing only total volume controls,  it will only target electricity contracts of 500 kilowatts and up (large offices), which is only 1/3 of the total. The other 70% is voluntary restraint, and cigarette vending machines fall into that category. This is because they are not using industry specific controls.

#6: Tokyo is a commuter city. Toei and Metro together use a maximum of 360,000 kilowatts during rush hour. Outside of morning and evening rush, they are saving power by reducing service, reducing lighting/AC in stations and cars, stopping one set of escalators where there are two, etc. And compare this with how the pachinko or drinks vending machine industries – which add up to 100,000 kilowatts, are reacting.

#7: Cigarette vending machines are not refrigerators. Beverage vending machines are refrigerators, and guzzle 190,000 kilowatts. It may even be higher in reality. I previously had a number for the pachinko industry of 320,000 kilowatts, but their assertion that it is “no more than 840,000 kilowatts” gave me the real figure. The output of Reactor #1 at Fukushima Daiichi was 460,000 kilowatts. More or less.

#8: The concern is what to do about power use at peak hours. Late at night is not a problem. I have set the hot water heater on the bath in my working area to use electricity at night. I also installed solar panels one year ago. Even though Tokyo has been trying to encourage them the installation rate is low and I put them in myself. Personal experiences are in my book on working as Vice-governor.

#9: Roppongi Hills produces all of their own power. They have a contract with Tepco for backup. This is opposite the usual pattern. In the future, power generation will no longer be monopolized by Tepco. Factories had already begun installing their own power generation but it was expensive and efforts did not move forward. With the nuclear accident, people will start to question the real costs of power generation.

#10: Beverage vending machines. The Tokyo Prefectural Assembly DPJ proposed halting the coolers not from 13:00-26:00 but from 10:00-21:00. Energy Conservation Minister Renho is arguing for something different. In this proposal the Tokyo Assembly DPJ mistakenly wrote that vending machines use 110,000 kilowatts and the cool beverage industry corrected them saying it is actually 260,000 kilowatts. Thanks to that, I now know the real figure.

#11: Changed in electricity consumption. Proper mastery of a proposition is a precondition for linguistic skill. If we look back, the 1990s are not so long ago. Since the 1990s, GDP has not risen, but electricity usage has increased. Therefore, we need to reassess our lifestyles over the last 10-15 years. Why has GDP not risen even though we use more electricity?

Open thread for local elections

Thanks to the power of exit polls, we already know the results of some of tonight’s polls. For instance, Ishihara will remain governor of Tokyo for another four years (!). For updates on developments in the election, keep an eye on my Twitter feed. No live blogging tonight. Biking around my old stomping grounds in Adachi-ku has sapped my energy.

Feel free to leave comments/reactions below!

Photo: Osaka governor voting today in a track suit.

Local elections in Japan tomorrow – what and who to watch for

Tomorrow Japan will hold many, many local elections. The schedule is set by the central government, which prefers to hold all local elections around this time every four years. It’s sort of like Election Day in the States, except it’s on a holiday because Japanese officials  actually want people to vote.

Gubernatorial and mayoral elections are decided by majority popular vote (first past the post, no runoffs), while prefectural and local assemblies are a mix of single-member and multi-member districts, though I am not sure which is more prevalent.

In the wake of the massive earthquake last month, many elections in the affected areas have been postponed. Even outside the northeast, many local officials want them put off, to the point that Urayasu (located on reclaimed land, partly sank into ground after earthquake) has steadfastly refused to hold the vote as scheduled. Given the somber national mood, an enthusiastic campaign full of upbeat promises could look unseemly, and voters are understandably distracted by post-quake anxieties.

All the same, the decision has been made, and now it’s up to the public to show up and choose their leaders. There is a very wide field, but a few themes have emerged to keep an eye on as the votes are tallied tomorrow night.

Ishihara the indestructible? Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is running for a fourth term, and is expected to win handily despite challenges from some recognizable faces.

Ishihara was most recently in the news making and then apologizing for a statement that the recent earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japan’s immorality. If you have been following the quake news, you might wonder, Why is his re-election assured despite such an offensive statement? Well, there are two reasons. First, he has a long history of getting away with being outrageous, banking on the admiration he earned as a writer/celebrity and the large number of people who agree with much of what he has to say. Second, he is a skilled politician who has gained the backing of large blocs of reliable voters at a time when support for the rival DPJ is essentially in tatters (they didn’t even field their own candidate this time) and the turnout of unaffiliated voters is expected to be low.

For more on the first reason, I would direct you to David Marx’s profile of the governor over at Neojaponisme. Key line: “He is not a “loose cannon,” accidentally saying things he later regrets. He likely thinks that success of his endeavors requires raising the ire of groups to which he does belong.” Suffice to say, people expect Ishihara to be outrageous. The only surprising thing about his most recent offense is that he apologized. Probably even some supporters told him to watch his words this time.

As to the second, maybe I can shed some light. You see, the LDP and New Komeito hold influence over a fairly disciplined voting bloc. The Komeito is especially important in this equation because of their numbers and highly reliable turnout.

For example, let’s look back to my coverage of the 2009 Tokyo prefectural assembly election. In Adachi-ku, the LDP and New Komeito delivered around 70,000 votes each of a total turnout of around 250,000. That’s 30% of the vote right there in a high turnout election, and if I remember Adachi-ku was broadly consistent with the overall result. It wasn’t enough to win then because LDP/Komeito support was in the gutter following the financial crisis and subsequent recession, so unaffiliated voters went for the DPJ, handing them control of the Tokyo legislature.

Ishihara’s two major challengers are Hideo Higashikokubaru, the comedian-turned-Miyazaki governor, and Miki Watanabe, founder of discount restaurant chain Watami. Unfortunately for them, now is not a good time for new faces, especially not Higashi with his feel-good enthusiasm, or Watanabe, who just exudes “smarmy corporate big-shot.” These two and other more minor candidates are likely to split the vote, handing another advantage to Ishihara.

According to a recent poll (JP), Ishihara has the support of around 70% of LDP supporters, 60% of New Komeito supporters, and even has the edge in support among DPJ and unaffiliated voters. Unless there’s a major upset, expect to have Ishihara around for another four years.

Regional parties to gain ground. Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto took to Twitter to join those calling for the elections to be postponed. He may just have been posturing, however, because his party, the Osaka Restoration Association, may well win a majority in the Osaka prefectural legislature tomorrow, with an Asahi poll giving it a lead of several points against the other parties.

Regional political parties, with charismatic leaders and often populist platforms, have gained attention, not to mention power, recently. In Aichi prefecture, elections in February and March gave the upper hand to Genzei Nippon (Tax Cut Japan), a populist party with a platform to slash local taxes.

Hashimoto’s plans for Osaka look even more ambitious. By forming a party loyal to him and gaining control of the legislature, he hopes to push hard for reforms including a plan to unify the administrative functions of Osaka city and prefecture. This, along with infrastructure investment and neoliberal stand-bys like market-testing government functions for possible privatization, he argues will give him the ability to put Osaka on firmer fiscal and economic footing after years in the doldrums.

Japanese speakers can watch this video for an outline set to a Sega Genesis-era synthesizer soundtrack:

Success for Hashimoto could give momentum to ambitious politicians in other regions wishing to open their own “Restoration” franchise. One area where this idea could find traction is in the northeast, where the gargantuan task of reconstruction all but guarantees intense frustration among the locals.

How will the results affect national politics? Until a few days ago, the biggest political news story was the potential for a grand coalition, a sort of unity government to give top priority to quake reconstruction (and maybe throw in tax hikes to pay for social security for good measure). LDP President Tanigaki has thrown cold water on the discussions, reportedly because they want PM Kan to quit as a condition of joining the government. Indeed, LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara (Shintaro’s son) is now back to openly calling for Kan’s head. Wow, that didn’t take long!

The local elections will likely only give the LDP more reason to keep up pressure on Kan. In a number of key races, the DPJ has opted not to field its own candidates, apparently because it took a hard look at the numbers and decided not to embarrass itself. However, the party has candidates running in gubernatorial races in Hokkaido and Mie–polls show the LDP with a lead in Hokkaido and slightly ahead in a close race in Mie. These will likely be two of the major headlines tomorrow night.

National politics in Japan are stuck in a morass of cautious leaders who end up getting bogged down in petty scandals. Kan’s approval ratings have jumped sharply since the quake, from the 20% range to the 30s. However, setbacks and the usual drumbeat of criticism from the media will likely send it back on a downward trajectory. Since winning big in the 2009 lower house election, the DPJ’s control of the government will likely last another 2.5 years. Even with rock-bottom approval ratings, the DPJ seems more likely to rely on changing the prime minister to gain temporary support from the public rather than calling an early election. Note that the disaster, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision that mandates a lower house redistricting more closely in line with the population, make it next to impossible for Kan to call an election for a while.

Many articles in the foreign press have expressed hope that the earthquake would serve as a wake-up call for Japan’s leaders to enact reforms to put the country on a firmer footing. Count me as skeptical. Constant attention to short-term political momentum, such as the impact of these local elections, ensures rudderless leadership that remains too distracted to form a meaningful political vision. As a friend noted to me over Chinese food the other day, Kan’s post-quake speeches have been long on uplifting rhetoric but very light on anything specific to inspire actual confidence.

Though I am skeptical of Japan’s political system regardless of which party controls it, it’s important to make some distinctions. The government deserves a lot of credit for its post-crisis response, though it bears stressing that no effort will be enough. They have been prudent, fast-acting, transparent, and open to foreign aid where needed. Also, the government is currently debating plans to cut electricity use in the summer in a way that completely avoids rolling blackouts. Given the huge damage to generating capacity, pulling off coordination on that level would be nothing short of heroic.

It’s just that the political system is paralyzed as long as its leaders flail in the face of petty scandals and public perceptions. It’s possible that the central government in Tokyo, itself suffering reputation damage from the blackouts and its perceived proximity to the Fukushima disaster, might start ceding political clout to brash self-proclaimed “restorationists” like Hashimoto who, unlike the past few prime ministers, are adept at shaping public opinion rather than being shaped by it.

 

Power to the people?

After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy today, PM Naoto Kan commented that Japan needs to debate whether Japan’s current electric utility system should exist in its current form. At present, the government grants monopolies to regional utilities, which are private corporations listed on the stock market.

Admittedly, I had not thought much about this issue until this crisis came along, but now I am trying to learn more. Countries take different approaches to who owns the power utilities. For instance, the US has investor-owned utilities that provide around 38% of generating capacity, with the rest a mix of public and cooperative-owned entities.

I don’t have an opinion one way or the other at this point, but I can see how the different ownership structures can skew incentives. If you are trying to provide returns to shareholders, you might be more inclined to promote more electricity usage, as Tepco has done by offering discounts to people who use “all-electric” homes with electricity-powered stoves and baths, etc. On the other hand, both privately owned and public utilities can cultivate the types of entrenched, bureaucratic management teams that lead to the types of massive cover-ups and bungling incompetence we have seen at Tepco.

(Disclosure: I own a small investment in Tepco. Take nothing I say as investment advice)

Post earthquake initial impressions by Adamu

It is still very early into this tragedy, and a lot could change in the coming days/weeks/months. But I wanted to give some initial impressions. I have been going to the office as usual and basically heading directly home to keep updated and try and calm down my mother via Google Talk. Here are some of my observations so far based on my experiences and the reports I have been reading and watching in English and Japanese. To save time, I have not included links to some stories I did not feel like digging up:

  • Japan rocks – The reaction to the earthquake has been impressive, though sadly even the best response is unequal to adequately deal with the massive destruction in northeast Japan. The buildings were strong enough to stay standing through the quake, the streets were safe enough to walk home when no trains ran, and a full court press came to the rescue the next day. As far as planning and citizen preparedness goes, Japan has the whole world beat, hands down. It seems like in many ways the authorities learned from the failings of the Kobe earthquake. I feel very proud of my adopted home. Note that the emperor agrees with me. In his recent national address, he noted with admiration that foreign observers praised the Japanese people for their calm, helpful reaction to the quake.
    Unfortunately, even the best plans cannot protect against one of the biggest earthquakes/tsunamis ever known. The damage is immense, and it will take a long time to recover. But I am confident that Japan has what it takes to get through the disaster and emerge as strong as ever.
    As the days unfold, I notice that one advantage Japan seems to have on its side is a very adversarial media. From the outset, I think the Kan administration has done its best given the circumstances, and I don’t really agree with the assessment of some media outlets that it was too slow to set up shop inside Tepco. However, on top of that the mainstream media covering this story have (admirably) shown very little deference to the prime minister and Tepco. I think this has put the fear of God into these officials to disclose as much information as possible and be as cooperative as possible. Also, the US (among other countries) is offering very generous support and has been among the most supportive governments in backing up Japan’s response. It has issued statements saying they are “in agreement” with the Japanese assessment of the nuclear situation. Betraying US confidence at this point would not go down well. With all that pressure, attempting to hide things could easily turn Tepco into the next BP (and then some) and the Kan administration into the villain that Murayama is remembered as being during the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
    Twitter has also been a big positive, in my opinion. It helps average people exchange trusted information (and lies to a much lesser extent), and there is a kind of wisdom-of-crowds quality in which certain proposals are retweeted by enough alpha-users that they grab the attention of the authorities. For instance, I saw some prominent Japanese Twitterers retweet a request to have sign language interpreters at press conferences, and a day later sure enough there they were. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been some chain letters spreading untrue rumors. I received one about “poison rain” due to the Chiba oil tanker fire, and I have heard about others. It is worth noting that the person who sent that one emailed me after she learned it was false.
  • Supply shortages in Tokyo should be resolved soon – At this point, it is hard to tell what is more to blame for the empty shelves – the hoarders or the reduced shipments? All the same, manufacturers are reporting sufficient capacity to supply the area, and any disruptions in deliveries should be relieved by next week’s release of emergency oil reserves. The reserves should alleviate the supply shortages and give time for availability even in Tokyo to get back to normal as early as next week. One big reason for the delay is that the worst affected regions got priority, which is only natural.
    Unfortunately, this is one area where average people and the government were kind of a letdown. For one thing, people seemed to start panic buying very quickly. I took a trip to Tochigi on Sunday and already the gas station lines were long. At the same time, the government only started telling people to stop panic buying today! The media seemed to be doing its job, noting the activity and noting how problematic it was, at least as far as I read.
  • People are overreacting to the nuclear crisis, big time – The risk of radiation is, by all credible accounts, very small for almost everyone in the country. I am as glued to updates as anyone, but I am not panicking. In fact, I think focusing too much on the nuclear crisis runs the risk of de-emphasizing the massive toll the tsunami took on the region. The French chartering flights to evacuate expats and warnings based on nuclear fears are overdoing it, I think. I mean, I would understand some people without a deep connection to the country leaving, or at least moving or sending loved ones to stay somewhere safer. I have my wife and in-laws in the area, so I don’t want to leave unless it is truly necessary. In addition to the nuclear concerns, there are the transit problems and hoarding/logistics problems with daily necessities, not to mention the risk of aftershocks. This is scary for everyone, but people who don’t know the language or don’t have people to rely on have that added layer of difficulty. And if you can’t follow the mainstream Japanese media (and sensible Internet sources like Mutant Frog!), you are liable to read sensationalized reports from the overseas media.
    This last bit is a sore point for me. Thanks to all the scary US media reports, my mother has been absolutely terrified. My relatives and family friends have been calling her nonstop to know if I’m OK. I know the media are in the misery business, but more than that it seems like the reporters are far too detached from the story. They focus so much on broader implications and potential scenarios that it ends up providing no practical information to people who actually want to have an even-handed idea of what’s going on.
  • The aftershocks are really scary – since the big earthquake it almost feels like there are small rumblings going on constantly. I especially feel this way at the office, where the building’s design makes it kind of easy to feel small tremors. The bigger ones fill me with dread. As they happen, I wonder if this one will build up slowly into a big quake like the one on Friday. Even when there are no quakes, for some reason I feel like the ground is shaking when I am walking down long hallways.
  • Many outside observers have failed a very easy test of decency – When reacting to a tragic event, the rules of etiquette are simple. Express sympathy for the victims and note the tragedy of the affair. This is not the time to make dumb jokes, call a natural disaster retribution for something some people from Japan did that you don’t like, or condescendingly generalize about Japanese culture. Too many people have failed miserably in this regard. If you need to react this way, keep it off the Internet at least!
  • I am a terrible investor – Last and most definitely least, what do you think is the only individual stock I own? Some hints: In the two months since I bought in, it has seen much of its generating capacity wiped out forever and been threatened with government-enforced annihilation for mishandling the disaster response. Oh and it has been limit-down for three days straight.

Tokyo earthquake

A really freakin’ big earthquake just hit Tokyo — strong enough to make tall buildings visibly shake around. My own office building (brand-new, finished last year) is still swaying like a ship on the high seas 20 minutes later. The force of the quake was enough to knock over one of the monitors on my desk.

From what I can see from the 17th floor, there is no major damage, though some smaller buildings have been evacuated and what look to be emergency response helicopters are circling overhead.

The quake was magnitude 7.9 centered in Tohoku. Nikkei is currently reporting that a tsunami of up to 6 meters is possible in that area, and USGS is warning of tsunami effects throughout the North Pacific as far as the west coast of North America. Hope our readers are OK.

[Edit by Roy below] People outside of Japan and/or without access to a TV should try Al Jazeera International’s high quality free stream to see the latest. They’re basically broadcasting the footage from NHK with experts at the USGS and such doing voiceover.

The get an idea of how massive this quake was, here in Kyoto – more than halfway across Honshu from the center, I felt my house shake for something like two minutes, although it was rather gentle and nothing even fell over. But even though it was not very strong here, it was still easily the longest quake I have ever experienced.

Please post your own personal observations or links to good live news sources in the comment thread.

[Update by Roy @5:00 pm]

Here is the Japanese Meteorological Agency tsunami warning map.

All place names that do not specify refer to the entire prefecture.

Regions with LARGE tsunami risk (red) are as follows:

Iwate, Miyagi, Fukuoka, Hokkaido Pacific coast central area, Aomori Pacific coast, Ibaraki, Chiba Kujukuri outskirts, Izu islands, Hokkaido Pacific East Coast, Hokkaido Pacific West Coast, Aomori Sea of Japan coast, Chiba interior, Ogasawara Islands, Sagami Bay and Miura Peninsula,  Shizuoka, Wakayama, Tokushima

Regions with REGULAR tsunami risk (orange) are as follows:

Aichi outer sea, Mie southern area, Kochi, Miyazaki, Tanegashima/Yakushima region, Amami/Tokara islands,  Hokkaido Sea of Japan southern coast, Mutsu Bay, Tokyo Bay inner bay, Ise, Mika Bay, Awaji southern region, Ehime Uwakai coast, Oita Seto Inland Sea coast, Oita Bungo Channel, Kagoshima East and West regions, Okinawa main island, Daito Islands, Miyakojima, Yaeyama Islands.

Regions with LOW level alert (yellow) are as follows:

Sea of Okhostsk, Osaka, Hyogo Seto Inland Sea coast, Okayama, Kagawa, Ehime Seto Inland Sea coast, Ariake/Yatsushiro Sea, Nagasaki western region, Kumamoto Amakusanada coast, Akita, Yamagata, Niigata Kaminaka and Kaetsuchi, Sado region, Toyama, Ishikawa Noto region, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi Seto Inland Sea coast.

Other regions do NOT have a tsunami warning or watch at this time.

[Update at 5:20]

I just heard that the Philippines raised their tsunami alert level to the highest in many years, NE coast, which faces Japan, will be hit in around 2 hours.

Here is a map from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing travel times for the tsunami to arrive at various areas, starting from the origin time of 2:45pm.

[Update@5:30pm]

Areas in the Philippines with a level 2 (which is high) tsunami warning are as follows. Will start to hit between 5pm and 7pm local time. (From Inquirer.net)

• Batanes Group of Islands
• Cagayan
• Ilocos Norte
• Isabela
• Quezon
• Aurora
• Camarines Norte
• Camarines Sur
• Albay
• Catanduanes
• Sorsogon
• Northern Samar
• Eastern Samar
• Leyte
• Southern Leyte
• Surigao del Norte
• Surigao del Sur
• Davao Oriental
• Davao del Sur

Marianas islands and Russian Pacific coast also under high alert, Various Pacific island territories of Guam, Taiwan, the Marshall Islands, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Micronesia and Hawaii are under a lower tsunami watch.