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 From Osaka typhoon to Osaka fever
   - dark side and bright side of Japan

They say Japan is the world's 5th most dangerous country when it comes to natural disasters. Yet, with good planning and preparations, we have managed with them reasonably well most of the time. There's often minimal damage from even big ones which anywhere else would cause thousand buildings collapse, hundreds of people die and it would take weeks or months to get life back to normal again. Here it's usually back to normal as soon as the storm has passed your area or your building has stopped shaking and TV told you how strong the quake was and where was the epicenter. With climate change, however, winds, waves, rain and floods have got more violent while some of the earthquakes recently topped the scales. In some cases, they have shown that we have become overconfident that everything will remain under control.

Typhoon No.21 that hit Osaka two weeks ago was the strongest in 25 years and the whole world saw on TV how wind felled big trucks, rolled small cars around parking lot and raised sea level over 3 meters so that 10 meter waves submerged the Kansai airport. To make things more difficult on the man-made island, a runaway tanker was thrown against the bridge that's the only way to get in and out and broke it. Yet, once again despite heavy punishment, the big city was working pretty much normally already next day and even the flooded airport resumed partial traffic within a few days. It's what happened at airport before the storm and during it that bothers me.

My concerns were summed up in the airport management's statement: "We were well prepared, but the height of the waves surprised us." This sounds frightenly same as what TEPCO top management said in 2011 after the giant tsunami overwhelmed their nuclear power plant in Fukushima: "We could not possibly know it would be that big." Sure, the waves were big in both cases, but scientists had warned they could be as high as they turned out. Moreover, in Fukushima, the emergency cooling systems were knocked out because they were located next to the plant, not safely away on higher ground. The court case against the top management for professional negligence is still going on.

In Kansai, they had a well known long term problem with the whole artificial island slowly sinking when the ground kept settling - whopping 10 meters down since the construction 24 year ago, three times more than expected – and the management had built high walls and installed powerful pumps to counter that. Yet, the walls proved insufficient against the rising sea and the pumps went out of action when the sea water penetrated the terminal building basement and knocked out electricity.

This time the water did not rise high and no lives were lost, but with the broken bridge 5000 people were stuck in the terminal building without electricity, food and water – the shops and emergengy rations ran out quickly. There was dismay and long delay how to solve the problem: it took 3 days to get everybody out of the island and some of the scenes in TV showed confusion, lack of information and a messy congestion when buses finally made it there to pick people up. Even then they were insufficient in numbers; people stood in line for hours only to sit 2 hours more once they got on a bus as they could not make it orderly over the remaining one-line bridge.

A local expert on disaster response, who had visited the airport a year before and pointed out the deficiencies in the preparations, noticed that his advice had gone unheeded. His conclusion was that the ensuing problems were more human-caused that natural. His hope was that lessons learned would be openly discussed in public and the officials would thoroughly re-think how to respond better next time. Then, with the climate change, the typhoon waves could be even higher. In fact, Kansai is not alone facing such challenge: a review around the world says that 1 in 4 big city airports around the world share similar dangerous position by the sea.

As well, the expert hoped that residents would take seriously the warnings and make necessary preparations for emergencies as everybody was requested to do again on National Disaster Preparation Day ("Bosai no Hi") just three days before. Unfortunately, polls show that 2 out of 3 Japanese people don't have an emergency kit that everybody is supposed to have. The most common excuse given for the lack of this basic little sack according the poll, were "I don't know where to put it" or "it is too expensive".

Big earthquakes are luckily not as frequent as typhoons and Japan's record in safe building against damage is excellent, but the Hokkaido quake – it was as strong as Fukushima 2011 in Japanese scale even if the Richter reading was lower! - once again showed lax attitude in advance protection. Firstly, as many times before in countryside, it was clear that houses had been sold and built on dangerous grounds, over land-filled fault lines and below easily collapsing forest ridges. Unexpectedly, that's where most of the damage took place and lives were lost. Time after time, I fail to understand how this practice by scrupulous developers is not criminalized.

Secondly, the regional power company monopoly system and poor national grid network are causing long delay in recovering electricity to all in Hokkaido. With the 2011 catastrophe it became clear to all that the old monopoly system should be scrapped, electricity trade liberalized and new effective national grid built for smooth transfer of power across the country. Well, the trade WAS liberalized with new private power plants started, especially solar, and many new traders now offering supplies to consumers in competition with the old monopolies. Yet, the national grid remains in hands of the monopolies, unchanged and inefficient.

In Hokkaido, even with the local nuclear plant idled since 2011 like many others across the country and the other big plant based on coal damaged in the quake, the island could have been fed electricity from the main island via national grid – in Finland they could provide it even from Sweden or Norway! Yet, the old lines from Honshu to Hokkaido can carry only 20% of the island's demand, so now factories stay still closed, cows un-milked and government is asking local people to cut back their consumption by 20% or take revolving black-outs around the prefecture until November when the local monopoly can get its plants all running again. Nothing has changed from 2011 when all East Japan had to do same for a while! It's inexcusable from the weak politicians that they did not dare to stand against the Big Power Co's to do what experts said back then.

In other words, as good as Japan is in preparing for the quakes and storms, there still are black areas where better work is needed. Like the Kansai expert, we can only hope that this Hokkaido case serves as strong re-education for the leaders. It is not just the inconvenience that their omittance cause to people but huge economic damage to industry and trade including much touted tourism thanks to their inaction. The indignation is rising even in Tokyo when milk and butter usually coming from Hokkaido dairies is being rationed, yet our main sympathy go to Hokkaido people.

How fitting then that positive news to brighten up our lives from these disasters was provided last week by 20 year old Naomi Osaka - born in Osaka with family ties to Hokkaido! Her win over the 23 time champion Serena Williams in US Open to become the first Japanese female tennis player to win a Grand Slam caused rarely seen media fervor and tennis fever across the nation. It was a pity that the loser's repulsive rants took away some of the global attention from Osaka's great play and spoiled the sweet taste of her first great win, yet here whole country erupted in Naomi Fever with every tv-channel trying to get its share of interviews and Yonex rackets - exactly same type as she plays - flying off the shelves. With big corporate sponsors rushing into the fray – from noodle maker Nissin to car maker Nissan – some commentators called the money game "Naomics". It seems only Uniqlo missed the train as Osaka signed USD 3 million per year outfit deal with German Adidas. Osaka would have been wonderful addition to Nishikori and Djokovic already wearing Unoqlo jerseys.

Multi-racial Osaka joins in many other similar "haafu" sports stars that started 15 years ago with triple world champion hammer thrower Koji Murofushi, half-Romanian from Hokkaido, a high-level Olympic official today. Many of them are sprinters, but others play basketball, judo and even traditional sumo where last basho's winner was young half-Philippine from Nagano. Television has, of course, been full of "haafu tarento" for long time and they are pretty frequent in music, too. From Finnish side we can go back as far as 100 years to famous conductor Akeo Watanabe, whose sons are still all active in the business today, or Janne Tateno, son of the legendary Japanese pianist who made his career in Finland. We should neither forget them in politics where the first non-original Japanese parliament member was a Finn while today in Okinawa a half-American could become Japan's first "haafu" Governor in election that will be held end this month.

What makes Osaka different is that she has grown up American since she was 3 when her parents moved there to provide her best possible facilities to play tennis, yet kept her Japanese passport for the eventual success that finally came now. With all family focus on tennis since then, the result is Naomi's only other hobby is playing video games and she speaks only feeble Japanese, but that does not seem to harm her popularity at all. Hope she will be trained well to maintain her newly won popularity with the naturality she shows in interviews and graceful manner that she showed when accepting the trophy in New York. As well, hope she will stay focused on her tennis and not get distracted with her commercial success like many Japanese sport stars before her have ended up.

Finally, let's also hope she will remain Japanese if she is forced at 22 to choose which of her two nationalities she wants to keep. Japan must be one of the only countries that stick to the old "one passport only" rule.

On "normal people" level we have, of course, almost two million Korean "zainichi" and hundreds of thousands Chinese and Brazilian residents among us here. It seems we will have a million more foreigners to come now when lack of manpower in industry and trade has forced conservative politicians change the immigration rules.

Day by day, the old, long-held view that Japan is a homogenous monoracial country and that to be Japanese means "pure blood", is changing. Japan is getting more international in its own way even if speaking English language remains difficult to many.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, September 17, 2018  

Previous Columns

6 September 2018
"Emperor: love, peace and reverence"

23 August 2018
"Summer heat, new scandals and export worries - but Tokyo is best"

8 August 2018
"Petty politicians, bungling bureaucrats and profitable business"

30 July 2018
"While we were on holiday"

17 June 2018
"From Singapore to soccer - wrapp up for summer"

11 June 2018
"Showdown in Singapore, commotion in Canada and cover-ups in Tokyo"

28 May 2018
"Morals and responsibility, blind loyalty and power harassment"

17 May 2018
"Big Business in record results again, but consumer are not convinced - North Korea spectacle continues under Kim direction"

26 April 2018
"Political spectacle approaches grand finale
- people's trust sinking ever lower"

17 April 2018
"Cruise missiles and cronyism, business boom, old people and sumo"

6 April 2018
"Mystery train and other unpredictable moves in geopolitics around Japan"

26 March 2018
"Trump Unchained and Abelympics – Can PM Make the Party?"

16 March 2018
"Anniversaries, updates, fallacies and deception"

5 March 2018

26 February 2018
"Korean Olympics: sports shine, politics stink"

14 February 2018
"Korea: Murky Politics and Big Business Behind the Sport Spectacle"

4 February 2018
"It's "smile time" in politics, Olympics, economics and business"

23 January 2018
"Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce"

12 January 2018
"Heisei 30 looks good: share prices soar, PM rides high "

About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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