Monday, August 31, 2009

Saving The Akita Dog, And More


I have been thinking about biodiversity for a while, mostly because of work, doing some preparations for the UN Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya in October 2010. Often, the issue is abstract and very difficult to communicate. One story I like a lot because it brings home the urgency is about the Akita dog, a breed from northern Japan that almost became extinct around the time of WW2.

The local breeders were killing the last dogs, selling the fur to the military in order to line the winter coats of officers. Yet, Morie Sawataishi decided to take action to save the Akita (and what a difference one person can make!) as described in the book Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain by Martha Sherill.

Working for Mitsubishi in the remote snow country, Morie decided to rescue Japan's noble, ancient Akita breed—whose numbers had already dwindled before the war—from certain extinction. Raised in an elegant Tokyo neighborhood, his long-suffering wife, Kitako, hated country life, and his children resented the affection he lavished on his dogs rather than on them. The book brims with colorful characters, both human and canine: sweet-tempered redhead Three Good Lucks, who may have been poisoned to death by a rival dog owner; high-spirited One Hundred Tigers, who lost his tail in an accident; and wild mountain man Uesugi.


The problem with the phrase "saving biodiversity" is that you have to think many generations ahead. You can't just catch a bunch of pandas and put them in a cage in a zoo. That's not going to do the trick, even if they breed. You need what experts call genetic variation, and a biotope (or habitat), and protection against alien (or invasive) species. And you need to avoid inbreeding, which is very tricky if you only have a few animals left of a certain breed in that cage in your zoo.

What Morie Sawataishi did back in the 1940s was not easy, but he had one essential factor that worked to his favour: time.

Morie and his dogs were heroes every morning, and heroes again every night. With each walk into the wild, they were bold and resourceful. They were alive and alert, their senses acute, poised for the natural excitements that the rest of us must crave when we turn to flickering screens for adventures and when we ache to connect with nature and animals. We yearn for the company of dogs because they return us to an ancient way of life, vanishing now.


I have written about biodiversity on several occasions here on Kurashi, also mentioning food biodiversity issues. Simple things like vegetable seeds are amazing treasures, much more valuable than any other commodity. They promise food on the table, not only for you today, but for you tomorrow, and after that, and for future generations. Yet, we are currently experiencing an era when loss of genetic variation in seeds (and in animal livestock breeds) is more serious than ever - at the same time as world population is increasing.

Saving a clever breed of dog is one thing - saving unique and important varieties of rice or wheat or potatoes are key to our survival.

There is a story from Leningrad during the 900-day siege in 1941 to 1944, when food was just not reaching the city, and thousands of people were dying. But the city also had the world's most important collection of seeds. Brief summary of Cary and Pat's book Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity
.

After the evacuation in 1942, thirty-one people were left at the institute. They were given a daily ration of 120 grams of bread. Fourteen died of starvation in December. Why would these people starve to death surrounded by so much food? Dr. Tchuvashina looked at us as if we must already know the answer - they were students of Vavilov. But what did they think they were doing saving all these seeds? What did they say to themselves as they slowly and collectively starved in this big old building? Dr. Tchuvashina reminded us that these scientists knew the value of genetic resources. Vavilov had taught them that. From where they were it looked as if humanity was destroying itself. Someday it would need these seeds. "When all the world is in the flames of war, we will keep this collection for the future of all people."


Recently, ETC Group notes:

The first gene bank was built in St. Petersburg almost a century ago by the renowned Russian geneticist, N.I. Vavilov. Vavilov and his disciples scoured the planet searching for crop seeds that might be used to give Russian agriculture a boost. Only heroic efforts protected Vavilov’s collections during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II but even this heroism was not enough to withstand Stalin and the collapsing economy of the Soviet Union afterward.


I first learnt about this amazing story in a Uppsala-published journal, the main publication of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, in one of the articles by Pat Roy Mooney, called Development Dialogue (pdf). I met Cary Fowler and Pat in Sweden when I worked for the Swedish Consumer Coalition.

Here is the story: the few remaining scientists in Leningrad prefered, if that is the right word, can you imagine the dedication - deciding to save the precious genetic resources, that they knew were crucial for the survival of so many? They decided to starve rather than eat the seeds collected by Vavilov! That shows just how well they understood the importance of each one of the collected seeds, their variety and also the information about the biotops where they had been collected.

Ethnobiologist, conservationist and farmer Gary Nabhan has the story of a profound visionary who set out to end famine, and the price he paid. Gary's latest book is Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Listen to his talk here on The Splendid Table.

There is also the amazing story of Norin 10, a shorter variety of wheat that Japanese plant breeders in Iwate prefecture identified and promoted in 1935, and which was later introduced around the world to avoid some of the damage from heavy winds and other hardships. Read more about heritage wheat - doesn't it make you wonder what your daily bead is actually made of?

Saving a dog, a bird, a panda - or saving rice or wheat or veggies. And now, here in Japan, we are faced with calls to stop eating maguro, the blue-fin tuna, or they may become extinct too. We have a lot to learn.

Hat tip to James at Japan Probe for the post about Dog Man ;)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

YouTube: Kermit the Frog, 40 years ago. I loved The Muppet Show as a kid. Jim Henson was a genious. It was written for the Sesame Street by Joe Raposo in 1970. Ray Charles did a fantastic version in 1989.

One comment:

My lil nephew used to break out singing this when he had the blues. Boy! Talk about blue! We used to giggle, but he was so serious!


Here's another comment:

1969. New York. So much racial tension goin' on. So Jim Henson asks "what can we do to help kids feel better about all this racial stuff?"... How about Kermit accepting his own color in front of them? Subtle, deep... effecting, soothing. This is the earliest version. There is a more famous version. But this one - so raw - so careful to be true to the children... this one makes me weep.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Election Updates: From The Blogs

Japan doesn't have an active Green Party*, although there have been efforts over the years to start one, and some success on the local level. Some bloggers are comparing the main parties and their national policies. I thought I should sum up some of my finds:

Greener World compares what LDP and DPJ say about biodiversity. Noting that both parties are concerned about loss of biodiversity, the blogger points out that LDP seems aware of Japan's responsibilities next year, when Nagoya is hosting the UN Biodiversity Conference. LDP wants Japan to "exhibit global leadership" at the meeting. DPJ has "rather strong measures to protect biodiversity" and both parties mention the need to protect satoyama, the farm/forest areas that are so important for food security in Japan. Greener World gives LDP a paltry 10 points, while DPJ gets 60 points, noting that "LDP needs to put on their geta (wooden sandals)" and go out and do something, not just pass the buck to other government agencies.

Several bloggers are wondering what to make of the main parties' farm policies. Hanasyoubu is not impressed by either platform. Both LDP and DPJ are proposing to continue subsidies to farmers indefinietly. But that kind of system has failed to provide food security for Japan. Hanasyoubu reminds the reader that the self-sufficiency rate is around 40%, and doesn't think DPJ's proposals will be enough to help farmers in any substantial way: "Distributing money freely for farm policies will only make the public feel more uneasy about political measures." I'll counterbalance that with mmasaosato, a blogging Communist party assembly member in Fukui prefecture, who is angry about DPJ's manifesto. "It will reduce Japan's food self-sufficiency to zero," he claims, as DPJ's platform at one stage seemed to be promoting the view that Japan and the United States should have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The Communist party, on the other hand, "absolutely" opposes a FTA deal, saying it would destroy Japan's agriculture, as cheap imports would make it impossible to sell domestically produced rice, vegetables or fruit.

I would also like to mention Marutei Tsurunen, DPJ member of parliament, who wants a Food Safety Agency modelled on the EFSA in the European Union. Check out his English website, and his plans to promote organic farming!

...every month, I travel around Japan and continue my speaking activities to promote organic farming. I am happy to say that the number of agriculturalists engaging in organic farming is beginning to increase and the number of retail outlets selling organic foods to consumers, such as supermarkets, has also grown. In areas such as Tokyo and Yokohama, more and more restaurants are using organic ingredients. Organic farming has finally started to make a major contribution in Japan to food safety and to protecting the health of our land.


Tokyo blogger Ekojin has done a very detailed analysis of the environmental policies of all the parties (and is not impressed by the farm policy of the Communists, calling them "fumufumu", as in "going on and on"). Ekojin applauds the DPJ stance on renewable energy, but gets "very emotional" about the lack of ideas how to secure rare metals for all the new batteries and appliances that are supposed to give Japan a global leadership position, and "can't wait until we start discussing" stable energy supply issues more seriously. Ekojin feels DPJ has more concrete proposals than LDP (but DPJ is "using too much katakana terminology").

I'll end with Far East News, a right-wing blog with detailed analysis, because it has interesting comments on the calculations to see what DPJ's energy proposals would cost. DPJ wants to reduce green house gas emissions by 30% by investing in solar power, wind power, more effective boilers, and rules to help home owners install better insulation. But all of these ideas cost an enormous amount of money. Far East News notes that each household would have to pay around 360,000 yen a year, and the total amount of money would mount up to 190 trillion yen in the entire country, and concludes that is is quite impossible for DPJ to promise such reforms, quoting Sankei Shinbun's interview with officials who wondered what kind of debate or discussion DPJ had held to come up with its numbers...

Still looking forward to the election? Well, I am. Japan needs new leaders with some fresh ideas. Who is the greenest? Let's hope we all deserve better than what we have currently got.

* Midori no Mirai, based in Koenji, Tokyo, has a website and a lot of interesting ideas, but is it a party?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ten Thousand Things

I added a new blog I like, called Ten Thousand Things. Hope they keep up the good work. Their noble goal is to "create a netroots venue that supports actions for peace, sustainability, social justice, & creative expression in Asia (and everywhere)."

–– Kim Hughes, Jen Teeter, & Jean Downey

Satoyama And Sustainable Development In The Japan Times

Winifred Bird has written a great article about biodiversity over at Japan Times, glad to see these issues being taken seriously. She notes that biodiversity is threatened not just by the loss of virgin nature but by changes in Japan's satoyama — the carefully managed forests/fields that make up Japan's traditional rural landscape:

Humans have been shaping the natural environment in Japan for a very long time. Starting with the advent of rice cultivation more than 2,000 years ago, virtually every accessible patch of land on these small and crowded islands has had its vegetation cut, cleared, burned, tilled or otherwise transformed. But surprisingly, say those who study the ecology of Japan's traditional rural areas, that may not have been such a bad thing for the archipelago's biological diversity.

Back before humans settled down in villages and learned about agriculture, Japan's wet and mountainous terrain was mostly wooded.

"Japan was a land of trees," says Kazuhiko Maita, director of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation. "But then, when farming communities began to grow rice in paddies they created, they cut the flatland forests."


I'm less impressed by the title of the article ("Japan's creeping natural disaster") which sounds like some editor had watched too much Jurassic Park on his summer holiday. Oh well, free-lance writers don't usually get to pick the title or even the lead sentence of articles like this. Ms. Bird gets a lot of information into this article, having talked to people in Mie prefecture, where life in the rural village has changed a lot:

Despite these fond memories, it was a hard life. Rice yields in the cool mountain valleys were poor, and with virtually no monetary income, villagers subsisted mostly on vegetables and chagayu, a gruel made with tea and rice.


The Biodiversity Center of Japan, which is part of the Environment Ministry, has an ongoing project to monitor changes in the satoyama ecosystem. The website is worth a visit, although the English pages are not updated as much as you would expect from a country that is going to host the next United Nations’ meeting in Nagoya, October 2010, for the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Protocol on Biosafety (also called Cartagena Protocol). More details over at Consumers Union of Japan: Protect Biodiversity in Nagoya.

The actual ecosystem monitoring is managed by the NGO called the Nature Conservation Society of Japan. The work is carried out by volunteers.

30-40 years is what we call a generation, and as far as I am concerned, we can never go back to where we were born and grew up, be it a busy city or a quiet rural town, and find that things are still the same. Even Tokyo, the city I first moved to 21 years ago, has changed a lot. You can't expect a small patch of satoyama to survive unless there are incentives - such as leveraging the isolation to their advantage - or finding new sources of income. Expecting things to "stay the same" is not realistic. That's just not how things work, and that's how I feel about the places I remember as a kid. Things change - a lot.

What is clear is that if you take "development" out of the "sustainable development" you are in trouble, just as if you take away "sustainable" - and if that is a creeping natural disaster, it is just the way life works, no more, no less.

(Hat tip both to Tom in Brighton and to Pandabonium in Kashima city, who both independently alerted me to this fantastic article!)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009): Vissi Di Arte From Tosca



Floria Tosca: Hildegard Behrens, 1985
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli conductor
Of course this is Puccini, and Hildegard Behrens was more famous for her Wagner work, but it works well for me, hope it works for you. Frau Behrens died this week in Japan, on her way to a workshop in Kusatsu, Gunma prefecture. Murder scene here ("And all Rome trembled before him...!")

Tosca: Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore – “I lived on art, I lived on love”; Scarpia: Sei troppo bella, Tosca, e troppo amante – “You're too beautiful, Tosca, and too loving”)

Rispetto! Nun können Sie mit den Engeln singen! RIP!

Italian

Translation in English

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.
Sempre con fè sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fè sincera
diedi fiori agl’altar.
Nell’ora del dolore
perchè, perchè, Signore,
perchè me ne rimuneri così?
Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?


I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Ever in true faith
My prayer
Rose to the holy shrines.
Ever in true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord,
Why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna's mantle,
And songs for the stars, in heaven,
That shone forth with greater radiance.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord
Ah, why do you reward me thus?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Time Magazine Wants To Fix America's Food Crisis

Very interesting front page article in this week's issue of Time Magazine. Many of the questions they raise will be familiar to readers of Kurashi, but I hadn't thought this would be so suddenly put so high on the public agenda. While we often complain about Big Media, perhaps there is hope. The food crisis is real, and Bryan Walsh at Time Magazine deserves credit for a very bold and urgent article. Let me quote the entire opening paragraph:

Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.


They note that America's "energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy." They remind us that "the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later." They even wade into issues like manure and antibiotics (an issue that we have worked on in Sweden and over at Japan Offspring Fund and more recently at Consumers Union of Japan):

Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals leads, inevitably, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the same bugs that infect animals can infect us too. The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.


There is more, and a lot of talk also about people who are doing things better, in a more sustainable way. This is worth reading this weekend, if you care about the food on your table and how it affects your health and our planet.

Time: America's Food Crisis and How to Fix It

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Changing Light Bulbs At Miyajima To Reduce CO2 Emissions


I like how the shrine at Miyajima, south of Hiroshima, has replaced all the light bulbs in its lanterns, thus reducing CO2 emissions by 34.3 tonnes a year.

The 900 year old shrine is no stranger to the elements, having been hit badly by a typhoon as recently as 2004. No matter, shrines in Japan are frequently rebuilt as way to preserve and maintain purity, using wood from forests that are especially designated and protected.

But if sea levels were to rise as predicted, the entire 900 year old structure would not survive.

The lanterns are not lit all night long, just for a while in the evening, as tourists enjoy a walk along the beach or a quiet supper in the restaurants nearby. Many weddings are also held here, and a trip to Hiroshima is not complete without a visit. "I want to spread CO2 reduction from Miyajima, getting people to understand what will happen if polar ice melts," said the head priest to journalists at the light bulb changing event.

Photo from Nikkei Net, read more over at Treehugger.

The oceans are already rising. Global average sea level rose about 17 centimetres in the 20th century, and the rate of rise is increasing. The biggest uncertainty for those trying to predict future changes is how humanity will behave. Will we start to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases sometime soon, or will we continue to pump ever more into the atmosphere?

Even if all emissions stopped today, sea level would continue to rise. "The current rate of rise would continue for centuries if temperatures are constant, and that would add about 30 centimetres per century to global sea level," says Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. "If we burn all fossil fuels, we are likely to end up with many metres of sea level rise in the long run, very likely more than 10 metres in my view."

New Scientist: Sea level rise: It's worse than we thought

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Greenbooks, Natural Food Books, And My Book



I like how my book is advertised on this page, with organic farming/permaculture pioneer Masanobu Fukuoka, kind of looking over approvingly at this Swedish upstart. Lots of other great(er) books too about natural food, slow food, apples and an entire book about natto (!).

Ryokushodo is a great little book store with a spirit. It is run by Pono People who are part of Japan's microbiotic movement, and "pono" I think is a Hawaiian word meaning "righteousness" or "inner balance" if I'm not mistaken.

Quote of the day: "If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork." - Masanobu Fukuoka

Friday, August 14, 2009

Asahi: DPJ Policies Would Raise Annual CO2 Emissions

The Research Institute for Local Initiative of Environmental Policies is unhappy with some of the ideas put forward by the Democratic Party of Japan: A pledge by the main opposition party to abolish expressway tolls and special car taxes would "raise the volume of road traffic and result in an annual increase of 9.8 million tons in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions."

Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is not really known for his treehugging tendencies, criticized DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, saying the opposition party's manifesto "would increase oil consumption and have a negative impact on the environment."

The election is on August 30, and I suppose DPJ could still change its mind about this idiotic stance. I don't plan to comment a lot on the election, but this was too important to ignore.

Asahi: DPJ policies would raise annual CO2 emissions, think tank says

In its policy platform for the Aug. 30 Lower House election, the Democratic Party of Japan pledged to abolish expressway tolls as well as special car-related tax rates introduced decades ago as a temporary measure.

The research institute, located in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, is a think tank of the Coalition of Local Governments for Environmental Initiative. It analyzed the DPJ's policy pledges on the assumption that some of the people who now use public transportation systems that span prefectural borders, such as Shinkansen bullet trains and high-speed bus and coach services, will switch to automobiles.

Scrapping expressway tolls and abolishing the temporary tax rates would result in a 21-percent increase in car usage, the institute said. This would compare with a 36-percent decrease in train usage. The figures for bus and coach services as well as air travel would drop 43 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

With regard to trains, the decrease would be especially noticeable for services operating from the Tokyo metropolitan area to the Tohoku and Kinki regions and those from the Osaka area toward the Tokai and Shikoku regions, the institute said. The increased volume in car traffic would raise annual CO2 emissions in the transportation sector by about 4 percent from the 249 million tons in fiscal 2007, it added.




Breitbart/Kyodo adds that the DPJ plan would also mean that expressways will be nationalized. Note also that it will be up to our children, our children's children, and most likely also the children of their children to pay for all of this free driving:
Tolls would then be scrapped, except for some congested expressways, including the Metropolitan Expressway network in and around Tokyo. Of the roughly 37 trillion yen debt the agency succeeded from the highway corporations, about 31 trillion yen has yet to be repaid as of the end of March and it would be carried over to the central government, the sources said.

The remaining debt would be paid back over 60 years with long-term government bonds, according to the timetable. But this method could spur criticism that it goes against the idea that those who benefit from expressway use should repay the debt.


Breitbart/Kyodo: Expressways may be nationalized around 2012 under DPJ plan

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Perseid Shower Tonight


There is a very good chance to see meteors tonight, if the sky is clear. The Perseid meteor shower has been observed regularly for a very long time, and was first noted in the "Far East" (don't you just love the old-fashioned term!).

The shower is visible from mid-July each year, with the greatest activity between August 8 and 14, peaking about August 12. During the peak, the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour.

- Wikipedia

Image from hoshifuru.jp who notes that the peak will be around 2-3 AM on August 13 here in Japan. Look towards north-east.

流れ星 (nagare boshi) is the Japanese word for falling star, while meteor is called 流星 (ryuusei). 星 (hoshi or -boshi or -sei) is of course "star" so I was surprised to see that kanji in the proper word for meteor, as they are not stars at all.

What Wikipedia means by "Far East" is more clear from the link to meteorshoweronline.com:

The earliest record of Perseid activity comes from the Chinese annals, where it is said that in 36 AD "more than 100 meteors flew thither in the morning." Numerous references appear in Chinese, Japanese and Korean records throughout the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, but only sporadic references are found between the 12th and 19th centuries, inclusive. Nevertheless, August has long had a reputation for an abundance of meteors. The Perseids have been referred to as the "tears of St. Lawrence", since meteors seemed to be in abundance during the festival of that saint in Italy on August 10th; however, credit for the discovery of the shower's annual appearance is given to Adolphe Quételet (Brussels, Belgium), who, in 1835, reported that there was a shower occurring in August that emanated from the constellation Perseus.

Green House Gas Emission Per Capita: Japan Gets Passing Grade


To follow up on the previous post, which was about how worried people are about global warming, this is an important graph that should be on Kurashi.

It shows the green house gas emissions per capita. It could be a better indicator of the mess we are in, rather than just asking countries to reduce emissions, let's take this debate to the people. And actually, Japanese are not doing so badly at all, compared to people in several of the other large economies. And it was interesting to note in the previous post that Japanese people are among the top that feel concerned about this issue.

(Graph from The Conference Board of Canada, great website where you can find more interactive graphs and lots of data)

South Korea, Japan Think Global Warming Is A Serious Problem


In the latest edition of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, which states that Brazil and Argentina are the countries in which people are most aware of global warming as a threat, South Korea and Japan also score very high.

The survey was carried out in 25 countries, including the United States and China. When asked the question, "Is global warming a serious problem?" 90% of Brazilians and 69% of Argentineans said yes, while only 44% of Americans or Russians chose the affirmative answer.

More on the survey (from page 87):
Pew Global Attitudes Survey (PDF)

Are Japanese people less concerned about climate change, at least compared to 2007, when 78% worried about global warming?

There is a lot more to ponder: In this survey, 64% of the Japanese agreed with the statement, "Protect environment even if it slows growth and costs jobs."

68% would "Pay higher prices to address global climate change" in Japan, compared to 41% in the US and 53% in the UK and 54% in Germany.

I wish they would include at least one Scandinavian country in their survey.

For this study, they called 700 households in Japan, from May 20-June 10, 2009.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bad Earthquake, But Not That Bad


Bad earthquake this morning near the Hamaoka nuclear reactors that I have written about here and here. Fortunately, reactors 4 and 5 were the only ones up and running, due to the massive debate about the aging first three (ruptures, steam turbine problems and much more). We are told both were shut down, and then there was this line:

Agency officials said they received no reports of radioactivity leakage in surrounding areas.


Many people did get hurt from the usual accidents that always happen. What I don't like is how traffic was stopped on the Tomei Expressway between the Fuji Interchange and the Fukuroi Interchange in Shizuoka Prefecture due to the collapsed section. The artery links Tokyo and Nagoya. Imagine if they wanted to send convoys of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles (ambulances, buses for evacuation purposes) down to Hamaoka. This is clearly not the best place to have five big nuclear reactors - and they are planning to build a new, bigger one, at this very location.

Asahi: Dozens injured in Shizuoka quake

In Japan, many of the country's 50 or so nuclear power plants are getting old and replacing them will be very expensive. To replace the oldest reactors, Chubu Electric Power Co. stated that they would register special losses of about 155 billion yen for the business year ending March 2009, but the company has no clear plan for how to properly dismantle or tear down the old reactors.

Decommissioning work on the old reactors, which are currently not operating, would be completed around 2035, according to The Mainichi on December 13, 2008 (no longer available on their website).

That is more than 25 years from now...

Asahi noted on December 24, 2008 in an editorial (also no longer available) that what is worrisome is that there are no firmly established procedures for shutting down an old reactor:

Decommissioning a 1.1-million-kilowatt reactor produces 500,000 to 550,000 tons of waste. While it contains no high-level radioactive waste, about 3 percent of the matter is polluted with radioactivity. Some sticky questions remain unsolved, such as where the waste materials from the reactor and its peripheral equipment should be buried.

It is vital to work out a viable plan for decommissioning reactors before the nuclear retirement era comes into full swing.


I like Chubu Electric's project to help local residents reduce their electricity consumption. They have been working with local governments and Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) to promote high-efficiency water heaters that conserve energy and reduce CO2 emissions.



(Screen capture from Japan Meteorological Agency, your best source for earthquake updates)

The Hamaoka nuclear reactors in Shizuoka prefecture were supposed to supply Nagoya and Tokyo with electricity.

You can really sense the struggle of the 1960s or the early 1970s mentality here at the Chubu Electric Power website (English): producing as much energy as possible. At least they do give us a hint how difficult it is.

How curious that their main image is a photo of wind power!.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Tegomass: Tanabata Matsuri, A Swedish Song!

I've written about the wonderful pop duo Tegomass here, back in 2006, and they seem to continue to enjoy a special link to Sweden. Their new song Tanabata Matsuri is in Japanese but it was originally written as a folk music/bluegrass hit for Hasse 'Kvinnaböske' Andersson, who was very surprised when the Sydsvenskan newspaper in Malmö called him and asked him how he felt about being "Big-In-Japan".

Hasse's greatest hit back in the 1990s was Får man ta hunden med sig in i himlen, a sad and caring song, titled something like "May I bring my dog with me to heaven (when I die)" touching the hearts of many in Sweden, where old people often have to spend their last years alone, or at least just with a beloved pet. Could be a big hit in Japan too, where the ageing society in many areas is not without its similarities to regions of Sweden.

I like this video! 七夕祭り (Tanabata Matsuri) is the special festival earlier in July, and now in August we have other events, especially firework festivals 花火祭り (Hanabi Matsuri) before お盆 (Obon), the Buddhist holiday to honour the ancestors.

The Tegomass karaoke version on Youtube has Japanese lyrics as well as English translation. Note the tanabata wishes in the end: peace and - smile.



Music/Lyrics by Johan Bejerholm, Anderz Wrethov and Elin Wrethov.

(Tack Johan för tipset! Brev till familjen är på väg, grattis allihopa!)

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Economics Of Farming, Or Of Importing Food

Food and farming in Japan are topics close to the heart of this blog. Kurashi is not a place where you can read a lot of comments about election matters, and there are other bloggers who are far more savvy at commenting on the platforms (called "manifesto" in Japan using the English? Spanish? Russian? Latin-inspired? name) of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan and the rest.

I will try to comment on a couple of things that appeared on Tobias Harris' excellent blog, Observing Japan. He is also interested in the Free Trade Agreement policies of Japan's major parties, such as the possibility of a deal between Japan and the U.S., but I think he gets this all wrong:

"Aso was delivering the same message on a different front in Shimane and Okayama Wednesday, when he attacked the DPJ for its position on a US-Japan FTA. Exhibiting the LDP's full-out reversion to agricultural protectionism — discussed here by Aurelia George Mulgan — Aso stressed, "Agriculture is the foundation of the nation." It is difficult to know whether the LDP's attack on this front is having the desired effect, but I have to figure that the LDP has at least convinced the newly born rural floating voters to think a bit longer about whether to cast their votes for the DPJ."


I had a look at Aurelia George Mulgan's article that Mr Harris links to, as it seems central to his argument.

Aurelia George Mulgan clearly understands Japan and its political difficulties very well. But. She starts by calling agriculture "one of Japan’s chief laggard industries." This is where I don't agree. Compared to which other industries? The car industry is hardly running at top speed either, and just about every other manufacturing sector that used to be the pride of Japan are in trouble. As for banks and financial institutions, they are not going through a stellar phase, either, Mizuho being just the latest to post a (small) loss. Comparing apples to, say, ship building or bank stock just doesn't make much sense to me.

Why is agriculture in Japan in trouble? Imagine any other sector where you have 60% imports (or more). No wonder young farmers are rare, although not quite as extinct as Aurelia George Mulgan seems to indicate by the photo illustrating the blog entry over at East Asia Forum. Yes, there are a lot of oba-chans and oji-sans doing some really wonderful farming, but that is really not a photo that illustrates Japan's farming industry. Hardly a good way to make your point. What do you do with old farmers in Australia, shoot them?

Yet, there is more:

"Greater efficiency at home combined with more imports would lower food prices, thereby raising the real income of consumers. At the same time, agricultural reform has important implications for trade policy, particularly for a WTO agreement as well as for Japan’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Asia-Pacific partners."


Greater efficiency is not the problem, they can certainly do that if there are less imports, not more. In many sectors, Japanese farmers are doing a truly terrific job. More imports of food to a country that already has one of the lowest food security ratios in the world? That is why I have trouble with some economists getting into the debate about the election on August 30. But, I should also say that I'm impressed by the depth of the argument, helping us to understand why real agricultural reform could be vital for Japan’s economy:

"Professor Masayoshi Honma of Tokyo University, who headed up a task force making recommendations to Prime Minister Aso, argues that agriculture is a core sector in many regional economies. A revitalised agricultural industry could, therefore, breathe new life into many local economies. It could even become a mainstay industry for the country according to Kazumasa Iwata, head of the Cabinet Office’s Economic and Social Research Institute. One way would be to form stronger connections between farming and the industrial and commercial sectors and to make more agricultural land available to highly skilled, full-time professional farmers to expand their output and become more efficient producers by exploiting economies of scale.

This would require, among other things, land use reform as well as reform of the rice acreage reduction scheme (gentan), which is a de facto production cartel that elevates the producer rice price and helps to keep small-scale rice farmers in business."


The economics of farming are not the same as say, making novel robots or nuclear rockets. Feed the people first, then think about making stuff. Trade agreements are allright only if people feel comfortable with the deals - Japanese people in many rural areas are not, and they would rather be farming or making food products than see yet another factory pollute precious land that used to be fertile soil. The WTO and Free Trade Agreements should be negotiated and debated in a more democratic way, not behind closed doors in Green Rooms where trade-offs to "open up markets" are making it impossible for farmers to make a living.

Falling apples (NSFW)

In addition, as this blog tries to argue, peak oil and the current global economic crisis should trigger more efforts, not less, to reform agriculture to become sustainable, including promotion of organic agriculture (where Japan certainly lags behind other major industrial countries, such as Sweden or France) and consumer friendly policies to ensure food security and the basic right of food for all.

Should Japan be forced to import more food, I might have to hone my arguments here at Kurashi, and spend a lot more time explaining what activists such as Yasuaki Yamaura at Consumers Union of Japan or Junichi Kowaka at Japan Offspring Fund think: It is a big mistake for economists to believe that consumers just want food to be as cheap as possible, no matter the origin, no matter how it was produced, no matter how far or near.

Observing Japan: An LDP upset in the making?
Observing Japan: The DPJ will bring the ships home — and open Japan's economy to the US?
East Asia Forum: Japan: Is the DPJ the party of economic reform?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Greenz.jp Updates

Are you reading Greenz.jp? Recently, a few new writers joined us who are really good. I liked Joan's post about the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi Park, where she talks about some of the food sellers and pottery makers, as well as tea:

Tea is a hot topic here, and a few good sites include this one with information about different kinds of teas in Japan; this nice post about organic green tea blended with family memories, and a video recounting some of the challenges of organic tea growing. There is, of course, also absolutely no shortage of books about tea in Japan.

Where to Find Local Seasonal Food- Tokyo Farmers Market

Since June, Chris is doing an ongoing series on sustainable living in Japan and he will focus on the unique lifestyle and agricultural practices of Konohana Family near Mt Fuji:

In 1993, perhaps long before the term Eco Village came into popular usage in Japan, a middle aged interior designer and carpenter from Nagoya and several companions were asking themselves if there weren’t a better way to live than the extreme consumerism that was reflected in Japanese society at the time and still is today. The following year they purchased some property in the rural municipality of Fujinomiya, just south west of Mt. Fuji, and set about answering the question. While they are still at it today, they have found their answer and for them it is an unequivocal yes.

Meet the Konohana Family, an agricultural collective at the Foot of Mt. Fuji, Shizuoka

I also want to mention Joel, who does an amazing job translating the Japanese posts into English. They could be a great tool if you want to improve your skills while also learning more about Japan's eco efforts. Greenz.jp is really lucky to have such a team of dedicated people on board.

Tonight, you can meet some of us at the Green Drinks event in Gotanda, Tokyo.

Green Drinks Tokyo August. Green Media Alliance Official Kick Off Party: Can Green Media Go Mainstream?

*About Green Media Alliance(GMA): GMA is a unique Japan based network of leading alternative media organizations such as greenz.jp, Alterna, GreenTV Japan, Good News Japan, dedicated to promoting sustainability and greener economy.

Thursday 6th, Aug. 2009
19:00 Door Open.
JPY3,000. Free Food. One drink

(There will be an online live stream video feed from the event, which means you can chill at home with a cold beer in front of your computer, but do join us if you can!)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

North Korea: BBC Documentary About The Korean War

This is a very difficult documentary to watch.

It is a BBC documentary and it is very long, and I will just link to part 22, about the bombing that totally devastated the entire north. BBC says 600,000 tonnes of bombs (including napalm) was used. Only chimneys would remain. There is a segment were they talk to the cameraman who did some of the filming. Horrific stuff. According to BBC, some 2,000,000 people died.

Part of this was censored from the US version of the documentary, if you decide to watch, you will understand why. But can it also help us understand why today, North Korea is such a different place?

BBC: Korean War Part 22

Most people have heard about the Korean War, maybe you even watched M.A.S.H and laughed at Alan Alda ("in this horrifying place") and his friends. M.A.S.H was shown on Swedish TV in the late 1970s, long before I knew that I would be living in these parts of the woods. And, no, M.A.S.H was not filmed in Korea. It was shot in Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mtns of So. California!

M.A.S.H When The War Is Over ("There are certain rules about war. The rule No. 1 is young men die. The rule No. 2 is doctors can't change rule No. 1")

Sunday, August 02, 2009

July Blog Updates

Tokyo is bigger than you think, Shisaku pointed out, before the July elections...

...would make pretty good country, if independent. With its 12,688,000 inhabitants (10,000,000 of whom are eligible to vote on Sunday) it would be the 67th largest country by population, in between Mali and in Zimbabwe. By GDP, on an exchange rate basis, it would rank among the world’s top 25 economies, on a par with Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden. In terms of headquarters of Fortune Global 500 companies, it would rank second, behind only the United States.


Meanwhile, Mari of Watashi to Tokyo fame, my all-time favourite blog, wrote about Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and noted, "You can find an English subtitled versions on YouTube, please enjoy." Is it just me, or have there been really few earthquakes recently? Four scary (anime) episodes of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 were shown late Thursday nights (just before midnight) on Fuji TV during July.

It's not always easy to live in this great city: "Mainichi, mainichi ya na koto bakkari... Watashi no jinsei, kono saki nani ka ii koto aru kana?" which I would translate as, "Every day, every day, just terrible things happening... In my life, will anything good ever happen?" These are the words that the main character types on her mobile phone just seconds before the 8.0 earthquake strikes... Indeed, when I searched on Youtube I found lots of fan videos with subtitles. If you have ever been to Odaiba, or just like Tokyo, do have a look.

Official website here, details from wikipedia

Chris has been writing several deeply insightful entries about sustainability over at greenz.jp. In search of the real thing, he spoke to Yoshiki Hayashi of the NPO "Uzu"...

...a healthy, lean, tanned man who seemed to personify to me the image of the traditional Japanese farmer seen in the earliest photographs of Japan from the 19th century, despite the modern artistic cut of his hand made indigo blue work clothes. He described the loose collective gathered here as “Rainbow Village”, fulfilling a role to bridge the gap between sustainable Japanese traditions and the future sustainable Japanese society he envisions. He had much to say on living sustainably, pointing out that in order to invoke change in society, changing one’s own life and getting back in tune with the earth through farming was far more effective than any more revolutionary methods could be.

But the line that hit home most of all was that “life is sustainable when you are having fun”. In Japanese, it was “tanoshii koto ga jizoku kanou”, or literally “fun things are sustainable”. Certainly not everything fun is sustainable, but it is far more difficult to sustain an activity if it isn’t. The root of the Japanese word tanoshii, or “fun”, is the Chinese character for both “happy” and “music”. In addition to the “fun” meaning, the same character is used alone to mean, essentially, “easy”, as in “take it easy”.


James at Japan Probe (who is great at finding Youtube videos about current events) posted about the General Election 2009 to be held on August 30. But?

Sadly, the actual coverage is nowhere near as exciting as the intro would suggest.


Adamu over at the Mutant Frog fisked a rather silly article by Lisa Katayama - her first ever article for New York Times. He noted several errors and that "at one point she cites some government statistics to bolster her claim that there is indeed a thriving subculture of men who literally think a pillow is their girlfriend."

According to many who study the phenomenon, the rise of 2-D love can be attributed in part to the difficulty many young Japanese have in navigating modern romantic life. According to a government survey, more than a quarter of men and women between the ages of 30 and 34 are virgins; 50 percent of men and women in Japan do not have friends of the opposite sex.


Wrong, but the fact checkers at NYT didn't notice (or didn't care) and Lisa K was too busy to respond. Don't American newspaper readers deserve better? No wonder print media is in trouble.

Food, of course, is always dear to this Swedish blogger's heart. Kyoto Foodie deserves special mention for his post on how to season a Japanese donabe.

Rice cooked in a gohan nabe is noticeably tastier than in an electric rice cooker. Of course electric rice cookers are the norm in modern Japan. But there is a lot interest in gohan nabe recently, especially among the younger generation. The gohan nabe is different from a regular donabe in that it has an inner and outer lid. Any donabe needs to be seasoned before its first use.