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Insider Perspective on Japan's Current Emergency

Steve here: In response to many e-mails from our blog readers around the world, I have invited Patrick McKenzie, a fellow American also living and working in Japan, to post a perspective that many of us ex-pats share.   (Note:  Please continue to check multiple reliable sources for technical information.)

Patrick here: I run a small software business in central Japan.  Over the years, I’ve worked both in the local Japanese government (as a translator) and in Japanese industry (as a systems engineer), and have some minor knowledge of how things are done here.  In the interests of clearing the air I thought I would write up a bit of what I know.

A Quick Primer On Japanese Geography

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

… to an extent, anyway.  Honshu Island is massive. It is larger than Great Britain.  (A country which does not typically refer to itself as a “tiny island nation.”)  At about 800 miles long, Honshu stretches from roughly Chicago to New Orleans.

[Steve here: The actual affected disaster area is only a tiny part of the country.  Here in Kyoto, 500 miles away, I didn't even feel a tremor.]

Tokyo, like virtually the whole island of Honshu, got a bit shaken and no major damage was done.  They have reported 1 fatality caused by the earthquake.  By comparison, on any given Friday, Tokyo will typically have more deaths caused by traffic accidents.  (Tokyo is also massive.)

Miyagi is the prefecture hardest hit by the tsunami. Miyagi is 200 miles from Tokyo.  (Remember — Honshu is massive.)  That’s about the distance between New York and Washington DC.

Japanese Disaster Preparedness

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

For your reference, as approximately the lowest person on the org chart for Ogaki City (it’s in Gifu, which is fairly close to Nagoya, 200 miles from Tokyo, and 400 miles from Miyagi,) my duties in the event of a disaster were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Pretty Much Worked

Let’s talk about trains for a second.  One of them were washed away by the tsunami. All of the rest — including ones traveling in excess of 150 miles per hour — made immediate emergency stops and no one died.  There were no derailments.  There were no collisions.  There was no loss of control.  The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right.

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk Nukes

There is currently a lot of reporting about the problems with Tokyo Electric’s nuclear power generation plants in Fukushima. The following is more detail on this from someone who knows nuclear power generation:

* The instant response — scramming the reactors — happened exactly as planned and, instantly, removed the Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenarios from the table.
* There were some failures of important systems, mostly related to cooling the reactor cores to prevent a meltdown.  To be clear, a meltdown is not an Apocalyptic Nightmare Scenario: the entire plant is designed such that when everything else fails, the worst thing that happens is somebody gets a cleanup bill with a whole lot of zeroes in it.
* Failure of the systems is contemplated in their design, which is why there are so many redundant ones.  You won’t even hear about most of the failures up and down the country because a) they weren’t nuclear related and b) redundant systems caught them.

Far and away the worst thing that happened in the earthquake was that a lot of people drowned.  Your thoughts and prayers for them and their families are appreciated.  This is terrible, and we’ll learn ways to better avoid it in the future. However, decades of good engineering, planning, and following the checklist are why this was a serious disaster and not a nation-ending catastrophe like it would have been in many, many other places.

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

Patrick McKenzie runs a small company in Gifu, Japan, called Bingo Card Creator, which lets teachers and parents make custom printable bingo cards for instructional and entertainment purposes. http://www.bingocardcreator.com/