Yesterday, a friend posted before and after photos of tsunami-affected areas in Tohoku on my facebook page. Picture after picture contrasted areas engulfed by water and rubble with the new rubble-free, grey, barren landscape. I viewed them with mixed emotions of marvel (at the transformation) and sometimes distress (at the dreariness of the vision. Some areas have been reduced to bare earth, devoid of houses, shops, trees, or any sign of life). I recalled how enormous the task of clearing the rubble seemed last March and April, and also the spirit of humility and generosity that blew across the country as a whole. There was very little whining about the inconveniences of daily life last spring (and there are plenty such inconveniences in a country where even the rich do not live in large spacious houses), and people felt good about sacrifice.
It was then that I wrote my first blog entries, trying desperately to record the changes in attitude of those around me, and to make sense of the complexities of the 3-11 disaster and the nation’s response. My first entries were simply “Notes” on facebook, designed to keep family and friends in the US informed, and to assure them that I had not taken to my bed, wasting away with radiation sickness. Gradually, the writing became a necessary discipline for me, and I now blog for myself as well as others. Each post requires time, concentration, research, and a good deal of thought; by the time I’ve officially pressed the “Publish” button, I’ve stretched myself a bit further than before (hoping fervently that the elastic will continue to expand and not snap abruptly) and often convinced myself of something I had not believed at the onset of writing.
This evening, I went scrolling back through old facebook posts looking for a particular entry I remembered writing about the rubble in Tohoku, and the spirit of sacrifice that impelled people to conserve energy and begin simplifying their lives in response to the suffering of their neighbors in the north. The post dates from April 16th, before the announcement that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had suffered a meltdown, and focuses on tsunami damage rather than radiation. Here’s the post, exactly as I recorded it at the time:
……When I left the house today, cherry blossom petals were blowing through the
air, lining the dirt road and sometimes settling on the heads of pedestrians. Very pleasant, no clean-up involved, and completely biodegradable. In contrast, of course, to the challenge of Tohoku, where the clean-up will take years. The clearing of rubble and debris has officially begun, but it’s a slow and delicate process. The clean-up of Kobe after the Hanshin Quake took a full three years, and experts predict that Northern Japan will take even longer. In addition to the clean-up, the restoration of the environment in the Fukushima area could take between ten (according to Toshiba Corp.) and thirty (according to Hitachi) years. That’s at least one childhood, and potentially one-third of a lifetime.
The work is delicate because of the bodies which still lay buried underneath the rubble of cities such as Minami Sanriku, where eighty percent of the buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Soldiers (both US and Japanese, working together) go on foot with picks and poles, prying and prodding. Any personal mementos such as albums or photographs are recovered and put aside. If no bodies appear to be trapped underneath the remains of a house, heavy machinery will move in to break down the structure, and eventually cart off the broken bits to……where??? That is often the problem. The city of Fukushima is using their former park as a dumping ground, but it is fast filling up, and the city lacks open flat land. Currently, it takes approximately one day to break down and dispose of a single house. Work proceeds at a frustratingly slow pace, but it is proceeding, and it’s being done carefully as well, with respect to the dead and to the survivors who once lived in the flattened residences.
Cities such as Minami Sanriku, Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, and parts of Fukushima have literally been reduced to rubble, which is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a loose mass of angular fragments of rock or masonry crumbled by natural or human forces”. In addition to the rubble, the ground is littered with random fragments of family life. Look up “Kesennuma” on YouTube, and you will see videos of a strange landscape: a bizarre goulash of piano keyboards, tile roofs, baby strollers, planks, poles, concrete blocks, window glass and front doors, all torn from the houses which are no longer recognizable as houses….except for those
houses whose second stories survived intact, and stand proudly amid the disarray. The clean-up of the fragments of houses and buildings is known as “Gareki Sagyou”, or “Rubble-Clearing”, and it is nasty business….yet today’s International Herald Tribune posted a photo of two middle-aged men enjoying a hot bath outside, amid the wreckage, and looking quite jolly. They had rigged a fire under a large tank full of water, and were lounging Japanese-style, with white bath towels on their heads. So the nastiest of work does have its rewards, and a measure of normality is beginning to return to even the hardest-hit areas.
“Gareki Sagyou” refers to actual wreckage–the clearing away of things that cannot be salvaged. But what about those things best defined as “obstacles”?? I refer now to large objects which are in themselves intact, but have come to rest in bizarre and problematic places. In the days following the tsunami, the world saw photos of ships of all shapes and sizes, wedged into store windows or resting on top of buildings! And the cars!! Cars everywhere: overturned, sideways, in houses, on houses, cars on cars! Often, the ships and cars survived their journey quite well,
and were in excellent condition when they landed. Thursday evening’s news featured a grim-faced man, the owner of a humungous trawler: a tuna boat, which had washed ashore and been deposited smack in the middle of a major highway, effectively blocking traffic in both directions. Since the boat was completely intact (aside from being in the wrong place), his insurance refused to cover for “damages”, and he was at a loss at how on earth to remove the monstrous nuisance. “Of course, I have a guilty conscience,” he said sadly. “My ship is inconveniencing the entire city, and I don’t have the means to move it!” Hopefully, since the sad-faced man was seen by the entire nation on NHK TV, some wealthy celebrity or individual will be moved to help out, and I wonder if there will be a follow-up.
The airport in Sendai was also beset with a similar “obstacle”: five THOUSAND cars piled up on the runway! If that’s not deserving of an exclamation point, I don’t know what is. Flights were immediately cancelled, and the airport authorities despaired of opening again any time in the near future. Enter the US military, who volunteered the services of a unit who specialized in turning ruined landing strips into forward supply bases for US aircraft. Within four weeks, this US unit, working together with the Japanese military forces, had not only cleared the runway, but left the cars stacked in neat rows along the airport edge. I especially like the detail about the “neat rows”, though the problem of disposing of the cars has not yet been solved. In Wednesday’s international paper, a Colonel Toth was quoted as saying, “We are using skills developed in combat operations for humanitarian purposes…..This is the most rewarding thing we’ve done.” Any arguments with that line of thinking?? No, I didn’t think so. The newspaper article praised the US team for their tact and low-key profile, and the Japanese government for throwing pride to the wind and graciously accepting the help. Both sides worked together admirably.
Meanwhile, back in the Tokyo area……the trains are still running less
frequently,and mostly in the dark. This does not seem to bother folks; today I watched one older man cheerfully practicing his golf swing in the pitch dark of a tunnel on the Odakyu Line. After a few minutes of this, he began passing the time by practicing his kanji strokes, writing invisible and complicated Chinese characters in the air. It was quite warm in the train, but no air conditioning, so the passengers sweat silently. In the stations, drink machines are still up and running, but not for long. The Tokyo prefecture has vowed to shut down the drink machines for the summer months to save energy–good heavens!! Japan without vending machines! Escalators are sometimes on and sometimes off now ( depending on the time of day) and stations are either dark, or dimly lighted, even at night. Outside the stations, high school students across the country are lined up with wooden boxes around their necks, crying, “Give to the people of Tohoku!!” …..and everyone is doing just that.
Because of the continuing aftershocks, we think of our neighbors in the North every day, checking our cell phones to see what the magnitude of the latest quake was in Fukushima or Sendai. Those of us who are not organizing, fundraising, or sending goods to the affected areas are at least donating money. Elementary school children across the country are writing letters to the children in Tohoku and dropping coins in the jars on the counter at the 7-11 stores. Kumiko Makihara, a writer and translator living in Tokyo believes that the severity of the March 11th disaster has been a cleansing experience for the rest of the country, “…making us more tolerant, and softening our rigid adherence to social norms.” Certainly, it has brought the pursuit of luxury and rampant consumption to a screeching halt. Although Disneyland has re-opened this week (with great fanfare!), it is certain that the upcoming Golden Week holiday will be subdued this year, and folks will be sticking close to home. It feels good to be clearing away some of the rubble in and around our hearts; we are living a bit more simply, with fewer complaints and more generosity. Most of us still have a long way to go before all the rubble is gone, but at least we’ve made a start.
…..and that’s how things stood last April. The one year anniversary is just around the corner, and my next few entries will be an attempt to assess some of the challenges that have emerged since then, particularly those associated with the spread of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the consequent evacuation of 62,610 residents of Fukushima Prefecture (the figure given by the prefectoral government as of this February). It’s been a major upheaval. Outside of Tohoku the changes are harder to discern, yet change has arrived and the country is not the same. More on that in my next post…..which may take a while, but I’ll be back. Until then, goodnight and thank you for reading.
Archive for February, 2012
Posted in Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan, Uncategorized, tagged Relief efforts in Tohoku, Rubble in Tohoku, Setsuden, tsunami affected areas, Tsunami damage in Tohoku on February 25, 2012 | Leave a Comment »
Posted in Japan, Nuclear Power, Uncategorized, Volunteering, tagged Densha Otoko, depression, Fukushima Women's Tent, futoukou, Helen Grady, hikikoumori, Hunger Strikers for the Future, It's Not Just Mud, Jamie El-Banna, Naoya Okamoto, Roger Pulvers, Spirit of Madei, Yoyogi Koen Rally on February 18, 2012 | 2 Comments »
My daughter and I took ourselves to another good-sized anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo this past Sunday,
spending all day on our feet, enjoying the crisp, cold winter air. The day began with craning our necks to see and hear the speakers in Yoyogi Park (Oe Kensaburou-san may very well have been inspirational, but we couldn’t hear a word of the speech or see a thing. What we heard was, “Put down your banners!! We can’t see! Heeeeeey! Put down your banners!” And by the time this message had reached the stage area and the colorful anti-nuke banners had been collapsed, the speech had finished. Sigh. ). The day continued as we followed our new friend Helen from the BBC Radio on her quest to find “good sounds”, and ended as we joined in the anti-nuke parade
( Genpatsu Hantai! ), which meandered at a snail’s pace through the Harajuku shopping district. The time flew by as we picked up friends along the way, met up with old “demo tomo” (friends who you know from past demonstrations), admired the costumes of other participants, and engaged in fleeting conversations with random strangers marching alongside us. By the time we had seen Helen safely to the Tokyo train station and settled ourselves into a restaurant for some solid food ( ramen-burgers and octopus balls at Yoyogi Park hardly count as nourishiment ), we realized we were exhausted. Truly exhausted. The kind of exhaustion that leaves you doubting whether your legs will obey the command to stand up again once you’ve collapsed into an actual chair. But it had been a splendid and satisfying day.
Splendid and satisfying, except for one thing. “Where were the kids my age?” pouted my daughter (she’s 18). “I kept looking for some of my classmates, but didn’t see a single one. So many old guys, but no teenagers at all!” Actually, we did bump into exactly one college student, who had come to the rally by himself. Perhaps feeling forlorn, he latched onto my Ellen during the parade and tested her patience by insisting on practicing English with her as
they marched. We also saw a very attractive young couple, but they (unlike the Waseda college student) fled in a panic when Helen from the BBC asked if they spoke English and would they do an interview? And that was it really. A rally of 15,000 people, with only a small scattering of high school and college age students. Well, in all honesty, I didn’t see any high-schoolish looking kids at all. Pretty pathetic, really, and I wondered how the retirees and middle-aged company workers were enjoying the very loud rock band that kicked off the rally in the park. Probably enduring it and waiting for the speeches to start. Don’t get me wrong: the energy and spirit of the older protesters is admirable and astonishing; it should be balanced, however, by an equal or greater number of young people. The future, after all, is theirs, right?? So where were they? Where ARE they??
Any number of places, is my guess. Third year middle school students and third year high school students are in the final stages of “ojuken”, the testing process that decides their future (or so it seems at the time). Their life is literally on hold –and their mother’s life as well, in some cases– until the tests have finished, the results are out, and their high school or college has been decided. Those shooting for high level public schools often have only one chance: a written test. No essays, personal interview, or other method of appeal available. It’s no wonder they are balls of anxiety, and their mothers go gray overnight. Those kids certainly aren’t going to be marching through Harajuku to protest nuclear power plants–their mothers would disown them! Most students in this year of their life would see a rally as having no connection whatsoever to their future; they’re like horses with blinkers attached to keep them from bolting at extraneous distractions. Those blinkers are attached by their mothers, their cram school coaches, and the pressure of their peers, and most are unable to imagine life without them. Nuclear power is a vague worry, but lies well outside the radius of the blinkers and is therefore easily ignored. Their own immediate future is what they’re chasing after, and how current events might relate to their future or to a broader vision of the nation as a whole is not their concern.
Well then, what about the rest of the young people? Those not preparing for exams have weekends free, right? Why do we not see them at rallys? Sadly enough, I believe that many Japanese young people are not emotionally strong enough to participate. Until this point, I’ve been rather tongue-in-cheek, but the subject of mental health in Japan is a serious one, and one that’s troubled me since I spent five years teaching English in the Hadano public schools. Sunday’s Japan Times column “Counterpoint” featured an excellent and moving article by Roger Pulvers on just this subject, calling depression “….the big gorilla on the basketball court, the one that’s stealing the ball but isn’t seen because everyone is willfully looking the other way.”
Pulvers, citing statistics from the Japan Committee for Prevention and Treatment of Depression, writes about conditions in Japanese schools, where 1 out of every 12 elementary school students suffers from depression; at the middle school level, this jumps to 1 out of 4. He believes the actual numbers may be higher, due to misdiagnosis and unrecognized cases. In my five year teaching stint in the Hadano City elementary schools, I witnessed many children struggling with both anxiety and depression, feeling within myself an uncomfortable mixture of dismay, helplessness, and relief (that my own children were fairly well-adjusted and happy with their lives). Many, if not most of these students become “futoukou”, or unable to attend school. ”Futoukou” is spoken of as a sickness in Japan (children suffering from it display physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, and unsteadiness), and children who fall prey to it have very few options. Home-schooling is not recognized by the National Board of Education, and “alternative schools” are few and far between.
What sort of Japanese children drop out of school at a young age? Let’s start with… extremely intelligent children who are bored with school (skipping grades not allowed). Next, there are returnee children from abroad who are unable to re-adjust. And public school children planning to take exams for private schools. And shy girls who get their growth spurt early on and cannot handle their sudden conspicuous height. Of course, there are overweight children (a distinct minority here and easy targets for bullying). And children with tics, stutterers, and late developers (repeating grades is not allowed either. Children progress to the next grade whether or not they’re ready intellectually). And children of different nationalities. I have not seen statistics, but I imagine that since the 3-11 disaster, both children living in Fukushima and those who have evacuated to other prefectures have experienced frequent absences from school due to stress, anxiety, and depression.
And what is done to help these children? I saw many different approaches used, depending on the school, and on the severity of the child’s distress. One girl at a small rural school in Hadano was able to “attend school” ( avoiding the problem of missed days, which can prevent graduation), but was unable to attend a single class. She ran straight for the school nurse’s office the minute her mother dropped her off and stayed there, literally clinging to the skirt of the extremely patient young nurse, who served as a kindly babysitter. This girl did not want to miss my monthly English lesson, and would creep into the room after her classmates were seated and the class had begun. I would see her sitting on the floor in the back of the room, trying to be invisible, with the ever-present school nurse at her side.
Another boy I knew was studying to enter a private middle school. His evenings were spent at cram school, where the academic level was much higher than that of the public school he attended during the day. Bored with his studies, he began using his class time to study for his middle school entrance exams. Although he kept up stellar grades, this didn’t sit well with either his teacher or his classmates. Rather than defending his position (which this very intelligent child was capable of doing), he simply dropped out, for the entire last half of his sixth grade year. His mother, in a frantic effort to make sure he graduated properly, was able to drag him to school (Literally. This was a boy who threw up at the front gate, got jelly-legged, and refused to move) the required number of times to obtain his graduation certificate. He successfully passed the entrance exams for the private middle school, but was so acclimated to “futoukou” life that he then refused to attend the new school as well. His mother, in a last ditch effort, drove him to school each day, where he was met by two stout male teachers. The teachers physically removed him from the car, carried him into the school, and deposited him in his classroom every morning for a full semester until he overcame his fear. In the end, he was able to return to the system and adjust himself to the school’s expectations. Whatever you may think of it (and I attempted to remain neutral in the telling), that’s the bare bones of the story.
There are many more stories, of older children who take “futoukou” one step further and become “hikikoumori”. This is a condition where young people (and some adults as well) literally lock themselves in their rooms, refusing contact with not only their peers at school, but with parents and siblings as well. The boy I knew who had to be carried into school also went through a period of hikikoumori. His mother told me calmly (how she could retain her calm demeaner was beyond me) that she would leave food outside his bedroom door and pick up the empty tray each morning. He only showered when there was no-one else in the house, and she’d find his clothes in the hamper every other day. Other than that, no communication at all. Personally, I think I’d borrow an axe and start whacking away at the locked door.
Manga lovers abroad may know “Densha Otoko“, the inspiring story of a train geek who is
borderline “hikikoumori”. Though the hero of the manga is able to leave the house (he goes back and forth to Akihabara, the electronics district), he’s unable to communicate with anyone face-to-face, finding security and solace in the internet. Through a chance encounter with a kind-hearted attractive girl, he’s able to overcome his fear and rejoin society. Most of the kids I came in contact with at the local schools were already long-term sufferers as small children, and I do not know how their stories will end.
Many Japanese children, unable to “read the air” (discern how to fit in naturally, without disrupting the status quo), begin to drop out of society at an early age. The school system is not kind to those children, who are seen as “meiwaku” (causing a disturbance and inconveniencing others), and good psychological help is not easily available. A friend in Tokyo whose child is troubled waits a month for an appointment with a professional counselor. These young people are busy fighting the battle to get up every morning, to leave the house, and to find a place in society where they feel safe and loved. They live from day to day, and anti-nuclear protests are not on their radar screen.
Well, alright then….what about the remainder of the students not battling depression or some form of anxiety? Why are they standing along the sidewalks of Harajuku (in droves) instead of marching through the streets carrying placards? My guess is that although these kids are successfully maneuvering their academic and social lives, they lack the courage and
initiative to step outside the boundaries of their familiar social patterns: school, club, part-time job, and shopping or drinking on weekends. I guess it must be rather embarrassing, after all, to be seen in the same company as Lego-headed women, men wearing frog masks (in support of amphibians suffering from the effects of radiation), and gender-neutral folks with flowers sprouting from the tops of their heads…….No, no, wait a minute! I would have loved putting together my own demo costume at their age! What’s wrong with them? Living in Tokyo, they have both the opportunity to participate in rallys and the freedom to express themselves without the fear of potential stigmatization that Fukushima residents experience daily. Okay, so they might lose a friend or two, or be considered a weirdo in some circles, but isn’t it all worth it?
Time after time I take the train into the big city, fight my way through the crowds in Shinjuku, manage the transfer to the government building district of Kasumigaseki, where women from Fukushima still occupy a tent along the sidewalk….and find the cavernous train station deserted. Kasumigaseki boasts over 13 exits, all of them accessed by eerie-dreary quiet concrete tunnels and staircases. Taking exit 12A, I climb the stairs and emerge onto the street where the Fukushima Women’s tent is still standing; it’s been there since September, when the hunger strikers set up camp. Next to the Women’s Tent is the Datsu Genpatsu (Stop Nuclear Power Plants) Tent. When I
last visited three weeks ago, it was a cold, cheerless day, and both tents were closed and sealed for the sake of warmth . Outside, a frail but beautiful elderly woman (“forty years of anti-nuclear protesting”) was speaking into a microphone, urging the few passers-by to visit the tents and learn about the situation in Fukushima. Inside the Women’s Tent, a handful of women and one transvestite, with perfectly applied lipstick and a bejewelled cell phone, were huddled into a heated table, discussing recent events. Inside the Datsu Genpatsu Tent, a steady trickle of visitors engaged in debate with four older “Occupiers”, who have been holding down the fort and sleeping in the tent at night, despite the bitter cold. I encountered only a single college student that day, whom I promptly friended on facebook and will stay in touch with from here on in. Making my way home that day, I passed through Shinjuku again, feeling the contrast between the station teeming with young people, and the too-quiet atmosphere of the Occupiers’ tents at Kasumigaseki.
All I can say is that the non-involvement of young people in the Tokyo/Kanagawa area is truly a shame. It’s a loss for the anti-nuclear movement, and young people themselves are missing out on history. My daughter attended a global conference on alternative energy in Yokohama last month….and again, was surprised to find no-one her own age attending the workshops. Literally, noone. Hello? A global conference on how to change the entire way the country’s infrastructure functions? Open to anyone able to register on the internet and pay the $30.oo entrance fee? This is exciting stuff. Why would young people NOT be there? Because their friends aren’t going. Because they will know no-one there. Because it’s something they know nothing about and feel no connection to. Because they’re not used to taking the initiative and doing something outside of their familiar routine. Probably a combination of all these things.
In contrast, Japan’s seniors are outspoken and active. They regularly plunge into rivers (twice a year in my neighborhood) to dredge up trash and debris, wake up at four-thirty on hiking trips to reach the the top of the mountain before noon, patrol the streets with armbands and flashlights looking for loiterers or gangs of potential troublemakers, form committees to teach traditional skills to their neighborhood children, pack themselves onto busses to attend anti-nuclear rallies, attend alternative energy forums, take a mind-boggling variety of courses, classes, and lessons, and are not afraid to be interviewed, either in English or Japanese. Oh, and I forgot to mention that many do all this while juggling the care of their grandchildren. Who will carry the torch when they’re unable to?
My guess is that the leaders will be people like the Hunger Strikers for the Future: four
college-age students who spent 10 days sitting along the sidewalk outside the Kasumigaseki buildings in peaceful protest to draw attention to their cause: the closing down of all of Japan’s on-line nuclear power plants, and a halt to the construction of any new ones. They took in nothing but water and salt during the long hot days in early September . I visited them twice during the ten day stretch, expecting to find signs of listlessness and fatigue, or at least crankiness, but they remained almost miraculously cheerful and patient up through the final day when they broke their fast and held a news conference. I found the hunger strikers themselves (and their entourage of faithful friends) to be well-informed, well-educated, cool and collected, and in possession of impressive reserves of inner strength. Responding with respect and thoughtfulness to questions posed by passers by and reporters alike, no-one could possibly accuse them of being subversive. Watch their leader, Okamoto Naoya, explaining exactly why they are protesting, and sharing his vision of a nuclear-free future.
The hunger strikers are Japanese, but there are foreigners in Japan doing amazing
things out of love for their adopted country as well. I recently heard of Jamie El-Banna, a 26 year old from the UK who has lived and worked in Japan since 2008. You can read in detail about Jamie and his organization (“It’s Not Just Mud”) in this blog spotlighting foreign volunteers in Japan.. To give a brief summary, El- Banna was living in Osaka at the time of the quake and travelled to Tohoku as a volunteer in May; camping on the grounds of a University in Ishinomaki known as “Tent City” and finding each and every day fulfilling, he realized he was in no hurry to return to his former life. In a move that would unsettle most Japanese young person of the same age, he swiftly decided to leave his regular job and apartment in Osaka and installed himself in Ishinomaki permanently. In the Tent City, he networked, and eventually formed his own volunteer organization made up of like-minded young people. Their energy, skill, and good humor so impressed the locals that they were given two partially-damaged houses to use as their own base camp. Undaunted by the “festering sludge under the floors”, rotting insulation, and shattered windows, El-Banna and his friends restored the houses in addition to their other community projects. These include gutting tsunami-damaged houses (done by those with strength, experience, and expertise), restoring and cleaning photographs damaged by the tsunami (done by those who cannot dig, haul, or do carpentry work), and delivering fresh fruits and veggies, winter coats, kerosene heaters, and fuel to those in temporary shelters who are carless. Jamie, who admits to having no previous experience in volunteer work, now has his own soon-to-be-official NPO and a very professional blog site. He also keeps a personal blog, in which he professes his desire to “become a super handsome force for good.” Now that’s my kind of positive role model! Japanese children, take note!
Rather than waiting around for central and local governments to find and implement solutions for them, young people like the hunger strikers and Jamie El-Banna are unafraid to buck the system and take risks in an attempt to affect change. They are already in the vanguard of the anti-nuclear movement and reconstruction projects. In addition, the high school students, college students, and young office workers who spend their weekends in Tohoku volunteering with Peaceboat (whose weekend trips to clean up Ishinomaki are booked solid, my daughter says) or Jamie’s “It’s Not Just Mud” group, are providing the people-power and experience needed to continue the fight for years to come. Mothers who have learned to educate themselves and be pro-active for the sake of their children are creating wider networks and helping to foster ties between Fukushima and the rest of the country. Renegade academics, scientists, and whistle-blowing experts are making sure that accurate assessment trumps propaganda; bloggers are recording all this, and making sure that those who speak truthfully become heros in the end. Skilled translators are then making sure that everything gets passed around in as many languages as possible. Artists, actors, writers, and musicians are providing the inspiration and energy to keep the movement flourishing. I wish there were more leaders, more willing volunteers, more brave mothers, more renegade academics and whistle-blowers, more skilled bloggers and translators, many more artists, writers, and musicians, and at least twice as many young people involved. In the end, that may happen, as the chain linking together those devoted to re-inventing Japan’s future becomes steadily longer and steadily stronger.
It will take years and years from here on in. I still go through phases of impatience and
frustration, wanting wrongs to be righted in a more timely fashion, but these days I try to return to the “Spirit of Madei” way of thinking. In fact, during my last visit to the Fukushima Tent in Tokyo, I found myself face to face with the words of the Iitate Village Mayor. “Let’s live the slow life, not the life based on nuclear power!” read the sign taped inside the tent. “Do you really believe this?” I asked the folks gathered around the tiny gas heater, warming their hands and snacking on Taiyaki cakes. ”Do you really believe that living gently and thoughtfully will instigate change in the end?” ”Absolutely,” replied Obitani Reiko, a 63 year old woman from Yokohama. Obitani and several other friends live in the tent, spreading their bedrolls in a curtained-off part of the tent each night. Reiko-san sends me weekly updates in Japanese each week on the happenings in Kasumigaseki, and seems impervious to the frustrations I fall prey to. She is confident that, to quote the old Aesop’s Fable, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Let us hope that’s the case. It’s very late, so good night, and thank you so much for reading.
Posted in Fukushima, Japan, Nuclear Power, Uncategorized, tagged Fukushima evacuation zones, Hiroaki Koide, Iitate village, Japan, Mayor Tamotsu Baba, Namie Town, Nihonmatsu, Prometheus Trap, radioactive cement, Senrinomichi on February 5, 2012 | 6 Comments »
Yes, this is a pretty extreme title for one of my blog entries, but I’m only quoting the words of the Mayor of Namie Town, Fukushima. My previous post,” The Spirit of Madei“, told the story of another Mayor , Norio Kanno of Iitate Village, who advocated “slow life”, controlling one’s anger, and living in harmony with man and nature. While writing that particular post, I came to feel a great respect for the thoughtfulness and restraint of Mayor Kanno. I still feel that respect.
However, I am forced to admit that following the Mayor’s philosophy of retaining one’s dignity by not making a fuss will not effect change. Each day brings new and more outrageous news reports, and I’ve already been knocked off my peaceful plateau by stories about what happens when citizens don’t make a fuss. Mind you, I still think that retaining one’s serenity in the face of chaos is an admirable thing, and though I feel completely comfortable marching in demos, I would not be comfortable hollering into a microphone or leading the ranks. This past month’s news, however, makes me think I may need to move outside my comfort zone. For instance…
News reports during the third week in January featured reports from a town in Fukushima called Nihonmatsu, where
evacuees from Namie Town had been re-located. Children living in a newly-built apartment complex had been wearing dosimeters indoors and out, and monitoring the results; when a Jr. High school student’s dosimeter showed consistently high readings (radiation levels higher inside than out, and higher on the ground floor than on the upper levels), investigations showed that the culprit was….concrete. Ironically, the stones used to make the cement for their brand-new apartment complex had come from a quarry in their former irradiated hometown, Namie.
Neither the NHK televised report nor the reports in the daily papers used adjectives like “ironic” or ”unbelievable”–just the facts. Well, reports are one thing, but this is also a human interest story that begs to be written. Kevin Dodd, in his “Senrinomichi” blog, uses the analogy of a ghost train to describe Fukushima. While passengers doze in their seats, unaware of exactly where they are and what is passing by, the train progresses without ever reaching its destination . That is, unless (and this is the crucial part) passengers force themselves to stay awake and write postcards containing the stories, to be recorded in history and remembered. Thanks, Kevin, for that analogy, and here’s my postcard.
More on the contaminated concrete: a January 15th report from Kyodo News, stated that some 5,280 tons of crushed stones were shipped to some 19 different contractors from a quarry in Namie between the day of the quake and April 22nd. By the following week, investigations showed that at least sixty houses and condominium buildings in Fukushima Prefecture had been tainted by concrete made from Namie stones. According to another article from Kyodo News on January 24th, the same concrete was also used to re-build the infrastructure of damaged cities. In other words, Fukushima cars travel along roads built from radioactive asphalt, and walkers may stroll along the river, following the radioactive embankments. By January 26th, the amount of stones shipped from the quarry was listed at 5,725 tons, and more temporary housing units in Fukushima were deemed “likely” to have have been built from the radioactive concrete.
According to the head of the quarry in Namie, “I never imagined the crushed stones were radioactive when I shipped them. I feel very sorry for those who have been involved.” Fukushima Prefecture officials will help in finding new accommodations for those living on the first floor of the Nihonmatsu condominium, where radiation levels are highest. The Central Government “closely studied” the distribution routes of the Namie stones and the radiation levels of various housing units, but has declared that the annual radiation exposure in the units will not be high enough to warrant evacuation.
And that’s it: there’s been no news since then. Plenty of other head-shaking and even jaw-dropping incidents to focus on ( particularly the revelation that the central government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency failed to keep records for 23 meetings held directly after the nuclear catastrophe. No records—nothing at all. They are now in the process of “reconstructing” the events of each meeting, for what it’s worth, ten months down the road. Although failing to keep public records is in violation of Japanese law, there is in fact no punishment involved for perpetrators, so the central government is legally off the hook, although its reputation at home and abroad is even further tarnished. Never mind tarnished, it’s shot. There’s really nothing left to uphold. )
Since the news has already moved on, let me go back and piece together the story of Namie Town for those of you who are not yet in the know. As you can see from the photo, Namie stretches from East to Northwest, and borders the ocean. The eastern area in particular suffered heavy damage from both the quake and the tsunami. After the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the town was under an information blackout which would prove to bring about tragic and still-reverberating consequences. While the citizens of Namie Town (dealing with the fresh emotional horror of the quake, the aftershocks, the tsunami damage, and the ensuing fear of the uncertain situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant) were being assured that radiation levels outside of a 10 kilometer radius were safe, the central government was reviewing data based on radiation measurements that showed a blanket of radioactive fallout stretching as far south as Tokyo.
On March 14th, the central government’s computer-produced map predicting the pattern of the radiation fallout (the SPEEDI map, now a well-known and infamous entity) was shared with the US Military. This , oficials explained afterwards, was an effort to ensure US support, advice, and cooperation in the days to come. The US used this information in deciding on their own “safety zone” of a full 80 kilometers from the Daiichi plant. The SPEEDI map was not shared directly with residents, or even with the local government officials in Tohoku, who desperately needed the information to make life-changing decisions on behalf of their citizens. In fact, in those first days, there were no communications at all from the central government. Naoto Kan was busy directing an attempt to dump water from a tiny helicopter onto the smoking inferno that was the power plant. We all watched, as time and again the wind blew the meagre amount of water off-course and another helicopter bravely hovered over exactly the right spot in a futile effort to do something–anything–to avert further disaster. And so, lacking guidance and vital information, the Mayor of Namie decided to evacuate his people North, to the area of the town that lay furthest away from the still-smoking reactors.
The people of Namie, alerted by a community radio station broadcast, evacuated to the district of Tsushima, a mountainous region lying a full 30 kilometers Northwest of TEPCO, but still within the confines of Namie. Approximately 10,000 residents fled to Tsushima, where they were welcomed with generosity, receiving shelter and comfort as families, friends, and strangers set up housekeeping together in what they believed was a safe refuge. Mizue Kanno, who owns a spacious house in Tsushima, took in 25 friends and strangers on March 12th. She later told her story to Japan’s Asahi Shinbun, where it was published in serial form, under the title, “The Prometheus Trap“.
The serial story reveals that the radiation levels in Tsushima were, in fact, dangerously high on that day, but that police were forbidden to tell locals. Kanno-san and her
housemates learned of this from two mysterious men in white protective suits who drove to the house, stopping only long enough to warn them to evacuate immediately, then speeding off into the night. Sounds like something out of a novel?? Well, everything was surreal at that point in time, and Kanno-san and her new friends decided to trust the warning. Leaving in staggered groups, they all fled the Tsushima district; “Prometheus Trap” follows up, giving details on how they fared and where they eventually landed. Many others who had not been warned and chose to stay on in the district were exposed to varying levels of radiation. Although I share in the widespread dismay over the lack of detailed media coverage on many aspects of the 3-11 triple disaster, I give credit to Asahi for publishing the story, eight installments in all, in both its English and Japanese editions.
Let me continue the story where Prometheus Trap leaves off.
Take a leap of the imagina, and put yourself in the shoes of Namie mayor, Tamotsu Baba. He had successfully taken the initiative and evacuated citizens from the eastern part of the town when the western half of Namie (the Tsushima district) was then declared to be dangerous, and designated as part of a new, expanded evacuation zone. Those who had taken refuge in Tsushima from the eastern Namie were forced to move again, this time scattering far and wide. The Mayor himself became homeless, and felt the heavy burden of having chosen the wrong refuge for the citizens who had depended on him.
Some of the Namie citizens who fled the Tsushima district in March found shelter in the northerly village of Iitate, whose Mayor Norio Kanno welcomed them to his “slow life” community. Happy ending at last? No, not yet. Those of you who read my previous post know what happened in Iitate: an unexpected northwesterly wind had blown a blanket of radioactive snow straight across the village, effectively causing radiation levels matching–and in some places exceeding–levels within the evacuation zone. This was discovered some weeks after the fact, and Iitate was also evacuated, marking the third move for a number of Namie families.
Other Namie citizens fled from Tsushima to Nihonmatsu, a city lying well to the west of the evacuation zone…. and now it has been discovered that evacuee housing in Nihonmatsu has been built with radioactive cement from the Namie rock quarry, which continued to function after the majority of its citizens had evacuated. When I saw the article in the Japan Times, my heart sank. It seems that families from Namie have been betrayed many times over.
The radioactive cement incident is terribly disturbing, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry can certainly be blamed for establishing no radiation restrictions on crushed stones (if other products within radioactive zones have restrictions, why would stones not?) , and for allowing shipments to continue to leave the quarry well after residents, fearing for their health, had deserted the area. The head of the quarry’s protest (“I never imagined the stones might be radioactive!”) also rings hollow, and the central government’s easy dismissal of the incident is troubling as well. I remembered that the Mayor of Iitate had also fought to ensure that industries in his village could continue to function after the evacuation orders were in place, and wondered if similar damage was unknowingly done as a result of his desire to preserve his beloved Iitate’s economy. Complicated, isn’t it? I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I certainly recognize and feel the injustice suffered by the residents of both Iitate Village and Namie Town.
Now, fast-forward to January 2012, ten months after the quake. Namie Town’s Mayor Baba has learned that vital information that could have changed the fate of thousands of his town residents (the data contained in the SPEEDI map) had been purposely witheld. Apologizing for the “delay”, Reconstruction Minister Goshi Hosono explains that the central government had ”feared it might trigger panic. ” Ummmm…maybe a bit of panic had actually been in order, and certainly a measure of haste would have limited residents’ exposure to the high radiation levels in Namie following the quake and nuclear explosions. Certainly, if the mayors of both Iitate and Namie had realized the scope of the radioactive fallout, they would have acted differently, evacuating residents to areas well beyond the danger zone and preventing later multiple moves.
Mayor Baba of Namie recently spoke out in an Australian news broadcast, regretting that, “Because we had no information we were unwittingly evacuating to an area where the radiation level was high, so I’m very worried about the people’s health. I feel pain in my heart but also rage over the poor actions of the government.” Yes, his word choice was “rage”. And it’s understandable rage at that. One never hears such extreme language in Japan (at least I personally do not), and his concluding statement is even more startling from the Japanese point of view. The Mayor himself realizes he’s breaking a social taboo by beginning it with an apology: “It’s not nice language, but I still think it was an act of murder. What were they thinking when it came to the people’s dignity and lives?” The answer is, tragically, that the central government was not thinking at all about either dignity or life, and Fukushima residents have every right to feel betrayed.
In fact, so do residents of Tokyo, and my own Kanagawa Prefecture. While we assumed ourselves well out of harm’s way, data generated by the government that we never saw clearly showed otherwise. Specifically, it showed that radiation levels on March 15th were alarmingly high, not just in Tohoku, but in Tokyo and Kanagawa as well. Hiroaki
Koide, from the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University ( a position he was relegated to as a form of “purgatory” according to some, because of his unguarded criticism of Japan’s nuclear industry) knew of the extent of this radioactive fallout, but was pressured to withhold the data from publication. Koide-san got his revenge by testifying in front of Japan’s Upper House Government Oversight Committee on May 23rd, and has since become somewhat of a national hero. His speech exposing the government’s dirty tricks and the reality of the threat of radioactivity to Japan’s children was viewed on live stream by thousands at home and abroad, while the you tube video has been widely viewed, shared, and translated into English. At every demo and rally I have attended, I’ve seen at least one, “Thank you, Koide-Senseii!” sign or banner.
And so, in the end, the full extent of the damage caused by the withholding of vital information by the Japanese government has yet to be evaluated. While Itaru Watanabe, representing the National Science Ministry, now admits that, “….maybe that same data [the SPEEDI map] should have been shared with the public, too. We didn’t think of that. We acknowledge that now,” residents of both Iitate Village and Namie Town continue to suffer from the aftermath of their respective evacuations and re-evacuations. Google Iitate Village, for instance, and you will find some disturbing statistics gathered from a recent survey of residents who evacuated. One third of all families, if the Wikipedia article is accurate, are now living apart from their children, which cannot be a good thing. The authors of the fine bi-lingual blog “SeeTell” take a strong stand on the SPEEDI incident, concluding that, “In the end, no-one will be held accountable for this act which was either a calculated and deliberate cover-up to protect the interests of the politicians, bureaucrats, nuclear industry, the US, and whoever else holds influence over this corrupt government or…well…there is no other explanation.”
As for me, I’ll do my best to speak up and speak out, in defense of those who were betrayed. Calling the government’s witholding of the SPEEDI map an “act of murder” is an extreme statement, but if there are a rash of deaths in years to come from the effects of internal radiation exposure, the Mayor’s words will have been prophetic. In the meanwhile, thousands of people must live with uncertainty and fear, for themselves and their children. That alone is reason for anger and for action. Thank you again for reading.