Little House In Ise

March 14, 2011, 17:59
Filed under: Family, Japan, Work | Tags: , , ,

All in all this has been a pretty shitty weekend. As most of the world is now aware, the largest Earthquake in Japanese history struck off the East Coast on Friday. At its epicenter the quake had a measured magnitude of 9.0 and was then followed by hundreds of aftershocks. According to the USGS, more than two dozen of those aftershocks were of magnitude 6 or greater — same size as the quake that rocked Christchurch last month. Quake triggered tsunami have shredded thousands of lives and televised scenes of murderous black froth sweeping away burning ruins will long remain in Japanese collective memory.

At the time of this writing, the Japanese government is estimating that there have been more than 10,000 deaths and many more injured. Adding further insult, two of the reactors at the notorious Fukushima nuclear power plant seem to be in the throes of serious cooling problems. Though the word “meltdown” has been bandied about it seems likely that damping and containment are both still being maintained. There is evidence (cesium and radioactive iodine in steam from the plant) that there has been some sort of core damage in at least one of the reactors but it is also near certain that damping rods that were automatically inserted during the first quake have the main reactions stopped.

Between the Earthquakes, fires, tsunami and nuclear reactor failures this has been and continues to be a particularly horrible experience for much of Japan.

My office is on the 16th floor of a 32 story tower in the Shibuya district of Tokyo — about 500 kilometers from the earthquake’s epicenter. The shake we felt was a “mere” Magnitude 5.0. In comparison to the experience of people in cities to the north, this was minor. My office shook with sufficient force that everyone including the quake-jaded Tokyoites donned emergency hard-hats (provided to all employees) and ducked under tables. The swaying of the building was both sickening and nerve-wracking but by design — better to flex and sway than to shatter. A tall bookshelf and the metal rack holding the office dartboard crashed to the floor. (This CNN video was taken near my office:

While busily advising people to put their damn hardhats on and get under tables, I also managed to dial my wife before the cell system went to hell. I didn’t know I had gotten through to her voice mail. The message I left was a shouted, “Table!” and then it was cut off. That may not have been the best final message I could have left and, when she finally heard it, she was more worried than reassured. I then began trying to call both Ray and Kokoro and failing to get through. If you imagine one cell or another pressed to my ear for the rest of this narrative that is an accurate view of how I spent the next several hours. Throughout the rest of the day and into the evening, I only got through to my mother-in-law who I asked to call Megumi and the kids. The voice networks were overwhelmed immediately.

As the shakes continued the facility managers announced that we should stay where we were. No, we should go outside, No stay where you are (edit: A friend who was there says he doesn’t remember the dithering — maybe that was just my internal dialog). After a moment or two of weighing the alternatives we evacuated calmly and quickly, taking coats, laptop computers and the occasional emergency survival kit. The building shook a bit as we descended the stairs but was mostly still by the time we got to the evacuation area downstairs. A few more hefty aftershocks hit as we waited for word on what to do next. We were advised to stay well back from the tower to avoid falling glass (none fell) though most of my team had already backed off about 50 meters. Since the sway of the building was clear to observers on the ground it didn’t take much urging.

Traffic snarled pretty much immediately and crowds on the street slowly grew thicker as workers abandoned their offices. I told my team that they should go home and soon after that upper management made the same call for everyone. At that point (perhaps 3:30?) most of us were expecting the trains to be running in a short time. They didn’t. After all of my guys left, I reported their status and headed for home myself. I went to Shibuya station to try the train first. Security had locked the entrance to the Hanzomon line, my normal subway. On the other side of the station I could see the elevated tracks of the Yamanote line and it was stopped too. As chance would have it, I bumped into a crowd of people from my office debating what to do next. I joined their discussion as they were deciding that it was time to walk. The group split in two going different directions and I followed the first group heading towards Shinjuku.

I had never walked through street level crowds as thick as that. Japanese subway stations are famously crowded and Meijidori, a large road cutting through Shibuya and Shinjuku, was similarly thick. Vehicle traffic was almost completely stalled and people crowded the streets like a sort of shell-shocked version of Carnival. Almost everyone had cell phones pressed to their heads. This modern talisman did little to ward off evil and certainly didn’t help my fear. I was one of the millions trying desperately to reach family and failing. My problem was that I wasn’t certain about the timing but I was knew that it was near time for my kids to come home from school and I was afraid that they were on the subway when the quake hit. I made a conscious effort to stop imagining them trapped underground. I kept walking.

The others from my office were smokers and needed to stop with frustrating regularity. Complaints of their speed aside, I used those pauses in our march to contact my boss by Skype and send emails to my parents and wife. At about 5:00, I got a very oddly worded email from Ray’s Facebook account but it indicated that he and Kokoro were safe and on their way home with a teacher from his school. It turns out that the teacher had logged into Ray’s account from an iPhone and sent the message for them. I didn’t hear any of this until later but the kids evacuated the school immediately and parents soon descended on the place taking their children home. The remaining kids were left outside as they were (light coats for both and slipper-like sneakers for Kokoro) when the quake hit. Mr. Thomas, the teacher who took them under his wing lives in our neighborhood and he said that he would see the two of them and another little boy home. They left the school on foot at about 4:00. They stopped at a convenience store and fueled up on meat filled buns and then tried to take a bus that was going in almost the right direction. The bus didn’t get far in the traffic and they abandoned it after a very brief ride. From that point, they started walking home.

Having gotten word that the kids were relatively safe I was tremendously relieved but not ready to celebrate. The people from my office decided they needed another break so I decided to press on without them. We split up near Shinjuku. Though I know that area better than others I am very happy to have had GPS guiding me on a “best route” to where I was certain of my way. On the road the only real damage I saw was a collapsed retaining wall holding up a cemetery. Headstones and memorials had spilled down into the street.

I am still not certain of my wife’s timeline but when she left her office her first reaction was to catch a taxi. That worked as poorly as the kids’ bus so she walked home, grabbed our car and charged to the kids rescue. She was soon caught in a traffic jam and stalled on the road near Iidabashi (normally about five minutes from home). By the time I got home it was about seven (only about two and a half hours walk) and the cell network was finally recovering a bit. I reached Megumi and let her know what the kids were doing. She decided to turn around and try again when we had a better idea where they were. I spent the rest of my time trying to reach Mr. Thomas via phone, email and Facebook. We finally got word that the kids were in Kudanshita (near the Budokan, about 8km from the start of their trek) and Megumi took off again. I packed up a bag full of coats, Megumi packed a bag full of hot soup and a thermos of hot drink. I tossed a handful of candies into her bag, showed her how to use Skype and the GPS and away she went. Around 10:30 that night she brought them home after dropping off their teacher and the other little boy.

Others in the family were not relieved so quickly. My sister-in-law’s kids were on a field trip to the zoo when the quake hit. Their mother was stuck on the far side of Tokyo so far from home that walking wasn’t a reasonable option. She spent the night at the office. Their father managed to walk home that night but the zoo was far enough way that going and getting them was not an option. The boys (4 and 5) spent the night at the zoo. It was not until 10:00 the next night that they got home. For them, it had been a wonderful adventure though their teachers were a little on the ragged side.

Our cell phone based earthquake warning system didn’t let out a peep during the big one but their mini klaxon sounded off and on all throughout the following night as aftershocks struck here and there. Today, Monday, small quakes continue. The government and power companies are arranging scheduled black-outs to conserve power and they have recommended staying off the trains unless there is a serious need. Since my sister-in-law’s family lives in a black-out zone in Chiba (water has also been a worry there) their children are staying with us and they will be moving in tonight. It will be crowded but having all of the local family nearby will be good for my nerves.

Tonight, I’ll break out a bottle of sake that was given to us by an old Aikido instructor friend and I will toast health and family.


There is a very fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness.” *
May 9, 2008, 22:25
Filed under: Aikido, Japan, Work | Tags: , , , ,

I try not to proselytize about Aikido. Really, if my first thought is, “Wow, that person should try Aikido” I try to morph it into, “maybe they should try bujutsu” or even more generically “a little exercise would probably help their xxxx”. I do my best not to let those thoughts out lest I sound like a snob and an ass. The fact is though, I often think that people could help their bad backs (or bad whatevers) by making a habit of better posture and doing stretches… A little Aikido perhaps?

Even though I actively try not to sell the gospel of Aikido, it seems that I do talk about it quite a bit — possibly too much. Everyone and their cat knows that I am an Aikidoka. At home, having a pile of wooden training swords and staffs by the door is normal. In the neighborhood, nobody gawks when I pedal up the street in my dogi. At the office, people regularly ask if I am going to practice tonight and laugh when I tell them, “No I trained before work already”. Damn! I must be a boring conversationalist!

Anyway, the office jokes took an extreme turn today when I was attacked by a dude from Sales. The attacker was “BD”, an ex-Bosozoku (motorcycle gang member) and kendo yudansha. All in all, BD is a fun guy who is amongst the most willing to tease me about the silliness of my hobby — usually whilst pretending to swing a golf club. I was chatting with another Sales guy when I noticed a weird motion out of the corner of my eye. It was BD doing that weird Kendo gallop and swinging shomen at the left side of my head. I quickly but, I hope, casually, stuck my fist out to where his face would be if his course completed. My timing was on and as his downward swing started to accelerate, his head started snapping back out of the way of my fist. Before reaching his target BD was already stumbling backwards. We all got a good laugh out of that.

It’s the closest thing to Aikido that I’ve done in two weeks now. My recovery from appendix surgery is going well though I’ve another two weeks before I’m allowed to train. Just watching practice is frustrating!

* Dave Barry

Bathroom Wind-Chill
November 20, 2007, 10:53
Filed under: Expat, Japan, Work | Tags: , , , , ,

I complain about the cold and report about the bathroom here too often but they are closely-linked, painful topics. The lack of insulation in this office building makes it very uncomfortable to work without several layers of clothes. Since corporate uniforms are mandatory for all, except upper management, everyone wears as many layers as can be made to fit under their polyester crap-wear. Fortunately, the clothes are so ugly that even the most vein among us have given up trying to look nice in these things and can concentrate on adding more lumpy layers of undershirts.

Adding to the discomfort is this company’s policy of not activating the heat until December 1st. This doesn’t really apply to me or my team as the heating ducts don’t reach to our end of the office so we froze our asses off all last winter. At any rate, for some, there will be relief in the next few days but for me, I am counting down the days until I leave this company (30 more).

Most people seeking employment are interested in salary, benefits, corporate position and office location. I am also interested in these things but I have found myself focusing on other details when visiting offices for interviews.

1) Is the place heated/air-conditioned?
2) How are rank-and-file dressed?
3) How do managers dress?
4) Are the desks/workstations made for computers or are they sharp cornered battleship gray 1950s style beasts guaranteed to leave creases in your forearms?
5) Is the bathroom ventilated?
6) Is there a ventilated smoking area?
7) Do I have to walk through the smoking area to get anywhere for work purposes?

These may sound trivial but every one of them has made my working life uncomfortable over the last year. Perhaps it is the combination but all, and worse, are fairly typical of Japanese companies so I am on the look out when interviewing. Another thing I should probably watch out for is harder to spot. Modernizing and improving the trivial while neglecting bigger issues.

An example of this here is the Mitsubishi Jet Towel installed in the visiting men’s rest-room. Since the bathrooms in my office are not insulated and windows are left open for ventilation, in winter they get very cold. Right now, it is about 8 degrees C. Given an airspeed of 90 m/s blasting out of the jet towel, the wind-chill on wet hands is about -2.6C. I salute the reduction of waste and the improved hygiene afforded by this tool but there are implementation issues that should be addressed. For example: WHY CAN’T WE TURN ON THE HEATING ELEMENT UNTIL DECEMBER FIRST????

GRRR! Of all the days to forget my hankie …

The Big Interview
November 14, 2007, 21:20
Filed under: Expat, Family, Japan, Work | Tags: , , , , ,

There is a store selling modern and antique swords across the street from the main office! Dozens of beautiful, master-crafted pieces of steel with glorious waves and ripples were on display. The cheapest 日本刀 (Nihontou) I saw was ¥2,100,000 (steel only, tsuka, saya, tsuba etc… all sold separately). Saving my lunch money would be a start but assuming bento every workday for the next 16 years, I’d only be able to cover the cheapest model. So, my lust for good cutlery could easily drive my family to the poor-house or, at least, back to the family farm.

Megumi has been happy that I don’t care much about cars, gambling, local/national sports franchises and generally don’t drink to excess. From her perspective, my martial arts-and-crafts interests have tended to be a plus for the family (health and well-being wise anyway) and it is down-right cheap, especially since we moved to Japan. If I take this job that could all change.

“Honey, there is a special on mid 19th century tanto, how many should I pick up?”

Maybe I can write-off a couple swords as business expenses…? Maybe? No?  Damn!

Oh yeah, the job looks interesting and the company seems nice.

Road Warrior Shugyou
November 6, 2007, 00:53
Filed under: Aikido, Work | Tags: , , , , , ,

Training in new dojo with new instructors and different uke is one of the few things that I really enjoy about business trips. The problem, as usual, is timing and logistics. I am in Albuquerque, New Mexico and have found two Aikikai (some sensei are purists — it’s best to be polite) dojo that have class hours that I might be able to fit into my schedule. Now, how to get there? We’ve had to shuffle vehicles and two of the people with the least need for rental cars actually have them so I may need to bum a ride from the “Sleazy Uncle”.

My coworker, the Irish Dude, had to listen to all of the planning discussions for this trip and began calling it “Dysfunctional Family Vacation”. He assigned less than flattering titles to several members of the group for whom he has little use. I laughed as the sales guy got pinned with “Sleazy Uncle” and semi-retired-but-we-can’t-quite-get-rid-of-him former manager as “Senile Grandfather”. Senile Grandfather got the other car. I don’t really trust either of them to drive in the US but Sleazy Uncle doesn’t drop his head below the level of the dashboard to program (figure out) the GPS while driving. Anyway, a taxi ride probably won’t kill me but it will break my recreation budget for this trip so I’ll need to work something out.

More later …

On Projects and Zombies
November 2, 2007, 08:32
Filed under: Expat, Japan, Work | Tags: , , , , , , ,

When work invades my dreams I take it as a sign that things aren’t going too well on the job. My current project has been turning up mixed with zombies (“28 Days Later” style fast zombies not the lumbering “Shaun of the Dead” kind).

The project itself should be pretty normal if a bit rushed. However, due to a corporate culture of understaffing and over-promising, I am rushing like a high-school kid scribbling a report on the bus the day it is due. There have been some fascinating, to me anyway, little wrenches thrown in to add color to an otherwise drab set of accomplished milestones.

1) A key sales dude in Israel was called back into the army for a couple of weeks but no-one told head office.
2) A key leader in the U.S. quit at what seemed like the last minute (he gave three weeks notice). It turns out that he had a bad case of short-timer-syndrome and had done no work on any of his assigned tasks.
3) A key VP here in Japan promised my customer that they were the most important, bar none, and then pulled senior engineers out of a long scheduled visit to the customer site. The issue to which they were responding was critical but customer expectations had been set too high too quickly.

The list could go on but these illustrate my point: communication failure is the most common problem in a project and it can be easy to correct.

1) The sales guy in Israel was doing his duty and no-one faults him for it. Had he told his co-workers or his boss to notify the head-office, there would have been no trouble at all.
2) Had the manager of the fellow in the US told the head-office not to assign mission critical tasks to him, confidentiality would have been preserved and the tasks would have been completed by someone else.
3) The VP could just stop over-promising but that may be why he is the a VP…

Other than #3 where bad communication may be an element of the person’s position, none of this was necessary. Had it just been a matter of covering for a VPs exuberance I would not be wishing that zombies would come and “save” me from this project.

All Projects Look Like Nails …
October 12, 2007, 13:53
Filed under: Expat, Japan, Work | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I haven’t written much about business in Japan lately and am mostly shying away from that topic. The office is a sore spot and writing about it feels like poking a bruise. Today’s funkiness was more like a whanged funny-bone.

I do a lot of project scheduling so MS Project is a tool that I use frequently. My company, however, has traditionally done all of its planning by hand-drawing Gantt charts in Excel. Very few managers even have Project installed. Yesterday, I was asked to share some project details with the manager of a different team . Without thinking about it, I sent him my most up-to-date project schedule file which had all the data I thought he needed . This guy, known un-affectionately as Kim Jong Il, had one of his senior reports manually copy the data into a new Excel spreadsheet. When asked , “Why” he responded that it was a better way to share the data.

I should have guessed that this fearless leader would not have a tool made for planning projects. He was right in believing that sharing a schedule in a spreadsheet would be better, assuming that no one has Project. Aside from the fact that I manage unrelated products and projects and need the flexibility that this tool offers me, I should have known all of that. However — here comes teh funny — the reason he needed my schedule in the first place was that he wanted to paste a screenshot image of it into a PowerPoint presentation …

This is how my company does most things. They don’t even know how much effort they waste. I’d laugh but whanged funny bones aren’t that funny.

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