Blogger by Moonlight, or The Earthquake-Tsunami Saga

That title makes me think: "Booger by Moonlight." But that's a different story altogether.

So: Last Thursday night, we were following our usual custom of watching the local news (if for no other reason to catch one or another of the occasional on-air snafus that add up to must-see TV). About 15 minutes in, one of the anchors cut in with word of an 8.8 earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan. One of the odd things I have set up via an email account is U.S. Geological Survey reports of Pacific earthquakes, so I'd been aware of a series of sharp quakes in the region that seemed to kick off with a 7.2 quake. Within a few minutes, the Thursday evening (Friday afternoon Japan time) quake magnitude was updated to 8.9 and eventually 9.0. Having gone through a handful e of 6-point shakes and a 7-pointer that was centered 60 miles away but was strong enough to wreak havoc in the central Bay Area, 9.0 is unimaginably powerful.) Soon, the channel was showing pictures, though not very clear ones, of an unidentified city location where, in the distance, you could just make out a flow of water (my guess it was a view of the tsunami just beginning to flow into Sendai, a city of 1 million on the northeast coast). After seeing that, I called my son Eamon and daughter-in-law Sakura–her hometown is about 50 miles north of Tokyo and 180 miles from the quake epicenter–to ask if they'd heard about the quake. They hadn't, yet, but immediately got on the phone to try to reach Sakura's family (they were all fine, though the shaking had been quite strong where they were and lots of stuff inside their home had come crashing down).

After hearing from Eamon, I started to think about how the event would impact our local public-radio news operation in San Francisco. Well, sure, there'd be reaction in the Japanese-American community here. And yes, there was a possibility of a tsunami on this side of the Pacific, though in 25-plus years of covering news here tsunami threats have generally been non-events on this part of our coast (not this time, though). In time, a couple colleagues showed up on email to share ideas for coverage in the morning. Then I headed to the one immediate outlet for news we have, a blog we call News Fix. I made my first post around midnight, then kept updating until 4 a.m. Friday morning. There was enough traffic to early posts on tsunami warnings for California that it broke the site (we had some incompatible, inefficient widgets installed, apparently). I and others posted later Friday, on Saturday, on Sunday, then again Monday.

Posting on that news blog is different from posting here. It's much more to the point, and I feel much less need to be discursive. The result: Less thought, fewer words, more links, frequent posts. Here's the list from the last few days:

Links to Coverage of Japan's 8.9 Quake, Tsunami

California, West Coast on Tsunami Watch

1964: A Distant Quake, a Disastrous California Tsunami

Tsunami Warning for California, Oregon

U.S. Geological Survey Breaks Down Monster Quake

Japan Quake-Tsunami Aftermath: Fears About Nuclear Plants

When the Tsunami Arrived in San Francisco Bay

California Tsunami Watch: Canceled

Japan's Great Quake: The California Perspective

More Maps and Images of Japan's Great Quake

Japan's New Crisis: Fighting to Avert a Nuclear Disaster

Japan's Nukes: What and Where They Are

Clean Rice


Last Thursday night, just outside the town of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture. We were walking along a semi-rural road just after sunset, and, not reading Japanese, I had no idea what this little kiosk was. My son Eamon said, “Well, what would a farming community like this need?” Well, there were rice fields all around us, scattered with single-family homes and small apartment buildings. But I still had no clue what I was looking at.

The large characters on the canopy say, “Kubota Clean.” What I was looking at was a personal rice mill (built by the Kubota company). People bring their winnowed household rice here, dump it in the hopper, put in some money, and this unit hulls and polishes the rice to the finely finished white grain most in Japan prefer. Not sure what the U.S. equivalent would be. A neighborhood flour mill to grind people’s wheat into flour?

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So, *That* Happened

Item 1: We returned from Japan today. In fact, I’m on my second Sunday evening (we took off from Narita airport, outside Tokyo, at about 7:15 Sunday night; and here it is getting close to 7:15 Sunday night after landing in San Francisco before noon. I understand the why and how of it, but it’s still strange.

Item 2: Before we left, I mentioned to someone that gee, the Cubs might be out of the playoffs by the time I get back home. Just indulging a moment of pre-emptively rueful Cubsy-ness. When we got home early this afternoon I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle, whose Sunday sports section featured not one but two misspelled names in other headlines, and saw the news that the Chicago nine had been swept. You can say wait till next year, or you can just admit you’re not waiting anymore. Go Pale Hose–spoil that beautiful Tampa Bay Rays story for us.

Item 3: Sometime I’ll relate my greatest adventure of September 2008, which was not flying to Japan but running out of gas on the very busy San Francisco Bay Bridge. I believe I’m an unindicted co-conspirator in the event, which involved a faulty fuel gauge.

Item 4: Not to leave the subject of The Trip too quickly: We flew Japan Air Lines both ways to Tokyo. Oddly (or probably not), about two-thirds of the seating space is devoted to first and business class. We were jammed in the back with the other groundlings. One of the entertainments offered on the screens-at-every-seat was a map of our flight’s progress. This morning, I saw that we were nearing the Northern California coast and started looking for Mount Shasta. The mountain is our Fuji, 14,000-some feet, a good hundred miles in from the coast. At the point I started looking, probably near Point Arena, we were about 200 miles from the mountain. But there, way off, rising above the clouds, was that beautiful snowy (not Sno-) cone.

It’s interesting to be back, even after just a week away.

(And where did the post title come from? Watch the clip below. You gotta stay with it to the end.)



Our last day in Tokyo on this trip. It’s a city reputed to have a daytime population of 30 million as people come in on the network of trains and subways to work. The packing you’ve heard about on Tokyo commuter trains is one effect of the rush into the city. In the evening, the crowd ebbs a bit more slowly. Lots of people stay in the city late, dining and drinking with workmates or friends. The next morning, the tide flows in again. That’s old news, but it’s still captivating to see firsthand.

The trains, whether you’re talking about the superfast long-distance lines like the Shinkansen or the most humble local, are stunning for their speed, efficiency, convenience and cleanliness. I’ve never seen anything that comes close in the United States–though that’s entirely for lack of trying. What the Japanese do with railroads requires a lot of money and a sort of infrastructure context–because the highway network is relatively undeveloped, you wouldn’t want to try a casual 200-mile drive anywhere unless you have a lot of time to burn. Back home, we spend more and more grudgingly on public works projects, but you can be sure that the money that’s out there will go to highways first and to every other mode of moving people second.

Again, old news. I’ll leave the Tokyo chapter with this advice: If you can, go with one of your kids–preferably after they’ve studied Japanese, married a local, lived in the city for a couple of years and have become fluent in the language. That way, you don’t have to worry about details like navigating on your own. In all seriousness, Eamon and Sakura have been the best guides we could have had. In fact, I feel like I missed out on the obligatory foreign-visitor anxiety.

Tonight, we’re in Tsukuba, a small city (by Japanese standards) about 50 miles north of Tokyo and at the end of a brand-new commuter rail line. Tomorrow we head up into the mountains north of here to the hot springs resort of Nikko. And then somewhere in the next two or three days, I guess we get back on a plane and fly to San Francisco. Not sure how much I’ll get to post between now and then. I’ll catch up on one side of the ocean or the other.

[Pictures (click for larger versions): Above: Up to JR platform at Kanda Station, downtown Tokyo. Below: Notice designating train car as “women only” during the morning commute–a measure taken to give female passengers a way of avoiding groping male riders. Bottom: As seen from Hijiri Bridge, trains cross the Kanda River at Ochanomizu Station.]


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Suiyobi: Today’s Top Commercial (and Other) Concepts


I have a feeling you could spend all day, every day for a long time in Tokyo harvesting signs like these for the consideration and amusement of native English speakers. And when you were done with Tokyo, you’d have the rest of Japan to cover.

We talked a little bit today about English language words and names terms and why they’re popular here. In a lot of cases, it seems they’re employed merely as decoration–no one reads them for a literal meaning; their presence alone lends some sort of smart, cool quality. And somehow that leads to “Junky Style,” “Nudy Boy,” and all the rest.

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Far Side of the Weekend


In the Kanda district, Sunday night, about 8 p.m., and things are sedate by any big city’s standards. We’re getting up early to take a long-ish train ride down to Nagoya, where we’ll meet the Hattoris, the family I stayed with when I was here as a student in 1976.

For today I’ll only say that I’ll never get used to the experience of getting on a flight one day (we left San Francisco about 1:30 p.m. Saturday) and disembarking well into the next (we landed in Narita, north of Tokyo, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday). It’s way, way past my bedtime (5 a.m. Sunday morning in Berkeley), but just 9 at night here. I’m ready to turn in.

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One blogger I read faithfully posted a picture and invited guesses as to what it is. I and others surmise it’s a picture of three Japanese soldiers during World War II, but anything more precise about the circumstances is just a guess.

That first picture intrigued me, and I went looking for other pictures of Japanese soldiers during the war. I eventually lit on this–a collection of Flickr photos. The photographs–and that’s one of them above (click for larger version)–were posted by a guy who is in possession of a photo album his grandfather picked up on Guadalcanal during the war. Most of the pictures depict a sailor (or perhaps marine), some alone, most with compatriots, in a variety of settings: on shipboard, some apparently in China. There are a few family shots, and a couple pages depicting the Japanese royal family. Nearly all the pictures have handwritten captions.

The guy who posted the pictures also started a blog–WWII Japanese Photo Album–which says he intends to “get this long lost treasure back to its family.” It’s a long shot–but a great project.

Meantime, you look at the pictures of the young men in sailor’s and soldier’s gear and you think, “These were just kids.” Odds are, most of the ones you see here didn’t survive the war.

1945 Again

The little I’ve known about the atomic bombings and Japan’s surrender goes like this: We dropped a bomb on Hiroshima on August 6. Then when that didn’t immediately produce the desired result, we dropped another one on Nagasaki — a secondary target since there was bad weather over the primary — on August 9. That was all the Japanese could take, and they surrendered August 15. I’ve never thought much about what happened in the days between the second bombing and the surrender, and always figured the U.S. government stood by as Japan came to its inevitable decision.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. There was a war on, and it didn’t stop. Conventional bombing continued. We had a third atomic bomb ready to go. Richard Rhodes, in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” says that when the Japanese failed to move fast enough to surrender, President Truman ordered the Air Force to resume incendiary attacks on Japanese cities. The air commander in the Pacific, Gen. Hap Arnold:

“…still hoped to prove that his Air Force could win the war; he called for an all-out attack with every available B -29 and any other bombers in the Pacific theater and mustered more than a thousand aircraft. Twelve million pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs destroyed more than half of Kumagaya and a sixth of Isezaki, killing several thousand more Japanese, even as word of the Japanese surrender passed through Switzerland to Washington.”

I’d guess that one of the most unknown aspects of World War II for most Americans is the scale and destructiveness of the U.S. attacks on Japan’s cities, of which the raid August 14 was the last. A project called the National Security Archive just published a collection of documents on the development and use of the bomb. Among the papers are notes taken at an April 27,1945, meeting of the committee of military officers and Manhattan Project scientists assigned to come up with a list of targets for the bomb (Hiroshima was at the top of the list; from that day on, the city and everyone in it were under a death sentence). The notes include a plain-spoken description of the nature of the ongoing bombing campaign:

“It should be remembered that in our selection of any target, the 20th Air Force is operating primarily to laying waste all the main Japanese cities, and that they do not propose to save some important primary target for us if it interferes with the operation of the war from their point of view. Their existing procedure has been to bomb the hell out of Tokyo, bomb the aircraft, manufacturing and assembly plants, engine plants and in general paralyse the aircraft industry so as to eliminate opposition to the 20th Air Force operations. The 20th Air Force is systematically bombing out the following cities with the prime purpose in mind of not leaving one stone lying on another:

Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Yawata & Nagasaki.

“Colonel Fisher also advised that the 20th Air Force existing operational plans pointed toward dropping 100,000 tons of bombs on Japan per month by the end of 1945.”

I got to know one of the cities on that list, Nagoya, as an exchange student in the ’70s. Conscious as I was of the war and what it had done, despite the fact the city was all virtually new, it didn’t sink in what happened there. Later, I found a U.S. Air Force damage survey of the city, which I think had been home to close to 2 million people. The map showed a few small splotches of yellow — to denote undamaged areas — in a sea of gray. Ninety-five percent of the city had been destroyed.