Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A New China Syndrome?


Last week we discussed some of the major threats -- both natural and cultural -- to the continued health of tea culture in east Asia. Contributors to the Comments section there have added some interesting and important data as well. In that essay, however, I barely touched on the horrific events in Japan, a truly cataclysmic collision of nature and culture involving an earthquake so powerful it 'appears to have moved the main island of Japan by 8 feet (2.4 meters) and shifted the Earth on its axis' (click here for details); a devastating tsunami that completely obliterated entire towns; and -- the incident that may turn out to have the most ominous and far-reaching implications, not only for Fukushima Prefecture, not only for Japan, but for the planet as a whole -- a series of nuclear meltdowns in several of the nuclear plants in Fukushima. As of this writing it is not known how far that damage will reach -- how many plants in all may be affected, how much nuclear fallout will spread into the environment, or what the longitudinal effects will be on earth, sea, sky, the food supply, or the gene pool.

The first thing to do here is to echo the profound and sadly appropriate words of Cinnabar in her recent post at
It is not reasonable to post anything else about Japanese tea without first expressing the depth of sorrow over the devastation and aftermath that the country is experiencing right now. There is a little that can be said about the tragedy but to say that I hope that support can come from all of the places that can provide it, and that the work of recovering and rebuilding can begin, as the Japanese people – and the rest of the world in solidarity – mourn the tremendous suffering and loss.
This is very well said, and -- alas -- all too true. We are still in shock, and the people (mostly but not all Japanese) in the thick of this crisis are struggling around the clock to contain the damage and secure the affected areas.

I mentioned possible effects on the food supply. I find myself unable to stop wondering what the effects of this radioactive fallout might be on the tea crops of east Asia. Japan itself is first, of course. It appears (though I would welcome more expert information on all this) that the prevailing trade-winds at the moment are blowing eastward from the Japanese Archipelago over the Pacific Ocean; that is one of the broadest and deepest expanses of water on the planet, which from a dispersal standpoint might pass as good news. (The problem with that scenario, of course, is that the ocean is arguably the key element in the global ecosystem -- any serious threat to the ocean is eventually a threat to us all.) We are also told that substantial precipitation of rain or snow would bring the radioactive fallout more or less straight down to the ground in Fukushima -- where it would settle into the soil and water where it falls.

If, on the other hand, the winds should change before the fallout is dispersed or precipitated, the results could be quite different: it could blow down to Tokyo, less than 150 miles to the south; or it could blow west, over and perhaps onto some of the principal agricultural regions of Japan -- thereby contaminating the existing food supply as well as the soil in which future crops ought to be grown.

If the wind carrying such radioactive fallout should pass further into the west, it could conceivably reach the tea-growing regions of Korea, Taiwan, and the Chinese mainland. If this is what ensues, might the tea world find itself with a new sort of 'China Syndrome' on its hands -- tea crops that are irradiated and thus unsafe for drinking? Granted, the distance from Fukushima to (say) Wuyi Shan is between 1500 and 2000 miles; from Wuyi Shan to Kunming is another 1200 miles or so. Are any of those crops actually at risk?

Again, at the moment of this writing, information (and misinformation and even disinformation) is swirling all around us; the situation in Japan is still unfolding; and we do not know exactly what is happening, by any means. Some news commentators this evening reported that the radiation levels in Tokyo were about 20 times above normal, but then opined that that is no more than what one is exposed to during an airplane flight from New York to Los Angeles. Is this in fact true? If so, does it say more about the dangers of air travel than about the current safety conditions in Tokyo? And: will it in any case change drastically over the next few days?

It is worth underscoring that the threat to tea in all of this is much less than the imminent danger -- and the extensive damage already done, the loss of life, limb, and property already suffered in Japan. I almost said 'trivial by comparison'; but the threat is certainly not trivial to those tea farmers whose livelihoods depend on the ability to grow and sell their crops. By comparison to all of these threats, the possible resulting discomfiture to tea-drinkers is indeed trivial. So with the rest of the world, we watch, and wait, and hope.

Some correspondents on the west coast of the USA (and of course in Alaska and Hawaii) have expressed concern about the possible health implications, should nuclear fallout -- whether wind- or water-borne -- reach our shores. A number of websites like this one make recommendations for dietary supplements to be taken prophylactically. Such recommendations might not be a bad idea (though CHA DAO of course does not purport to offer medical advice of any sort; consult your physician before undertaking any alterations to your dietary regimen).

Others have asked what they can do to help. The simplest way, of course, is: send money. This handy link lists a number of ways to do just that, from anywhere on earth that you can get an internet connection (and if you are reading this essay, you probably already have one).

Meanwhile -- on the infrastructural level -- I do venture to offer a modest (but not therefore less urgent) set of recommendation for all 50 of our United States, particularly California, Washington, and any others who may have nuclear plants situated on or very near major geological fault-lines: Take heed, beware, and do not put us in harm's way. George Santayana, in Reason in Common Sense (1905), famously said: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' This is often misquoted as 'Those who will not learn from history ...' -- and maybe that non-verbatim version is the more apt here. Will we learn from these recent catastrophic events of history? How many warnings will we need before we realize that we have to be doubly and triply careful about something as dangerous as nuclear power? How many warnings, indeed, will we receive before it is too late for each of us?


  1. "Having been a journalist, I can tell you that government agencies never reveal the full extent of a developing catastrophe. Some of it is to avoid panic. I'm afraid the Japanese are in the midst of an historic tragedy whose downstream effects are as yet incalculable."
    Basil Hero

  2. Hubris and atĂȘ...

    Though the human and economic consequences are in no sense comparable, one is reminded of the phylloxera blight that ensued when infected American vine samples were brought to Europe by well-intentioned botanists. When European vines were destroyed, viticulture was saved by the import of resistant American rootstock. Whether or not Old World wines were altered, and in what direction, is known only to the fortunate few who are able to compare surviving pre-1860s vintages with their later equivalents. Will we have a similar post-cataclysm distinction within Asian teas? A boom for pre-2011 Pu-erh and aged oolongs?

    The good news for tea-drinkers is that tea is probably not an efficient carrier for many of the scariest radionuclides, even if the fevered reactor cores really do send their effluvia up the stack and down the hole. The better news is that compassion and social consciousness are aroused and effective. The best news, since the OP seems to permit a slight political turn, would be our collective acceptance of this accident of nature's doing, and consequent disaster of man's, as an opportunity to scale back life-styles to where we do not need such machineries to enhance our innate ability to live and to enjoy life. Empty the cup, fill the heart.


  3. Angus Macdonald11:26 AM

    Because of the grave potential consequences downwind, they are also semi-successfully fighting their own cultural instincts to couch the nuclear component of this crisis in secrecy. We need to help the Japanese much more aggressively than we have to date. Take the money financing Karzai's poppy fields and send it there!

  4. I really love this blog, generally. It's one of the best places to read about tea on the internet.

    But please, do not contribute to the FUD surrounding the nuclear issues in Japan. The reactors are by far the smallest issue facing the Japanese people right now, and are a minimal threat, at best, to the rest of the world.

    I would suggest reading about it in places where people are not busy trying to generate revenue by attracting eyeballs, and where actual experts are employed, such as here:

  5. We won't know for quite some time if the damage to the Fukashima plants will result in irradiated tea, but I think we can be confident that in time we will be able to find out what the full impact is, which is certainly important. I think we can also with full confidence say that the information that is being presented in the mainstream press is not coming from nor filtered through authoritative sources. Journalists who do not fully understand nuclear plant technology are not very good at explaining what happens when parts of it fail. But I think that even the degree to which the particular plants have failed is largely unknown at this point, especially outside of the Fukashima area, and perhaps even within the nuclear plants themselves, still immersed in the current emergency.

    Chernobl and Three Mile Island were not even close to major tea-growing regions, but Nagasaki and Hiroshima were. I wonder what the short- and long-term impact of that radiation fallout was, a mere 66 years ago. I think that's where to turn our attention if we want to try to anticipate the impact specifically on the tea industry.

    (And thank you for quoting me.)

  6. UPDATE [Thurs 110317]: the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission projects that a radioactive plume from Japan's nuclear reactors could reach the California coast as soon as tomorrow. But the USNRC's chairman, Gregory Jaczko, opined that the levels of radioactivity would be too low to pose a health risk to people in America.

  7. UPDATE [Fri 110318]: "The first readings from American data-collection flights over the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan show that the worst contamination has not spread beyond the 19-mile range of highest concern established by Japanese authorities." See NY Times article here

  8. ... and for radiation-level updates from Santa Monica, refreshing every 10 minutes, click here.

  9. Anonymous11:56 AM

    Many thanks, corax, for this post. Your stance and sensitivity are always admirable. I like tea people more than tea itself. Tea’s biggest benefit is friendship. I always find the chief charm in tea enthusiasm through associating—in person or by correspondence—with kind people around the world. New friendships in tea evolve into best friendships in a lifetime. No pursuit has been, for me, more innocent and enlightening. Through my tea enthusiasm I have to come know and admire people around the world and even visit them and host them in person.

    Only seven years ago I developed an interest in Japanese teas and soon Japanese tea became, quietly, the tea I reach for every day. I have dealt primarily with Ippodo for no other reason than familiarity and habit. The people in that company are professional and offer excellent customer service. But in these traits they are not unique. The vast majority of tea people are good people, in Japan, China, and elsewhere. More recently, I purchased sencha from Yuuki-cha. Short notes exchanged with first purchases become, naturally enough, longer notes: the turning of seasons, the challenges of our schedules, the characteristics of specific products. A name becomes a voice and the voice, a friend. Yuuki-cha’s blog, because of these exchanges, becomes much more salient. In this, of course, I am not alone. All of us experience this camaraderie. Tea broadens and deepens our lives.

    Our fear and shock and helplessness, therefore, are commensurately worse than if we were unconnected with the world. George Santayana and his paraphrasers are wise when they speak of history, memory and repetition. And John Donne also has it right in "Meditation 17" when he famously writes about islands and interconnectedness. He would not mind our inserting “Japan” for “Europe.” Donne writes of great waves in that piece: of people literally washed away and the land falling with homes into the sea. Since the tsunami, we hear the bell John Donne heard four hundred years ago ring day and night—for our Japanese neighbors, for ourselves, tolling in the heart:

    No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

    Best always,

  10. cherry blossoms
    shaken to earth
    washed to sea
    at sendai

  11. UPDATE [Tues 110412]: Well. 'Nothing to be concerned about,' they said. Now this:

  12. For those interested in the consequences of radioactive outfall on teas from Japan, read these news articles:

    Radioactive substance detected in green tea leaves in Ibaraki towns

    Japan recalls tea over radiation fears

    The good news is that most high-end green teas that most of us drink are grown in Kyoto Prefecture, which is about 200km or so further to the southwest (i.e. downwind of the prevailing wind direction) of the tea fields that have been tested positively for radiation.

  13. This is something that worried us. Here's an article I've found regarding this matter: