Recently for some reason there has been discussion of the dangers of nuclear power. People have been casting their memories back to that most famous of disasters, Chernobyl, when things went slightly pear-shaped in a communist dictatorship, and a rather backward and poorly-designed, badly-run nuclear plant went critical. Now there is a 30km wide exclusion zone around the location of the disaster, which has become a nature reserve, and indeed now the Ukrainian government allows package tours. Also, lots of people work in the exclusion zone maintaining the sarcophagus on the power plant itself. So is radiation deadly, that all these things can happen in the space of 20 years from a disaster rated as the worst possible form of nuclear accident?

At the moment in Japan a lot of people are very scared of a radiation leak or meltdown at the Fukushima plant, and indeed I know of one American in Beppu – 1000 km from the Fukushima site – who has fled the country, and two others who are being urged to by their family. My Father asked me to leave Japan when I was in Tokyo, which is 200 kms from the Fukushima site. How worried should we be about radiation releases from Fukushima? How strong is the evidence from Chernobyl about the dangers of nuclear power, and should we conclude from the ecological evidence that it is too dangerous to use safely?

Bomb Exposure

We can examine some of this information from reference to existing research in Japan, which hosts the excellent Radiation Effects Research Foundation, whose English-language guide to the health effects of radiation gives clear information about the health effects of the original atomic bombs. It’s surprising to discover that the radiation effects of the bombs, though noticeable, are not so powerful as one might suspect. Those exposed within 2500 m of the epicentre had an average increase in risk of solid cancers of 10%, in leukaemia of 46% amongst all survivors, and in some cases specific cancers can be attributed to the effects of the bomb. It’s worth noting that these effects aren’t very large in comparison to smoking, for example, which has an attributable risk for all cancers of about 30%[1], or a relative risk of lung cancer death (not just lung cancer morbidity) of about 23. So it’s pretty clear that while atomic bombs are very very nasty (with very high fatality numbers in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima) their radiation effects are actually no worse than smoking – which the WHO estimates has 50% prevalence amongst men in Japan[2].

Meltdown Exposure

Bombs have a different main means of exposure, though – radiative  rather than consumed. Radioactivity from nuclear accidents is breathed in, drunk, or consumed as part of the food chain. So maybe cancer rates differ markedly. I know from conference presentations in Australia that the RERF also does a lot of research on this issue (I saw a very interesting presentation on a nuclear weapon research institute in a closed city further East from Chernobyl in the old USSR that was very, very badly managed), but this is much more broadly researched, and the conclusion again seems to be that radiation released from nuclear plants in serious accidents is not that dangerous – especially to adults[3]. This paper, for example, gives detailed estimates of the burden of disease in Europe grouped by exposure category. It includes estimates of the “attributable fraction,” the proportion of deaths to cancer that might be due to exposure to radiation from Chernobyl. Table 1 shows the attributable fraction for all cancers except leukaemia, thyroid and skin cancers. In the area immediately around the plant (the highest exposure levels) this is 0.23%; in the furthest areas of Western Europe it is 0%. The equivalent attributable fraction for leukaemia is 0.66% for those in the area immediately around the plant. For thyroid cancer in children, the attributable fraction in the most heavily exposed areas is 20% (Table 2); but note that this amounts to an average of 6000 cases in 2.7 million children. This is not a high risk event! Compare this with lung cancer amongst smokers (30%), and think of all the men you know who smoked who are still alive at the age of 70 or 75. While anything that increases your risk of death is bad, the reality is that Chernobyl was a pretty weak cause of cancer in even the most intensely exposed children.

These results are also supported by this paper, which concludes that

It is unlikely that the cancer burden from the largest radiological accident to date could be detected by monitoring national cancer statistics. Indeed, results of analyses of time trends in cancer incidence and mortality in Europe do not, at present, indicate any increase in cancer rates—other than of thyroid cancer in the most contaminated regions—that can be clearly attributed to radiation from the Chernobyl accident

So, it appears that thyroid cancer is an issue amongst children heavily exposed to a post-meltdown radiation release. But what about adults?

Amongst adults there is a group of study subjects who were heavily exposed in Chernobyl, and who have been reported on by various researchers  – the 72000 people referred to as the “liquidators,” people whose job was to decontaminate the area around the site as best they were able to. The Greenpeace report on Chernobyl[pdf] contains illustrative tables drawn from papers about these people, which show estimates of their excess risk of all cancers (page 33). These estimates range from a relative risk of 1.11 to 2.62, and an all-cause relative risk of about 1.25. That is, a 25% increased risk of any cancer. These people were deeply exposed to radiation, probably without proper protective equipment in situations of hard labour, and yet they can’t muster a relative risk of any cancer that exceeds that of regular smokers (or even ex-smokers). There are, in fact, still 400 or so people living illegally within the Chernobyl exlusion zone even now. If you do calculations based on the tables in page 33 for the 300,000 people evacuated from the area around the Fukushima plant – that is, if you assume they were all working as liquidators instead of fleeing to Tokyo – you’ll find the entire group would experience between 1200 and 12000 extra cancers, depending on whether there is a misprint in the tables in the Greenpeace report (if there is a misprint it’s 12000, otherwise it’s 1200). Now, those people aren’t working as liquidators, so even if they stayed in their homes after a complete meltdown of the Fukushima plant, they’d probably experience a risk of cancer less than 25% higher than background levels.

A 25% elevated risk of cancer is bad, true, but it’s not catastrophic – especially for the 50% of men already at 20 times the normal risk of cancer due to smoking.


Radiation release from a reactor meltdown situation is a scary thought, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the media are presenting. The Chernobyl reactor meltdown was almost certainly more serious than an “equivalent” meltdown in Fukushima (Chernobyl was a graphite core without a containment unit) and it led to an average increase in cancer risk of less than 25% in those immediately around the plant and exposed to radiation. This was in a situation with a botched evacuation, before people understood the risks. In fact, the proportion of cancers attributable to Chernobyl in adults immediately around the plant at the time of the fire is less than 1%. Unless one is actively working in radiation remediation, the risks are minimal. For children the risks are much more serious, but even then the risk of thyroid cancer is very low, because thyroid cancer is a very very rare disease. Amongst 2.7 million children immediately exposed to high radiation levels around Chernobyl there were perhaps 6000 thyroid cancers attributable to the accident. This is a serious and preventable problem, but a death sentence for exposed children it is not.

As  a final note, Facebook Japan has been providing regular updates on the disaster and recently published a comment from the UK Embassy, who had a teleconference withe the UK Chief Scientist. Their conclusion based on what he told them:

In case of a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ (defined as total meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an exclusion zone of 30 km would be the maximum required to avoid affecting peoples’ health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.


The experts do not consider the wind direction to be material. They say Tokyo is too far away to be materially affected.

Compared to the risk of death by radiation exposure, you are much, much more likely to die of a traffic accident, or a serious aftershock, than you are a meltdown – a full meltdown, not the current steam explosions – in Fukushima.

fn1: Chou P, Nomura A, Stemmermann G. A prospective study of the attributable risk of cancer due to cigarette smoking. American Journal of Public Health, 1992 January; 82(1): 37–40.

fn2: It’s worth noting though that the figures for cancer death in survivors of atomic bombs are highly biased. For a start, they’re given based on averages; there is a linear relationship between exposure and solid cancer prevalence, with those closer to the blast site having 50% increased risk. But particularly, lots of people in the blasts died immediately of other causes, which creates a potential survivor bias in that perhaps only those who were sheltered from the initial blast enter the long-term calculations for cancer risk. One shouldn’t infer from studies of atomic bomb survivors that radiation is not a significant and nasty after-effect of atomic attack. Not to mention that modern weapons are nuclear, not atomic, and much much more violent than those used 60 years ago.

fn3: And, kids, if you’re reading this blog, I suggest you go talk to your parents right now and ask them the meaning of the words “parental supervision.” You shouldn’t be reading my blog.

This is the story of my flight from Tokyo. On Monday my University decided it would be easier and safer for us all to stay home because the municipal government had introduced rolling power cuts (5 hours a day!) and the train system had switched to electricity conservation mode, which meant queues of two hours to get onto trains.  Getting to work was hard and with aftershocks still rolling by (there were two significant ones while I tried to sleep on Monday night) nobody thought it would be particularly safe to be traveling to and from work. So we were told to work from home. I realized at this point that working from home can be done just as well from my partner’s home in Beppu, where I was living before – well away from earthquakes, nuclear fallout and even Godzilla (if the fallout heads over the sea). So, on Tuesday I left Tokyo for distant Beppu.

Of course I took the Japanese internally displaced person’s preferred mode of evacuation – the shinkansen (bullet train). I chose this means for several reasons – prices don’t change depending on time before the booking, you can pay for a non-reserved ticket that can be used anytime (very handy for evacuations, especially if you want to have a coffee before you get on the train), you don’t have to do the hour-and-a-half trek across town to the airport (or arrive early), and the shinkansen rocks.

By Tuesday morning Tokyo was in nothing like the state I had expected. On Monday night the rolling blackouts were canceled, and when I got to Kichijoji station at 11am it was as silent as any normal day in Tokyo. The only slightly unusual thing I saw was intense activity in the local supermarkets, but this was probably as much due to their restricted hours (10 to 4pm instead of 9am to 1am) as any panic buying. Everything appeared to be operating normally, though some convenience stores were slightly less well lit. I suspect that the energy conservation needs were met by the many big businesses that have shut down this week, and the train system running on a reduced timetable, plus individuals’ efforts, and the blackouts were no longer necessary.

So, onto my train I hopped, and off to Tokyo station to find my steel salvation. Not that I felt very much in need of salvation, and actually I was feeling twinges of guilt about leaving Tokyo as I passed through a completely normal day with the intention of “working from home” on the other side of the country.

But all that changed when I reached Tokyo station, the shinkansen departure point, which was thronged with people all sharing one goal – to get out. I saw it as soon as I arrived – huge queues at the shinkansen ticket booth, perhaps a hundred or more people in each, plus a constant queue 3 deep at every ticket vending machine, as thousands of people descended on Japan’s fastest escape route on a Tuesday midday. Where usually the station would be quiet, and the shinkansen counter being visited primarily by groups of businessmen or little groups of pretty ladies-who-lunch off on a day trip (perhaps Haiku writing, or off to some seasonal event) today it was packed with families, with children and pets, waiting to buy their exit tickets. There were many foreigners also trying to find tickets, and most telling of all the Japanese were carrying their luggage with them. Usually when a Japanese family go on a trip, they plan ahead and arrange a courier to deliver their bags overnight to their destination (this costs about 1200 yen). But this time they clearly hadn’t had time to arrange such niceties, and were dragging their clothes, valuables and pets with them on the train. This, I am sure, is the first and clearest sign of genuine panic.

But panic there was not, with everyone going about their evacuation business in the calm, orderly way in which Japanese people do everything. Nobody jumped queues, people apologized for moving through your queue if it was in their way, and everybody waited patiently while the person in front of them struggled with the vending machines. There were many staff yelling instructions, so in that strange way that Japan does, where everyone is quiet and goes about their business calmly against a backdrop of strident business-like yelling, things proceeded merely as if it were the start of the long national holidays. The staff at the station – barring one idiot – were calm and reassuring, and everything happened with ease.

First I asked a polite young lady for lockers, and put my luggage out of my way, then I went to the exit from the station and asked an extremely agitated and ignorant older man if I could buy a ticket outside the station. He said no, I would have to go back inside the station to the shinkansen counter and wait with the other million people to buy my ticket. I foolishly believed him, and spent the next 20 minutes trying to find the right queue, and then trying to operate the vending machines (I’m no fool but I couldn’t even get the English language version to produce a ticket). Worrying about spending all my available cash on the wrong ticket, I asked a helpful station chap what to do and he told me “there’s a ticket shop right outside the gate – it’ll be quieter there!” I think he even patted me on the back. So I toddled out past the idiot who had misdirected me before, turned left and found a completely empty ticket counter, with noone waiting. It was quiet, airconditioned, calm, a few people using the machines… so my ticket purchase took all of a total of 25 minutes – 20 minutes of confusion, 4 minutes of ticket purchase[1], and 1 minute of helping an extremely rude American woman ask questions of the staff, for which she did not even thank me.

So, having booked a ticket, off I went to get lunch, and here again I found signs of chaos. I went to the “Soup Stock Tokyo” to get curry rice, and the staff said to me – very apologetically – that they had run out of rice and were cooking more and could I wait half an hour? This was the middle of the lunch-hour rush. How could a shop catering to the lunch hour rush in Tokyo have run out of rice? This was a Japanese version of the cheese-shop skit. So I found myself, on a normal Tuesday afternoon in Tokyo, eating bread. Nonetheless, I found a relaxing cafe, took in the subterranean Tokyo atmosphere, and then plunged back into the chaos of the station to find my 13:30 train.

The train arrived on time, was prepped on time, and we all got in and found our seats. Next to me was an Italian chap, his Japanese girlfriend and their slobbery shitzuh dog, which looked at me with wizened eyes and rasped its slobbery rasp from inside its carry bag. The Italian told me that his embassy had advised him “If you can’t leave Japan head South” so he and his girlfriend were fleeing to Kyoto without a plan. But with a dog. Her relatives lived in Fukushima and she spent the entire train ride trying to call them on her mobile – also a big breach of Japanese etiquette, to use a phone in the carriage, but I presume if she made contact she was going to dash out of the carriage, and in any case everyone would surely forgive her. Apparently her relatives were safe but refusing to leave.

For those who have never had the singular pleasure of flying across the countryside on elevated rails, watching vast swathes of mountain and city flash by like they were Made In Dream, Japanese Shinkansens have separate carriages for reserved and non-reserved seats[2], with the first three carriages set aside for people without reservations. In rush hour these are like commuter trains, packed with people standing. But today, on a Tuesday afternoon, those carriages were so packed that people flowed over into carriage 4. And unlike a normal commuter morning, they didn’t empty out at Shinagawa or Yokohama – people were standing all the way to Kyoto, a 3 hour trip. More signs that this was an exodus, not a normal travelling day. I had visions of nuclear disaster up north, and JR rendering all carriages into non-reserved, so that every shinkansen leaving Tokyo was speeding through the Spring fog packed to the gunnels with desperate people leaving. There is a shinkansen every 8 minutes – could they empty Tokyo within a day? What a strange contrast to the survivors of previous eras’ disasters, shambling along roads with their possessions on their backs or on makeshift carts.

No, instead we in modern Japan are hurled out of the zone of chaos on metal rails, insulated from the world around us and listening to the calming voice of the announcer asking us only to smoke in the designated rooms and to refrain from talking on mobile phones. And once we were out we all felt that lifting of the spirits that comes with a worry left behind, and indeed once past Shizuoka (where last night there was a magnitude 6 aftershock, that damaged nothing) it was impossible not to be relieved. I walked up to carriage 8 to get a coffee just before Shin-Osaka and saw in every carriage a family with a pet in a cage[3], but once we were past Shin-Osaka the train returned to its normal quiet, nearly empty weekday norm.

And here’s the final beauty of it all … expecting delays in all the panic and confusion, my helpful ticket official at Tokyo station had booked my follow-on train at Kokura with an extra 20 minute wait, to ensure that I didn’t miss it. But everything went so smoothly according to schedule that I was able to catch an earlier connection, and reached Beppu an hour earlier than intended.

Only in Japan can an evacuation train arrive early at its destination …

fn1: for some unfathomable reason, Japan Rail tickets take an age to issue.

fn2: Unlike British trains, where you regularly have to turf someone out of your seat; also unlike British trains, Japanese train doors open from the inside

fn3: It isn’t entirely unusual to see pets on the shinkansen, but more than one in a whole train is weird. I once saw a Russian family with 3 perfect little Russian children carrying two ferrets and a rabbit, but in general one doesn’t see this sort of thing very often. No doubt there is a pet courier service that provides superior comfort and transport quality for one’s precious wan-chan

Well, that wasn’t the experience I had in mind when I came to Japan. I was at work when this little nugget of chaos hit, and the trains immediately stopped so I spent all of yesterday evening (6.5 hours!) walking home, from Hongo to Kichijoji.  The route is in the map above, it’s between 16 and 18 kms (10.8 to 11.1 miles) and takes 3 hours 40 minutes without traffic lights. My experience of the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in 1200 years was … a long walk. Anyway, this post will describe events from the moment it struck to my arrival home, with hopefully some observations on Japanese life during the ramble. I’ve set it out in sections for your viewing pleasure and I’m approaching it in a light-hearted manner but let’s not forget that while I’m writing this a handful of cities have been completely destroyed and over a thousand people are still missing…

The Quake

I share an office with 4 women, two of whom were in yesterday and one of whom is rather sensitive where earthquakes are concerned (we had several in the last 2 weeks). We’ve already had enough minor rumbles for me to know that she’s got a very good sense for these things, and so we were all aware the moment the slightest tremor started. We sat at our desks while it got worse and my colleague became increasingly agitated, but the building itself wasn’t moving so much, really. Whenever an earthquake strikes I look out my window and thank my luck, because our building is new, made of very solid stuff and surrounded by a kind of cage of concrete buttresses, which are themselves cross-hatched with huge diagonally-placed steel girders. They weren’t even moving, and things were rattling inside and it was a bit … mobile … but nothing bad. It was certainly not like the video footage of Fukushima. But things kept getting worse so after maybe another 5 or 10 seconds the women in my office broke for the door, and we saw other staff rushing by outside. Since I don’t know much about earthquake safety, and figured that Tokyo people know best, I followed. This is sufficient both to show that a lifetime’s exposure to safety information isn’t necessarily particularly effective (as you’ll see, we should have stayed!) and to illustrate how long and devastating this earthquake was. We are on the 5th floor of the Medicine faculty building, and before we left we grabbed our coats and bags (!) – I forgot my bag at the door and went back for it. We then had to walk down the corridor and down 5 flights of stairs, along the corridor and through the (still-functioning) automatic doors, and out under a massive concrete verandah(!) to the path outside. When we arrived, the ground was still rocking, and the earthquake took a few seconds more to subside. I’d say it was more than a minute long (we had to descend those stairs with some care) and it was at its worst when we were halfway down the stairs.

So why was going outside so unwise? First of all because the stairs were not the most negotiable of rocking, twisting obstacle courses, and we could have fallen. But mostly because when we got outside we found ourselves standing in a narrow valley between two 8 storey buildings, with nowhere to run if one collapsed, right next to a truck full of gas bottles. Imagine the timing, if a single bit of concrete set off something in those gas bottles, and wiped out the cream of Tokyo University’s medical faculty so thoroughly that there wouldn’t be enough flesh left to clone them[1].

The Wait

We then engaged in every post-apocalyptic drama’s most tedious part, the wait. Everyone stood around in the cold, trying to get a reception on their phone, while a loud speaker gave us increasingly disturbing news – first it was a magnitude 5, then a magnitude 6, then we discover the whole coast is affected, etc. The ground kept swaying occasionally, and we were all quite scared, so that sometimes you couldn’t tell if it was the ground or your own fevered imagination. At which point you could just check that truck, to see how much the gas bottles were wobbling… until the delivery chap came out wheeling a gas bottle, and tightened the whole lot up. People were wandering around, trying to call loved ones, looking around at the clear cold day and talking about how damnably scary a big earthquake is, and I was looking at that cage of girders and buttresses around our building and thinking, “bravo for Japanese engineering.” Eventually, after about 20 minutes, the loudspeaker informed us that we should all move to an open area and wait for further instructions. Sometime in this period the three women from reception emerged from the building, having taken the much more sensible approach of hiding under their desks while the world wobbled[2].

So off we all went, me and the women from my office at quite a pace, because that gas truck was a bit disturbing. Halfway there another big tremor hit, so you could see all the topiary of the medicine faculty grounds shaking and grooving – had the topiary been dinosaurs and not mere tree-shaping, the effect would have been quite excellent. My colleagues and I decided to move more rapidly at this point, because I have already decided that I intend to die at the wheel of a ferrari during my mid-life crisis, not in a hail of broken glass from the university admin building. So we arrived expeditiously at the centre of the campus, and more standing around ensued. One of the reception staff managed to produce another ingenious Japanese invention – a combined torch and radio – and we listened to increasingly alarming news from up north – a 6m tsunami forecast for Fukushima, all underground trains halted, risk of aftershocks. Which kept coming and coming, so that every few minutes the ground kept shaking.

After another little while two of our colleagues were dispatched to check the building, and the all clear was given. We returned to our offices but no-one was in the mood for work. One of my colleagues walked around distributing water bottles “just in case” and we all spent the afternoon checking the internet. At about 5pm it was decided to leave early, because none of the trains were working, so we were going to have to walk home. With typical Japanese quiet calm, teams were organized, to ensure that the foreign staff who speaks no Japanese could get home, and the completely new guy who doesn’t know Tokyo (i.e. me). One staff member had ordered sushi for a party that was now cancelled, so we ate some sushi and off we went, leaving behind four staff members who live so far away that their only choice was to stay the night in the office.

Disaster Japanese

I should mention at this point that my Japanese is neither good enough to understand Japanese spoken on loud-speakers, nor sufficiently stocked with disaster words. Also, although I can read some Japanese I don’t read nearly enough to be able to navigate information sites quickly, nor can I understand much of radio broadcasts, so I was very much dependent on my colleagues’ support when it came to working out what was happening. I also don’t know anything about Tokyo so had no idea how to get home. My heart goes out to all those people in Japan who don’t speak or read Japanese and found themselves stranded and far from home in such a situation, because it can be bewildering even if most day-to-day conversation is manageable. By the end of the day my colleague who doesn’t speak any Japanese (a British visiting professor) was beginning to get quite frustrated, because even though people translate the essential stuff, when people are scared and confused they naturally exchange a lot of information very rapidly in their mother tongue. Certainly in the shock of the event my Japanese went a little backward, and my sentence construction fragmented. Plus, who prepares the necessary vocabulary for a situation like this in their second language? Who thinks to themselves “I really should learn all the apocalypse words in my second language”? Well, actually, I have learnt a pretty weird vocabulary in my time here, but I’m a nerd. And my weird vocabulary might include monsters, but it doesn’t include words like “evacuation” and “elevated ground”. So, handling a disaster in a second language… not the best way to deal with the situation[3].

The Walk

So we set off, me and two colleagues, for a walk we predicted to take about 3.5 hours. One colleague was separating at Shinjuku, and one at Shin Nagano. At that point I would be on my own, and I had rather sensibly elected not to print a map. Of course, this is Japan so you can guarantee that someone will help you, but I think it should be clear here that I’m not part of that small elite of people who are going to survive the apocalypse. Though I did have good walking shoes (I recommend Whoop-de-doo shoe company for all your apocalyptic footwear needs). We set off at 5:30, and as soon as we emerged from the campus we entered a river of people. As we got closer to Shinjuku station this river widened, like the famous graphic of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow; everyone was heading the same way, towards the huge junctions at Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. The same river was flowing on both sides of the road, and in between us was a river of traffic, all moving very slowly and forced to delay at every crossing as thousands of people crossed the roads. The crowd was cooperative and quiet, as crowds always are in Japan, not pushing or getting in each other’s way even at the stupidly-designed crossing near the Shinjuku rail bridge, where a crowd 10 abreast coming one way hits the same crowd going the other way, at a corner where the pavement is barricaded from the road and narrows to two people in width. Even bicycles negotiated this chokepoint without yells or complaints. People just accepted that we were in this situation, and moved through and past each other with that quiet Japanese manner that makes everything here flow so smoothly.

On the way we passed many things, but one thing we didn’t see was any evidence of earthquake damage, and everyone was chatting and joking as if this were a funny little outing, or a charity walk. At about 8pm everyone in possession of a docomo phone finally got their earthquake warning call (for the 2:40pm earthquake), and there was more joking about this. We didn’t have proper reception so noone could watch TV or receive information, so mostly we didn’t know about the catastrophe unfolding further North. I passed a bicycle shop where a queue of maybe 20 or 30 people were waiting patiently to buy bicycles, the staff frantically trying to assemble and register the bikes as quickly as possible; every macdonalds had huge queues outside as people gathered for food, and all the convenience stores where thronging with people, many queueing for the toilets. Some restaurants had put out signs saying “We have toilets, please use them,” which was a nice touch. Some shops had to close due to damaged stock (particularly the alcohol shops) but most restaurants were open and doing a roaring trade. I saw a cute scene of a man entering a rental car shop to be greeted by a staff member bowing with good-humoured and exaggerated obeisance, to make clear that this time, at least, the lack of available cars was entirely beyond his control. I passed a group of girls standing around their friend, whose feet just weren’t up to the task in her work shoes – I think this must have been a problem for many people. Groups of people were camping out in the rooms where the cash corners are located, some with their laptops out. At Shinjuku I saw the fascinating contrast of twenty or thirty people crouched under a shop entrance, with nowhere to go for the night; in amongst them was a homeless man with his possessions and, of course, his cardboard house, suddenly a prince among paupers as the usual order of Japanese life was turned on its head by nothing more than the collapse of the transport system. But for all of this sea of humanity with its congestions and minor tribulations and difficulties, I didn’t see a single person get in a fight. And no one smoked as they walked. They stopped at the smoking spots before continuing, preserving even the smallest of Japanese manners at this moment of confusion.

All these people of all walks of life converged on Shinjuku, the hosts swaggering through the crowd past salarymen and schoolgirls and office ladies in little elegant gaggles, every tenth person wearing a mask. The traffic was still trapped in gridlock, inching forward, and we were moving much faster. Under the Shinjuku bridge and onward up Blue Plum Road, already 3 hours into our journey and me only halfway home. At Shin Nagano when my colleague left me I bought some hand-warmers (kairo) and stuffed them in my pockets, and kept walking until I stumbled on a cute little cafe, Doggie Boogie Cafe, where I took a break and had what I think is the best Thai food I’ve eaten in a long time. Here I rested for an hour before continuing, and now I walked alongside a pair of office workers who had set off an hour before me from Tokyo station, and had just finished their second break (this one, in the cafe with me, was for booze). They were still cheerful despite 4 hours of walking and 3 more to come, and they and the restaurant owner helpfully directed me to a shortcut to Kichijoji, down Itsukaichi Road. Here I found a bus stop for a bus going to Kichijoji station, but it was 10 pm and the last bus left at 9:20pm. Too bad! I had my ipod on now, and kept walking. At 10:50pm I passed that last bus, stuck in traffic and jammed with people. Further on I found the 9pm bus, stopped at a bus stop, and finally got to see something I have always heard of but never seen – two bus company employees actually pushing passengers into the bus to fit more on. One often sees this on TV but I’ve never seen it in real life, so that’s a Tokyo experience I can tick off… and I’m glad I didn’t have the experience of being pushed onto that bus, because I beat it to Kichijoji station when I arrived at midnight.

So, I finally got home at about quarter past midnight, my only information about the disaster unfolding to the north coming from a single mail from my partner, that arrived during a patchy period of uncongested transmission at about 9pm, telling me it was bad. I have a friend in Iwaki City, which has been partially destroyed and may have to be evacuated due to the nuclear plants; I spent the evening occasionally trying to call him but the reception was impossible. Occasionally mails would reach me from various people, asking if I was okay or telling me they were okay, but this was intermittent. It was just me, alone in the cold neon night amongst a river of a million people just like me. And when I got to Kichijoji at midnight that river was still flowing but I, thankfully, was at the end of my earthquake odyssey and able to find out the true magnitude of the horror unfolding to the north. This morning Tokyo feels just like it did yesterday, as if nothing happened, except for the regular little aftershocks. I think it’s safe to say that this is a very good country to experience a disaster, even if (or maybe especially if) you don’t speak the language. Nonetheless, I’d have happily traded this experience – especially that minute in my office, wondering if I’m about to become a statistic (東京外国人1人死亡)- for a quiet evening with a glass of wine and a book.

fn1: We’re across from the experimental research facility, where they probably have that technology.

fn2: As a general approach to problem-solving, this is probably excellent

fn3: Though I pride myself on understanding all of “A tsunami warning is being broadcast for the Fukushima Prefecture, and all people living in coastal areas should immediately evacuate.”

Flood is a disaster story of epic proportions, written by Stephen Baxter. The story follows a group of 4 friends over a 30 year period from the moment in 2012 when they make a pledge under strange circumstances to always look out for one another, as a disaster of incredible size overtakes the earth. This disaster is a biblical-style flood, caused by huge, previously undiscovered reservoirs of water under the earth’s crust that escape into the world’s oceans after a seismic event. The seepage is initially small, leading just to increased amounts of rain, and then to unexpected floods, but the rate of increase is exponential and the quantity of water beneath the globe sufficient to completely submerge all land on earth. This isn’t a global warming event – though the increase in quantities of warm water accelerates the effects of global warming – but a massive,worldwide seismic catastrophe causing a rapid and catastrophic loss of human habitat.

The early part of the story, when the flooding is still manageable, is more of a human interest story about how the four friends recover from the circumstances of their initial meeting and settle into a new and waterlogged world. But as the floods intensify and it becomes clear that something is up the story turns into one of discovery as the friends find out what is really happening, then a slow devolution from adaptation to survival to extinction. The later stages of the story become more of an overview of how human society tries to cope with its own imminent extinction by forces beyond any technology’s ability to control, and attempts to describe both the geopolitical, social, and personal effects of the essential collapse of human civilization and the potential disappearance of the human race.

This is a very interesting idea. How do societies behave as their collapse becomes inevitable, and what will people do to survive? And can people even come to terms with the possibility of their civilization’s inevitable destruction? What measures would they put in place? And can humanity survive without land? Obviously irrelevant questions, because the science of the catastrophe is completely unrealistic, but this is the kind of speculation science fiction was built for. After I finished this book I spent a lot of time wondering how society could adapt to living on a water world where all mining is impossible, and energy can only come from sun, wind and waves. What raw materials could you use? How would you prepare the remnants of your society for this? An interesting intellectual exercise. The book covers this primarily through the perspective of an egotistical company direct who runs a corporation specializing in disaster preparedness and recovery. As the world retreats from the sea he conceives of increasingly desperate schemes to protect his family and friends, and to remain powerful and on top in the new world. His schemes are ultimately fruitless in a sense, though he and his allies survive a lot longer than almost everyone else, and can be said to have escaped the catastrophe in a sense. His failure is no fault of his personal failings, either – the water just got the better of him, and the constant failings of the increasingly fragile societies within which he works continually set his schemes backwards. There is also the implication that other approaches – cooperation with other organizations and states – may have worked better, though I suspect we’ll find that their schemes were even crazier and less successful if we read the sequel, Ark. Certainly he seemed like an ingenious survivor to me, and lasting 30 years as the sea wipes out everything seems like quite an achievement to me.

The science of this book being obviously, ludicrously impossible, the main flaws in this book concerned characterization and dialogue. It’s definitely hard sci-fi and sometimes the prose was a little dry and uninteresting, the interactions of the characters a little stilted and hollow, and in this sense the book is definitely driven forward by the continual unfolding of events, and the fascination with watching everyone drown. For this reason it’s definitely not a book to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re interested in questions of social adaptation, survival and how the world changes under extreme environmental pressure, it’s worth looking into. I don’t think it has much direct relevance to global warming and its effects – the most extreme predictions of which don’t hold a candle to the events in this tale – but it does serve as an interesting tale about the importance of “ecological services” to human social cohesion and economic success. To this end it also fits in well with the movie I watched on the weekend, The Road, and some of my thoughts about zombies and survivalism. But ultimately the disasters in all these books and movies are so beyond anything we can expect to actually befall the earth that really they’re just interesting speculative tales. I wonder what it says about modern sensibilities that they all involve, one way or another, cannibalism?

Anyway, in summary this book is a good read if you’re interested in ecological catastrophes and/or disaster tales, it’s easy to read if you can be carried forward by plot and are willing to overlook occasional clumsiness in writing style and characterization. Overall I recommend it.