Thursday, March 17, 2011

I am ok -- and Hokkaido is not Honshu

18 March AM Japan time

In the last couple days, it has become clear to me that many people, including Japanese, when they say "Japan" basically mean "Honshu." Let me try to put this into perspective without more maps, because I don't have time to play with making and uploading more images at the moment. Look at any map of Japan, compare it to California. Japan is a VERY long country [more like Baja to Washington State], a tectonically active archipelago, or "island arc" as we say in geologic lingo. Hokkaido was only relatively recently settled by Japanese -- it's part of the original land of the Ainu. It's a large island much less densely populated than Honshu, which is the largest and most developed island in Japan's long chain. Thus people tend to say "Japan" when they mean "Honshu."

Imagine there is a crisis in a nuclear facility south of Los Angeles. Would we be calling on the city of San Francisco to evacuate? When the US advises its citizens to leave, how far should they go? Should I evacuate? It's true that my leaving Japan (scheduled for 31 March) may become logistically more difficult, depending on how things go, but I have a ticket for that day, Sapporo-Osaka-San Francisco-Seattle, not even going through Tokyo. Seems good to me. Otherwise I'd be better off taking a boat to Sakhalin. Or just staying put. This is not in any way heroism or false heroism on my part (I am not playing the part of the Harry Truman of Mt. St. Helens days). It's just fine here, I have things to do, why should I take that time to pack up and leave?

Last night I walked home with my young friend Olga--she says Russia, especially the Far East, is freaking out, it appears, and her family is trying to get her home. She says she made a map for them comparing how far away she is from Fukushima to how far away Moscow is from Chernobyl. We are farther away here in Sapporo, she told them. But while we shopped, her family texted her that they are trying to buy her a ticket out on 20 March.

So we walked and talked, and I listened to her and tried to calm her --I am one source of news information for her --her English is good, but she is afraid that she misses things in reading the news online, and her Russian news sources seem to be overreacting. I also talked with my colleague Tanya yesterday, she is on the Kamchatka Peninsula way to our north, and she is not worried in general, especially after hearing an analysis from a nuclear scientist from Moscow. Tanya was part of a soil sampling crew in Ukraine after the Chernobyl explosion.

I wanted to go to the store and try to buy a few "three days" items--after talking with my sister yesterday morning, I decided that it was only prudent to have some emergency supplies on hand, something I am always reminding others to do. I was worried that these items might be sold out. I figured that the condition of the shelves in my local supermarket (a very large one) would be a pulse of the situation and mood here in Sapporo.

Well, first we went to the 100-yen store to see if we could find matches and candles. We wandered the whole shop, I bought some water containers, the shelves seemed full of everything including canned fish and meat, so we bought some of that. Turned out after searching everywhere, we found the matches and lighters were right up front--of course! Japanese are pretty heavy smokers. Plenty there, and some small votive candles.

Then we were on to the huge grocery store next door. Olga looked up the word for candles and asked someone and was directed to the light bulbs... eventually we did find some longer tapers, and the check-out clerk seemed highly amused by our purchase. All shelves were full of everything, including bottled water and... RICE! Whereas those shelves had been empty two days before, now they were chucky jam full, with piles of big bags of rice on a pallet. I was positively giddy with the idea that this was a real sign for us not to worry. I hope I am right.

Please focus your concerns and efforts on the people in central and northern Honshu. I am indeed in the country of Japan, but Hokkaido is not Honshu.

From my 12 January blog:

Some basics about the island now called Hokkaido

Hokkaido—the Japanese Alaska? the Russian Kamchatka?

When I first came to Sapporo for a meeting in 2006, I heard a Japanese earth scientist referring to “Japan and Hokkaido” – this would be like saying “the US and Alaska” or “Russia and Kamchatka” [once, in the U.S., when a young Moscovite asked if I had been to Russia, I reponded yes, I’d been to Kamchatka, and she replied, “Oh, but that is not Russia…”] – indeed the three regions (in the case of Alaska, especially the Aleutian chain eastward to SW Alaska) have some commonalities in their geology, geography and human history. Though many differences, too.

Hokkaido, Kamchatka, and Aleutian Alaska are all frontiers, remote and wild. By now, Hokkaido is the most developed of the three, but still there is much wildness, and a sense of other-ness compared to the rest of Japan. Its climate and vegetation are northern temperate, with four seasons and mixed hardwood-conifer forest. Kind of like New England! No wonder William S. Clark was a success here [see the founding of Hokkaido University].

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