By Rob Gilhooly
I am walking through Aokigahara Jukai forest, the light rapidly fading on a mid-winter afternoon, when I am stopped dead in my tracks by a blood-curdling scream. The natural reaction would be to run, but the forest floor is a maze of roots and slippery rocks and, truth be told, I am lost in this vast woodland whose name, in part, translates as “Sea of Trees.”
Inexplicably, I find myself moving toward the sound, searching for signs of life.
Instead, I find death.
The source of that scream remains a mystery as, across a clearing, I see what looks like a pile of clothes. But as I approach, it becomes apparent it’s more than just clothes I’ve spotted.
In a small hollow, just below a tree, and curled up like a baby on a thick bed of dead leaves, lies a man, his thinning gray hair matted across his balding cranium. His pasty upper torso is shirtless, while his legs are covered only by black long johns — with blue-striped boxers sticking out above the waistband — and a pair of woolly socks.
Under his bent legs a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a jacket have been spread out as a cushion at his final resting place. Scattered around are innumerable documents, a briefcase and other remnants of a former life. Nearer to him are items more closely related to his demise: empty packets of prescription pills, beer cans and bottles of liquor.
Seemingly this man, who looks to be in his 50s, had drawn his last breath before I heard that unsourced, chilling cry.
That I came across a body in this forest was a shock, but not a surprise. For over half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland on the northwest flank of Mount Fuji, at 3,776-meters the nation’s highest peak. It’s a dark place of stark beauty, long associated with demons in Japanese mythology — and one that has earned itself the unfortunate appellation of “Suicide Forest.”
By Rob Gilhooly
I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.
By Rob Gilhooly
Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.
It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.
The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.
One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.
The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.
“People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”
Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.
Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”
Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.
That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.
Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.
Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”
The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.
“Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”
Had a story published in New Scientist about research at the quake subduction zone revealing weak geological factors at the fault zone being behind the massive quake that hit Japan’s northeast in 2011. It sounds as though this is one of those “duh” moments, but methods used to come to this conclusion are truly groundbreaking, involving deep-sea drilling more than
800 meters below the seabed at the subduction site, which itself is over 7 km below the water.
The research was conducted aboard the Chikyu deep-sea research vessel (pictured right), which I recently boarded when it docked a couple of months ago — a fascinating experience in itself and one I shall be writing about.
Using the data collected from the site during research that began in early 2012, three papers were published in the peer-reviewed Science journal by a team of international scientists.
The first is about the geology of the fault zone and the main result found there is that the fault zone is only about 5 meters or less thick. “That’s fairly unusual and different from what we have observed in other subduction zones. Usually in the 10s of meters or more,” researcher James Mori told me.
The second paper is about measuring the friction of the fault using the core sample of the fault zone material and putting it in a machine that simulates an earthquake and measures the friction. The main result from that paper is the friction is very low due to a huge presence of called smectite — a a slippery clay that is often found to be at the centre of large landslides in Europe. “That means the fault slips very easily during the big earthquake,” Mori added. “Essentially this is the first time such material has been taken from a big subduction zone earthquake so it’s really a brand new result.”
The third paper relates to temperature measurement taken using devices that were placed in the boreholes earlier this year. This too was designed to measure friction. Essentially the same results were found as from other core sample experiment, meaning researchers had two very different ways of estimating the friction. Both gave about the same level of what is called the “coefficient of friction”. In this case the COF was about 0.1, which is very low — most rocks slip at a COF of about 0.5 or 0.6.
“So one of the ways of applying this is to say that subduction zones that have especially thin fault zones with a lot of smectite potentially can produce these very large slips of 50 meters and potentially could produce very large tsunamis,” said Mori. “That’s not to say that … if there is no smectite there is not going to be big tsunamis — that’s not a good conclusion.”
A separate report utilised data taken from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite that showed the March 2011 quake had been “felt” in space and distorted gravity over time.
By Rob Gilhooly
Over 6,000 people gathered to form a human chain around Japan’s National Diet in Tokyo Wednesday to protest against the controversial state secrets protection bill that is expected to become law this Friday.
Despite the inevitability of the bill being rubber stamped before the 185th extraordinary session of the Diet comes to a close on Dec. 6, opponents continue to voice their concerns that the bill is being unnecessarily rushed through Parliament.
If passed, the bill could impose hefty penalties on leaks of any information deemed sensitive, opponents say. It will also inhibit media coverage and be used to conceal official wrongdoings, they add.
If ratified the law would give ministries the freedom to declare as classified just about anything they want, said Upper House member Takashi Esaki.
“The longer (the bill’s enactment) can be delayed, the bigger public opinion will grow and can be heard,” he said. “If that were allowed to happen, the bill could be repealed. (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe knows that, which is why he’s pushing the bill through so quickly.”
This has led some leading figures to question Abe’s true intentions, with a group of academics headed by Nobel Prize winners Toshihide Masakawa and Hideki Shirakawa stating that the issue was the “biggest threat to democracy since World War II.”
During Wednesday’s demonstrations, banners accused Abe of “steamrollering,” while chants from spirited demonstrators referred to the prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Shigeru Ishiba as “terrorists” and “facists.”
Ishiba has incited vitriolic criticism since writing in his blog last Friday that citizens who demonstrate against the state secrets bill are committing “an act of terrorism”.
“Even though the bill enactment is pretty much a done deal, I decided to come out here today to voice my objection, but also to take a look at what a terrorist looks like,” said Hiroshi Satomi. “What I have seen is ordinary people shouting and singing about something they are wholeheartedly against. The real terrorists are inside that building over there,” he added pointing at parliament across the road.
People like Ishiba are not interested in democracy, said another protestor, Toshiko Miwa. “They call their party the Liberal Democratic Party, but there is nothing liberal or democratic about Ishiba or Abe,” she said. “I have started to see posters and so on showing Abe’s face superimposed over those of Nazis. I think that’s absolutely true.”
Another protestor, Naoki Takahashi expressed fear of a bill that by its nature is given excessive leeway when it comes to transparency. “It seems almost unconstitutional that lawmakers should be able to rush through a secrecy bill that does not clearly define what constitutes sensitive state secrets or even what acts would be deemed punishable” under the bill, he said.
The bill also does not bode well for the media industry, said a Tokyo union organiser and journalist Chie Matsumoto during a separate rally held by around 600 Japan newspapers’ union members. “It could mean information is less easy to obtain and even information that is not even sensitive may not be given out by officials due to a fear that it might land them in trouble,” she said.
Upper House member Esaki said the bill is a flashback to a pre-war, Imperial times and undemocratic laws that gave authorities the right to arrest anyone who voiced disapproval of the government.
“We are now a step closer to Abe’s ultimate plan, which is constitutional amendment and in particular an amendment to article 9 (which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state),” the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker said. “He is targeting the right of self defence … this is part of Abe’s life work, something that he started in his first stint as Prime Minister.
“He is a politician who wants to return to the way things were before the war — a stronger nation, a nation that worships the emperor, a nation that above civilian rights to know demands a unified, national commitment. In other words, a country that is some distance away from being either liberal or democratic.”
Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority has given the go ahead for the nation’s two reactors currently online to remain in service without further inspections following the announcement of NRA’s new safety standards, which will come into force July 7.
It has been quite some time since I added anything to this blog, though quite a lot has happened in the intervening weeks and months. In March I spent the best part of three weeks covering a trial for an Irish newspaper, which related to the murder last May (2012) of an Irish student in Tokyo. There are a few other projects I have been working and hopefully I will get around to adding posts to update this blog in the near future.
On to more recent assignments, on June 12 I part in a tour of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, which suffered triple meltdowns following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast. My plan is to write up a more personal account of the experience but for the time being here is the story that I wrote up for the New Scientist, which appeared in the magazine last week.
By Rob Gilhooly at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
An alarm lets off a shrill beep as a dosimeter on the bus hits 1500 microsieverts of radiation. “Do not open the windows,” an official warns. We are inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, driving by one of the three reactors that went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011.
The place is a mess, with mangled containers and vehicles scattered around crumbling buildings – but the fact that I’m even here is testament to the now relative safety of the plant. However, much remains to be done and the clean-up operation is starting to look never-ending.
The group I’m with is ushered into a quake-proof building, the plant’s nerve centre since the disaster, by staff from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the plant’s operator. Inside, the only sign of the post-disaster panic and stabilisation operations, undertaken by 3,000 workers a day, is a line of unmade bunk beds, indicating that the clean-up operation is still a round-the-clock affair.
The walls are decorated with messages of encouragement to embattled workers from school children. “We’re rooting for you,” reads one, a bright red heart drawn above. Many of the messages were penned during more ominous times, when tens of thousands of residents living near the plant were evacuated from their homes, and plant workers struggled to secure water to cool the compromised containment vessels housing the reactor fuel.
Water shortages are no longer the problem – quite the opposite. Today, the main issue is what to do with all the water used to cool the fuel that melted through the containment vessels. This is exacerbated by the 400 tonnes of groundwater that are flooding into the basements of the cracked reactors every day and mingling with leaked nuclides.
rest of story available at New Scientist website here
I have neglected this blog of late — always seem to have too many other things to do. So I shall attempt to play a bit of catchup.
I had a story published in the Japan Times here about a peer-reviewed study that contests a previous (non peer-reviewed) study claiming that the method used to kill dolphins in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, was more humane than the method used previously.
Jan 14 saw the first snow fall of the winter in Tokyo and it was pretty treacherous. From my apartment I got a view of people passing along the street blow and dozens of vehicles struggling to climb the icy road that runs past on the other side. Cars were basically stopping at lights and then sliding back down the hill – a couple of minor accidents resulting. The meteorological agency estimates more than 40 cm will have fallen around Tokyo by 6 pm today. I’m staying in!
Injuries were reported in Japan Friday after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake jolted the northeastern region that was devastated by last years quake and tsunami.
The meteorological agency immediately issued a tsunami warning in the area around Ishinomaki, one of the cities that was flattened by 20 meter waves during the March 2011 disasters.
Tsunami warnings were sounded throughout the area urging people to flea to safety on higher ground. Several cities in Miyagi, including the region’s capital, Sendai, urged residents in coastal areas to evacuate. Sendai Airport was immediately shut down, and flights headed for the airport from domestic destinations were ordered not to land. The tsunami eventually reached Ayukawa at 18:02.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority said no abnormalities had been detected at nuclear plants in the area, including Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster last year, and Tohoku Electric Power Co’s Onagawa plant.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency reported that a tsunami measuring 1 meter in height had hit the Ayukawa area on Ishinomaki’s Ojika Peninsula. Further tsunami were anticipated, a spokesman said.
Television images showed violent shaking in Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures. In Tokyo the shaking continued for more than a minute. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cancelled appointments and immediately returned to his offices, telling reporters he intended to “thoroughly” respond to the quake.
The M7.3 quake hit at at 17:22 local time some 237 km off the Pacific coast of the Ojika Peninsula at a depth of 10 km. The biggest tremors, estimated at around 5 in the Japanese scale of 7, could be felt as far away as Hachinohe in Aomori and Hitachi in Ibaraki.
Some high-speed bullet train services were suspended while minor injuries were reported in Ibaraki and Miyagi.
Japan is estimated to experience 10 percent of the world’s earthquakes and has been stricken by 2 major quakes in the past 17 years, killing a total of 25,000 people.
I tried out the Eco-Ride “train” recently — a transportation system being developed by the university of Tokyo and an amusement ride developer. It’s basically a roller-coaster — there’s no engine or motor to propel it along the elevated tracks, which are designed to utilize and control the vehicle’s potential energy to maintain comfortable speed levels. I have uploaded a video on YouTube here
There’s talk of it being available commercially as early as 2014, and municipalities in the Tohoku region affected by last year’s tsunami are showing an interest in using it for shuttling residents from newly created residential areas on high ground down to their workplaces on the coastal plains.
I wrote a story about this for the New Scientist, an abridged version of which is available of the magazine’s website here