Friday, March 25, 2011

Kan’s Second Week Speech to the Nation and My Expectations for Media Coverage

Here’s my snap reaction to Prime Minister Kan’s 7:30PM speech to mark the passing of two weeks since the earthquake and tsunami.

Speech: Somber to the point of flat and boring, designed mostly to make sure that he touched on all the important points.

Q&A: Four questions from the media about the Fukushima end game, the escalation in the government evacuation recommendations, the discrepancy between the overseas reaction and the government’s own (20-39km vs. 80km), and four stock, non sequitur answers.

I think that the print media is going to pan it. Kan definitely does not have what it takes to front a band IYKWIAS.

Associate Companies, Pus the Twit of the Day

From my outbox, lightly edited, plus some supplemental, inappropriate material…

I’ve been telling people that not all the heroes at Fukushima I were TEPCO employees (or JSDF soldiers or Tokyo Metropolitan firefighters for that matter) but were actually employees—possibly even temps—of “associate companies.” Well yesterday (24th), radioactive material was detected on three men working the site, of whom two were hospitalized for treatment. None of them showed any “external damage.” (Some of you will have read that they suffered “radiation burns.” No one has confirmed that, but Japanese media outlets explicitly mention that there was no “external damage.” For another MSM case of adding heaps of sizzle to an already pretty juicy steak, see this report. No, I’m not really following the foreign media; it’s all I can do to keep an eye on what the Japanese media is reporting. But it seems like there’s a lot of that going on. That makes it all the more important that the Japanese government (and TEPCO) get the information out there in English quickly and clearly—which I know for a fact that they are working very hard to do. Many of the people covering the case know nothing about nuclear power or have been flown in or in some cases both. But that’s the government’s problem, not theirs.) They’d been wearing ankle-high shoes in a space whose floor was drenched in water, while the other workers had knee-high rubber boots on. Am I surprised that the three had been dispatched by an “associate company”?

And now for the Twit of the Day:

Seiji Matsumoto, one of Naoto Kan’s former political aides is an assemblyman in the city of Musashino. Japanese netizens mopped the virtual floor with Matsumoto’s name because he had issued a flyer report where he noted that TEPCO’s Musashino office had notified him that the urban areas of Musashino, hospitals, and Group 1 areas would be excluded the like and that “Seiji Matsumoto’s requests have been answered.” Matsumoto denied any malicious intent and stated on his Twitter account yesterday that he is “sorry if part of the text has been the cause of misunderstanding.”

Yes, we Japanese have also mastered the art of apologizing for the stupidity of the offended. But that’s not end of it, because this story is going to be out there in cyberspace to be plucked till time and times are done, like Paris Hilton’s sex tapes and Sarah Ferguson’s toe-sucking rendezvous and…well you get the idea. So, are we all going to become more careful when we put stuff out there? Somehow, I don’t think so. Instead, we will become more shameless. It’ll be like, “Yeah, that’s me and my boy/girl friend at the time. Yeah, I’ve put on a little weight since them.” “Hey, but I was only fifteen then. Wanna see me now?” And he/she points you to his/her Facebook account, by which time Facebook has long since become a misnomer IMHO IMHO. And everyone will say whatever they think and won’t even stop to say they’re sorry you don’t get it and every conversation will be straight out of Overheard in New York.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mike Smitka and Earthquake/Tsunami Economics 101

Mike Smitka mentioned in passing that he had blogs so I went to take a look. This post must be about as good a summary of the scale of the problem and the issues as there is out there. Eurasia Group has a more policy- and politics-oriented Note, distributed to its clients, that happens to broadly share the same understanding.

TEPCO (and JSDF) Employees Not the Only Heroes at Fukushima 1; Plus Sidebar to Minami-Sanriku Tragedy

TEPCO has been catching most of the flak for allegedly mishandling the response to the nuclear crisis at its Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant but its 50 or so employees who have been putting their lives at risk to contain the danger there have been rightly hailed as heroes. Now the Sunday papers remind us that they are not the only ones. According to this Yomiuri report, of the 160-man team who have been braving high-level radiation to connect the four at-risk generators to the grid in an attempt to revive their cooling systems, 50 have been dispatched by a kyōryoku kigyō, or “associate company.” If “associate company” sounds suspiciously like the “associates” in America—as far as I’m aware, business-speak to make employees feel more valued without having to pay them accordingly—you’re right. They’re the shitauke kigyō, or the subcontractors of old, who typically carried out the more kitsui, kitanai, and kiken—“Dirty, Dangerous and Demanding”—work at lower pay and with less job security. The report is not even clear whether all the operators dispatched by the associate company are its regular employees. There are several directions in which I could take this story—it’s actually of professional interest to me because the regular/irregular employee distinction is the most important part of the labor reform debate—but I have to break off for now.

Another Yomiuri report says that Minami-Sanrikuchō, the township where 8,000 out of 17,000 inhabitants remain unaccounted for one week into the crisis, appears to have had its entire family registry database wiped out by the tsunami. The backup files at the sub-regional offices of the Ministry of Justice were also lost in the deluge. So how are the survivors going to open bank accounts, obtain passports, and do all those other things that require a copy from the family registry? It’s a very small story within the national tragedy, and legacy systems yadyada but I can’t really find any excuse for a national system that’s still being siloed locally when storage is dirt-cheap and getting cheaper and e-government is now taking a hard look at cloud computing.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How Can TEPCO Be Able to Avoid Blackouts by the End of April?

A Vice President of TEPCO—Japanese corporate vice presidents are more important than the typical American VP—said that the blackouts could be over some time in April but would likely have to return in peak-demand summer. That did seem like a very quick turnaround, so I speculated about the reasons for this optimism. Essentially, I guessed that TEPCO had a pretty good idea of how quickly the fossil fuel power plants that had gone offline could be brought back but was limited by the resources available—and of course would likely be offering a conservative estimate just to be on the safe side. Professor Michael Smitka pointed out that there would be a spring dip in demand, between the need for winter heating and summer cooling. The following is essentially a copy of a follow-up email. It turns out, there’s more. I’m sure that the public would welcome anyone with the means to create credible scenarios as a first step to quantifying economic impact. If you do that or find anything out there on this, drop me a notice and I’ll be happy to kink to it, or otherwise take note here and elsewhere. Thanks.

And yes, I am conserving energy by not producing original material for the blog.

I've had this thing sitting on my PC most of the day, and I've run out of energy to do the subject justice. finish it. So I'm sending it out on the Earthquake list, to which I've added people who might be interested in following up on their own, as well as some people who have been kind enough to express their concern (who may find my earlier messages amusing. Or not).

Oh, and the ads on the trains have taken a huge dip, and the self-generated, space-eater ads have come back this week. And thanks again for the lunch, DS. OJ


From media reports, a couple of pieces of information regarding the economic impact:

(Mar 18) Keidanren asked TEPCO on Mar.17 to reconsider the current arrangement because 1) factories could not know beforehand when it might have to shut down (note: Yesterday, I think, TEPCO posted a weekly schedule here the most detailed publicly available information from my municipal government says only that my neighborhood is a Group 2-Group 4 mixed one); and b) factories that required lengthy adjustments could not cope with daily 3-hour shutdowns. Settling into a routine turns out not to be sufficient. So the question is: Can TEPCO prioritize and make individualized arrangements for specific businesses? Industrial customers can, if I remember correctly, cut specific deals regarding security of supply, but can they be accommodated within a rolling blackout? I suspect that it's easier to deny reduce supply to specific customers in an emergency than to maintain that supply during a general supply denial.

(Mar 18) TEPCO announced on March 17 that it would install multiple 30MW gas turbine power generators in time for the summertime surge in demand. (The Philippines also installed such generators under President Ramos and wound up surprising visitors who went there expecting blackouts and saw Xmas lighting everywhere.) TEPCO would also a) raise operation rates at existing fossil fuel power plants (but would not reactivate the idle reactors at Kashiwazaki); b) increase purchase from IPPs; c) reactivate Higashi Ogishma (2GW) and Kashima (4.4GW) by the first ten days of April (上旬 for those of you who can read Japanese)., and d) reactivate old idle fossil fuel generators. TEPCO is currently down to 34GW and had been expecting the Mar18 peak load (18:00-19:00) to reach 40GW but would now be only 37GW due to the weather, household self-restraint, and the most recent round of train schedule reductions (which hit JR Kanto, the Tokyo metro system, and some private railways. Anyway,

Now TEPCO's historical peak-load summer and winter highs are 64.3GW (24 July 2000) and 55.0GW (23 January 2008) winter ( while its total pre-earthquake capacity was 78.1GW (TEPCO capacity 65.0GW; net purchased capacity 13.1GW Keep digging around for more detailed information, and an experienced analyst could probably come up with a range of scenarios for the Tokyo energy situation and its impact on the Japanese economy. Of course there's rest of Japan, most significantly EPCO and the Tohoku region. Long-term, many people must be working on the global energy situation, where the future of the nuclear buildout in the emerging economies will be crucial.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Meanwhile, Life Goes on.

(Regular blogging to resume. But not now, sorry.)

TV programming has returned to normal. Cable never wavered from their regular fare—no choice, unless they went off the air completely—satellite TV I think depended on the channel and hour, but now, UHF and VHF are back to the usual evening fare. So now you on Tokyo MX you get Ranma 1/2 instead of Governor Ishihara ragging Renho—a la Magic/Michael/Ichiro IMHO—and the cub reporters who cover the Tokyo beat, the other local UHF channels are back to their own animes and teleshopping programs and the national channels feature what appears to be their usual 7PM slapstick variety shows and the like. NHK alone continues earthquake coverage, which is only sensible given their mandatory fee charging privilege.

This trend was evident yesterday, but some networks had held back then. Also expect earthquake/tsunami coverage to come back with a vengeance during cheap, daytime coverage. But the trend is clear.

There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s only human. I’m just taking note of this for the sake of posterity. And now, the Emperor has spoken. I think all this means that whatever happens in Fukushima, it’s our 8.15 and we have to move on.

And speaking of posterity, those of you living in Tokyo, have you noticed how the advertising in trains had changed the last month or so before 3.11? There were still artfully disguised gaps, but there is little the of self-generated advertisement—you know, the space-eating stuff from subsidiaries and sister companies within those railway-centric chaebols—covering the revenue shortage. That is something to keep an eye on going forward.