Hiroko Yoda: Fear and coping in Tokyo
Call it the “new normal” -- daily aftershocks, regular radiation checks, and a crash course in nuclear physics none of us ever imagined taking just two weeks ago. Sieverts, grays, and becquerels have become part of the new daily vocabulary here in Tokyo.
Tokyo escaped the horrific damage that the Great Tohoku-Kanto earthquake wrought upon our neighbors to the north. But the ground beneath the city’s feet continues to tremble, literally and figuratively.
In the last two weeks, more than 800 aftershocks have shaken eastern Japan. “Quake-sickness” -- the sensation that the ground is moving even when it isn’t (or is it?) -- continues to plague many residents, myself included.
On top of it all, the daily updates coming out of Fukushima continue to hold the nation’s attention. As Tokyoites try to help the people of Tohoku, we’re forced to confront the prospect of an invisible, odorless and deadly enemy -- radiation.
“Radiation” is a scary word. The mere mention of it can send people bolting from the city, or normally calm people into panic-buying frenzies, wiping supermarket shelves clean of water and other essentials that all of us need to share.
We’re facing a crisis the like of which hasn’t been experienced here in more than half a century. That’s why it’s more important than ever to keep level heads.
Remember the water scare of last Wednesday? When we were told traces of radioactive iodine were found in our drinking supply? Nobody likes hearing this sort of thing, but let’s put it in perspective. The amounts discovered were 210 becquerels per liter of water, which is equivalent to something like eating fifty bananas over the course of a year. (Who knew before two weeks ago that bananas were measurably radioactive? Not me.)
For those inclined to catch a plane out of the country, you might want to consider that a long-haul international flight can expose you to far more natural radiation than you’d have absorbed over the last two weeks in the city.
At the time of writing, some 28,000 people are either dead or missing. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced and need our attention. While we worry about future effects on our health -- and nobody is suggesting that is a bad thing to do, of course -- we must never forget how many people are suffering right now, just a few hundred kilometers to the north.
The bottom line is a simple one. Until two weeks ago I’d heard it so many times that I thought it was a cliché. But now that I’m going through this along with everyone here in Tokyo and all of Japan, I know it’s true. The only thing to fear is fear itself.