Nature confounds logic


Nature sometimes seems to confound logic.

The forest fires we’re now seeing could have been prevented, or limited, if small-scale fires had been allowed to break out more regularly. These small fires, which are a forest’s own way of keeping its ecosystem in check, burn up the brush and undergrowth on the forest floor, which would otherwise act as connecting fuel for a larger fire.

But modern forestries are eager not to let any potentially saleable wood go to waste, so they extinguish these fires quickly when they do break out. That allows the undergrowth to grow unchecked. After a period of no rain, it dehydrates and crisps up, becoming a tinderbox that allows a forest fire to spread rapidly.

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Football as stress relief

DhGlallXkAIXGsT.jpg-largeWatching England play has always been an excruciating experience for my generation. It’s bum-clenching, temple-pounding, teeth-grinding kind of stuff. I watch games between my fingers, or from behind cushions, as if it were the Blair Witch Project. Apart from the repeated trauma and particular sting of lost penalty shoot-outs, there lingers always a terrible feeling that something is going to go wrong: the captain will get sent off for savagely kicking a member of opposition, the defence will fall apart like a badly packed kebab, a country with a tiny population of whale hunters will beat us.

Which is why, last weekend, I entered the England match as ‘WATCH ENGLAND LOSE’ on our weekend to-do list. My husband, somehow deceived into believing England are a good side because it hosts the Premier League, couldn’t understand my pessimism. ‘Because they always lose,’ I explained. ‘Even if the other team are crap. But especially if they’re half-good.’

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Against Convenience

It started four years ago, walking the sodden streets of London with a Japanese friend. Forced to wind around an interminable diversion at London Bridge, I moaned to him about the inconvenience of London compared to Tokyo, expecting him to empathise. Instead, he said, “What are you complaining about? A bit of inconvenience is good for you. It makes us human.”

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what convenience means — what it is, who it’s for, and what it’s doing to us. The definition of convenience is something that saves time and/or energy, but it’s manifested in extremely diverse ways, from ready-meals to sensor-led traffic lights to longer opening hours to lifts to good service and tear-open packaging. Convenience is patently wonderful and liberating.

But it isn’t all good. Convenience saves us from making an effort, or rather, expending mental, social or physical energy, and in doing so, seems to be making us stupider, less empathetic, less patient, more unfit, and fatter. And as most things that save humans energy require energy from somewhere else (an escalator instead of the stairs; a Deliveroo instead of a walk to the supermarket) and more packaging, it’s also doing damage to the environment.

Despite that, I hear very little criticism of convenience itself. It seems as if it’s an inviolably good thing, particularly in a time when work needlessly sucks up so much of our time and you’re never more than a conversation away from the word burn-out.
Plus, how much drudgery has convenience saved women from?

Convenience certainly has its perks, many of which I wouldn’t be without. But while innovation in convenience solves some very real problems (such as lifts providing access to those using buggies or wheelchairs; household appliances and supermarkets saving busy parents time and stress), they’re often used by people who don’t suffer from the problem they were designed to solve. Most people didn’t need Uber.

I see much convenience as an unfortunate consequence of our overly burdened lifestyles, not something that will ultimately liberate us to spend time on more interesting or fulfilling pastimes. It’s a crutch that has emerged in response to late-day capitalism and its emphasis on extreme specialisation, where you are encouraged to do just one thing for X hours a day, enabling you to pay someone else to cook for you and do your shopping and clean your shirts and hang up your shelves and whatever else the gig economy offers.

The problem is that hyper-convenience results in a rough deal for workers even as it promises paradise to consumers. And most of us, in the absence of trust funds and generous parental support and other miracles, spend most of our time as a worker, not a consumer. Is it really worth spending 8 or 10 hours grinding away to serve people just to taste those two hours of ‘delight’, when someone else is working hard to please you? This reaches its most extreme and logical conclusion in the gig economy, where we order things online on a whim and allow uninsured, underpaid and exploited drivers to deliver them to our houses.

And even when they’re replaced by robots (the uncomfortably blatant implication of so many gig-economy business plans), the rest of us still have a problem: we’re becoming spoilt, impatient and lazy slobs, unable to manage the most basic of survival skills, and using up well more than our fair share of energy paying others to enact them for us.

That has repercussions for our health, too. We think that ultimate convenience will free us to spend time on things we actually want to do (such as long walks and dance classes), rather than things we have to do (like lugging heavy shopping home on foot), but it turns out that is a misjudged strategy for health. Many studies suggest now that it’s low-intensity steady state activity, such as hoovering, cutting the lawn, walking up stairs, carrying shopping and so on, that promotes balanced health and longevity, rather than sporadic intense hours at the gym and the rest of the day sitting. In other words, it’s actually all the small inconveniences in life that keep us fit, not scheduled activity. And perhaps we should embrace them, since it’s a lot easier to do unavoidable than to muster up willpower for explicitly planned activity.

Evidently, there’s a lot packed into the issue of convenience, and I’d like to unpack it a lot more. I’ve been squirreling away these thoughts for months, trying to think it through and read around it to make my argument water-tight. But now, I think it’s better to probably air my thought process as I go along, absorbing feedback and criticisms to refine my narrative, rather than try to cultivate an argument in isolation.

In the next few entries, I’d like to explore the issues of specialisation vs. generalisation, what ‘survival skills’ (should) constitute in 2018, why convenience is fueled by growth-for-growth’s sake, Japan (where convenience is taken to its longer extreme) versus the Netherlands (where inconvenience is a way of life), what forms of convenience could be considered wholly good, and the impact of convenience on our mental, social and physical health. Join me! And let me know your thoughts.


Olympic destructionism

olympic stadium

The stadium is half gone. When I cycled past this morning, the cranes were already pecking at the rubble like vultures, the half-demolished stands hovering forlornly over them. Dust rising from the concrete guts.

They didn’t really need to get rid of it. The stadium itself was perfectly serviceable; the gym beneath, the best-kept secret in Tokyo. It was a relic of the 1960s, and the equipment embodied the training philosophy of the era: straight-forward, unapologetically hardcore. There was no padding on the machines, no TRX, no rodeo saddles for the “core”. No fucking Smith machine. Just rows of squat racks, barbells, kettlebells. It looked like the kind of place Arnie would train. No music: just the clatter of plates and heavy panting. The clientele was an incongruous mix of pensioners and powerlifters with belts and gum-guards. The middle-aged women stretched and did laps of the track, while the wiry older men did squats in their ‘80s-coloured spandex. One once coached me through the clean and jerk when he saw me squatting. There was even a separate room for Olympic lifts with a podium.

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A Constitutional Right to Consume Corn Syrup

Don’t deny me my right to diabetes

Just as cries of contempt are rising in New York over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban the serving of oversize sugary drinks, Japanese gourmands are getting ready to say goodbye to raw beef liver after it’s prohibited in restaurants from July.

Opposers of both bans have protested that they constitute an infringement of personal liberty and that the government has no right to interfere with their choice of what to eat.

I have to say I won’t miss raw liver. I have eaten it just once, drizzled in sesame oil and sprinkled with salt at a restaurant in Naka-Meguro, while still riding the euphoric carnivorous adventurism that had me gobbling up tripe, cartilage and blood after the deprivation of a misguided meatless decade. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite stomach the slimy, ferrous texture. But I’d still prefer it to a Big Gulp.

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Fukushima, one year on.

Nobuyoshi Ito in Iitate, Fukushima

The word “irradiated” has such visceral power. We imagine our guts made luminous by Ibaraki spinach, our cells scarred by Futaba beef, our hair and teeth breaking free of their moorings due to the fallout.

The invisibility of radiation polarizes reactions to it: people are either indifferent, or terrified. The former, noticing no changes in the environment around them, pay it no heed, apart from perhaps increased conscientiousness when grocery shopping. Continue reading “Fukushima, one year on.”

Fukushima farmer says government got decontamination all wrong

This article was originally published in the Asahi Shimbun. Due to a redesign of their English pages, it is no longer available (except from this snippet from the Wayback Machine).



IITATE, Fukushima Prefecture — Nobuyoshi Ito is an unlikely renegade. The 68-year-old former systems engineer spends much of his time alone, working quietly at his computer in a remote farmhouse.

But Ito has disobeyed government orders to evacuate the heavily contaminated village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, and has flaunted the ban on growing vegetables. He is now determined to prove that official radiation measurements are not only wrong, but that the government’s decontamination project is futile.

“Firstly, they’re doing it in the wrong order–first houses, then farms, then the forest–when it should be the other way around. Secondly, they will never bring levels down to the 1 millisievert it was before the disaster. Thirdly, that means young people won’t come back, and even if people start farming again, who would eat vegetables from here?”

Ito moved to Iitate in 2010 after his company, where he had worked for 20 years as a systems engineer, asked him to be the custodian of an agricultural retreat designed to educate its urban staff and visit schoolchildren about farming. His bosses also asked him to cultivate about nine hectares of land around the lodge. Having been long concerned about the use of pesticides and fertilizers in Japanese farming, he jumped at the opportunity.

Before March last year, Iitate was a haven for organic farming and its renowned cattle breed. It was also known as one of Japan’s most beautiful villages. Ito and his visiting colleagues planted rice, potatoes and a variety of vegetables using as few chemicals as possible, weeding by hand, with the intention of going fully organic the following year. He reaped a bumper harvest — which he puts down to “beginner’s luck” — and settled in for the winter.

“I haven’t had a year as fun as that in all my 67 years,” he says, wistfully.

When spring rolled around, heralding the beginning of planting season, disaster struck. His idyllic new life was shattered by the nuclear crisis that erupted at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, about 35 kilometers away, on March 11. Iitate was particularly unfortunate as wind swept the radioactive plume released from the crippled reactors directly toward the village. As it passed overhead on March 15, it rained, pelting radioactive particles onto fields, forests and valleys, “fixing” them into the ground.

The residents, thinking that the wind was blowing in an easterly direction, away from the plant, were exposed to high levels of radiation–something that Ito says was entirely avoidable, had the government released so-called “SPEEDI” data, or a projection of where radiation would concentrate depending on wind and rain patterns.

Although the data was handed to the U.S. military on March 14, it took until March 23 for the Japanese government to reveal it to the public. Ito says this is just one example of the state’s “poor crisis management”–as was the government waiting until April 22 to order the villagers to evacuate, and allowing some children to stay until June.

“Their handling of the situation has been terrible,” he says. “The U.S. said immediately after the accident that the evacuation zone should be 80 kilometers. Japan didn’t. First it was 3 km, then 5, 20, 30. They gradually increased it … the other thing is that they didn’t distribute iodine tablets to children in some areas. The response was very uneven.”

It never occurred to Ito to evacuate, although he took a short trip back to his hometown in Niigata. Now he is one of just 13 people who remain in Iitate, which had a population of more than 5,000 before the accident. According to his measurements, radiation in the air hovers around 0.3 microsieverts per hour, although in some places it can reach up to 5 microsieverts. The international urban average is 0.2 microsieverts per hour.

Ito was curious to see exactly how much radiation would be absorbed in rice and vegetables if he planted them in Iitate. As soon as the snow and frost had melted, he planted sample batches of rice, cabbage, radish, corn and other vegetables in the contaminated fields and contacted several universities to see if they would help him measure levels once the crops were harvested. All refused.

“So I decided to just do it myself,” he says, explaining that he sends samples to a laboratory in Shizuoka Prefecture to be tested.


Many crops were found to have high levels — up to 6,790 becquerels per kilo in one batch of rice — but Ito’s experiments also threw up some surprising results. Rice planted in a field with high levels of contamination ended up having a lower concentration of radiation than rice from soil with a lower level of contamination. The same phenomenon occurred with vegetables, suggesting that the correlation between soil and crop contamination is too weak to make accurate predictions based on soil analysis. For example, potatoes grown in soil with 25,500 becquerels per kilogram of cesium only had 34 bq/kg once picked.

Many people planted sunflowers last spring after hearing they had been used to remove radiation from the soil in Chernobyl in the former USSR, when the nuclear accident occurred there in 1986. The Japanese agriculture ministry, however, announced in September that sunflowers absorbed little to no radiation. Ito disagrees, saying that the official study was poorly carried out. His own experiments also showed that the flowers absorbed relatively little cesium — just 82 bq/kgm — but the roots sucked up 7,060 bq/kg. He believes that the government wants to promote its own costly decontamination projects instead of allowing citizens to decontaminate their towns naturally.

The fruits of Ito’s experiments are scattered around the lodge–large jars of honey (1,700 bq/kg), brown rice hulls in a petri dish (up to 6,790 bq/kg), and some dried plants. Although he buys most of his food from the supermarket, he isn’t averse to eating a little of the food he produces, just as he doesn’t mind living in a house where the gutters send the Geiger counter soaring to 350 microsieverts per hour.

“If you’re exposed to radiation and get cancer from it, it would take about 20 to 30 years,” he says. “I’m 68, so after 20 years, even if I get cancer then …” His voice trails off.

However, children are much more vulnerable, according to Ito, because they are still growing, and therefore any cell damage from radiation will replicate much faster and wider than in adults.

“We’ll be old in 20 or 30 years, but these kids will be in the prime of life. We should try to avoid that, and that’s why they shouldn’t have been exposed,” he says.

Ito is concerned that the government’s strategy for dealing with the radiation–wide-scale decontamination of the affected area–is illogical and a waste of money. After all, he argues, how can they clean the forests, the trees and the rivers?

“Saying you can remove just 5 centimeters of topsoil and it will be fine is such an amateur thing to say. Take wild boars, for example. They dig into the dirt for worms–which are really contaminated, by the way–churning it all up. There’s no such thing as ‘the top 5 centimeters’ for pigs. That’s just an academic measurement for pencil-pushers in Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki,” he says, referring to Japan’s administrative center.

He is also concerned that the local government is trying to play down radiation levels in the village in a bid to encourage people to return. According to his regular measurements, someone working outdoors on a farm for eight hours a day would receive 29 millisieverts a year of radiation, well over the international average of 1 millisievert. Ito says the soil has been removed near the town hall’s monitoring post, used for official figures on radiation levels in the town. Before it was removed, the monitor showed levels that were a third or half of what Ito was measuring. Now they are more than 10 times lower.

The larger problem, according to Ito, is that the government is keeping the evacuees in limbo with promises that they will be able to return home. He argues that even if they were to return and begin farming again, no one would buy their produce and they would not be able to earn an income.

“Many people who were evacuated are asking for 1 billion yen in compensation to be able to move elsewhere,” he says, adding that the exact amount would have to be negotiated.

“What I really want to say is that the tragic situation that has befallen Iitate could have happened anywhere… it’s not just Iitate’s problem. The danger is always there,” Ito says, referring to the possibility of another nuclear plant melting down. “Sooner or later, it will happen again.”