Some Perspective On The Japan Earthquake


I run a small software business in central Japan.  Over the years, I’ve worked both in the local Japanese government (as a translator) and in Japanese industry (as a systems engineer), and have some minor knowledge of how things are done here.  English-language reporting on the matter has been so bad that my mother is worried for my safety, so in the interests of clearing the air I thought I would write up a bit of what I know.

A Quick Primer On Japanese Geography

Japan is an archipelago made up of many islands, of which there are four main ones: Honshu, Shikoku, Hokkaido, and Kyushu.  The one that almost everybody outside of the country will think of when they think “Japan” is Honshu: in addition to housing Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, and virtually every other city that foreigners have heard of, it has most of Japan’s population and economic base.  Honshu is the big island that looks like a banana on your globe, and was directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami…

… to an extent, anyway.  See, the thing that people don’t realize is that Honshu is massive. It is larger than Great Britain.  (A country which does not typically refer to itself as a “tiny island nation.”)  At about 800 miles long, it stretches from roughly Chicago to New Orleans.  Quite a lot of the reporting on Japan, including that which is scaring the heck out of my friends and family, is the equivalent of someone ringing up Mayor Daley during Katrina and saying “My God man, that’s terrible — how are you coping?”

The public perception of Japan, at home and abroad, is disproportionately influenced by Tokyo’s outsized contribution to Japanese political, economic, and social life.  It also gets more news coverage than warranted because one could poll every journalist in North America and not find one single soul who could put Miyagi or Gifu on a map.  So let’s get this out of the way: Tokyo, like virtually the whole island of Honshu, got a bit shaken and no major damage was done.  They have reported 1 fatality caused by the earthquake.  By comparison, on any given Friday, Tokyo will typically have more deaths caused by traffic accidents.  (Tokyo is also massive.)

Miyagi is the prefecture hardest hit by the tsunami, and Japanese TV is reporting that they expect fatalities in the prefecture to exceed 10,000.  Miyagi is 200 miles from Tokyo.  (Remember — Honshu is massive.)  That’s about the distance between New York and Washington DC.

Japanese Disaster Preparedness

Japan is exceptionally well-prepared to deal with natural disasters: it has spent more on the problem than any other nation, largely as a result of frequently experiencing them.  (Have you ever wondered why you use Japanese for “tsunamis” and “typhoons”?)  All levels of the government, from the Self Defense Forces to technical translators working at prefectural technology incubators in places you’ve never heard of, spend quite a bit of time writing and drilling on what to do in the event of a disaster.

For your reference, as approximately the lowest person on the org chart for Ogaki City (it’s in Gifu, which is fairly close to Nagoya, which is 200 miles from Tokyo, which is 200 miles from Miyagi, which was severely affected by the earthquake), my duties in the event of a disaster were:

  • Ascertain my personal safety.
  • Report to the next person on the phone tree for my office, which we drilled once a year.
  • Await mobalization in case response efforts required English or Spanish translation.

Ogaki has approximately 150,000 people.  The city’s disaster preparedness plan lists exactly how many come from English-speaking countries.  It is less than two dozen.  Why have a maintained list of English translators at the ready?  Because Japanese does not have a word for excessive preparation.

Another anecdote: I previously worked as a systems engineer for a large computer consultancy, primarily in making back office systems for Japanese universities.  One such system is called a portal: it lets students check on, e.g., their class schedule from their cell phones.

The first feature of the portal, printed in bold red ink and obsessively tested, was called Emergency Notification.  Basically, we were worried about you attempting to check your class schedule while there was a wall of water coming to inundate your campus, so we built in the capability to take over all pages and say, essentially, “Forget about class.  Get to shelter now.”

Many of our clients are in the general vicinity of Tokyo.  When Nagoya (again, same island but very far away) started shaking during the earthquake, here’s what happened:

  1. T-0 seconds: Oh dear, we’re shaking.
  2. T+5 seconds: Where was that earthquake?
  3. T+15 seconds: The government reports that we just had a magnitude 8.8 earthquake off the coast of East Japan.  Which clients of ours are implicated?
  4. T+30 seconds: Two or three engineers in the office start saying “I’m the senior engineer responsible for X, Y, and Z universities.”
  5. T+45 seconds: “I am unable to reach X University’s emergency contact on the phone.  Retrying.”  (Phones were inundated virtually instantly.)
  6. T+60 seconds: “I am unable to reach X University’s emergency contact on the phone.  I am declaring an emergency for X University.  I am now going to follow the X University Emergency Checklist.”
  7. T+90 seconds: “I have activated emergency systems for X University remotely.  Confirm activation of emergency systems.”
  8. T+95 seconds: (second most senior engineer) “I confirm activation of emergency systems for X University.”
  9. T+120 seconds: (manager of group)  “Confirming emergency system activations, sound off: X University.”  “Systems activated.”  “Confirmed systems activated.”  “Y University.”  “Systems activated.”  “Confirmed systems activated.” …

While this is happening, it’s somebody else’s job to confirm the safety of the colleagues of these engineers, at least a few of whom are out of the office at client sites.  Their checklist helpfully notes that confirmation of the safety of engineers should be done by visual inspection first, because they’ll be really effing busy for the next few minutes.

So that’s the view of the disaster from the perspective of a wee little office several hundred miles away, responsible for a system which, in the scheme of things, was of very, very minor importance.

Scenes like this started playing out up and down Japan within, literally, seconds of the quake.

When the mall I was in started shaking, I at first thought it was because it was a windy day (Japanese buildings are designed to shake because the alternative is to be designed to fail catastrophically in the event of an earthquake), until I looked out the window and saw the train station.  A train pulling out of the station had hit the emergency breaks and was stopped within 20 feet — again, just someone doing what he was trained for.  A few seconds after the train stopped, after reporting his status, he would have gotten on the loudspeakers and apologized for inconvenience caused by the earthquake.  (Seriously, it’s in the manual.)

Everything Pretty Much Worked

Let’s talk about trains for a second.  Four One of them were washed away by the tsunami. All Japanese trains survived the tsunami without incident. [Edited to add: Initial reports were incorrect.  Contact was initially lost with 5 trains, but all passengers and crew were rescued.  See here, in Japanese.]  All of the rest — including ones travelling in excess of 150 miles per hour — made immediate emergency stops and no one died.  There were no derailments.  There were no collisions.  There was no loss of control.  The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right.

This was largely the story up and down Honshu.  Planes stayed in the sky.  Buildings stayed standing.  Civil order continued uninterrupted.

On the train line between Ogaki and Nagoya, one passes dozens of factories, including notably a beer distillery which holds beer in pressure tanks painted to look like gigantic beer bottles.  Many of these factories have large amounts of extraordinarily dangerous chemicals maintained, at all times, in conditions which would resemble fuel-air bombs if they had a trigger attached to them.  None of them blew up.  There was a handful of very photogenic failures out east, which is an occupational hazard of dealing with large quantities of things that have a strongly adversarial response to materials like oxygen, water, and chemists.  We’re not going to stop doing that because modern civilization and it’s luxuries like cars, medicine, and food are dependent on industry.

The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed.  Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked and the system worked and the system worked.

That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization.  Every engineer in this country should be walking a little taller this week.  We can’t say that too loudly, because it would be inappropriate with folks still missing and many families in mourning, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Let’s Talk Nukes

There is currently a lot of panicked reporting about the problems with two of Tokyo Electric’s nuclear power generation plants in Fukushima.  Although few people would admit this out loud, I think it would be fair to include these in the count of systems which functioned exactly as designed.  For more detail on this from someone who knows nuclear power generation, which rules out him being a reporter, see here.

  • The instant response — scramming the reactors — happened exactly as planned and, instantly, removed the Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenarios from the table.
  • There were some failures of important systems, mostly related to cooling the reactor cores to prevent a meltdown.  To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.
  • Failure of the systems is contemplated in their design, which is why there are so many redundant ones.  You won’t even hear about most of the failures up and down the country because a) they weren’t nuclear related (a keyword which scares the heck out of some people) and b) redundant systems caught them.
  • The tremendous public unease over nuclear power shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the conclusion: nuclear energy, in all the years leading to the crisis and continuing during it, is absurdly safe.  Remember the talk about the trains and how they did exactly what they were supposed to do within seconds?  Several hundred people still drowned on the trains.  That is a tragedy, but every person connected with the design and operation of the railways should be justifiably proud that that was the worst thing that happened.  At present, in terms of radiation risk, the tsunami appears to be a wash: on the one hand there’s a near nuclear meltdown, on the other hand the tsunami disrupted something really dangerous: international flights.  (One does not ordinarily associate flying commercial airlines with elevated radiation risks.  Then again, one doesn’t normally associate eating bananas with it, either.  When you hear news reports of people exposed to radiation, keep in mind, at the moment we’re talking a level of severity somewhere between “ate a banana” and “carries a Delta Skymiles platinum membership card”.)

What You Can Do

Far and away the worst  thing that happened in the earthquake was that a lot of people drowned.  Your thoughts and prayers for them and their families are appreciated.  This is terrible, and we’ll learn ways to better avoid it in the future, but considering the magnitude of the disaster we got off relatively lightly.  (An earlier draft of this post said “lucky.”  I have since reworded because, honestly, screw luck.  Luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Decades of good engineering, planning, and following the bloody checklist are why this was a serious disaster and not a nation-ending catastrophe like it would have been in many, many other places.)

Japan’s economy just got a serious monkey wrench thrown into it, but it will be back up to speed fairly quickly.  (By comparison, it was probably more hurt by either the Leiman Shock or the decision to invent a safety crisis to help out the US auto industry.  By the way, wondering what you can do for Japan?  Take whatever you’re saying currently about “We’re all Japanese”, hold onto it for a few years, and copy it into a strongly worded letter to your local Congresscritter the next time nativism runs rampant.)

A few friends of mine have suggested coming to Japan to pitch in with the recovery efforts.  I appreciate your willingness to brave the radiological dangers of international travel on our behalf, but that plan has little upside to it: when you get here, you’re going to be a) illiterate b) unable to understand instructions and c) a productivity drag on people who are quite capable of dealing with this but will instead have to play Babysit The Foreigner.  If you’re feeling compassionate and want to do something for the sake of doing something, find a charity in your neighborhood.  Give it money.  Tell them you were motivated to by Japan’s current predicament.  You’ll be happy, Japan will recover quickly, and your local charity will appreciate your kindness.

On behalf of myself and the other folks in our community, thank you for your kindness and support.


This post is released under a Creative Commons license.  I intend to translate it into Japanese over the next few days, but if you want to translate it or otherwise use it, please feel free.]

[Edit: Due to overwhelming volume and a poor signal-to-noise ratio, I am closing comments on this post, but I encourage you to blog about it if you feel strongly about something.]

About Patrick

Patrick is co-founded Starfighter, founded Appointment Reminder and Bingo Card Creator, and presently works at Stripe on Atlas. (Opinions on this blog are his own.) Want to read more stuff by him? You should probably try this blog's Greatest Hits, which has a few dozen of his best articles categorized and ready to read. Or you could mosey on over to Hacker News and look for patio11 -- he spends an unhealthy amount of time there.

117 Responses to “Some Perspective On The Japan Earthquake”

  1. Leo Wong March 13, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    Thank for this. Very helpful.

  2. B.A. Matthews March 13, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    I thought their engineers were brilliant when I heard that no buildings collapsed due to the earthquake. The reason I was worried was that even though they deal with this type of thing all the time, Japan had aftershocks that were higher than the regular 6.0 quakes that they usually deal with.

    Regardless, I am very glad to hear the perspective of a foreigner living there. I’m still going to send my condolences… It’s a hell of a thing to have so many die due to any disaster, prepared or not.

  3. UncleSam March 13, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Very helpful. And thanks for educating us on Japan’s Geography etc.

  4. Doug March 13, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    I thought Cringely had a decent take on the power plants.

    It is not just Japan. We had wild fires here last summer. You would think the entire state was burning, not 300 acres. Fear sells papers.

  5. Alex March 13, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    Embarrassed to say, but I never knew Honshu is bigger than the UK… Thanks for the great post.

  6. rpd March 13, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    wth has the local charity to do with this disaster. Change the ending man at least link to some organization that accepts donations to aid japan.

  7. Manuel Menezes de Sequeira March 13, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Bravo! Very helpful indeed!

  8. exceller March 13, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    what a crock! less of an impact than Lehman or the safety recalls, what are you smoking? We all know that Japan will dig out from this mess, but the above was largely a gratuitous slap at the US. We don’t need any lessons on nativism from Japan.

  9. Dave Täht March 13, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Well done. I backblogged heavily.

  10. Akshay March 13, 2011 at 11:52 am #


  11. jim March 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    Can you somehow design the trains to be flood-proof?
    Seems like an opportunity to benefit from this disaster.

  12. Rachel March 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    I was pretty ignorant before reading this post. Thanks.

  13. Janie March 13, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Thank you for your first-hand knowledge. For some reason, I hadn’t realized just how large Japan is. I think it’s the proxiity to China and Russia that masks the size.

    I’ll be posting a link on Live Journal and Facebook, and E-Mailing it to several people who have friends or relatives in Japan. Have you considered submitting this to any network or cable news shows?


  14. E.A. Morgan March 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    I knew it! And I said so! I love being right. They have not asked for help. The Ambassador to Canada is a sweetie. We should adopt some of their systems.
    My mother used to say, “You need a SYSTEM.” It reverberates in my head in these times.

  15. Chris R March 13, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    rpd: Donate to a local website because Japan doesn’t actually need the money. That’s what he’s saying.

    Exceller: He’s got a point. If you look at the way Japan reacts to crises like this you’ll see a one quarter dip in the economy and then a large bump in the economy due to the vats numbers of people being employed to review what happened, rebuild what washed away, fix what broke, and put a coat of paint on everything else. You won’t see a lot of lawyers getting rich or politicians grandstanding. So over all this will have less of a long term impact than the collapse of Lehman which triggered a massive loss of confidence which broke the economy putting millions out of work around the globe. I do disagree that the ‘safety issue’ was invented to help the US automakers. If it was a ply to ‘help’ them they would have done a better job of it. The near and mid term impact of that on either group of car makers was a statistical blip that you wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t looking for it. Long term impact doesn’t even merit a mention.

    One of the differences you see here is that the Japanese culture produced a communal response to a disaster. Everyone had a role and carried out that role. That role was determined by the government (working under the advice of specialists) and people got in line to do their jobs. Here people would have a) complained that the government has no right to tell them what to do in a catastrophe, b) insisted that they could cowboy it up and do it on their own, and c) complained when the government didn’t come in and save them any way.

  16. Harry Campbell March 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Excellent post, though to add a tiny correction, “typhoon” is not a Japanese word.

  17. Pascal March 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Thank you putting a level headed view on all this. It is hard sometimes to filter out the eagerness for sensation from CNN, the NYTimes or even BBC News.

    It is hard to deal with Japanese procedure minutiae sometimes, but in cases like this, it is good to see it helps!

  18. Stephen Ou March 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Thanks for the details, definitely a different perspective.

  19. Scott March 13, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Great article! Their preparation had been astounding; It’s embarrassing after we saw how Katrina went. My wife is in Tokyo and I am in Chicago (oh, it’s Mayor Emanuel now btw:-)) and I have been glued to NHK.

    @Harry I think you are mistaken or there is a huge coincidence with 台風 (Tyfuu) and where ever you are thinking the word comes from. But I could be wrong.

  20. Ciel March 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Awesome post! I have to say, most of the value of the reporting over the last couple days has been to remind us of how freakishly scary nature can be. The real lesson I hope people come away with is that even if you can’t control nature, you can prepare for the worst, and the preparation is worth it.

    [As a side note–I’m sorry, I’m an editor–typhoon isn’t a Japanese word. It’s generally considered a weird amalgamation of Cantonese and Greek. Also, in #3 did you mean ‘impacted’ instead of ‘implicated’?]

  21. Cynthia March 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Thank you so much for this article, I found all local news coverage to be emotional rather than factual.

  22. Mark Littlewood March 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm #


    Outstanding contribution in amongst some hysterical and misinformed postings. Wise words.

    Talk soon…


  23. JC March 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Thank you for your very informative view of the matter. I have learned more about Japan from your writing than from the sensationalist news sources to which I have access. I will share this where I can.

    One minor grammatical error you might want to fix. In the section “Everything Pretty Much Worked” the last sentence reads:

    “We’re not going to stop doing that because modern civilization and it’s luxuries like cars, medicine, and food are dependent on industry.”

    There should not be an apostrophe in “it’s” as it is the contraction form of “it is” and not the possessive pronoun. It would read “We’re not going to stop doing that because modern civilization and it is luxuries like cars, medicine, and food are dependent on industry.”

  24. Elli D. March 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Patrick, it has been a long time I have read such an informative blog! Thanks. It shall not be surprising how well-prepared the Japanese were taking into consideration their punctuality and accuracy. But still I cannot help myself imagining the same case-scenario taking place in a different country (third world country?). No need to go that far, Katrina is a good example as well. Can you imagine far reaching consequences and death tolls in such a case? Had better not.

  25. Another Dave March 13, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Hi Patrick, I really value your blog and read many of your posts linked on HN, but I am not very happy that you fell for the piece of misinformation that is published at the morgsatlarge blog.

    Mr. Oehmen’s soothing analysis is based on some wrong assumptions: Contrary to the claims of Mr. Oehmen, the reactors in Fukushima have no core catcher, so if the cores melt, they will probably reach ground water. In reactor 3 of Fukushima I, the pressure can not be released because the valve is broken, and an explosion of hydrogen in the reactor 3 building is not unlikely, and might further damage systems that are needed to avert a melt down. The fuel used (‘MOX’) includes plutonium which might restart the chain reaction, and furthermore is highly toxic.

    Additionally, Oehmen links to pro-nuclear-energy lobby organizations as a better source for information than the media.

    And let’s not forget that there’s a risk of 70% (as reported by the Guardian) that there are severe aftershocks, which could change the situation drastically on short notice.

    I agree that the level of preparedness of japan is exemplary, and considering the reactors, the whole world can be thankful that the emergency planning is so meticulous. But I don’t think that this is the time to be soothed. If this goes over without becoming a second Hiroshima, then it’s pure luck.

  26. Gareth March 13, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Excellent post. The news coverage here in the UK has been cringeworthy – as if they’re desperate for something bad to happen (like a nuclear meltdown and release of deadly radiation into the atmosphere, or another quake and tsunami) because it makes people watch their channel. Great to get a sense of perspective on the whole thing.

  27. Deborah March 13, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Most excellent! Thank you for the information. Maybe when we grow up we can be like Japan!

  28. qin March 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

    typhoon comes from chinese 太风 taifeng (great wind).

    your posts on the earthquake are great. The Japanese preparation and reaction was remarkable especially compared to the Chinese disaster a few years ago.

  29. Greg March 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks very much for taking the time to write this fine article. Admiration for all responsible for being prepared and maintaining sanity in such trying circumstances.

    I appreciate your “no thanks” to offers of material assistance on behalf of all Japan, but for those of us still motivated to offer direct help, Reverend Koichi Barrish, Kannushi at Tsubaki Grand Shrine North America offered the name of the non-profit Peace Winds Japan as an effective and honest first line help agency. Some might want to check out their website, and the one for the shrine while you’re at it.

    Again, thanks for your writing and sincere hope for best outcome for all people involved.

  30. Nigel March 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    I found your post via a friend on Twitter. Thank you for putting things into perspective in an informative, frank and witty way.

  31. Felipe Pait March 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    I like your suggestion. What we need to do about Japan is copy their safety systems.

    What I will do to help is buy something made in Japan at the first opportunity. I’m sure the Japanese government will need the taxes paid by those hard working engineers at Asahi Pentax Optical to pay for rebuilding costs. And I get a nice camera in return.

  32. Ann March 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Glad I clicked the link on those twitter sliders and read this post
    Thank you Patrick for putting together this well thought out and thoughtful explanation of “the event”.
    Ann in Sydney

  33. Jonas March 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    I was with you all the way until I got to the link to the food preparation PhD guy who you present as an authority on nuclear power. Just because some random guy on the Internet says things work one way doesn’t you should turn off your critical thinking. The fact that he starts by getting his logarithmic scale completely wrong is a big warning. That’s very basic for any engineer.

    This does not mean that he isn’t right that Japan is safe from nuclear disasters, they may very well be, but it means that he isn’t the authority you pretend he is. There’s also the fact that his article lies about the power plant’s physical configuration. Apparently many people have vested interests in their favourite energy production method.

    What worries me is that apparently the power plants weren’t designed to handle a quake of this magnitude which everyone knew was coming. “We couldn’t have forseen this” says the meterological institute and that’s true in their view, they couldn’t have known when it was coming, but it was sooner or later just as California is also late for a Big One.

  34. Peter March 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Great post thanks! You might already know this, (but I’m pretty sure it will delight you) it was tweeted by Matz

  35. scrubone March 13, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    Similar issues here in the South Island of New Zealand regarding the whole “island” thing. People think that because Christchurch was severely damaged that they can’t visit here. Reality is that the damage occurred because the quake was right under the eastern city, while the west (where the airport is) was largely undamaged.

    So if you’ve been planning to come to New Zealand’s South Island, now is a perfectly good time. You just won’t be able to stay the night in Christchurch, everything else is pretty much normal outside some minor supermarket stocking issues due to distribution being based in Christchurch.

  36. Andy Brice March 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    Very informative. Glad to hear you are OK.

  37. Rasik Jain March 13, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    Thanks Patio for giving the outlook on the japan situation. Very informative.

  38. Fotis March 13, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Nice post.

    By the way Honshu is not bigger than Great Britain. You could say they are the same.

    Great Britain area: 229,848 km2
    Honshu area: 227,962 km2
    Source: Wikipedia

  39. Noons March 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    Informative, direct to the point, avoiding sensationalism.
    Thanks heaps, I’d given up hope of hearing a sensible comment.

  40. Iain March 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Very useful, and beautifully written. As a Bay Area resident I’ve forwarded this to all my friends with the message “Why aren’t we this prepared?”

  41. Lawrence March 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    I lived in Japan (Kyushu) for 3 years, worked for Nissan (kind of a Japanese company still) for nearly 10.

    This is spot on. Bravo.

  42. Daniele Beccari March 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    “Babysit the Foreigner”… so true.

    Been there (as the Foreigner), in less critical situations, so I can totally confirm. There is no way we can even imagine the level of detail of procedures and training of a native. I was just given the golden rule: “if it shakes, get under the table”.

    Good luck for the coming days.

  43. Charles Stevens March 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    You appear to be a nerd, and from your essay’s overall tone, a somewhat arrogant one at that. Perhaps you have reason to be, because reading/writing Japanese is difficult, and network engineering is also not to be laughed at. However, your arrogance blinds you politically, since you appear to have bought into progressive memes without much analysis. For example, you cavalierly toss out the term ‘nativist’ and obviously use it as a pejorative.

    What you fail to understand is that the Japanese have qualities you admire precisely because they are a traditionalist conservative society that rejects modern progressivism. Japan has a restrictive immigration policy that keeps its primary culture homogeneous. Also, while it may assume some of the outer trappings of Western consumerism, inwardly Japan reveres its traditions, including maintenance of a cultural hierarchy and social cohesion. These are only a few of the myriad examples that you may have observed over the years, but failed to understand their significance.

    Our Judeo-Christian prayers go out to the Japanese. Meanwhile, perhaps this disaster will enable you to open your mind to a true understanding of what makes Japan one of the superior cultures on the planet, and why progressivism is destroying what used to be the same in America.

  44. Sven March 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Excellent information about disaster preparedness in Japan – I have lived for extended periods in Ibaraki and what you wrote about daily life rings true.
    There is embedded deep in the Japanese psyche a “fear of nature” which manifests itself best in its extreme preparedness for fire, flood and earthquakes. I often question whether the other side of this fear causes unnecessary anxiety which might be worse than the perceived safety – but when a reality comes so quickly as this one, I’m very glad to be wrong.

    I work in automotive safety, and my opinion is that you’re very nearly correct about “a decision to invent a safety crisis”. I would instead call it a decision *which* invented a safety crisis – made by a government agency doing its job reasonably well. The media (just as it is doing with respect to Japan now) feeds off crisis – it was *their* decision to actually invent the crisis, and that decision was made a little easier when they realised they could be helping America by doing so. Economically however, I’m afraid a large number of recalls for one particular company pales in significance compared to the current disaster affecting basically the whole of Japan.

  45. Travis Takamiya March 13, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    I’m in Tokorozawa, just outside of Tokyo. Just wanted to let you know that this is very well written and informative. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in getting this information out with all the misinformation and sensationalism going out. God bless you.

  46. M March 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Accurate information is important in this situation.
    Thanks for your great post.

  47. Jungianprofessor March 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    People vill believe vhat they vish to believe in. I choose to believe in the Japanese strength to get out of this rut.
    so, go back to your holes, western media. go back and stay there. your sensationalism and brashness in not varranted nor vanted.
    Also, a big nihilistic t(-_-t) to you self important Judeo-Christian folk. You kind is what is not needed here.

  48. Daniel March 13, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Great post, very informative. I’ve always been a fan of Japan and their level of organisation and planning is truly impressive. It is a shame the western media want to hype the nuclear incidents so much.

  49. Eric March 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    The best-informed source I have found on the reactor situation is the Union of Concerned Scientists blog. Their reporting is informed, scrupulous and they are not fear mongers:

  50. Lewis March 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    Great article, and a great look at just how serious Japan is about prepapredness. I’ve been telling people all along that real story heren will be how many people DIDN’T die in this disaster, and how many fewer will die next time due to the lessons learned here.

  51. Randy Helzerman March 13, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Dude……the news is reporting that over 1 million of your fellow countrymen have no food or water, and all you can write is that your engineers should feel proud and “walk a little taller?”

    Speaking of which, they are pouring seawater laced with boron into two of your reactors, which will permanently eliminate 5-20% of your nation’s power generating capability….and all you can write is your engineers should feel proud and “walk a little taller?”

    I’m sorry, but if what is happening there isn’t cause for feeling horrified and humbled, then nothing is.

  52. Sylantis March 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    @Charles Stevens

    Snark begets snark, I see.

    Japan my cling to some of its tradtional proclivties, but I would argue that the summation of their cultural output is largly progressive. I believe this will only grow over time. We North Americans could stand to learn from a great deal of it.

    But you know, nice try slipping that neocon argument into musings about earthquakes, typhoons and preparedness.

    On blind eyes I’m sure it falls.

  53. Stochasticity March 13, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    I have no doubt that if similar events happened near Los Angeles, things would have been much, much worse. Many older building haven’t been retrofitted to current building codes. The populous isn’t well trained for either earthquakes or tsunamis, and coastal cities have never experienced a real tsunami.

  54. Ugly American March 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    Earthquakes, Tsunamis, erupting volcanoes and nuclear meltdowns, millions without power without water and food is running short; Naw, they’re not going to need any help. We’d just be getting in the way of all those super prepared engineers.

    US Marines to the rescue in three

  55. Ugly American March 13, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    …..two….one….oh wait, they already showed up about 48 hours ago.

  56. Schwartz March 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    *** “We’re all Japanese”, hold onto it for a few years, and copy it into a strongly worded letter to your local Congresscritter the next time nativism runs rampant.)***

    There is a certain irony in this statement given that you are talking about nativism in a pejorative sense, while praising a country that has benefited tremendously from adopting extremely nativist policies! Japan certainly does not accept any migrants who are likely to be a drag on their system or fundamentally alter their culture.

  57. g. a. lawrence March 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    Thanks for the article. I have enjoyed exposure to the Japanese culture where I can. I have often wondered how much of what Americans think of the Japanese psyche is caused by geography. Large scale creative thinking and acting individually is a luxury when you do not live in a densely packed environment subject to earthquakes and water damage. You need to know that you can count on your neighbor behaving in certain manners when a crisis occurs and your neighbor is counting on you too.
    Perhaps the xenophobia Japanese express is their fear that when a crisis occurs, the non-natives will not step in to do their part.

  58. Rochelle March 13, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    Thank You. I needed to know this. As do many others.

  59. Emily March 13, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    Very informative, but I would also like to point out that people who want to donate to feel like they are doing something can donate to the Red Cross, but choose to have the money go to just disaster relief or where the need is greatest. That way, it won’t be specifically earmarked for Japan and can go to what ever place needs it the most.

  60. Tom March 13, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    The United States annually takes in more legal immigrants that the rest of the world combined. And that’s not counting illegal immigrants. Most “nativists” are fine with the former. As some posters have pointed out, if you want to complain about nativism, Japan should be the place to start. They are in dire need of diversity.

    Some free advice for you: stick to what you know when you blog, and read up on issues you don’t understand.

  61. Charles March 13, 2011 at 8:09 pm #


    This is an otherwise very thoughtful post; except for your “political quips.” Those were a bit uncalled for; and only detracted from what you were trying to say.

    But thank you for taking the time to write the rest and to put things in perspective; at least the perspective of someone who is “over there.”

  62. uttam March 13, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Excellent post…I wasn’t aware of Japan’s geography. This article is pumping me. I am not much prepared in my daily routine and this nation is READY in a finger snap.

  63. Kylie March 13, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    I would like to just point out that Honshu is not in fact larger than Great Britain. Great Britain is slightly larger at about 230,000 km squared (nearly 90,000 square miles)

  64. ssuguru March 13, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    Thank you for your reporting.

    I add information about the trains washed by the tsunami. One train have not been found by the present. All other trains have been found with no casualty. Evacuation had been completed or trains endured the tsunami.

    Article in Japanese is here.

    Electricity shortage and lack of daily necessities are reported. I hope that your life in Japan does not have serious difficulty.

  65. ssuguru March 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Sorry, the article is here.

  66. Samuel Liebrand March 13, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    This article is the most comprehensively informative article I’ve read about the Earthquakes. The problem with a lot of news coverage is that they aren’t really putting Japan into enough context. I knew Japan was big, but not that it is bigger than Great Britain. I knew they are estimating that hundreds of thousands of people are affected, but I had no idea what that meant for Japan as a whole. This really makes things clearer, and I wish all coverage were this straight forward.

  67. Stephanie March 13, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Thank you for posting this. I did not know the true size of Japan and how well prepared you are. I commend your country for taking this step. Having lived in Utah all my life, I can tell you, we are NOT near prepared for our Big One as your country has shown. That is sad. I will take steps to ensure my family is prepared. I am sending prayers and well wishes to your and your country. I am praying the lives that were lost are at peace and that your country begins to mend and heal.

  68. Matthew March 13, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    @ Eric (March 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm)

    You might want to find a better source than the UCS. They started as a peace org, but have long since morphed into a lobby group with a similar agenda to the Club of Rome and other neo-malthusians, putting out numbers and predictions that don’t remotely match physical reality, especially with regards to nuclear power (I have UCS presenters talk about it who obviously had no idea what happens inside the reactor – the guy thought they were setting off nuclear bombs). Any time I’ve cross-checked their math, they tend to come up very short, and always on the alarmist side of things. Or, as they used to say in the 1970s, the members of the Union of Concerned Scientists tend to be neither.

    A better source is probably the depletedcranium blog. The guy tends to be a bit of a cheerleader for nuclear, but (and here’s the important part), all of the calculations are done in public, blog commenters routinely crosscheck his facts/numbers (and if he’s proven wrong, he’ll admit it), and both the blogger and commenters will generally provide their references if asked.

  69. Sherri Benoun March 13, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    Fascinating article. I knew that Sendai was in northern Honshu, just wasn’t sure which prefecture it was. I remember hearing some time ago that the land mass of Japan was equivalent to the state of California. Not sure how accurate that is, but it still helps give me a sense of scale.
    Japanese engineering held up beautifully, with minimal loss overall. Without the tsunami, this would have still been a tragedy, but more fathomable to most.
    On a slightly sideways note, I was taught in Japanese class that typhoon was a Chinese word for big wind, not Japanese.

  70. Jassi March 13, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    With all due respect, Patrick, I found this post to be, while informative, very callous and unsympathetic.

    As you described, the length of Honshu is about the distance from Chicago to New Orleans. I can guarantee you, Patrick, if more than 10,000 people had died in New Orleans, you wouldn’t find any “dismissive” blog posts like yours in New York.

    It’s very encouraging and reassuring to hear about how the systems and structures were excellently built and saved possibly tens of thousands of lives. This is a very important fact. However, your post downplays the fact that entire towns and cites were wiped out a few days ago, and just a few hour flight from you, there are 10,000 bodies floating in water, trapped in houses, etc.

  71. Vodka Drink Recipes March 13, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    Awesome article. That was realy a disaster!

  72. jj March 14, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    typhoon – yes it is taifeng in Mandarin but 台風 (taifuu) in Japanese as well. Many words sound similar in Chinese dialects and Japanese; most Japanese characters have a “Chinese” pronunciation.

  73. Katharina March 14, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    “To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.”

    I find that rather hard to believe. A clean-up bill?

  74. Patrick March 14, 2011 at 1:41 am #


  75. Joe March 14, 2011 at 2:02 am #

    If you want to get an idea of how much of a non-event this at first seemed to be in Tokyo, I wrote a detailed account of my experience of the quake, from the moment it hit up to my getting home that night:

  76. layos March 14, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    Great job, many thanks.

  77. Steve March 14, 2011 at 3:42 am #

    People could also make a contribution to the Red Cross toward the recovery effort. I assume you would not be opposed to that.

  78. Nick March 14, 2011 at 3:43 am #

    Hi, I am about to travel to Japan for a holiday. Your post has completely rid me of any fears of the state of the country (I did and still do wonder about how badly these things are portrayed in the news). I intend still to visit and spend my money as a tourist in Japan.

  79. Ken March 14, 2011 at 3:50 am #

    Awesome post. Two fixes for you.

    “Its” not “It’s.” And “Lehman” not “Leiman.”

    As another Tokyo-based foreigner, it’s nice to have this to send to concerned loved ones overseas.

    And next time you meet an engineer here, for god’s sake, buy them a beer!

  80. james March 14, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    oh, thank god.
    for a while there i thought thousands of people had been killed and entire towns wiped out by a catastrophic wave.

  81. Heinrich Seeger March 14, 2011 at 4:22 am #

    Your text is impressively informative regarding the japanese way of dealing with catastrophes. But it’s way too placatory to be credible. The fact that Japan has a very well organized emergency rescue system doesn’t have anything to do with the question whether or nor the ongoing nuclear incident can be controlled.

    If I were PR head of Tepco and had some extra funds to spend I’d consider to entrust you with a text like this.

  82. Heather March 14, 2011 at 4:27 am #

    Does Japan offer an english-language news channel so I can get some news that isn’t Americanized?

  83. Hugh Mason March 14, 2011 at 4:28 am #

    Thanks for an excellent piece that counters the alarmist reporting covering so much of the web. This is a huge disaster but it could have been so very much worse.

  84. mred March 14, 2011 at 4:33 am #

    ,Let’s Talk Nukes, – dear oh dear. And as for the referenced blog ‘Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors’.

    Just plain silly and naive

  85. J. Pablo Fernández March 14, 2011 at 4:57 am #

    I’ve just said to a coworker: “If anything happened during the earthquake to atomic energy is that it was proved to be safe… that was a hell of an earthquake and nothing bad happened.”. Yeah, the tsunami caused some problems, maybe power plants shouldn’t be built in the coast, I do know; I’m sure as a result of this, nuclear power plants are going to be even safer.

    My apologies if my question about your safety came with a bunch of others, I did know not all japan was flooded but I didn’t know where you lived.

  86. Tim Hagiwara March 14, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    I actually think the narcissists came out in force with this disaster in Japan concerning the events with these reactors at Fukushima; they were hoping and asking for these plants to go into uncontainable meltdown.

    Nice one, you idiots.

  87. Burt Reynolds March 14, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    Informative yes, callous yes. It reads like “Sorry your whole town and family were wiped out, but it could have been much worse, but for the sterling preparative work done by your government.”
    I hope many Japanese people get to read this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see you leaving…in a hurry.
    Also please correct the false assertion that Honshu is bigger than GB, it isn’t.

  88. Jack March 14, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    excellent article, i have been posting links to this article all over!

  89. slapphappe March 14, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Patrick, while your blog contains some interesting perspectives I think your tone towards the death, destruction and suffering is callously unsympathetic — probably because you are in miles and in your own mind, too far removed from the disaster to help nor care much. Many people will be without fresh water, food , sanitation and shelter for days to come — and without the tools and infrastructure to quickly address their suffering. For all their preparedness, the Japanese Government’s response to the Kobe Earthquake was underwhelming, the people largely had to fend for themselves. We feel for those people and should certainly be encouraged to donate money to local charities and relief organisations who are able to feed and shelter the homeless and drop in supplies to those who have not yet been rescued. Pull your head out man and gain some perspective — your time in Japan hasn’t given you much heart!

  90. Harland March 14, 2011 at 7:04 am #

    Wow, the nuke industry apology shills are working overtime on this disaster. They’re popping up everywhere, in places you wouldn’t ordinarily expect. The nuclear power industry (especially in Japan) has a history of breaking the law and outright lying. Is there any surprise that two reactors blew up already? Oh, but they just released a small, very manageable amount of radioactivity. Nothing to be alarmed about! All is well! I’m sure they’re telling the truth, after all what motivation would they have to lie?

    “Your thoughts and prayers for them and their families are appreciated.”
    Ah. It’s all clear now. The author is a FUCKING CHRISTIAN! Well, that explains a lot about blind faith. Fox news: “nuclear power is safe” Christian: “baaa baaa”.

  91. Karl Moore March 14, 2011 at 7:17 am #

    I sure am glad to hear that nuclear power plant meltdowns and the release of radioactive elements into the atmosphere is no big deal in Japan. In most parts of the world we would expect to see spikes in cancer rates and birth defects. Sure is wonderful the Japanese have a ‘system’ to negate the horror of the effects of power plant meltdown. Obviously the rest of the world could learn so much from them.

  92. Karl Moore March 14, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    I’ll take this blog post as a beginning salvo by the nuclear power industry to minimize the damage the Japanese reactor meltdowns has done to their efforts to sell their deadly product to the American public. Not much more dangerous than “eating a banana”….Wake up folks, you’re being duped again!

  93. Henryk Plötz March 14, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    I’m somewhat surprised that you didn’t mention the Earthquake Early Warning System at all. Maybe I’m somewhat biased because my university department works on one (though I’m not directly involved), but I think this is one of the most awe-instilling technologies related to the Japan earthquake.

    A friend of mine, working in Tokyo, said that they had an automated announcement on the building P.A. system 1 minute before the quake. And while it’s somewhat hard to find more reports on the functioning of the system (drowned out by reporting on the nuclear situation) I imagine that even closer to the epicenter there would still be some pre-quake warning time so that emergency response probably started even before the quake hit. (Mostly automated responses like stopping/slowing trains or scramming the reactor.)

  94. Patrick March 14, 2011 at 7:57 am #


    I mentioned that on some of my public comments, but forgot it for this post. Absolutely, that is one of the things that worked and saves lives.

  95. KasparsM March 14, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Karl, the greatest damage from the Chernobyl disaster was deterioration of the mental health due to unwarranted panic and “victim” mentality. Many exposed people died from alcoholism, drugs or suicides instead of cancer or other radiation issues. Read the reports if you don’t believe me.

    In Fukushima population will be safe even in the worst case scenario because they have already been evacuated, just in case. There is absolutely no need for panic because panic is more deadly. There are already reports that one old man died from suffocation when he became scared from radiation and tightly sealed all air vents in his house and used gas stove for cooking.

    I am not saying that radiation is harmless but we should see the things in proper perspective. There haven’t been any significant radiation leak from the nuclear plant yet. This article is about organized rescue efforts and that is the most important thing at the moment to save countless lives. Arguments about pro-/anti-nuclear energy policy can wait until this is over.

  96. Jean Lafitte March 14, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    Thanks for your comments, Karl. I believe we’ll be seeing much more of this type of propaganda in the next few days. The US nuclear power industry has billions of dollars to spend thanks to President Obama and the Republicans and they’ll certainly be spending in order to save their bacon. This disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the promoters of “safe, clean and green” nuclear energy. Hard to believe people can be so easily duped. They don’t call us ‘sheeple’ for no reason.

  97. mo March 14, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    thank you :)

  98. Tilman Winkler March 14, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Oh boy, I wonder how op feels about his pro-nuclear bs now. He could hardly have been further off. Let’s hope things go well due to some sort of magic. The systems definitely failed.

  99. Germaine March 14, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Let’s see if this extra sentence gets around the duplicate comment detection.

    This article was probably well-intentioned, albeit peppered with some geeky form of arrogance and not-quite-well-researched “facts” to bolster over-confident claims. I just figure that maybe the writer really meant this for his mom (as mentioned in the preface), in which case it could be forgiven.

    That said, I did learn some about the geography of Japan from the article (by being compelled to check Google maps), and overall it could still help to soothe worried relatives and friends, so thank you Patrick for the effort.


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