Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Aomori Shinkansen

Back a long, long time ago, in December 2010, the new Shinkansen line to Aomori prefecture in northern Japan was opened. Shin Aomori station is about as far as you can get in a hurry from Tokyo, but that also means people "up there" are now able to go to meetings and conferences, if they really have to, in the big city. (I'm sure they all mostly prefer to stay up there in Aomori and enjoy the slow life...)

Japan likes fancy commercials and even dramas about things like this. The "CM" as it is called here sometimes contain a certain element of drama, with characters that carry a message of hope, concern, love.

In the case of the Aomori Shinkansen, they have put all of that into a series of 30 second long TV commercials.

The main guy is a young JR employee who gets selected to be transferred to Aomori prefecture - not a great move at first sight. His nick name is simply "Tokyo" and he has a lot to discover. But, the real reason he is here is that the Shinkansen will be forthcoming, thus a new breed of staff will be needed. The old guard, who have kept the stations and the lines open during all kinds of snow storms and whatnot, are proud enough, but it will be the young ones, like Mr. fresh face station worker, played by heart throb Miura Harume (from Nagano prefecture), that can make it happen!

And, if you really want to know, here is a fun behind-the-scenes video that shows how the above commercials were made:

Did I mention love? Mr Tokyo has falled in love, but his gf is going to enter a university in Tokyo. Thanks to the new Shinkansen, they will be OK...?

Back in Sweden, we have the same concept of a "trunk line" 幹線 (kansen) that connects my home town Malmö in the south to the capital city, Stockholm. We never quite made the leap to dedicated tracks. That is the reason Japan's fast "bullet trains" can run on schedule. In most other countries, the cargo trains have right-of-way as goods are considered more important than people. Since 1964, Japan put people first, and thus the success of the Shinkansen. Another feature of course is safety. No accidents in almost 50 years of service.

But, you need something else. To make trains part of the pathos of a country, I wonder if you can just import the technology, and hope that magic will happen. One of the reasons that a series of CMs like the above can move people here, is the hidden messages. You almost missed it, but isn't that old guy in a white uniform a captain of a ship, in another era...? And the way they salute...? The play on strings that move people will have to be different, depending on which country adopts fast and safe trains. Especially when dealing with people, potential passengers, in rural areas. Watching this CM I was wondering how far they would push the hints of the Imperial Navy legacy.

All that of course is a moot point. If you just need to go from A to B, it is either drive, and you will arrive a mess, too tired to make any difference. Planes? Too complicated. At least with great train connections, you can have a nap in a comfortable seat, and a bento meal, and still have time to read all you need to read before that darn meeting...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Travel In Japan: Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima

I'm just back from a brief business trip to Aizu, Fukushima prefecture, using the trains as usual. I just love the Shinkansen, the fast and comfortable way to get from A to B in Japan, since 1964. I know, I have mentioned it before... But compared to jets, trains are just so much more pleasant for trips like this. I can't imagine having to check in my luggage and wait and get through all kinds of hoops to board a plane.

This year, getting people to travel to Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo and Kanto, may be an uphill battle? But, there are a lot of posters and commercials, to show that the north is open for visitors, in spite of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The Onyado Toho hotel I stayed at was fully booked, which made me happy. I'm glad to see this region getting back on its feet, with all the precautions in place, but still, they are so very happy to greet visitors. I think there are a lot of "repeaters" as it is called in tourism, i e people who have been to a place once upon a time, found it good, and wish to go back. Now is a terrific time to do just that.

On the local train from Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, just north of the lake, a terrific snow blizzard hit the train, but by the time we reached our destination, it was all clear. Later in the evening, outside in the rotenburu onsen, I spotted Jupiter and Venus in the eastern sky.

The air was very cold but there is nothing like a proper hot spring to heat your heart. As for the belly, the "viking style" dinner was amazing. As a Swede, I always laugh at a buffet being called after my ancestors assumed way of eating. Vikings would have loved a Japanese-style way of treating guests!

"Agarannsho" is Aizu dialect and means "Bon appétit."

The trip was an opportunity for me to meet with City Hall officials as well as talk to farmers in the region. The good news is that even in a place like this, relatively near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Reactors, there are so many farmers who have not been affected by much radioactive pollution. If you read main stream media, you will hear a lot about the "doubt" and the "suspicion" but actually, so much testing is going on, and so little damage is found in most places. I understand that people are worried, but it is time to look at the facts. I joked that Aizu ought to exit Fukushima and create its own prefecture. The farmer immediately told me that yes, in the Meiji era, Aizu-Wakamatsu was indeed its own prefecture. And, in any case, they have more in common with Niigata...

A trip like this means a lot to me. Taking photos and writing, thinking about the past and the future... I often wonder why I happened to arrive here, back in 1988. I still have so much to learn. As long as I know that, this seems to be the perfect place for me. Indeed, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

In Japan, train stations are amazingly efficient. If you have any questions, there are lots of staff around who are more than happy to help you. This could be the secret to the success. Even the Shinkansen to Fukushima was basically fully booked: I chose to travel in the non-reserved section of the train, and it was tricky to find a seat; it was that full. Tuesday of course was Spring Equinox, a public holiday in this country. I was delighted to see so many people using the Shinkansen on a day like this.

Here is a Youtube video of the ad that JR East Japan made back in April, 2011, with the "tsunageo" (Let's connect) theme, very emotional as we look back on the incredible year since then, as they note that all they can do is to connect one place to the next:

(Disclaimer: I paid for this trip by myself, it was not sponsored by anyone.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Test Your Food: The Results Are In...

...and the good news is that my leek onions had no detectable levels of radiation. I was quite happy to hear that of course. I hadn't expected any high levels as my field is far from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. But, it is nice to have done the testing. I also brought a sample of my soil and it had 140 Bq/kg which is very low.

What does all this mean? In a new article published over at Japan Focus, I try to make sense of the large amount of data we now have, one year after the earthquake and tsunami wrecked havoc on March 11, 2011. The Japanese government publishes the results of the testing of food samples, and so far over 120,000 samples have been analyzed. For Fukushima prefecture, over 20,000 food samples have been tested and the results published. So, we have a pretty good picture of the situation.

Japan Focus: Food Safety in Japan: One Year after the Nuclear Disaster

For example, for the 120,000 food products have been tested, the total number of cases that exceeded the limit was 1,162 or just below 1%. Thus, looking at these numbers we realize that the food contamination situation could have been a lot worse!

Out of 43 prefectures in Japan, contaminated food samples above the 500 Bq/kg limit have been found in 14 prefectures. For the rest of the country, or 29 prefectures, the situation is even better, with no high levels at all. New, stricter limits will be introduced from April 1, 2012 which is also good news for consumers.

(I did get some comments on that article, pointing out that some people believe there is "no safe limit" and that children in particular should not be exposed to radiation, "so one who cares about safety by definition needs to provide critical assessment of government standards." as one commentator pointed out.)

I do think it is worth noting that testing is going on in other countries, and their results are also giving Japanese foods the thumbs up. For example, the United States has published data:

"As of March 14th, FDA import investigators had performed 31,007 field examinations for radionuclide contamination. FDA had tested 1257 samples, 194 which were seafood or seafood products. 1256 samples had no Iodine-131, Cesium-134, Cesium-137, or other gamma-ray emitting radionuclides of concern. 1 sample was found to contain detectable levels of Cesium, but was below the established Derived Intervention Level (DIL) and posed no public health concern."

FDA: What has FDA’s screening and testing shown so far?

It was a fun day in Nippori at the usual food market, with lots of noisy taiko drumming by a team of kids on the stage, and I was glad to meet fellow food blogger Joan of Popcorn Homestead fame, who brought her husband along - but she had forgotten her soil sample! She will have more opportunities, as the same team will bring their sophisticated detector to Nippori, east exit of the JR station, on the following dates at a veggie shop called Saisai-ya (菜菜や): March 31 and April 7, 14, 21, 28.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Test Your Food

On March 17-18 (10am to 5pm) you can bring your own vegetables, foods and even soil if you want to get stuff checked for radiation. The measurement takes about 10 minutes and you need to bring 600 cc (a little more than half a liter) of each item. A sophisticated machine will be available to measure the levels of Cesium 134 and 137 isotopes.

The testing is part of the Nippori Marche event at the east side of Nippori Station, Tokyo.

Nippori Marche (J)
Food Market In Nippori, Tokyo (E)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Make A Film And Participate In Japan In A Day On March 11

If you have a film camera of any kind, you can participate in the Japan In A Day project with great director Ridley Scott of Bladerunner fame, Fuji TV and others. I like how this can evolve into something that involves a lot of people. Getting published or playing live, having your work out there for others to enjoy! It is such a great chance with all the technology we have at our disposal. There has never been such an era before. Who knows where it will take you?

Make a film and the rest is up to fate or karma, things that happen beyond our control. Use it! - Chihiro Kameyama and Takayuki Hayakawa ask you to capture your Japan in a day:

It’s easy. All you need is a camera to get started! This is your chance to express yourself. From the ordinary to the extraordinary, we want you to film your day and show us your life and your Japan. No limits – you can submit as much or as little footage as you like, but you must film between 12:00AM to midnight on 11 March 2012 wherever you are.

Go to Youtube to figure out the rest: Japaninaday

On Sunday, I will go to Hibiya Park in Tokyo for a large demonstration against nuclear power, with a silent prayer for all the victims at 14:46. Light blogging ahead. I don't think I really want to be exposed to all this "anniversary" hoopla media, not this particular weekend. My heart is with all the people I met while volunteering in Tohoku, especially in Minami Sanriku - and that's where my prayers will go. Burn some good incense and keep warm and meditate a lot.

More about Minami Sanriku on Kurashi:

Children Visiting Tsunami-struck Miyagi Prefecture
Coastal Area In Tohoku Still Needs Lots & Lots Of Help Part 3: A Town That Was Just Swept Away
Coastal Area In Tohoku Still Needs Lots & Lots Of Help Part 2
Coastal Area In Tohoku Still Needs Lots & Lots Of Help Part 1
Small Efforts Can Make A Huge Difference For Tohoku

2020: Brave New World Of Allotment Gardening

Good essay over at Hartley Botanic (since 1938!) by John Walker, imagining a Modified New World in 2020. By then, the genetically modified seed companies have won the battle, and if you dare to plant anything that is not approved by the GM thought police, you are toast, or relegated to the

...nether regions of allotment fields, with the prime plots being given to those ordering PerfectPlot Seeds. It was never voiced, but the deal was either relocate or get out. We saw that coming, too; one of the most pernicious ‘big society’ outcomes was that multinational seed companies, dressed up as our familiar favourites, offered to fund the upkeep of allotment sites. When a few of us bothered to check the small print and found that their support was dependent on plotholders buying only genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant PerfectPlot Seeds, we knew there was trouble ahead.

For those of us who think doing a little bit of farming on the side is a fun way to pass the time, here is a warning:

In this brave new gardening world, all PerfectPlot varieties are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate weedkiller – meaning that the prags can drench their pristine plots in the stuff to their hearts’ content (although with crude oil prices rocketing, it isn’t cheap). There are no worries about pests or diseases either; gene-popping has seen them off. That bird and beneficial insect populations are crashing holds no sway with BeyondNature: ‘Our products have made growing your own easier, more consistent and more reliable than ever before.’ Oh, and you’re not allowed to save any seeds from them (you automatically enter into this dark, internationally-binding legal covenant upon purchase of the packet).

But no one thought to mention any of this to the few bees we still have left. They don’t have a PVD handy when they’re out visiting flowers. If they had, perhaps they’d have known not to carry pollen from the flowers of PerfectPlot mangetout pea ‘Pod Perfect Strain 8.2™’ down to those of my golden-podded mangetout, which have been saved in my family for three generations. They had no name, no trademark, no owner, just a custodian – until now. As soon as the first grains of BeyondNature-engineered pollen were carried inside my pea flowers, they were gone. I didn’t own the patented ‘tracker’ gene carried in the pollen, but it was my responsibility to make sure it didn’t reach or pollinate my pea plants.

That’s why I’m a bleeper. It’s why my plot has just been surgically cordoned off, and why our allotment monitor has just handed me notice to quit, with immediate effect. It’s why all my crops are now subject to a Patent Restraint Order and are in the custody of BeyondNature; why I face a court appearance, possibly a hefty fine, and why I’ll get a lifelong entry on the National Patent Violation Register (Allotments).

Some of us always knew that pushing nature beyond its limits would come at a very high price.

Text and images © John Walker

Read the entire essay:
Modified New World

My honest opinion is that we all should learn how to farm, even on a balcony, in a couple of pots by the kitchen window, out in an abandoned yard. We should figure out the simplest things, like how to grow potatoes in a bucket, or just bake bread once a week, and confidently make a delicious pizza from scratch. In Japan, make tofu, or miso, or try to learn how to make soba or udon. Get good at it!

I have been following the debate about genetically modified (GM) foods for over 15 years, making lectures and presentations at large meetings, representing Consumers International at FAO/WHO conferences, getting angry at the Seattle WTO debacle in 1999, asking the US secretary of agriculture when the US would stop delaying its organic rules at a meeting of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue meeting at Dupont Circle in Washington DC, urging Franz Fishler, the EU farm commissioner in Brussels to never allow growth hormones in European cattle production... You can do a lot if you just speak up, when you get the chance.

TACD resolution about GMOs
TACD resolution about Organic Foods (pdf)

Once, in Brussels, I made a speech about how bad it was that large chemical corporations were trying to take control of the seeds we need to grow grains and vegetables. An elderly British gentleman in the audience took the microphone, to ask a question. He said, "My generation fought WW2 against fascism and now, I see how it is coming back again, rearing its ugly head, to try to control everything from the seeds we need to grow food..."

If you control food production, you can control the world.

Over at UNU, my friend Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda notes that allotment gardening is taking off in Japan:

Increased interest of urban residents in agriculture — In recent years, interest in agriculture has grown significantly among Japanese urban dwellers; according to a recent study by MAFF, over 85% of Tokyo residents would like their city to have farmland in order to secure access to fresh foods and green space. The systems Taiken Nouen, by which people participate in different activities with actual farmers, and Shimin Nouen, or allotment gardens, are the two most popular systems of citizens’ involvement in urban agriculture in Japan. While the number of allotment gardens in rural areas remained constant over the last decade, in urban areas it increased by 67%. According to 2010 MAFF data, applications were 30% higher than the number of existing gardens nationwide. In some highly industrialized cities, such as Kawasaki and Nagoya, demand for gardens surpassed supply by over 300%.

UNU: Japan’s urban agriculture: cultivating sustainability and well-being

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

No To Consumption Tax Rate Increase

Over at Consumers Union of Japan, we published a letter of protest to Prime Minister Noda about his plan to raise the controversial consumption tax, which is now 5%, to 8% and then 10% - and who knows where it will end?

CUJ strongly requests that the government’s policy of “first raising the consumption tax” should be fundamentally reexamined.

According to the proposed reform bill, the consumption tax will gradually be raised to 8% From April 4, 2014 and to 10% from October 1, 2015. The aim is to ensure a stable source of income for the social security system and at the same time achieve healthier public finances.

The plan is to obtain people’s understanding by regarding the raise of the consumption tax as a tax that is earmarked for social security. The four main areas of expenditures are the costs for the pension system, health care & medical treatment, social security, and the decrease in the birthrate. Although this may be carried out, we suspect that the true aim of the raising of the consumption tax rate is to use the funds as a stopgap measure to deal with the huge budget deficit.

While calling it “one reform,” a concrete plan for substantial social security has not been presented. Rather, we are faced with cuts in the welfare system. The plan includes better pensions for low income earners, and mitigation measures such as nursing-care insurance. Instead, we are hearing about a reduction of pension benefits for the elderly and an increase in the burden of pension payments.

Primarily, taxes have the function of re-distribution of wealth in society while also being the funds for the nation’s finances. However, the measures against the adverse effects of taxation are very insufficient in this bill.

In the case of consumption taxation, the people with lower incomes are spending a relatively larger proportion of the income on items such as food. The higher the rate, the larger their burden will become. This problem has been discussed since the consumption tax was first introduced. We maintain that having the same tax rate on all goods and services is a kind of preferential treatment for people with high incomes.

This does not achieve the function of redistributing wealth, and will instead greatly erode the taxation base as the burden on people with low incomes will increase. In the case of value-added taxes, such as in many European countries, the rates vary on different goods, and in some cases, there are zero rates for daily necessities. Through such policies the burden on people with low incomes can be reduced.

In addition, the government is going ahead with the plan to introduce a national identification number system from 2015. This system was initially proposed by the old LDP government and opposition to its introduction was a part of the Democratic Party’s election promises in 2010. We have identified a number of problems with this, including privacy issues that could be especially severe for low income earners.

Read the rest over at CUJ: No Consumption Tax Raise Without Real Reform

Seems to me that Japan is caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place, as politicians like to make promises and voters like to believe that the politicians they vote for will keep their promises. Wishful thinking in an era where economic "growth" is elusive or non-existing, and most people would be glad to handle their savings on their own, rather than pay high taxes. Japan is still trying to be a kind of welfare state, though, with provisions to help a lot of its citizens in many ways. The health care system is terrific, kids like to go to school, old people are (mostly) well taken care of. Yet, the government wants us to pay more to the government each time we try to engage in economic activities.

In Sweden, the consumption tax is a value added tax, which is slightly different from a straight-forward consumption tax. You can argue that it helps reduce consumption, which may be a good thing, although I don't see it happen. The Swedish VAT rate is 25% but is that really a model for Japan?

Sunday, March 04, 2012

More Food Markets In March

Joan over at the terrific Popcorn Homestead blog has a great list of farmers markets in Tokyo this month. Head over to her blog and learn more. Here are a few examples (Joan has visited them all so jump over to her blog to read her impressions and get the addresses):

Ebisu Market
Sunday, March 18
11am to 5pm

Gyre Market
Saturday, March 10 and Sunday, March 11
Saturday, March 24 and Sunday, March 25

Kichijoji Market
Saturday, March 17 and Sunday, March 18
10am to 5pm

Roppongi Market
Every Saturday in March
10am to 2pm

The farmers market concept is taking off all over Japan. One initiative is the (J) where you can find locations and events outside of the nation's capital!

I also want to mention my favourite, Nippori Marche, at the plaza on the east side of the station. The next event is March 17-18 (10am to 5pm). Food from farmers in Tanegashima, Niigata, Aizu Wakamatsu (Fukushima), and Chiba. A troupe of kids from Kawasaki will perform taiko drumming around noon on both days.

Also at Nippori Marche, there will be an opportunity to bring your own vegetables, foods and soil, if you want to get stuff checked for radiation. The measurement takes about 10 minutes and you need to bring 600 cc (a little more than half a liter) of each item. A sophisticated machine will be available to measure the levels of Cesium 134 and 137 isotopes.

Nippori Marche (J)
Food Market In Nippori, Tokyo (E)

Top image shows veggies from Aizu Wakamatsu for sale at the Nippori farmers market!

Friday, March 02, 2012

25 Kilograms Of Food Additives Per Person

Japan has recently been forced to permit some 70 new food additives that are used in the US and Europe, or face the usual trade related wrath of food exporting countries. That means 423 food additives are now allowed in Japan as of December 27, 2011. Some 350 food additives have been used for a long time, with very few ones approved since the late 1960s.

Over 3 million tons of food additives are now used annually in Japan. That means each Japanese consumer on average eats about 25 kilograms of food additives each year.

The largest share is artificial flavouring and synthetic seasoning products, that amount to over 2.5 million tons. This includes the controversial class of additives that are loosely labelled as アミノ酸 など (amino acids etc.) in Japan.

107,000 tons of synthetic preservatives are used while colouring products add up to about 23,000 tons.

Many are genetically engineered including Vitamin B2 and Aspartame, the controversial artificial sweetener in Diet Coke and Nutrasweet.

25 kg - And that is just from the food you will eat that is produced here in Japan.

This country imports some 60% of its foods, so with the same amount of food additives, thus your total intake could be in the range of 50-60 kilograms per year. Or more, depending on your habits. If you eat organic foods, and locally produced veggies, you are in the lower range.

Which means, others are consuming a lot more chemicals. No wonder some of the people we meet and try to talk to just don't make much sense. I get this feeling all the time. As if there is no "there" there...

Avoid foods with chemical additives and you will notice how things start change.

Consumers Union of Japan: Food Additives: You Think You Know But Really You Don’t