Japan: Lingering fear in a shaken country

—When the massive, magnitude-9.0 earthquake that shook Japan to its core hit my neighborhood of Yokohama, 250 miles south of the epicenter, it registered an upper 5 on the shindo scale. Shindo, literally meaning "degree of shaking," is the official seismic intensity scale used in Japan. Ranging from 0 to 7, it factors in a host of tangibles and intangibles — including the sense of fear — as well as more easily observable physical phenomena like falling dishes, cracking walls and toppling structures. When the earthquake that triggered the giant wave that has devastated so much of northeastern Japan struck, it topped the shindo scale there. It was an all-out shock to the senses that was beyond normal comprehension.

As nature wreaked havoc across a broad swath of the country, on the edges of disaster people moved quickly to pick up the pieces. In my neighborhood, workers from local businesses as well as residents all pitched in where needed, such as by directing traffic at intersections where lights were knocked out. Darkened convenience stores, seemingly ripe for looting, became merely the scenes of long lines of people patiently waiting to pay for fast-disappearing, ready-to-eat foods. Despite horrific scenes of the killer tsunami that later flooded the airwaves, there was a pervasive sense elsewhere in the country that hope was alive and well.

That hope has dimmed in light of the disaster-in-the-making at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, about 170 miles north of my home. The Japanese government announced last week that radiation levels had reached the point that they "clearly would affect people's health." Since then, the conversation has turned from seismic activity to radioactivity. This weekend came the dreaded announcement that the fertile farmland lying in the now-dark shadow of the Fukushima plant had been impacted by the nuclear fallout from the damaged reactors, confirming fears that the radioactive poison had entered the food and water supply. The public soon learned that Japan has no laws on the books regulating safe radiation levels in food — a startling revelation that underscores how woefully underprepared we may be for whatever unseen dangers lie ahead.

Unlike earthquakes measured on the shindo scale, calculations of radioactive emissions never factor in fear. But it's everywhere just the same. Foreign companies left and right are pulling up stakes from the Tokyo area and setting up shop far to the south in Osaka. Ordinary Japanese look on with apprehension as foreigners heed the advice of their embassies and flee the capital region and points further north. Now there are growing reports that the French Embassy is distributing iodine pills to its citizens in the event radiation levels climb higher. If there were a shindo scale for nuclear accidents, I think we would be at the breaking point.

It's a blustery day here in Yokohama. Whatever radioactive particles there may be in the air are invisible, yet I feel as if I can almost see them clinging to the dense smog that hangs over this industrial port city. Sitting here, downwind of what is already one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history, I can also sense some hope left in the air as well. I like to think it's being fueled by the handful of heroic volunteers who have been working night and day at the Fukushima power plant in a desperate attempt to save us all from a nuclear nightmare.

Whatever the source, it's hope and not fear that is driving us forward into the future. So far, the outlook for that future includes a lot less radioactivity as nuclear power plant projects are shelved in a chain reaction that is occurring from one end of this island nation to the other.

In southern Japan's Yamaguchi Prefecture a local power company that once bulldozed over the opposition to break ground on a new nuclear power plant has been stopped dead in its tracks. South of Tokyo, Shizuoka Prefecture's governor has put the brakes on a nuclear power plant designed to process spent fuel rods. The list goes on.

It's impossible to find a silver lining in a nuclear cloud, but for now the direction of the wind is in our favor — both literally and figuratively. I have hope that winds of change will continue to blow and bring a brighter future for us all — fear-free as well as nuclear-free.

J.T. Cassidy, a former resident of Baltimore, has lived and worked in Japan for 12 years. His e-mail is yascas@earth.email.ne.jp.

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