Friday, February 27, 2015

Eco Links For February, 2015

Time sure flies! I already have spuds in the soil (danchaku variety) and some peas in the greenhouse. Harvesting purple cabbage and lettuce, and spinach - need to protect them from birds, clever creatures they are. Next weekend is the big Japan Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA) assembly in Tokyo, a great opportunity to talk to experts in the field here. I'll be participating in the workshop about teikei (CSA) and show a few photos from my humble garten. Big reason I got so hot under my collar about growing my own vegetables was - visiting and learning from JOAA farmers.

Food safety, anyone? Good to know we are not exposed to anything harmful, unless you eat a lot of wild boar meat. Strontium 90 may be a concern, however. Water also safe.

Analysis of Japanese Radionuclide Monitoring Data of Food Before and After the Fukushima Nuclear Accident

Atominstitut, Vienna University of Technology, Stadionallee 2, 1020 Vienna, Austria
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-8902, Japan
§ Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, United States
Institute of Environmental Radioactivity, Fukushima University, Fukushima 960-1296, Japan
Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP

In an unprecedented food monitoring campaign for radionuclides, the Japanese government took action to secure food safety after the Fukushima nuclear accident (Mar. 11, 2011). In this work we analyze a part of the immense data set, in particular radiocesium contaminations in food from the first year after the accident. Activity concentrations in vegetables peaked immediately after the campaign had commenced, but they decreased quickly, so that by early summer 2011 only a few samples exceeded the regulatory limits. Later, accumulating mushrooms and dried produce led to several exceedances of the limits again. Monitoring of meat started with significant delay, especially outside Fukushima prefecture. After a buildup period, contamination levels of meat peaked by July 2011 (beef). Levels then decreased quickly, but peaked again in September 2011, which was primarily due to boar meat (a known accumulator of radiocesium). Tap water was less contaminated; any restrictions for tap water were canceled by April 1, 2011. 


Yen for a Living didn't mention the recent large milk study in Uppsala, Sweden about the harmful effects that milk has, such as hip fractures.

Got milk, get real?

Milk is not a good source of calcium, while spinach and kale is - and in many places in Japan, they are not so keen on the bovine stuff anymore:

Sanjo, a city in Niigata Prefecture, “experimentally” stopped serving milk with lunches at 30 public schools. The ostensible reason, according to the mayor, was that parents complained that milk doesn’t fit in with the Japanese cuisine the schools served.
The experiment happened to coincide with the consumption tax hike that went into effect last April, and the mayor conceded that one reason for cutting milk was to “prevent further increases in the cost of school lunches.” At the time, parents were paying ¥250 for elementary school children’s lunches and ¥300 for junior high school. The carton of milk that came with every meal cost the city ¥50.
Naturally, the Hokuriku Dairy Association protested strongly against Sanjo’s decision. Last year, Niigata dairy farmers produced 53,600 tons of milk, 14 percent of which was used in school lunches. The association challenged the opinion that milk doesn’t go with Japanese food, as did nutritionists, who pointed out that the absence of milk on a daily basis could have a negative effect on a child’s development, since a carton contains 200 of the minimum 300-400 grams of calcium required.
Even the education ministry found the experiment strange, saying it had “never heard of a school giving up milk for lunches.” Sanjo countered that the calcium could be made up easily by, for instance, fortifying soup with fish stock. In any event, the city received 61 messages from residents, with 43 supporting the experiment.

While I have had next to no encounters with Japan's hospitals, I'm told they provide terrific services. Not so in Sweden, apparently (except in the important category of "prevention"). This debate article by Johan Hjertqvist, president of Health Consumer Powerhouse, an organization which compares global healthcare systems, notes that waiting times in Sweden's hospitals are among the worst in Europe:

The question remains: What is preventing Sweden from taking a firm grip on its exuberant waiting times and making radical improvements? It hardly needs more investigation or more money - health care is not more expensive in countries with good accessibility. How long will queuing patients have to live with anxiety, pain and incapacity before Sweden's counties are able to honour their duties?

I have read a few of his novels, but who is the man? The Guardian tries to explore Kazuo Ishiguro's secrets, and maybe there are none, except that his wife reads his early drafts and has major input.

 He was born in Nagasaki in 1954; his mother, Shizuko, had survived the atomic bomb attack there when she was a teenager. His father, who was brought up in Shanghai, was an oceanographer, and it was his job that led the family to move to Guildford, where his mother still lives, when Kazuo was five. In a 2008 interview with the Paris Review, Ishiguro recalled how struck he was by the quietness of England, the sudden diminution in noise and images, the abiding sense of greenery. From his grandfather in Japan he still received colourful, busy books and comics; finding their English equivalents rather dull, he developed instead a great enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes, even coming up with his own detective stories.

(Top image, something I made back in 1992)


Yoroku: TEPCO must not fear telling the truth on Fukushima plant leaks

It has been nearly four years since the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and almost as long since plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) declared the disaster "under control." This was and is an exaggeration, as we can see with the ongoing battle to deal with repeated radioactively contaminated water leaks.
Following news on Feb. 22 that water with concentrations of radioactive material 70 times higher than normal was being discharged into the plant's harbor from a drainage ditch, we learned yesterday that this contaminated water was also escaping into the open sea. What's more, TEPCO now says it had known this water -- which collects atop the No. 2 reactor building before running down drain spouts to the ditch -- was heavily contaminated since spring 2014, but made no public announcement until now. The utility hadn't even reported the situation to the government.
This terribly managed contaminated water problem is certainly scarier than tigers and wolves. What's truly deplorable, however, is how insensitive, how clumsy TEPCO is when it comes to releasing information. Because of the company's reticence, it is bound to be suspected of trying to hide the inconvenient fact of the leak. Both local fishing cooperatives and Fukushima Prefecture, too, are wondering openly if they can trust TEPCO.
Without the trust of the locals, TEPCO will find it well-nigh impossible to make progress on contaminated water disposal and the eventual decommissioning of the ruined Fukushima reactors. This radioactive water leak is unacceptable, but so is misreading what we need to fear most. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun) February 26, 2015 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How Ethical Is Your Bank?

Wow, the words "ethical" and "bank" in the same sentence? A new campaign has been launched to try to make that happen:

Some banks and pension funds have rules about what kind of companies they invest in. For example, ethical investment means the funds do not support companies involved in weapons manufacturing or environmental destruction. Human rights and labour rights are other issues that many people should urge their banks to support.

Since starting in 2009, a Dutch initiative has grown into an international campaign, Fair Finance Guide. Now, Japan also joins this great project, started by A Seed Japan, JACSES and PARC. They have carefully investigated five of Japan’s largest banks. Their new website (* will help you compare their score on a range of issues.

For example, Mizuho Bank scores relatively high on transparency, but low on environmental issues like forestry protection. All five get “Zero” for their investments in armaments, except Mitsui Sumitomo Trust, that scored “One” which is still terrible. Resona scores worse than the others on climate change and food issues (including GMO and pesticides). No bank scored a perfect “Ten” any of the issues, as determined by Fair Finance Japan.
Fair Finance Guide Japan ethical banking
There is clearly room for improvement. You can help by clicking on the links on the website. A message will be sent to Fair Finance Japan and then directly to the different banks. In Europe, reports about how banks invest in questionable corporations have led to the emergence of a large number of ethical pension funds, as people increasingly want their life savings to support good practices. I think this is a really good idea!

(Image from a FFJ seminar at Toyo Gakuen University)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Agriculture Minister Nishikawa Resigns

This just in today, from NHK World:

Japan's agriculture minister Koya Nishikawa has resigned. He submitted a letter of resignation on Monday to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who accepted it.

Abe appointed former agriculture minister Yoshimasa Hayashi as Nishikawa's successor. Hayashi formally assumed the post later in the day.

Nishikawa came under fire after it was found his political organization received a contribution of 3-million yen, about 25,000 dollars, from a wood processing firm. The company was granted state subsidies.

Nishikawa's group also accepted a donation of one million yen, or about 8,400 dollars, from a company run by the head of a sugar industry organization. This body too, was granted state subsidies.

Nishikawa said in the Diet that he thought the donations were not illegal. He said he returned the money to avoid raising doubts about his responsibility as farm minister.

Serious, especially the donation from the sugar lobby, especially in light of the TPP negotiations that involve - you guessed it - Japan's sugar subsidies. Serious enough for Abe to sack the guy. Let's see, anyone remember how many Abe ministers have had to resign due to scandals by now...?


TPP accord no longer expected before April

JIJI  Feb 22, 2015
Ongoing negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement are no longer expected to conclude before April.
Japan and the United States had hoped the 12-member TPP talks would conclude as early as March, assuming the two countries could clinch an accord at a bilateral meeting in late February or early March.
The delay reflects slow progress in U.S. congressional procedures to grant President Barack Obama trade promotion authority, which would give him significant power to negotiate trade deals and is considered crucial for early ratification of an eventual TPP accord. The U.S. Congress has yet to take up legislation on such powers.
At a news conference Friday, TPP minister Akira Amari admitted that a final accord may come later than early spring, as previously scheduled. According sources close to the TPP talks, a ministerial meeting of the 12 countries toward a possible accord could come in mid-April at the earliest.
In light of the dimming prospect of an early conclusion, some negotiators are now worried that the solidarity to strive for an accord among the 12 nations may weaken. Indeed, the United States and emerging economies in the talks remain wide apart over issues such as intellectual property rights, while some members have tried to revive discussions over issues that have been almost agreed upon, according to the sources.
Chief TPP negotiators are set to meet in Hawaii from March 9 to 15. The United States and Japan, the two countries seen holding the key to the success of the talks, are hoping to hold a bilateral working-level meeting ahead of that. With the United States showing few signs of concessions over some tricky issues, however, it is “hard to imagine significant progress,” one source said

Friday, February 13, 2015

We Are All Greeks Now

How will the EU deal with Greece? South vs. North narrative? Not really. More like people vs. banks. It is happening in Japan as well, esp. in Okinawa, Fukushima, Hokkaido. Rural vs. you name it - city? Hardly. Nagoya has its Toyota factories but is hardly enjoying the prosperity, in spite of the record-breaking 14+ million car sales. Detroit knows about that. London, well, it has tried immigration, will Tokyo follow? Again, hardly.

Speaking of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga is the name to remember.

Ryukyu Shimpo: Okinawa Governor conveys his opposition to new US base

January 15, 2015 Ryukyu Shimpo
On January 14, after cabinet approved the fiscal 2015 promotional budget for Okinawa, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga visited the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office. At his meeting with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, the governor conveyed his opposition to the government’s plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futema in Ginowan to Henoko, Nago, and said he sought to relocate it to outside of Okinawa. However, his plan to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secreatary Yoshihide Suga, who is responsible for reducing Okinawa’s base burden, was not realized this time.
The governor reported from the meeting that he sought the government official’s understanding of the gubernatorial election outcome, and pledged to block new base construction in Henoko and move the Futenma base to other prefectures or abroad. He told him it was unreasonable for Okinawa to host 74 percent of Japan’s U.S. military exclusive-use facilities when the island is only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land area, now that 69 years have passed since the end of World War II.
The deputy chief cabinet secretary said he would exchange opinions with the governor on how to reduce the base burden.
At his meeting with Yohei Matsumoto, parliamentary vice-minister at the Cabinet Office, the governor showed his appreciation that a certain amount of the Okinawa promotion budget had been ensured.
The governor said, referring to the Okinawa promotion budget reduction, “A required amount was reserved. However, it went up last year.” He showed his willingness to meet with Prime Minister Abe and Chief Cabinet Secreatary Suga, saying it is important to convey what we think to each other.

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Image of protest action in Okinawa from Ryukyu Shinpo (newspaper in Okinawa)

Japan has always had the disadvantage of not really having any good models to follow. Historically, this country has had leaders that had few clever ideas of their own (while the people here generally did amazingly well in that department) and never really managed to stay ahead of the curve for very long. Most people outside of Japan probably cannot name a single Japanese prime minister, not even in recent history. I'd like to hope that we can all agree to elect leaders with a greater sense of responsibility.

Which seems to be the case in Greece, recently.

The Automatic Earth blog: The Greek Issue Just Got Personal

It was already present over the past two weeks, for example in Yanis Varoufakis’ meetings with Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem and German FinMin Schäuble, awkwardly obvious in facial expressions and body language. A touch of personal discomfort. A touch of a threat that required chest-thumping and hubris to be brushed off. ‘You better do what we say or else’. Back then, perhaps it was still experienced from a political, deal-making, perspective. But in the course of yesterday it became clear something has changed.
It has become personal, you could feel it in the air, and that raises the danger level considerably. It’s not personal from the Greek side; Alexis Tsipras and Varoufakis merely act according to – their interpretation of – the mandate handed them by their voters. It’s the other side(s) that have started making it personal. They see themselves, their positions, as being under attack. And they blame Greece’s new Syriza government for that. Which may seem logical at first blush, but that doesn’t make it true. The people sitting on the other side from Varoufakis have dug themselves into these positions.
Which, as they rightfully fear, are now threatened. Not because Syriza means to do so, but because they come to the table with that mandate, to put an end to what has caused Greece to sink as deep as it has. There’s nothing personal about that, it’s democracy at work, it’s politics. Still, it’s perceived as personal, because it makes the ‘old’ leadership uncomfortable. They haven’t seen it coming, they were convinced, all the way, that they would prevail. They mostly still are, but in a now much more nervous fashion.

Japan also has this huge issue of debt, and nobody likes to talk about it. We are told that since it is mostly held within the country, we are not to worry. Southern Europe, however, thought the EU was "within" as well, but that is now being tested. How does the more economically favoured North respond when a crisis like this emerges in the South? Again, the challenge is a democratic one. Greece voted for a very reasonable bunch of people, this time. How about next election?

The hopes we all had back in 2009 or so when LDP got booted out, came to naught. Japan wasn't ready for a transition. Then the March 11, 2011 disaster struck, and - LDP got back into government. But we are all Greeks now. We are stuck with huge debt, and three nuclear reactors in core meltdown which will take billions of Yen to deal with, and a crisis in Okinawa over the US bases there, and "the old leadership uncomfortable."

February 10, 2015: Outside the gate of the US Marine Corp’s Camp Schwab at Henoko in northern Okinawa a sign announced that this was the 220th day of the sit-in there. Next to it stood an elderly man holding a flag bearing the words, DO NOT DISCRIMINATE AGAINST OKINAWANS. He told me he had not been given it by any organisation, but had had it made with his own money.  “This is it”, he said to me urgently.  “This is the issue!”

His flag symbolises the sea change which the Okinawan anti-base movement has undergone in the last fifteen years or so, a change in thinking that has led to a major political realignment, which in turn has affected the shape of the increasingly desperate political confrontation taking place there now.

Japan Focus: Okinawa: State of Emergency

And, as far as I am concerned, that goes for both Hatoyama, and Abe.

If we cannot elect better leaders, to take us out of the great mess we are in, well, then what...?


Sunday, February 08, 2015

NHK Organic Farming Drama!

Starting on January 31, NHK is airing a Saturday evening drama series about organic farming. I am as surprised as anyone, but yes, the key word is indeed pesticide-free veggie-growing. Who would have thought?

Filmed in the lovely mountains of Yamanashi prefecture, it is a story about a small rural village with some 50 souls left, who are wondering how to survive. Farming is easy here, with fertile soil and great weather, but nobody has any ideas how to save the village from disappearing from the map. Miho, the youngest, leaves town to try to get a job in Tokyo, but fails. Meanwhile her grandfather passes away. Her father also appears, after a long stint away, but how will they manage?

A consultant, Takigawa Yu appears with lots of ideas. But who is he? His flamboyant manners and fast talking create initial suspicions, but he actually has good ideas for the village. For example, bring in kids and their grandparents on field days, to enjoy learning about vegetables, and getting a taste. He also encourages the village to set up a local produce store with a charming cafe, with great results... at first.

Not sure how the story will unravel, but it looks good so far!

And did I mention that the focus is on organic farming...?

NHK official page here (J)
Fan blog about Japanese dramas: Genkai Shuuraku KK (ENG)

Mikan, Ponkan, Dekopon, You Name It...

I must have mentioned it before - this is a season I really love, as all the different varieties of citrus, oranges, or mandarins are ready for harvest. Those lucky enough to have a tree or three in their garden are out picking them, while the rest of us can explore the wide range of options in the supermarket. Last photo - my neighbor left a few at the top of his tree, wish I had a ladder!

Other popular varieties include iyokan, yuzu and natsumikan. List of Japanese citrus here

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Icicles in Chichibu, Saitama

Like ice? Yes! Worth the trip? Oh absolutely. I was not disappointed by the beautiful icicles, the Misotsuchi-no-tsurara in what felt like Oku-Musashi, western Chichibu in Saitama. Marvelous and almost surreal. 

There is a cafe too with a warm wood stove, serving hot foods and hot coffee (I had the tiramisu and there were other cakes as well). 

Had to take the bus back to Seibu Chichibu station, and there are not that many buses, so I missed the evening illumination which is probably even more gorgeous. Only in February. 

More images over at Japan Travels: The Icicles of Misotsuchi