Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Fukushima’

“IS STUPIDITY A SYMPTOM OF ACUTE RADIATION EXPOSURE TOO?”  (read the headline of  a blog post I received via e-mail the other day. ) Startled and offended, I marked it with a star and put off reading the article.  When I calmed down and skimmed through the post , I found its offensiveness consistent; in short, blaming parents in Fukushima for allowing and the Japanese government for encouraging children to play in a contaminated environment. “Everyone has gone mad!” declared the author of the post, peppering his diatribe with exclamation marks!!

Hmmmmmm….

And then there were these words from a cover letter I received after buying some badges to support the opposition of nuclear power in Fukushima:  “Fukushima people are silent. They do not have the courage to express their concerns regarding the future use of nuclear power…..The true defeatists are those who remain in Fukushima, who say they have no choice other than to make their living in the contaminated areas….They are beaten. Constant radiation and relentless social pressure has (sic) clearly made many Fukushimans tired and passive.”

Really?  Fukushima residents are “stupid”? “beaten”? “passive”?  Robbed of their wits and their voices by the effects of radiation and social pressure? Isn’t it only too easy to be judgmental from the outside, and to mistakenly attribute one’s own voice and heartfelt conviction to others who are deemed “voiceless”?  Other troubling phrases and declamations embedded in the blog posts and facebook updates I scroll through regularly had been nagging at me, and when my geographer friend Yukari invited me on a day trip to Fukushima City, I jumped at the chance. “Hah!” I thought. “The whole truth won’t be revealed in a day, but at least I’ll have had a peek at things from the inside.”

Hayabusa

Our bullet train to Northern Japan. It’s sleek and awesomel

And so I set off, leaving Shinjuku at 6:58 in the morning (trains run precisely to the minute here)  meeting up with Yukari in Oomiya, the very cool station where several different bullet trains converge briefly before gliding off again to their respective destinations. We rode “Yamabiko”, named after a Japanese “echoing spirit” that’s heard but not seen; try to touch it, the legend says, and you feel something like molasses on your hand.

After we had devoured our boxed breakfasts and enjoyed an hour or so of gossip on the train, Yamabiko slid smoothly into the Fukushima station, and we were ready for business. Yukari’s two geographer friends joined us at the station and we squeezed into a taxi, directing the driver to the address of the Fukushima Midwives Association ‘s main office in the Watari district.

DSC01858

No shortage of taxis at the Fukushima station…

Why exactly were three geography professors keen on interviewing the president of a midwives association? Well, having assisted in translating Yukari’s papers over the course of fifteen years, I can tell you. Geography is more than just countries, capitals, landscapes, and vegetable crops. It is subdivided into two related fields–human geography and physical geography–with geographers focusing on one or the other, or (not uncommonly) on the interaction between the two. One of the best examples of this would be my daughter’s college in Bar Harbor, Maine, which offers only one degree, in “Human Ecology”, or the relationship between man and his environment.  All students of the College of the Atlantic are geographers by the time they graduate, and the geography professors packed into the taxi in Fukushima were human ecologists as well: prepared to ask hard questions about raising children in a contaminated environment. I was there as an interested third party, and as the official photo publicist.

Our driver guided the taxi through a maze of narrow residential streets quite similar to my own neighborhood in Hadano, and left us off at an unobtrusive little white apartment building.  Up a steep concrete staircase, and before we could ring the bell, the door few open. “Well, here you are!”  beamed a small grandmotherly-type woman with fuschia-colored lipstick and a lovely floral patterned jacket and skirt.  I mention this because my image of a “midwife” is of unshaven legs, Birkinstock sandals, and long flowing hair. Certainly the midwives who attended me at my two births had done nothing to dispel that image. Ishida Tokiko-san, President of the Fukushima Midwives Association, was dressed fancy to receive visitors, and she welcomed us into her office with a warm smile.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy "office" table.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy “office” table.

Her “office” was nothing more than a one room Japanese-style apartment, with tiny kitchen and bathroom attached, yet it was light and pleasant; the main centerpiece was a good-sized low table (we call them “coffee tables” in the US, but they’re used for serious eating in Asian countries) with cushions rather than chairs. The decor was a large white banner with messages of love and encouragement sent from America. “You must be surprised at this tiny place,” said Ishida-san cheerfully, “…but imagine how difficult it was before we found a place to set up headquarters after the quake!” …..And that was the beginning of a four hour story session, as each question posed by one of the three geographers led naturally to an incident that begged to be related.

Here are bits and pieces of what we learned:

It was chaos for mothers with babies and small children when the quake occurred, followed by the tsunami and the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Those who survived but lost their homes fled to public evacuation centers, sleeping on gymnasium floors along with other families and  scores of elderly citizens.  But communal living was stressful; babies howled uncontrollably and needed to be nursed, and mothers felt the strain of trying to “keep the peace” so that the family on the futons next to them could sleep. Public officials did their best to move families with babies into the only available housing in the prefecture: civil servants’ office buildings and rooms at Japanese-style inns located far west of Hamadori, the area of Fukushima hardest hit by the plume of radioactivity. This was only a temporary solution, since the office buildings had no utilities or furnishings, and rooms at the inns were cramped quarters for extended families. Eventually, families moved again, some moving multiple times before finding something that functioned as “home”.

-9a3c6bd99d08a41b

Many mothers fled with small children to live with relatives in less-contaminated parts of the prefecture, leaving fathers behind to “keep house”.

In short, during the first few months after the quake before temporary housing was completed, mothers and their small children were scattered, scrambling to find safety, privacy and protection from the elements. Some lived in cars, some in tents, and some with relatives in other cities or prefectures; some went back to stick it out in partially-damaged houses and some accepted offers of temporary housing from far-away parts of the country.  And as the first temporary housing complexes were completed, some families moved into the tidy little box-like apartments to begin new lives in artificially-created communities.

During those first few chaotic months, Ishida-san and her staff worked tirelessly (though I’m sure they were tired to the point of collapse) to make sure that new mothers received both practical and emotional assistance and that pregnant women received adequate care.  Since town registers were in the process of being re-created, midwives had no other recourse but to take their own population census, going door-to-door looking for pregnant women and mothers with small children. Gas was scarce, so they walked or bicycled about their neighborhoods armed with diapers and baby wipes. Needless to say, their diaper crusade was a volunteer effort until some months later, when money began to trickle down from various places. I was humbled and impressed to learn that in the first year, the midwives of Fukushima were important connecters: they scouted out young families in apartments and reported their residence to town officials for the registry; conversely, they also received information on available apartments from town officials and brought the news directly to families in need of shelter.

Mothers who took advantage of the "Satogaeri" facilities pose for a photo.

Mothers who took advantage of the “Satogaeri” facilities pose for a photo.

In the fall of 2011, an aid group in Tokyo stepped in to create a unique and much-appreciated option for pregnant women and young mothers:  a center for rest and recuperation after birth, located in relatively safe (everything related to “safety” is relative here)  Aizu district of Fukushima. The “Satogaeri”, or “Return to the Hometown” project was popular from the start, providing a physical and emotional shelter for mothers.  Yet after an all-too-brief two week stay at the safe and welcoming center for new mothers, women returned to their previous living arrangements to face the challenges of motherhood in post-3/11 Fukushima.

At this point, Ishida-san’s assistant, Sanpei-san, told us of her own experiences raising her one-year-old son during the first year after the quake. Those were the days when children did not play outside. When Yuri and her son did leave the house, she could not use the baby stroller or let him walk, as the child would be too close to the ground (where radiation levels were highest).  She carried her son everywhere, no matter how far, and returned to the house exhausted. Coming home meant brushing off outside dirt (again, dirt meant radioactive particles) , and washing and hanging (inside) more loads of clothes.  What did she do inside with her toddler all day long? ” We read books. I tried baby massage. I fought with my husband.” Many women, she said, took their stress out on their children. Husbands and wives fought. Mother-in-laws and their daughter-in-laws fought. Friends drifted apart. Some individuals owned multiple geiger counters and obsessively measured the radiation level of their houses and yards which often increased anxiety, rather than relieving their fears. Everyone was vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to unfounded rumors, and struggling with fear and uncertainty.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

Throughout this difficult time, Ishida-san and her colleagues increased their efforts to rally  fellow midwives and organize services to ease the emotional needs of mothers who had chosen to live in Fukushima prefecture. The Midwives Association set up a telephone support line, which was flooded with calls on a daily basis. They also started a “salon” where mothers could bring their small children to meet regularly and interact in a supportive environment, free from criticism and negativity. Midwives paid home visits to new mothers and helped them through the first stages of breast-feeding. They received samples of breast milk from nursing mothers and sent it off to labs to test its radiation level. They got out their calculators and helped nervous mothers figure out their daily exposure to low-level radiation. Rather than giving advice, the midwives provided practical assistance, emotional support, and a collective listening ear.

And now, let’s get to the meat of this post. What I really wanted to know and really hated to ask was, Why were so many mothers still living in the Watari area, which has been the focus of negative publicity for the past two years?  “Save the children of Watari!”  has been the rallying cry of NGOs and citizens’ action groups who believe that the Japanese government is guilty of criminal neglect for not providing evacuation money to the citizens of this district.

Fukushima's Watari district in the spring. Beautiful...but is it safe to life here?

Fukushima’s Watari district in the spring. Beautiful…but is it safe to live here?

The district known as Watari is 60 kilometers from the Daiichi nuclear power plant, well outside of the designated evacuation zone, and the government has chosen to tackle the issue of low-level radiation via ongoing decontamination rather than providing financial support for those who choose to leave. Opponents of the government’s decision, however, claim that the radiation levels remain alarmingly high and that families should not be raising children there.  I  wanted to know how many mothers still wished to leave the Watari district, but were unable to find financial support.  I wanted to know if mothers were simply stuck there, or if they had made a choice to remain despite the negative publicity.

Ishida-san answered my questions  bluntly. “Hmm.” she said. “Wanting to leave, but don’t have financial means? No, we get no calls like that here at the center. That’s not a factor at all these days. Those who live here have made their choice.”

Oh.  Well, then.  I guess “Save the Children!”  is a campaign without a cause. Or a cause that has run its course and is no longer relevant?  Or perhaps those families waiting to get out are still too paranoid or ashamed to go public with their appeal?

According to Ishida-san, the “Save Watari Kids!” organization has done more harm than good in Fukushima by urging residents to flee from their hometown. “Women had just begun to calm down and pick up their lives again and feel positive when people from outside Fukushima Prefecture came in and shook things up.  Mothers who had begun to make progress in coping with their anxieties began doubting again and fell into depression and paranoia.”  Until this point, Ishida-san had spoken matter-of-factly, but here she looked to be holding back tears. I was riveted to her face as she spoke; the issue was undoubtedly more complicated than she intimated, but certainly she was speaking a part of the truth, and speaking it with certainty.

Another part of the truth: internet links to NGOs supporting the evacuation of the

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called "Global Giving".

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called “Global Giving”.

Watari district show that many residents responded positively to the NGO’s efforts to force the central government to enforce stricter safety standards and provide financial support to families wishing to leave. Many residents appreciated the fact that outsiders were able to increase awareness of their situation throughout the country, and even abroad.  And many NGO-sponsored projects to provide children with “radiation-free vacations” in the countryside have proved popular. I have met people involved in the “Save Watari Children” projects (mostly in Tokyo, where they pass out leaflets promoting their activities), and they are good people.

Well-intentioned people also produced the “No Nukes in Fukushima!” badges and wrote the cover letter that gave me pause this morning.  What can be said, then, about their declarations that Fukushima residents are “beaten” and defeated? That they are too passive, and unable to take steps to control their own destinies?

Uuummm….I don’t want to touch that issue with a ten foot pole, a hundred foot pole, or any kind of pole at all.  No-one outside the prefecture has the right to make that kind of judgement, and even Fukushima natives had better choose their words carefully. Ishida-san did have something to say about the character of women in Northern Japan, however, and after a few decades of delivering babies and caring for their mothers, she’s probably qualified to speak out.  Here’s her assessment (translated as accurately as possible by myself) :

“Women of Northern Japan do not express their opinions easily. They often do not have their own opinions, because they are not aware that this is acceptable. They do not know where they stand, because they have not had to take many stands. They are taught to follow, to grit their teeth and bear what’s unpleasant, and to persevere in the face of rough circumstances rather than to affect change. This makes them vulnerable to criticism, to pressure from family, to propaganda campaigns, and to anxiety stemming from uncertainty and indecision. Women are unable to decide anything on their own, so they turn to us for help. We listen, we do not criticize or advise, and we teach them gently how to make decisions. We work with them, rather than telling them.”

Wonderful, right? A midwife service that not only delivers babies, but teaches decision-making and inner strength! …but does it work?

Sadly enough, Ishida-san admitted that women in Northern Japan are emotionally weaker, rather than stronger, since the Great East Japan Earthquake, despite the best efforts of the Midwives’ Association.  And it is a good-sized network: 114 registered midwives serve the Fukushima prefecture, not counting those with licenses who work independently.  Their efforts, however, are not enough to stem the tide of anxiety and fear stemming from the post-meltdown environmental contamination. I realized that since the quake, midwives have been serving as counselors and therapists (Japan has a dearth of both) as well as baby-whisperers, and again was both humbled and impressed.

You can't be too careful. Little ones spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

You can’t be too careful. Little ones still spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

Ishida-san and her assistant Yuri-san spoke of their patients with understanding and sympathy, rather than pity.  Since they live in the same district of Fukushima as their patients, they share the same challenges, and they also have chosen to take precautions against nuclear radiation rather than leave their homes and break up their family units. They test their food. They hang laundry inside. They shake dirt off on the doorstep. They clean the outside of their houses with power hoses (courtesy of the central government). They check radiation levels around their homes on a daily basis. They try to stay informed, though this is not easy to do as they are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. They believe that radiation levels have gone down significantly, and that they can build a new life for themselves and their children without leaving Fukushima.

Is this wise?  Have folks’ brains been, as some bloggers like to intimate, addled by radiation poisoning?  Well, that is none of our business, is it?  We all have the right to decide our own course, and as Ishida-san firmly stated, health is not just about physical well-being.  She and Sanpei-san both believe that those who have chosen to stay in the Watari district have made valid decisions based on ties to their family, work commitments, and living arrangements, and that these factors are important for their emotional health.  Ishida-san and her colleagues believe that their job as midwives is not to judge, but to support women, and to encourage them to think for themselves and decide their own futures.  The Fukushima midwives teach by example, dealing with hardship calmly and providing steady encouragement and a dose of old-fashioned common sense.  Isn’t that what’s needed, more than “saving”, when all is said and done?  Perseverance and endurance doesn’t have to mean weakness.

As I mentioned at the onset, our visit at the main office of the Midwives Association lasted a full four hours. Finally, realizing that Ishida-san must be hungry (we ourselves were starving), we excused ourselves and grabbed a taxi back to the Fukushima Station. It was a beautiful day, flowers were blooming, high school girls were hanging out in short uniform skirts, and Main Street looked like any ordinary rural Japanese city center except for the dearth of people. Too many taxis hanging out, too few shoppers lining the sidewalk, and too few tourists buying souvenirs at the station shops. Yukari and I bought some sweet little dumplings to take home, and boarded the super-sleek bullet train headed back to Tokyo, equipped with both food for literal consumption and food for thought.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

Read Full Post »

Wherever you live in Japan, everyone agrees:  there’s plenty to be angry about, and plenty to be

Fukushima children lined up for thyroid checks on October 10th (Mainichi Shinbun)

anxious about. Plenty of reasons to feel (at best) confused, and (at worst) betrayed. The past two weeks have flown by, featuring news stories such as FUKUSHIMA BEGINS CHILD THYROID CHECKS ,  STRONTIUM FOUND IN YOKOHAMA ,   CESIUM FOUND IN TOKYO ,  MINAMI-SANRIKU IN DANGER OF FISCAL COLLAPSE (NHK evening news), and RADIOACTIVE CLEANUP TO BE COVERED BY STATE . Each of these stories touched nerves, fanned anxiety, and evoked a mixture of sympathy and frustration in readers of morning papers and watchers of nightly news programs.  Bloggers report and opine, and comments fly fast and furious at the bottom of blog entries. There are those, of course, who don’t read the papers and adhere to strictly- entertainment TV….but even so, the news seeps in.  There’s really no avoiding it. Personally, I welcome it: compared to the vague reports following the March 11th disaster, there is now a wealth of information flowing from both home and abroad, translated into multiple languages, and folks are able to see the situation more objectively from a variety of different points of view.

Inevitably, among the constant barrage of stories and statistics, a single story will leap into my consciousness and stay with me all week, begging to be written about. I generally torment my co-workers and family for the next few days, demanding to know what they think about it, and if they think nothing at all, WHY? Then on the weekend, I’ll attempt to gather my thoughts together and make sense of it here.  This week’s troubling article was from Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune, a compilation of NY Times articles for overseas readers.

In “Japan looks overseas for future of its nuclear trade “,  Hiroko Tabuchi writes about Japan’s plans to continue selling nuclear power technology to developing countries, namely Vietnam and Turkey. “The effort is being made,” she writes, “despite criticism within Japan by environmental groups and opposition politicians. ” But here’s the paragraph that caused myself, and my friend Kimiko, to groan aloud: “It may seem a stretch for Japan to acclaim its nuclear technology overseas while struggling at home to contain the nuclear meltdowns that displaced more than 100,000 people. But Japan argues that its latest technology includes safeguards not present at the decades-old reactors at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, which continues to leak radiation….Japanese officials argue, their nation has learned valuable lessons and has a good nuclear track record for withstanding earlier earthquakes.”

My father-in-law would scoff at the flawed logic of pompous politicians.

Oh, well,  I’ll love to turn the ghost of my dead grandmother, along with my still-living father-in-law, loose in the Japanese Parliament to hear them shoot THAT statement down. “Pick up one mess before you start another!” my grandmother would say, and shame them with her look of moral indignation.  “It’s no use saying you’ve learned a lesson,” my father-in-law would say in disgust. “You have to prove it with action.” He would snort dismissively at pompous lawmakers, reducing them to babbling fools…..but that’s in my dreams. The reality is that it’s not just the central government involved here. Tabuchi’s article reveals that Japan’s top three companies-Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, are all involved in some aspect of nuclear engineering, and are “more eager than ever to look overseas.” Well, simply put, that represents the husbands of some of my co-workers (Hitachi is one of the biggest employers in Hadano), and many other friends as well.  If you count guilt by association. Which I hate to do. In any case, I broached the subject with a friend whose husband works for the Hadano branch of Hitachi.

“Of course we know that Hitachi is involved,” she said. “Everyone does. But what can we do

Hitachi doesn’t just mean wide-screen TVs….

about it?”  Well, EVERYONE didn’t know, because I was still thinking of Hitachi in terms of vacuum cleaners and wide-screen TVs. What a mess. To what degree are ordinary citizens implicated in the corruption of the nuclear industry?  Should Hitachi employees quit their jobs, trade their briefcases for surfboards, and throw their retirement benefits to the wind? One former high-ranking TEPCO employee has done just that (see the video if you’re interested) , but that guy is definitely an exception.  I love my friends. Their husbands are great fathers, great spouses, and hard workers.  They’re not the real bad guys.  Just like the city officials who agreed to host nuclear power plants decades ago are not the real bad guys. Nor are the workers at the power plants, the majority of whom have been assigned their jobs by temporary employment agencies.  And yet, as Haruki Murakami said in his Barcelona speech, if we have remained silent in the face of corruption, we are implicated. It’s not a pretty picture.

In Tabuchi’s article, opposition party lawmaker Itsunori Onodera is quoted as asking, “Why is Japan trying to export something it rejected at home?” Well, obviously because the commitment to nuclear power has not been clearly rejected at home. It’s being “considered”, and that is quite a different thing.  Former Prime Minister Kan stubbornly attempted to commit the nation to a fast-track renewable-energy program, and was widely rebuffed for his hastiness.  Citizens interviewed on TV admit to having doubts about the safety of nuclear power plants, but think they are still a necessary part of the immediate future. Currently only one out of five of Japan’s  nuclear plants is still in service, due to safety checks and damage repairs since the quake; these reactors are technically “in limbo” rather than “out of service”.  The possibility/probability of their re-starting has not been rejected by the current government (they change so quickly), which now announces its intention to export its new and improved technology, complete with “lessons learned.”

With full de-comissioning of the  Daiichi damaged reactors still , according to anyone’s accounts, decades down the road, I would like to know what lessons have been learned. At the end of the summer, I read an article in the Mainichi Shinbun about the complications and costs of de-commissioning, and came away both humbled and appalled. Here’s what I learned:  In simple terms, the process involves cleaning (removing spent fuel rods and decontaminating pipes and containers), waiting (for the level of radiation to go down with time), and dismantling (the final stage, where the facility itself is taken down, and the site reverted to

Cheery-looking entrance to the no-longer-active Tokai Nuclear Power Plant

a vacant lot). Worldwide, only 15 nuclear power plants have actually been de-commissioned.  Japan has only had experience with de-comissioning one, and has not finished the process. That one is the Tokai Power Plant in Ibaragi, where the process of removing spent fuel began in 1998.  Dismantling of the facilities began in 2001, and workers have not yet begun to take apart the reactor itself. Projected cost upon completion?  88.5 billion yen.  Manpower involved?  563,000 people.  The next plant to be de-commissioned will likely be Hamaoka, the aging and controversial plant in Shizuoka Prefecture.  Experts from Hitachi predict the process will take thirty years to complete.

The point is that both Tokai and Hamaoka are “normal” de-comissioning projects, whereas Fukushima is anything but normal. Experts are divided on how long the process will take, how much it will cost, what measures will be most effective, and even whether or not the spent fuel rods can be removed at all. If they can, re-processing will be complicated, and storage sites will be equally problematic.  According to the three step de-comissioning process, work has barely begun, as TEPCO cannot begin to think of removing spent fuel while contaminated water must be constantly cooled and treated, and radiation levels are are so dangerously high that workers are only allowed to work short shifts in rotation. Meiji University expert in reactor engineering and policy Tadahiro Katsuta predicts, “…at least ten years just to determine whether it is possible to remove the fuel,” and a possible fifty years before the de-comissioning is complete. Best to not even attempt full de-comissioning.  Instead, entomb the entire site in concrete, he advises, and others in the field agree. Experts abroad  (as well as those at home, namely Kyoto University Professor Koide ) continue to ask, “Where is the corium?”,  fearing that the core of the reactor (a mixture of melted fuel and other elements) has breached the floor of the containment vessel and is sinking steadily toward the level of the water table, with possible deadly consequences.

As the Mainichi Shinbun article proclaimed, “…what we face is a great unknown to all of

The Fukushima Daiichi clean-up will be measured in decades, not years.

mankind”, and until the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been safely dismantled (or safely entombed) , the lessons have not yet been learned. Even then, environmental research must be continued to learn how the surroundings have changed (they can never return to what they once were) and adapted as a result of widespread contamination.  Of course, the thyroid checks of Fukushima’s children are just part of the medical and sociological research that must continue for decades as well.  It’s incredible to me that the former Prime Minister was condemned for “hastiness” in ordering the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant and in pushing his renewable energy program, while the current government is literally jumping at the chance to re-start negotiations for building new reactors abroad when their own very public disaster is still in a dangerously volatile state. “You haven’t cleaned up your mess!” says my Grandmother, glowering, “and here you go starting a new one!”  “Don’t TELL me you’ve learned a lesson,” frowns my father-in-law. “Show me the proof!” As for me, I mourn for the terrible waste of time and resources involved–time that could be spend in invention and creation, rather than tearing down and decontaminating. How on earth did we manage to become dependent on technology so deadly that it takes nearly half a lifetime to render it harmless after it’s shut down?

Yet because Japan has not clearly rejected nuclear technology, there is actually very little contradiction in its determination to export.  As long as the great majority of citizens remain uncommitted or silent, the government will move ahead with its own agenda. This is the burning question that I think about all the time now: Will enough ordinary citizens finally break their silence and take charge of their own future? It’s hard to know at this point.

Roger Pulvers thinks a volcano of anger could erupt….

It is a hopeful sign that many Japanese young people formally described as “..meek, mild and manageable”  have found  ” ..a renewed awareness in themselves and a belief that they should be doing something to redress the pain and ills their country is experiencing.” (Japan Times, Roger Pulvers, Oct. 8).  Pulvers, an author, playwright, theatre director and professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology believes that the country is ready for an eruption of major proportions.  “Conditions are Ripe for the Volcano of Japan’s Betrayed to Erupt Again” read the heading of his article, which traces a bit of the history of discontent and protest in Japan. Pulvers compares the current state of Japan to a volcano, appearing “..smooth, peaceful, uneventful and unchanging on the surface, while underneath growls the rough heat of anger…..The Japanese people may be placid and obsessed with decorum on the surface, but the cycle of generational change and the build-up of national anger-especially in those sections of society that feel betrayed-is never something to be taken lightly.”  He sees hope in the nation’s young people, who are skilled in social networking and bursting with potential energy.

It’s certainly long past time for college-age students in Japan to begin thinking independently and taking risks. I sent my own son back to the US for college (not that he wasn’t champing at the bit to be gone himself) precisely because I did not want him to living at home in his twenties and spending his part-time job money on electronic toys,

Handbag ad showing sweet and well-accesorized Japanese college girls.

cigarettes, or beer. I know that not all Japanese students do this when they hit the age of twenty, but plenty do.  I will send my daughter abroad as well, as she will be happier wearing jeans and t-shirts to school every day, rather than doing “oshare” with make-up and accessories, as Japanese college girls do. I want them both to live independently, make their own decisions, and bail themselves out of tricky situations rather than calling home.  Japanese college students might risk missing the last train home if they drink too much and forget the time, but otherwise they have fairly cushy lives, requiring very little in the way of sacrifice. This is because ( their parents will tell you)  they suffered terribly in high school studying day and night, and are now taking the reward they deserve. Whatever–it’s not the life I wanted for my own children, and I’m relieved that they made no fuss about studying abroad after living in small-town Japan since their Nursery School days.

Hopefully, Professor Pulvers is right, and the self-absorbtion and limited world view of the college-age students I see around me is morphing into something better and stronger.  It has been refreshing to read the blogs of college students who have volunteered in Tohoku since the quake; many of them have been deeply affected by the people they came in contact with and have returned again and again to continue helping. Most refreshing, of course, and most impressive, has been coming in contact with the hunger strikers–the four young people (plus one who joined halfway through) who camped outside of the METI offices in Kasumigaski for ten days, taking nothing but water and salt. They weren’t concerned with their dress or appearance, or worried that this time away from college might affect their future careers. They were angry, yes, but their anger was under control, and constructively channelled.  My daughter and I took a day to visit them, and I still marvel at their maturity, communication skills, and powers of determination. So I’ll end tonight’s post with a very well-made video clip of the four young people who represent hope for the country. Do take a look, and imagine things from their perspective. They do not want their generation involved in cleaning up a mess it did not make, but they will have no choice. The most they can do is attempt to make that burden lighter for their own children by fighting to bring the era of dependence on nuclear power to a close.

Read Full Post »

The sign on the building says it’s a church.  It’s a Baptist Church, actually, in Fukushima. The assembled group of Japanese and Americans are (according to the caption on the website), “standing safely on the porch of their newly decontaminated school”. The church serves as a Nursery School for a group of small children who spent five months inside after the March 11th disaster. Well!  Here are the kids, standing outside (looking both solemn and a bit bewildered ) , with the adults behind them looking downright exuberant. Did some sort of miracle occur here?  I found this photo accidentally while doing a Google search for photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Of course, that happens repeatedly during the course of a single day, and many detours, in fact, lead to nothing of significance. Having followed the detour (gotten off the known entity of the paved road and onto that dirt road leading to…?) , I’m usually left with mixed feelings of satisfaction (“Well, now at least I know where THAT road goes. “) and regret (” Oi, oi, but what a waste of time!”)  This time, however, I dug right in, feeling certain that I wouldn’t regret the extra twenty minutes. And I didn’t. The website on which the photo was posted described a project initiated by a company in Honolulu, Hawaii to introduce their relatively new (proven and tested in the last two years) miracle product to the radiation-ridden communities of Fukushima City.  Company representatives travelled to Japan this past summer and volunteered their time in “de-contaminating” the church/ nursery school,  donating both their manpower and large amounts of their product (called “DeconGel”) at an estimated value of $250,000.

I’ll get back to that story in more detail, I promise. But first, let me explain exactly why I was trawling through photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima.  It began with an excellent article from the Economist, entitled “Hot Spots and Blind Spots” (October 8th). The article described the predicament of Iitate Village, located 45 kilometers Northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; technically outside of the 30 kilometer evacuation zone, the village was showered with cesium when the wind blew to the West after the hydrogen explosions, carrying radioactive particles farther than anyone had anticipated. Although the central government  recognized the area as a “hot spot”,  villagers were not

Iitate Village resident listens to the mayor explaining the evacuation plan. (AP/Kyodo)

immediately urged to evacuate. Months passed before the village was finally determined unsafe and it’s nearly all of its 6,ooo residents evacuated.  I remember watching several NHK news reports focusing on the villagers and their emotional struggle to accept the loss of not just their homes and farms, but of their community and the traditions that had kept it alive and given it meaning for generations. The Iitate villagers had no choice but to scatter, taking refuge with friends or family in nearby prefectures, or taking temporary refuge in evacuation shelters.

The story continues: as of September 30th, the central government has lifted its advisory warning for towns between  20 to 30 kilometer distance from the Fukushima plant, and a decontamination plan has been announced , to cover 2,419 square kilos of soil (an area larger than greater Tokyo).  Iitate village is also scheduled for decontamination, and efforts have begun to cleanse the land in anticipation of its inhabitants’ return. This was reported on the nightly news as positive proof of the progress being made in Tohoku and reduction of the level of radioactivity in general.  Decontamination measures are now in full swing, and including the removal of cesium-laden dead leaves

Fukushima City: decontamination by pressure hosing…..does it create still more problems?

from forests and cesium-laden sludge from drainpipes and gutters, the removal of the first 5 centimeters of topsoil from playgrounds and farmland, and “pressure-hosing” of houses in urban areas. This top-to-bottom hosing of houses is being taught in do-it-yourself workshops, and pressure hoses are flying off the shelves in Fukushima.  All good? Well, listen to what Kunihiro Yamada, Professor of Environmental Science at Kyoto Seika University has to say on the subject. “The water cleaners” he states, “wash surface dirt off but then that tainted water goes into sewers and can contaminate rivers, thereby affecting farm goods and seafood.  If people in highly populated areas were to begin using water cleaners, we may end up finding people forcing tainted water onto each other. ” Well, yes, that does seem to be the logical conclusion, and it’s a wonder that we need a PhD to tell us what public officials should have foreseen in the first place. Well, what about scraping off the top layer of soil then?  This has so far proved to be the most effective method in reducing the amount of cesium; unfortunately (and again, quite logically), winds blowing dead leaves from the wooded mountains of Iitate deposit their offerings squarely atop the newest layer of clean soil, thus re-contaminating the land, and undoing any previous work.  Is the only answer, then, to cut down entire forests?

You live in Japan? Better check where your shrooms were grown.

Heaven forbid.  Yet the forests in Fukushima are deadly repositories of radioactive cesium, from leaves clinging to the branches to the shiitake mushrooms, thriving and unharvested, which attach themselves to wet fallen tree limbs.

Still, the council chief of Iitate, Chohei Sato, hopes that families with young children will return to the village, declaring, “The revival of this town depends on the children returning.” As of this month, however, many families are choosing not to return to the former evacuation zone areas; as a mother, I certainly would not. Even the Economist correspondent, reporting from Iitae, admitted to feeling, “….strangely reluctant to inhale.”

Yesterday’s Mainichi Shinbun also featured an article that sparked my interest and explained the complications involved with decontamination in laymen’s terms. Entitled “True Radiation Contamination Still a Long Way Away”,  the article contained an interview with Professor Yamauchi, a radiation metrology specialist from Kobe University, who describes radioactive cesium as existing in three states: dissolved in water, loosely bonded to organic materials such as moss and leaves, and tightly bonded to rock ( think: roads, gutters, cobblestones….or roof tiles).  According to Yamauchi, cesium bonds so tightly to substances like roof tiles that power hosing has only a very limited effect in reducing the level of radiation of the house (and only serves to transfer those particles that are washed away into the water itself).  “To bring the roof’s radiation levels down,” he postulates, “there’s probably no other way than to replace the roof.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

An unauthorized landfill site in Fukushima City.

  Now waaaaait a minute! Hold everything!                                        Here’s where my head started to spin, envisioning full-to-bursting bags of roof tiles, joining the bags of radioactive grass clippings, moss, soil, leaves…..and don’t forget the radioactive sludge!  And don’t forget the radioactive water, still building up in the tanks of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, as well as in enormous “Mega-Floats” positioned ominously along the coastline (As a sidelight, a Japanese news station today released a short video of Fukushima workers spraying large amounts of that radioactive water from reactor tanks into nearby shrubbery, in an effort to prevent possible overflow from the tanks of reactors 5 and 6. TEPCO spokesmen stated the water was “not significantly contaminated”, and would affect no damage on the surrounding environment. But that’s another post in itself). Is it any wonder that Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe compared the current situation of Japan to a science fiction story in his recent speech at the Sayonara Genpatsu demonstation rally in Tokyo? There must be a light shining somewhere in all this murky mess (I thought, as I trolled the internet, looking for photos of power hosing and such)……and then I stumbled onto the photo of the happy gang in front of the Baptist Church.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The

Check out the miracle sticker-gel!

company from Honolulu is called CBI Polymers. They use polymer-based decontamination technology to deal with radiological, nuclear, and chemical threats. Now there’s a career your great-grandmother never could have imagined. Their product, DeconGel, is promoted as “green”, being water-soluble with a neutral PH level. It looks like blue slime. As I understood from the article accompanying the photo, DeconGel acts as a giant peelable sticker. Brushed on with a squeegie-like implement (that part looks fun), it dries solid, trapping radioactive particles as it hardens. Finally, peel the whole thing off (that looks like fun, too) and you’ve got a radioactive sticker to dispose of. Much more compact than a bag of roof tiles, I’d say. The company promises that nearly 100 percent of the radiation can be removed with this gel, and the Fukushima Nursery School geiger counter readings proved that. The headmistress, overjoyed, immediately let the children out onto the newly-cleaned playground for the first time since the quake, and a short video (you can see it on the above link) shows them frolicking about outside in their adorable school uniforms. You also get to see this awesome gel being applied, which is more interesting than you’d imagine. Oh, and as a final note, the Hawaiian-based company who invented the gel won an award from the US government this past summer for their work in Fukushima, and in Hungary as well. 

In the end, peelable stickers will not solve the whole problem. Think of the estimated cost of just that one project, and imagine the hundreds of other Nursery Schools in need of decontamination. And then wind will blow, water will flow, and previously decontaminated areas will be re-contaminated. But something like these stickers may in fact be a practical solution for the moment. When the Mainichi Shinbun article mentioned that Professor Yamada ( he who scoffed at the effectiveness of power hosing ) and his project team are currently working to develop “cloth-like adhesive stickers to affix to roofs”, I thought, “That’s been done! Get the guys from Honolulu back!  Or else hurry up and figure this out for yourselves!”  At least they’re on the right track.

Prof. Kodama: a hero who gets his hands dirty, too.

 In any case, what is painfully evident from the latest attempts at decontamination is that the efforts are too little, too late, and too short-sighted. Tokyo University  Radio Isotope Center’s  Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama (hero of the anti-nuclear movement since making an impassioned speech to the House of Representatives this summer ) has been doing weekend stints in the Fukushima town of Minami -Soma, teaching parents and local officials how to decontaminate homes and nursery schools. He recently stated to the Japan National Press Club, “The decontamination I’ve done is a type of emergency measure to protect children and pregnant women, and not true decontamination….Permanent decontamination requires the knowledge and technology of experts and corporations, and a massive amount of funds. It must not become an interest-driven public project.” In other words, do-it-yourself power hosing will not change much in the long run, and could lead to a false sense of security-just as dangerous as the invisible radiation particles themselves.  Your average Japanese citizen is not only skilled in scrubbing and scraping, but (I believe) takes some sort of moral satisfaction from the process. This time, however, citizens cannot  scrub away the damage that’s been done.  Japan must invest money, and work round the clock to discover new and creative solutions to the puzzle/nightmare of nuclear contamination.

Let me end with words from Professor Kodama’s book, entitled  The Truth about Internal Exposure: “We have contaminated our country’s earth, this irreplaceable inheritance from our ancestors that we had been charged with and must pass on to our children. However, if humans are the ones who contaminated it, then we humans should be able to clean it up again. ” I would not call Kodama Senseii pessimistic, yet his hope is tempered with a dose of reality. We “should be able” to clean it up (rather than “will be able”) leaves room for hope, but is still plenty sobering. That’s about as accurate an assessment as you’ll find these days. Good night, all.  If you’ve learned something from this post, please pass it on, and I thank you for doing so.                                                               

Read Full Post »

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”  J. Alfred Prufrock was certainly anxious in the well-known T.S. Eliot poem, published in 1915.  It’s now

It's from Fukushima: do you dare to eat it?

2011, and people in Japan are asking the same question, in all seriousness and with no poetic implications. Take a look at this peach: it’s a typical Japanese fruit: perfectly sized (LARGE), perfectly round, perfectly colored, with no visible imperfections. The inside is so soft and juicy it cannot be “sliced”, as folks often slice smaller, firmer US-grown peaches. Peaches are a luxury fruit here, often sold singly (one peach costs more than a dollar), and wrapped individually in soft white netting. Our local supermarket sells them singly, in packs of two, packs of four, or a special gift box containing eight or ten. Don’t even think about throwing them randomly into a bushel basket and letting customers choose. They are only sold in season (late July and August), and my daughter waits patiently every year for their appearance. I will buy a single peach as soon as they hit the shelves, just for her.

This week’s Kanagawa Shinbun featured an article about the peach-growers of Hirano District, in Fukushima City.  The blogger EX-SKF translated the article, and it’s been picked up by several other foreigners living and writing in Japan. So here’s the gist of it : this year’s Hirano peaches are plentiful, delicious, and visual perfection, but they are not selling. Tourism in the district is nearly non-existant (down by 90% ) and orders for peaches have plummeted by 70%. Fukushima City is outside of the 20 kilometer evacuation zone, and the level of radiation in the peaches has been deemed safe according to the Food Sanitation Law that sets the standard here, but still the peaches are not selling. Japanese say, “mottainai!” or “what a waste!” And it does hurt to think about any food, ripe yet going uneaten.

The situation prompted teachers from Hirano Jr. High to take action, using the annual class trip as an excuse to promote Fukushima produce. On August 30th, seniors from the school peddled peaches in Yokohama’s Yamashita Koen ( a large and very popular park in the center of the city), encouraging passers-by to ignore the “baseless rumors” about irradiated food, and save the economy of Fukushima. Free peaches were distributed, along with pamphlets showing the smiling face of the governor of the prefecture declaring the peaches safe and delicious. Hmmmm.  As EX-SKF pointed out in his post, the level of radioactive cesium measured in the Hirano peaches was 64 bequerels per kilogram. Three hundred peaches distributed , each weighing approximately 200 grams, equals 60 kilos of peaches and 3,840 bequerels of cesium.  That’s well below the standard (500 bequerels per kilo) , but still ……what about that standard, eh?  Is ANY level of radioactive

Dr. Helen Caldicott: Would she eat the peach?

cesium either safe or acceptable in food?  Dr. Helen Caldicott would say emphatically “No!”, and I come closer and closer to her camp daily. Alright, I guess I’m squarely in her camp and entrenched by now.  EX-SKF’s closing comment on the situation was, “It sort of makes you lose hope in the next generation”, and many who read the post were in agreement.

But it’s a tough call. Some others who commented on the post were light-hearted or positive about the situation, supporting the students. “Of course, some people don’t trust the government inspection standards, which is understandable. But life is short, and peach season is even shorter.” wrote one, also noting the story of a woman who had nobly declined dessert the night the Titanic sunk (I am sure she was perfectly fine about that decision as the ship went down, but who knows?).  Though it was not mentioned in the blog comments, my guess is that students were not only influenced by teachers, but by family as well. How many graduating seniors had connections with the farming industry? We don’t know from the story, but it’s only too easy to imagine the sons and daughters of peach farmers, determined to do their part to save the family business. Because there’s always a human element (and especially when children are involved), I can’t treat stories like this lightly, or with cynicism.

In elementary school, Japanese children are required to take “Dotoku”, or “Morality” as a subject. Junior high and high school teachers need to be bringing all the issues–moral and otherwise– associated with the 3-11 disaster into the classroom, especially in Fukushima Prefecture. The Hirano teachers could have discussed the implications of  irradiated food and the effectiveness of safety standards and given each child the choice to distribute peaches or not……Ah, but in many cases, those kind of teachers have already been warned or fired. This we know, because they go public with their stories as soon as they’re out of the system. See? I warned you that there are no easy answers here, and delicacy as well as knowledge and conviction is definitely in order. Especially where children are involved. No matter how strongly I feel that the food we consume should be free from radiation ( along with the air that we breathe, the water we drink, and the list goes on… ), I would choose my words carefully if I were a teacher in Fukushima Prefecture. Children need to be aware of both the dangers of their polluted environment (and eventually, how it came to be polluted), and yet reassured that their friends and relatives who choose to farm in irradiated soil are not necessarily bad people. And it must be terribly unsettling for a child to see a parent depressed, strapped for cash, and yet unable to sell what appear to be plump, flawless peaches. Do they eat the peaches at home, and do the children secretly worry?  The Kanagawa Shinbun article only hinted at what I imagine to be a very stressful scenario in not only Fukushima, but in neighboring prefectures as well. No-one wants produce from the North these days.

Okay, so here’s the next moral dilemma.  Maybe you’d take a chance and, charmed by the sweet smile of the little fifteen-year-old in the cute school uniform, accept the peaches. But would you take a potentially irradiated person into your own home?  This question nagged at me (though I like to think that I certainly would if the occasion arose) this week in light of another article– an Associated Press exclusive that appeared in all sorts of news sites, complete with photos. Here’s the story: Fifty-three year old  Naoto Matsumura has continued to live within the evacuation zone since the 3-11 disaster, tending to the stray animals roaming the streets and cleaning and repairing the graves in the local cemetery of the now-ghost-town of Tomioka City. Here’s a video, just barely up on you tube, giving a brief introduction to the man and where he stands.

According to the Aug. 31st AP news article, Matsumura, after being refused admission to a shelter for evacuees (already full),  drove to a relative’s home and asked for shelter there. And was refused. By a member of his own family, concerned that he was (and he undoubtedly IS) contaminated by radiation. Since that day, he has stubbornly refused to budge, despite a lack of running water or electricity, and officials are apparently turning a blind eye to him. Of course, there may be a story behind the story here–there usually is–but even so!  Even if Matsumura-san were that horrible old unshaven sake-swilling uncle that showed up on his long-suffering relatives’ doorstep in the middle of the night, would you not take him in?  Or at least give him a shower and a cup of hot coffee?

I decided to take a survey and ask the friends and family that I live and work with on a daily basis (both Japanese and foreigners) what they’d do in a similar situation. Most Japanese families stay glued to the news every evening, and are both aware of and anxious about the invisible radioactive particles that cling to clothes, shoes, roofs, drainpipes-you name it.  How would they feel if the uncle from Tomioka came calling, asking for bed and board??  Some friends said, “Yes, absolutely! I would take him in”, insisting that loyalty to family and friends was worth any risk. Yet some said “Only if the family member could prove they were not irradiated.” ( My mother-in-law was unconcerned about the radiation, but terribly concerned that her house was too small.)  Those who answered that they would be hesitant to actually take in a family member from Fukushima said they would be more than willing to help them in other ways, such as finding an apartment or giving financial assistance.

The story of Matsumura-san is only one example of  the type of person who has chosen to stay in Fukushima, and his is an extreme example. Some folks here would call him a “ganko no ojisan”, or “grumpy old geezer”,  but others (including my father-in-law) see him as a hero. “Good for him!” they say approvingly. The video footage of desolation and dead animals is appalling, and it is comforting to know that someone is attempting to pick up the pieces and care for the living beings that are left. There are many other heros living not in, but in close proximity to

Students from Tomioka who have been evacuated to a new school. Teachers have not deserted them.

the 20 kilometer evacuation zone; we see them on NHK every night. This week my heart went out to nurses and teachers who have remained, saying that as long as there are patients to care for or children to teach they feel a moral responsibility to stay, even at the risk of their own health. Many of them are living separated from their own children, who have been sent off to live with relatives outside Fukushima.  Again, folks living abroad might feel that these people’s efforts would be better spent in persuading the patients and parents of schoolchildren to leave the prefecture and close the buildings down entirely.  Maybe so, but for now they are committed to help those who choose to stay.

In closing, I’d like to share a video I found, quite by accident, featuring a Buddhist monk living in Fukushima. Listen to what he has to say about why he’s still there, and see what he’s doing to bring light to his corner of the world. You’ll gain yet more insight into a complicated and delicate issue, and come away feeling renewed. Keep this man in your prayers–he’s doing good work. Oh, and he has children of his own, who are helping him with his project and training to work in the temple some day. I hope that day comes.

Read Full Post »

Japanese cicadas come in many sizes and colors, each with its own distinctive “nakigoe” or cry. They are loved, not shunned, in this country, and children spend afternoons stalking, capturing, and observing these bug-eyed alien creatures. My particular favorite

Min-Min Zemi: up close and personal.

is called “Min-Min Zemi” because of his shrill nasal cry: “Miiiiin-min-min-min!”  The Min-Min never lets up during the month of August, and folks find the continual barrage of noise either annoying or reassuring (Semi are supposed to rule the streets in the month of August, and their absence would leave an uneasy silence, atypical of the season).  When I left Japan on vacation in early August, the Min-Min had not yet made their appearance and the weather was unseasonably rainy. Somehow, this made me anxious.  I returned from my trip to New England yesterday, and was relieved to hear the Min-Min out in full force in my neighborhood. It’s early evening now, and they’ve been at it since the morning, in desperate competition with birds and early autumn insects. The weather is still unseasonably rainy, with two typhoons headed this way, but at least the cicadas are doing what they should, when they should, and that keeps me grounded. My daughter agrees.

On the surface, Japan seems “back to normal” since March 11th, especially in Kanagawa Prefecture, which sustained very little damage at all from the quake and tsunami. Stores and restaurants are still dimly lit and uncomfortably warm (that’s the continuing energy conservation efforts), but folks are used to that by now, and almost able to disconnect from the disaster which necessitated the efforts in the first place. Little luxuries are creeping back into our lives, and we no longer feel so guilty about spending money on pleasure. But look a bit closer, and there’s an underlying level of anxiety that’s directly in proportion to one’s distance in kilometers from Fukushima. Let me give you a brief summary of some of the anxiety-inducing events of July and August, beginning with a video of a meeting that took place in Fukushima City on July 19th.

The meeting was arranged to give Fukushima citizens a chance to voice their concerns and communicate with representatives of the Central Government in Tokyo. What was conceived as a sensible idea went terribly wrong, as the representatives were unable to answer even the most basic questions, resorting to repetition of a prepared statement. Their emotionless demeanor and continual refusal to even consider the residents’ demands (immediate support for evacuation and testing of their children’s urine) provoked the residents to consternation, then anger, as they openly mocked the Tokyo beaurocrats. Take a look for yourself, and see what you think.

I find this video uncomfortably addicting, and I confess to having watched it several times. The incredulity of the residents as the officials fail to acknowledge their questions, the public humiliation of the officials as they flee the meeting in shame , and the desperation of the ordinary guy who follows them all the way to the elevator, pleading with them to accept the children’s urine samples are moving and disturbing scenes; it’s no wonder this video has been viewed and re-posted on blogs and websites all over the country. And for anyone who suspects that the Japanese government may be censoring unfavorable news or unflattering videos?  Well, if that’s the case, this should’ve been one of the first to go.

Professor Toshihiko Kodama

Shortly after the brief and futile meeting in Fukushima, another video appeared on you tube, almost immediately going viral with over 200,000 hits in just a few days. The video was of a speech made by Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama to the lower house Committee of Health, Labor, and Welfare on July 27th.  Kodama, the Director of Tokyo University’s Radioisotope Center, gave an impassioned speech, backed by facts and complete with scientific explanations.  His unguarded emotion and use of expression and gesture were unusual in Japanese public forum, but his words were what made him an overnight sensation. According to Kodama, the total amount of radiation released since the beginning of the Fukushima disaster is far greater than that released by  the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and he is furious with the government for downplaying the danger faced by those close to the Daiichi Nuclear Plant, with babies and small children meriting the most concern. Describing himself as “shaking with anger”, he called on the central government to begin decontamination of the stricken area immediately. “It has been 160 days!” he states with disbelief.  I will post a brief clip of Kodama’s speech near the end of this post, so you can see for yourself both the passion and the thoroughness of his presentation. As a postscript, today’s paper reported that the amount of radioactive cesium 137 released by the Fukushima disaster is 168.5 times greater than that of the Hiroshima A-bomb ( Nuclear  and Industrial Safety Agency estimate).

The urgency of Kodama’s speech produced results–but not in the central government. While Prime Minister Kan’s cabinet continued doing business as usual, individuals were frantically buying up geiger counters, doing their own assessments of the level of radioactivity around their homes, and attempting to decontaminate their own yards. The ever-helpful, ever-positive national TV network NHK produced a “Do-It-Yourself Home Decontamination” program; I watched it myself, shortly before my trip to the states. In an hour-long program, the hosts demonstrated how to wash one’s entire house (top to bottom,  beginning with the roof) with a power hose, and then dig up any water-absorbing plant life (especially moss) , since most radiation is concentrated in rainwater. The top level of plants and grass are to be bagged and measured with a geiger counter, and then buried (in the deepest hole possible) in one’s own backyard, with the most-radioactive bags thrown in first, and the least- radioactive forming the top layer. Of course, the hosts explained, the backyard burial is only temporary, until the government decides exactly what to do with the steadily-increasing bags of radioactive waste products.

Hmmm. One week later, the Asahi Shinbun reported “Secret Dumping” of truckloads of radioactive soil and sludge in Fukushima. Citizens were eager to clean up their own neighborhoods, but not keen on using their yards as temporary landfill. The city had apparently dug an enormous trench in a remote area and was stealthily hauling truckloads of bags to a secret burial site. Not a pretty thing to contemplate, but since the central government has come up with no master plan, or even basic blueprint, to deal with the decontamination issue, local officials and individuals are no longer willing to sit back and wait. There’s a new sense of urgency, and motivation to act.

This was the state of affairs in Fukushima in late July. Residents within a 20 kilometer radius of the Daiichi plant were still unable to return home and living in shelters, nearby prefectures with relatives, or in hotels or Japanese-style inns. Those just outside that radius were frantically measuring their level of radiation and decontaminating the best the knew how (Professor Kodama was making weekend visits to Fukushima to assist them), and those in the outer regions of the prefecture continued to suffer from economic depression. Few visitors venture to the inns and attractions in Fukushima these days, and rice, vegetables, and beef still go unsold. Many women living in Fukushima have decided not to have children, and the workers at the Daiichi plant are already resigned to staying single the rest of their lives. See the movie “Black Rain”  if you’ve never done so ( Shohei Imamura, 1989),  and you’ll understand the stigma of living with (or being perceived as having) radiation sickness. Outside of Fukushima Prefecture, food products continued to test positive for high levels of radiation, and even green tea leaves in my own Kanagawa Prefecture were found to contain cesium. Doctors in Chiba Prefecture ( a full 200 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi) were reporting increased nosebleeds, diarrhoea, and flu-like symptoms in children…..symptoms of radiation poisoning?  Maybe yes, maybe no, but the possibility was there. As Dr. Yuko Yanagisawa from the Funabashi Futawa Hospital in Chiba stated, “We are encountering new situations we cannot explain with the body of knowledge we have relied upon up until now.”

In my two week visit to New England, I encountered kind and concerned people who understood immediately the fear and anxiety engendered by nuclear disaster. I also encountered people  eager to lecture me on the safety of nuclear power, and how the danger was exaggerated. “What happened in Fukushima was really no big deal,” said one man. “The media just blew it all out of proportion.” Knowing what I knew (there was no way he’d ever convince ME of that statement) and seeing the stubborn set to his jaw, I decided to nod coolly and let sleeping dogs lie. In retrospect, it is true that the media gave dramatic and extensive coverage of the quake/tsunami/nuclear disaster during the first two weeks, yet there has been little follow-up on the aftermath: the death of cattle within the evacuation zone, the suicide of farmers, the break-up up families and communities, the emptying-out of schools, the  build-up of toxic waste, and the desperate pleas for information and support of those who have chosen to stay or are unable to evacuate. Not to mention the race-against-time to bring the reactors to a cold shutdown. And not to mention the fact that my cell phone still shows daily aftershocks in Fukushima–not a day goes by without at least one. And not to mention the percentage of Fukushima residents still struggling to deal with the death of family and friends as well as recurring nightmares left over from the quake and tsunami. What a pity that the media deserted Japan, and what a tragedy that a certain percentage of the population will go on believing that what happened was “no big deal”.

But maybe there are readers who are not yet convinced.  I have written of the anxiety of Fukushima residents and the hardships they’ve endured as a result of forced evacuations and lack of government support. But just how serious is the threat of radiation poisoning, and exactly how dangerous is the current situation at the crippled Daiichi power plant? It is difficult to get a perspective, as there is simply very little news coverage at all. Data is recorded and published, but the statistics often mean nothing to the average Japanese citizen. Experts rarely appear on NHK television to analyze and educate.  Many Japanese and foreigners in the know are turning to blogs and you tube videos to get information. Naturally, the language barrier is a source of frustration and confusion, since foreigners are unable to read the tweets and blogs of Japanese living and working in Fukushima, and Japanese are unable to comprehend the comments of physicists and nuclear experts speaking from abroad in English. There are a few razor-sharp bilingual minds working to translate you tube videos and speeches as they are made public, but far too few in my opinion. What’s happened and is happening in Fukushima is “senmon-teki no hanashi” (specialists’ language), and not easily translated in a way that’s both accurate and understandable. One blogger who’s been doing a fine job is known as EX-SKF; his blog (EX-SKF.blogspot.com) sports a flashy photo of Ultra Man soaring through the sky, and his translation work (he did the English for Professor Kodama’s speech) is out of this world. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting videos are from news programs in the US or the UK; there are often no Japanese subtitles for most of them, and most folks here don’t know of their existence, or wouldn’t be able to make sense of the technical English. Experts who have worked within the nuclear power industry (Arne Gunderson of Fairewinds, in Vermont ) or who have been active for decades in  bringing nuclear power plant safety issues to light (Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear) are following the Fukushima developments from abroad, analyzing the data as it’s released, and coming to some grim and startling conclusions. Their assessments differ dramatically from what the Japanese public is being told  via government updates, yet are not in conflict with the bits and snippets that are revealed in private Japanese blogs, such as those of workers at the Fukushima plant.

I’d like to share with you just one of these videos, featuring a short clip of Professor Kodama, along with an interview with Paul Gunter, co- founder of the Clamshell Alliance anti-nuclear group; now working as a nuclear reactor specialist with Beyond Nuclear, he has been a critic of nuclear power for thirty-plus years. Gunter believes that accurate information about the Fukushima Daiichi is being deliberately withheld by the nuclear industry, and speculates about the current situation based on reports from the inside. Here’ s the video.

So…..that’s the situation as Paul sees it. Most Japanese have not seen this video and are not aware of its existence, though the Japanese blogger whose words influenced Gunter’s analysis was posting about it today on his site.  Prime Minister Kan’s resignation will be official tomorrow, and candidates for his position are already jostling for air space. Japanese citizens do not go to the polls to vote directly, so there’s no sense of excitement; it’s a passive rather than active event and folks feel resigned, rather than hopeful. Perhaps the new guy will be a true leader and visionary, but more likely not. In any event, many Japanese are attempting to search out information on their own, take action, and control their own fate. Without accurate information, they cannot hope to implement change. Good for the Fukushima citizens of the first video, refusing to sit back and accept their fate.  Please pass on their story to those who underestimate the seriousness of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, to those who (not hearing news to the contrary) might imagine that things are alright again over here, and of course to those who have ears to hear. For the sake of the Fukushima mothers whose children are already testing positive for cesium in their urine samples, please do keep the information and stories circulating. Thank you so very much. The cicadas salute you, and so do I!

Read Full Post »

This post is about farmers, and especially for farmers, whether in Japan or abroad. The story starts with my daughter’s eighteenth

"Is this straw safe?" (photo by Hiroshi Kawaii)

birthday party last Saturday, which was intended to be a beef barbeque, Japanese-style, on a big teppan grill. My daughter is actually not crazy about meat, but the men in the family are, and since they’re the grillers we can’t deny them their beef. I had plenty of fresh vegetables prepared for the ladies (I’m not crazy about beef either), and Yaki-Soba ready to serve at the end. Problem was……irradiated beef has been floating about various regions of Japan, and folks feel more than a bit anxious about buying any meat at all. This month, high levels of radioactive cesium were detected in beef originating from cattle in Fukushima Prefecture….cattle from farms outside of the evacuation zone, who had unfortunately been eating rice straw which had been contaminated by radioactive rainwater. The cattle had been slaughtered, the meat shipped out to various prefectures across Japan, bought by consumers, and presumably already savored in summer barbeques such as the one we were planning. The central government has been racing to locate unsold meat and has promised to buy back whatever they find and take responsibility for disposing of it, but people across the country are still in an uproar about lax testing standards (the cows were tested for radiation levels only on the surface of their hides, which gave no indication that they bore internal radiation poisoning), and no-one has an appetite for meat.

Except my son. When I declared we would have a meat-less birthday celebration for his sister this year, he flounced, pouted, and proclaimed himself ready and willing to risk radiation poisoning for the sake of his meat (red meat is not, after all, an everyday thing in Japan, and my son looks forward to these indulgences). In the end, we compromised and bought a small amount of Australian beef, paying a ridiculous price for it; this made my son inordinately happy, though the birthday girl couldn’t have cared less.

From the consumers (my son’s) point of view, the irradiated beef scandal is a pain in the neck. From the Fukushima farmers’ point of view, of course, it’s another chapter in the continuing saga of their fight for survival. Some farmers are organizing, finding support, and attempting to make a go of it. Others have given up. And at least one has taken his own life, in a grim story devoid of light but full of lessons. Let me begin with the story of that farmer.

"Do not be defeated by the nuclear accident. Do your best." (photo by Jun Kaneko)

On July 2nd, the Asahi Shinbun reported a 54 year old farmer from the village of Soma (Fukushima Prefecture) was found dead in his shed, having left a suicide note scrawled on the shed wall in white chalk. “Remaining dairy farmers: Don’t be defeated by the nuclear accident. Do your best.” Before the quake, the farmer had lived on the farm with his Filipino wife and two sons, caring for his 40 head of cattle and selling compost as well. He was looking forward to expanding his farm, buying new equipment, and attending his oldest son’s entrance ceremony for elementary school. After March 11, everything changed. Soma village is 50 kilos from the Daiichi Power Plant; it is technically outside of the heavily contaminated evacuation zone, but not far enough away to absolutely guarantee the safety of livestock and food products. The farmer was forced by the government to halt shipments of milk, and began the heartbreaking routine of feeding and milking his cows, then pouring the milk into the ground. He continued for a month, feeding and caring for his herd without a source of income.

In the meantime, his wife returned to the Philippines, taking the two children with her. She was responding to pressure from her own government to evacuate the prefecture, as did many foreigners in the months of March and April. This may be difficult to fathom, but many other international families made the same choice. Also, the March 11th quake hit the village of Soma hard. The aftershocks, which were frightening enough in the Tokyo area, must have continued to terrify the farmer and his family, as well as the explosions and unstable condition of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Rumors of radiation poisoning were running rampant, and noone knew what was actually happening. His wife had to choose between a safe haven for her children and staying to support her husband–either choice would’ve been difficult and painful. She chose the former, and from that point on the farmer’s life must have lost any remaining sense of purpose. Just two weeks later he fled the country himself, taking refuge with his wife’s family in the Philippines. Neighboring friends and family picked up the pieces he had left behind, dividing up his cows and taking over their care and feeding.

I wish that the story could’ve ended at that point, with the farmer finding a new life and identity in his wife’s country. Instead, he was back in Soma in early May; he returned alone, to an empty farmhouse and barn. Apologizing to the friends who had taken care of his cows, he explained that he had wanted to stay with his wife abroad, but had been unable to speak the language. I imagine a shy man, jobless and tongue-tied, at the mercy of his mother-in-law and extended family, and can empathize to some extent. Being illiterate in any society is a challenge, and the emotional strain of being unable to express oneself or-conversely-to be understood is one that those who have never travelled or lived abroad will never know. It can make you crazy.

The story ends soon after the farmer’s return to Soma. An agricultural co-op worker visited his farm to deliver a magazine, and found him dead in his own shed. An accompanying letter read, “To my wife and children, I am sorry. I was a father who could do nothing. ” Two hundred local farmers, friends, and family attended the funeral, as well as his wife and children.

This story was particularly disturbing to me; the farmer (whose name was not released to the press) was unable to help himself, desperately lonely, financially pressed, and facing an unknown future. In Japan, suicide is a way of saving face, restoring one’s pride, and making reparations. With no support system in place for farmers after the quake, suicide must have seemed to be his best option. After the quake, farmers in the Fukushima area were in limbo, with no income, no guidelines, no reliable source of information, and no organized support, either practical or emotional. The farmer who took his life faced this situation alone after his wife left, and the burden was simply too heavy. Unable to re-invent himself, yet unable to return to the life he knew, he chose an early exit, apologizing for his own failure to change events that were beyond his control.

Now let’s do a three-point-turn: back up and listen to another farmer’s story, with quite a different twist. This farmer, Yoshizawa-san, is from Namie Village, which lies inside the evacuation zone. Namie is now a ghost town; residents are scattered through different towns and prefectures, some returning periodically (in organized excursions) to check on their houses and grounds. Yoshizawa-san supports a herd of 300 cows within the evacuation zone, and carries a special permit enabling him to return to his farm once

Villages like Namie have become ghost towns.

a week to feed and care for his herd. The cows, by the way, have been condemned to slaughter for some time now. They have been drinking radioactive water, eating radioactive hay, and breathing radioactive air. Though they have no external symptoms, they are marked by internal radiation poisoning, and their milk is worthless on the market-likewise, their meat. Yoshizawa knows this–it is irrefutable. Yet he is waging a determined campaign to save them, and has even collected more strays to add to his herd in the process. He has painted, “Save them or die trying!” on his barn’s roof and on signs along the road to his farm, and has allowed independent film makers access to his property (sneaking them in under a plastic tarp on his truck, as they did not have the required entry passes) to take photos and interview him. His cows (and his neighbors’ abandoned cows, who have voluntarily joined his herd) are roaming free on his property, subsisting mostly on grass and the hay that he delivers weekly. They still come to greet him when he arrives, he says, and he has no intention of deserting them. Yet he realizes that within six months, there will be no grass left on his property for grazing, and he fears slow but inevitable starvation. Yoshizawa-san vows to keep his cows alive out of respect for the animals, and also as a protest against both the government and TEPCO, who created his situation by promoting nuclear power. Watch the video, and you can’t help but admire the man: he is well-spoken, passionate, organized, committed, and has a natural
magnetism that will aid him in his cause. He already has the film-makers on his side. Here is a man who intends to control his own fate at whatever cost. Enough said! Here’s the video of Yoshizawa, explaining just why the government should allow him to save his cows.

Smart man, eh? And brave as well. Where central and local governments have been unable to bring order from chaos, individual leaders have been springing up, giving hope and purpose to those around them who’ve been unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Truth is, Yoshizawa-san can’t see the light either, but he’s willing to live with that uncertainty. I will follow his story if possible, though news from the true inside is harder and harder to come by these days.

Lastly, I want to return to the story of the two film-makers (remember? Yoshizawa-san snuck them into his farm under a tarp). They’re an international couple: Junko Kajino and Ed M. Koziarski. Their goal is to produce a film documenting the efforts of organic farmers in Tohoku in the post-quake months (years? I’m not sure). They intend to follow the lives of local farmers from planting to harvest, to see how they adapt to the changed conditions of the air, water, and soil in Fukushima since the nuclear disaster. They believe in sustainable agriculture and energy, and hope to produce a documentary for international broadcast and distribution. They are staying at the “Colors of the Seasons Farm”, 45 miles from the Daiichi plant, and just twenty miles outside of the evacuation zone. Their host family, the Yoshidas, are an extended family (even the grandma puts in a day’s work) whose specialty is “firefly rice”, so named because after the family stopped using pesticides and began farming organically, fireflies returned to their neighborhood. The father of the Yoshida family says of their proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, “We don’t know if our crops will be safe. We can’t ignore this issue. But we won’t stop cultivating our land. We need farmers to nurture the environment, nature and culture, and pass them on to the next generation. ” They realize that they their produce may not be salable, but at least they will be self-sufficient.

The film-makers, Junko and Ed (I hope I am not being too familiar) have a web site called “Uncanny Terrain”. It’s chock-full of interviews, photos, and thoughts from people living on the inside of the evacuation zone, and those in the grey area just outside . Here’s the link; I know you will enjoy it, and learn something as well. http://uncannyterrain.com/blog/ In closing, I’d like to quote from the Uncanny Terrain blog. The two film-makers ask a crucial question that the country as a whole, and all countries with functioning nuclear reactors, need to consider. Here’s what they have to say: “After suffering the world’s only nuclear attacks in World War II, Japan emerged from poverty and devastation and entered into a period of unprecedented technological innovation and economic growth. Can today’s Japanese respond to this catastrophe with new forms of innovation that will allow this nuclear-dependent society to continue providing healthy food to its people, and live in better harmony with the natural world?” Let us hope they can. Let us support those farmers who have not yet given up the battle, and say a prayer for those who did not make it. The animals, too. Thank you again for reading, and take care in the summer heat.

Read Full Post »

All of a sudden, the heat has picked up. Neighbors meet on the street and greet each other with, “It’s HOT, isn’t it?” while dabbing at their foreheads with absorbent towel-handkerchiefs (a must for summer). There’s more to be said, but few folks have the energy to make the effort. The evening news continues to feature the nation’s “battery”: a graph showing the available amount of electricity verses the next day’s predicted demand, based on the anticipated temperature. Last week’s battery showed the nation using approximately 80% of available electricity, but this week it’s “giri-giri safe”, meaning the supply is just barely matching demand, with the nation using 91% of it’s electricity. And no-one I know is using air conditioners in their homes, except for an hour of so of respite when the kids come home from school (kids have no air conditioning at all in their classrooms, so they come home wilted, and covered with sweat), or during dinner. We feel pleased with ourselves , and justifiably so, as graphs also show a significant decrease in energy use compared to this same time last year; still, it’s hard to keep one’s spirits up. In short, folks are cranky. I am extremely cranky myself, and sleep–an even sweatier experience– brings no relief.

These Clams are Stressed ( photo provided by Kenji Okoshi)

Heat is stressful. The disaster victims are now battling torrential rains (the rainy season seems to have wimped out in the Tokyo area, but is drenching Tohoku on a daily basis) as well as heat; I can imagine the stress level of even healthy folks must be soaring right now. And speaking of stress….I came across a short but interesting article in the Asahi Shinbun, stating  that the clams off the coast of Fukushima are also stressed, as evidenced by changes in the patterns of their shells. Ninety percent of the 216 clams studied had ruts in the middle of the shells, marking the start of different colors and patterns. As evident in the photograph, the  clams above (the “normal” variety) look significantly less wild and crazy than those below (taken from Matsukawaura Bay in Fukushima), with their large white splotches.  Kenji Okoshi, a professor of environmental dynamic analysis at Toho University, believes this is a result of their sudden and violent change of habitat, as they were swept away by the tsunami and transported to new sea beds with different concentrations of salt, and an “unnatural mix of sand and mud in the seabed.” Okoshi was quick to add that the clams would still taste delicious, but that is a different matter altogether. The bottom line is, if even the humblest forms of marine life are suffering from stress, the situation in Tohoku is truly deserving of our sympathy.

Aside from the heat, another source of stress that I have not yet focused on in this blog, is personal debt. Deep personal debt, on a scale never-before-seen in modern day Japan. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun featured an article with the header: “Surviving the Tsunami but Drowning in Debt”.  Reporter Toyotaka Nagata described the situation as “….the worst natural disaster in the postwar era…(it) was so devastating that it took away many people’s sources of income and their homes, making it almost impossible to rebuild on their own.” The Hanshin Earthquake that rocked Kobe in 1995 was devastating to both individuals and the city itself,  yet there were no government measures taken to aid in the victims’ loan burdens. This time, however, the loan burdens are on a different scale, with victims often swamped with multiple loans for houses and boats that no longer exist….in many cases, they are able to receive some compensation in the form of disaster aid , but it is rarely enough to cover the amount owed, much less enough to make payments on a new home. Is the answer to take out yet another loan to get a new boat or home? In addition, those who co-signed on the loans of relatives who died in the tsunami or quake are now responsible for those “family” loans as well.  Is it any wonder that the suicide rate in Tohoku is climbing? Having lost families, homes, livelihoods, and often entire communities, and facing a black hole of debt (this last is a particularly shameful thing in Japanese culture), many are unable to handle the emotional stress and uncertainty of their situation. Lawyers are working round-the-clock, vounteering their time to give advice to the countless victims lined up in evacuation shelters–all seeking a way to pick up and move on without being dragged down by their losses and responsibilities.

Civic groups and lawyers across the country are calling for increased public aid and possible absolution from debt for the hardest-hit victims. Hopefully their voices will be heard amidst the noisy squabbling of politicians who still spend an inordinate amounts of time attempting to oust the current Prime Minister (unsuccessfully, since Kan has dug in his heels, and refuses to go after promising a swift retirement). It has taken the government three months to come up with a basic framework for reconstruction (compared with 40 days for similar legislation after the Hanshin Quake). The bill was passed on June 20th, and chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano was asked why the delay.  His reply? He was quoted at a news conference saying, “It was certainly late from an objective viewpoint, but that has not caused any particular inconveniences.” No inconveniences to him, at least, but ask the mayors of the cities and towns in Fukushima prefecture how convenient the waiting has been. And how pleasant, outfitting their citizens with dosimeters, scraping the topsoil off parks and schoolgrounds, trying to find cement companies willing to accept their radioactive sewage sludge that continues to accumulate, desperate to find doctors and nurses willing to work in their prefecture (Nahara and Futaba towns in Fukushima prefecture are functioning with one nurse per 2,000 residents ), desperate to find buyers for their vegetables, and desperate to make progress in cleaning the rubble from the most radioactive areas. Among other challenges.

The challenge of shutting down the crippled power plant continues, as the deadline for cold shutdown is extended further and further into the future (the the promise is still for the “near” future).  The reactors (some topless since the hydrogen explosions) have been steadily filling with water, both from efforts to cool the system and from weeks of seasonal rain.  Naturally, the water is now highly radioactive, and cannot be easily disposed of. So far, it has been stored…in huge tanks, that are themselves becoming full. The plan was to begin “decontaminating” the water, then recycling it to continue cooling the reactors, but results have been dubious at best. The decontaminating system broke down shortly after starting up (TEPCO says the system is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, and promises that things will be running smoothly very soon), and very little water has actually been decontaminated.  Actually, I believe the news report said, “some” water has successfully been decontaminated and recycled, which is hardly edifying or confidence-inspiring.

New reports have also been released revealing further details of the lack of disaster preparation at the plant. According to an Associated Press article, protective gear for the workers was actually located in a separate offsite crisis center five kilometers from the Number One plant. On the day of the disaster, workers were ordered to release steam (“venting”) to begin cooling the reactors, but by the time they had picked up the gear, and put on the air tanks, face masks, and coveralls ( just dressing properly took an hour, according to the article) precious time had sped by. Meanwhile, the instruction manual for the venting system was also in a separate office building rather than the control room; further time was wasted in retrieving the manual, while aftershocks continued to occur.  By this time, we now know, the fuel rods were already melting, and the efforts made would come far too late. Literally, what a nightmare, especially for the terrified workers involved. And what a contrast to another story I want to share….

I saw this story in the Japan Times shortly before my Las Vegas trip, and filed it away for future reference. Reporter Setsuko Kamiya tells of a Jr. High school in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture that was so well-prepared for disaster that students were able to follow their pre-ordained evacuation plan without direction from their teachers,  saving the lives of younger students as they did so. A few years ago, the city had begun a disaster prevention education program; as sixth graders, students researched local tsunami history in their social studies classes. They studied the physics of tsunamis in science class, and read about past tsunamis in language class, writing essays on the topic as well. Disaster preparation  education was mandatory at all grade levels, with students receiving training in first aid, cooking, and the workings of soup kitchens in times of disaster. They had created their own hazard map, and performed quake drills multiple times.

On the day of the quake, students had finished class, and were about to start their club activities. The quake hit,  students took cover, and even teachers dove under their desks for protection, some for the first time ever. According to the disaster manual, when the trembling subsided  students and teachers were to gather on the playground, where the teachers would then lead everyone to safe high ground. In reality, the force of the quake knocked out the school’s power instantly, and teachers were unable to use microphones to call the students together and give instructions. Students, knowing this was no ordinary quake, dashed to the school grounds on their own, and began running toward the designated

Kamaishi East Jr. High students pose for a picture in May. ( photo by Setsuko Kamiya)

evacuation center, one kilometer away. Teachers at a neighboring elementary school, seeing the Jr. High students fleeing, decided to abandon their plans to evacuate to the third floor of their school, and led their students outside, urging them to follow the older children. All the children and teachers reached the evacuation site, only to find that part of a nearby cliff had collapsed during the quake, making the ground unstable and the site vulnerable to a tsunami. Teachers urged the children to begin running to the next evacuation site; this time, the older children ran behind the younger ones, urging them on and supporting them. By the time they reached the second site, the tsunami had already struck their school, and was steadily encroaching.  They fled this site as well, and began scrambling up the mountainside, many screaming and crying, but continuing to move forward. In the end, the tsunami swept over the first evacuation site, stopped a few meters short of the second, and the students were safe. Teachers were especially proud that because of the support of the older children, the elementary schoolers all made it safely as well. According to the article, nearly 70% of those children lost their homes, and 14 lost either one or both parents. Still, they survived, and their school’s well-organized and tested program puts the ill-prepared, unimaginative, unprofessional response of the TEPCO officials to shame.

Haruki Murakami

I want to close with some thoughts from author Haruki Murakami, who recently blasted not only Japan’s nuclear power industry, but the Japanese people as well, for allowing nuclear power to both ruin the environment, and corrupt the heart of the nation. In a speech given on June 10th in Barcelona, Spain (technically, an acceptance speech for a prestigious literary prize), Murakami used the occasion as a platform to speak out against Japan’s dependance on nuclear power. “In the face of overwhelming disaster,” said Murakami, “we are all victims and assailants. We are all exposed to the threat of this–in this sense, we are all victims. We extracted the nuclear power and we also could not stop using the power–in this sense, we are all assailants…..We Japanese arranged this accident by ourselves: we made a mistake, we ruined our land, and we destroyed our lives. ” And can what has been ruined be renewed??  Murakami says yes. The reconstruction and physical renewal will be successfully carried out. “But to try to reconstruct our ruined ethics and standards, that is the work of all of us. It will be a simple, rustic, and patient work. Like a fine spring morning, when all the people from a village go to the fields, tilling the soil and seeding it, we must all join and co-operate in this work. “

Of course, Murakami is right. And that is why we grumble and sweat, yet we stubbornly resist the urge to turn on the air conditioning. It’s why young people with no connection at all to the families in Tohoku are spending weeks at a time doing heavy labor, enduring sweltering  heat and foul odors. We all enjoyed years of bright lights, cool rooms, and power-guzzling appliances.  And it took a national disaster of epic proportions to get people into the streets protesting nuclear power and calling for adequate safety standards. As Murakami points out, the promise engraved on the memorial for victims of the Hiroshima bombing has been broken: “Please rest in peace, since we will never repeat the mistake.” This time, the nation has been poisoned by a nuclear disaster caused by greed and easy living as well as earthquake and tsunami.  Murakami suggests developing a new energy source at the national level as a way of doing penance, and as a way of honoring “our collective responsibility to the victims who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Listening to the wranglings of opposing political parties leaves me more confused than ever; Murakami’s words speak truth to me, and the right way becomes steadily clearer. Well, done, Haruki. I pray that your voice is heard.

Read Full Post »

No energy crisis in Las Vegas. ( Green Valley Ranch Hotel foyer )

I’m back from three days in Las Vegas, where the lights are on twenty-four-hours a day, the air is fresh and clean, and folks seem to know very little about the situation in Japan. On my first  day there, I had commented, “It’s so bright here! Tokyo is dark these days..”  My friend’s response was, “Why?”, but it was hard to give a succinct reply.  I was in town for a wedding, and was reluctant  to spoil the mood. So instead of elaborating, I decided to drop the subject altogether and  throw myself into the wedding preparations, meeting a myriad of new people (I had flown in from Japan knowing only the bride, her sister, and her younger brother. I also came without a date, so was determined to be sociable and make friends as I went along. All this was much easier than imagined) , and celebrating whole-heartedly along with everyone else. When asked, “Where are you from?”  I’d say, “Japan.”  Only a few folks asked, “Wow….is everything okay there?”  The rest of the folks simply thanked me for coming such a long distance, and we’d move on to other topics. Weddings are no place to discuss death, destruction, debris or deep debt, and I respected that unwritten rule for the extent of my stay. Back in the hotel in the evenings, I opened up facebook rather than turning on the TV, and the only newspaper I saw was local…..the Friday headline was a story of two cops busted for using the patrol car to go sightseeing outside their district while on-duty. So thoughts of Tohoku were duly subjugated and not allowed to surface for a while as I  shopped, ate out, tried the casinos, and got manicured, pedicured, washed and styled for the wedding. For the record, it truly was the best wedding ever, and I’ve no regrets about taking a break from all those “d-words”.

The extended vacation lasted until I arrived back in Narita on Sunday. The return flight had been packed full of cheery young people–employees of a Japanese home furnishings chain store called “Nitori”….seven hundred of them had been abroad touring American style malls and super-stores (they were particularly impressed with Walmart), and were on their way back to report their “findings”. They were fairly fluent in English, had been sight-seeing and shopping as well as “working”, and were in high spirits. No glum faces or mask-wearers among them, so the festive mood continued throughout the flight. The only reminder that we were returning to the darkness and tension of Japan was the passing of a “collection bag” during the flight, for the victims of the quake and tsunami. In twenty-five years of frequent flying I’ve never been asked to donate to anything, and I dumped in a liberal amount of change, both yen and American coins.

Landing in Narita, the mood was instantly subdued…and overly warm. I won’t say “hot” YET….as I know it’ll get much worse than this. The airport is (for those of us with already dubious eyesight) uncomfortably dim, uncomfortably warm, and far too quiet and orderly. “It’s been quiet since the quake,” said the attendant who checked my baggage on the flight out. On the train ride home, I whipped out my iPhone and began catching up on the past week’s events via my favorite on-line newspapers and Twitter. No major events–not politically correct to say “earth-shaking events” here– or changes; instead, signs of progress here and there, and discussions of further obstacles to be overcome.  New findings on what actually happened at the Fukushima plant during the week of the quake continue to surface (in bits and pieces) as the situation is analyzed, critiqued, and slowly made public. The government continues to tread water rather than achieving a steady crawl stroke, and ordinary folks from Hokkaido to Kyuushuu express anger, frustration, and disgust with the status quo. I’ll try to give a brief update on some of the news highlights, whether positive, negative, or simply human interest with no judgement implied.

Nearly 90,000 Tohoku residents are still in shelters. The rainy season is in full swing, and the basements of the Fukushima reactors are still in danger of overflowing; by the end of June, all the storage areas of the nuclear plant will be completely full of radioactive water. The new plan is now to “de-contaminate” the water, and recycle it to continue cooling the reactors. Surrounding areas are still dealing with (or rather, stymied by) the issue of radioactive sludge; there are no guidelines in place to follow, so the sludge blocks continue to pile up as local officials discuss what on earth to do with the stuff. We see it on the news nightly.

We also get a new addition to the nightly news these days: a prediction of how much of the country’s available energy supply will be used the following day, based on the weather forecast. Like the iPhone battery image showing how much juice is left, we see “the country’s battery” on the TV screen.  High temperatures predicted for the following day mean very little juice left over, since air conditioning will be in used heavily in public spaces and in homes. The screen also predicts peak hours of energy use, and viewers are urged to plan their energy use accordingly. The goal is for each household to reduce energy consumption by at least 15% this summer, and to use a minimum of energy during peak hours. Businessmen are already working early-morning shifts to take advantage of the cool morning air, and some businesses will shut down entirely during the hottest weeks in August.

This week, according to NHK’s “national energy reserve battery” indicator, we’ve been using 80% of the nation’s available electricity. This is quite alarming, since the days have been cool and rainy, and no-one is yet using air conditioners in their homes. I dread the advent of July, when the daily battle will begin: to give in to the coolers, or to sweat it out. Unless we are very, very careful, it looks like we may–for the first time–have no choice. Since only 14 out of 54 of Japan’s nuclear power plants are actually functioning at this time (the remainder have either been damaged by the quake and tsunami, or are temporarily shut down for safety inspections), it does not seem possible that the nation’s energy demand will be met. More rolling blackouts seem unavoidable, even with people using resources sparingly and public spaces dark and warm.

I dread the advent of July and August, but the shut-down of most of the nation’s nuclear plants can only be seen as a good thing, and long overdue. It happened nation-wide, in a chain reaction, after Prime Minister Kan “requested” the shut-down of the Hamaoka plant, situated directly atop a dangerous fault. Suddenly, local government officials across the country decided to follow suit, shutting down their own nuclear operations until new safety standards can be agreed upon, and until the plants have passed strict inspections.  The Japanese public is okay with this. More than okay, according to TV and newspaper polls, which show steadily waning support for nuclear energy, and an increasing willingness to explore alternatives. This past Saturday, the 11th, was marked by anti-nuclear protests in 140 different sites across Japan, including a large-scale march (20,000 people) in Shinjuku. It’s all peaceful and orderly, of course, but still highly emotional . In Koriyama ( a central city in Fukushima Prefecture), 200 protesters marched, bearing signs reading, “Return our Hometowns!”. One woman’s surgical mask read, “I can hardly take a deep breath.”

Yasuteru Yamada of the "Suicide Corps" (photo by Choi Seungdo, Asahi Shinbun)

And speaking of protests and protestors….this week’s Asahi Shinbum announced that the government is seriously considering the offer of the “Suicide Corps”, a group of elderly men who have volunteered to step in and work long hours cleaning up the Fukushima reactors. Their leader,  Yasuteru Yamada, was also a leader of the 1960 student movements at Tokyo University–a former hippie/activist who now wants to save the country for future generations, rather than leaving them with a “negative legacy”.  He and his group of volunteers range in age from late 60′s to 82;  having already led long and productive lives, they are unafraid of the risks of radiation exposure, and propose to work for longer stretches of time than the younger workers currently tackling work on a rotating schedule of short shifts. The older men have a sense of mission, and have finally been acknowledged by Japan’s trade minister Banri Kaieda , who told Yamada, “We want to make preparations so that you can work on the site before your enthusiasm burns out.” Yamada and his group have not yet set foot inside the Fukushima plant, but they’re already on the fast track toward becoming big-time heros.

The Prime Minister, however, can’t seem to make anyone happy. Surviving a no-confidence vote last week, he then used to occasion to announce his intention to resign…..sometime. Sometime? Yes, that’s right. The opposition party is furious, and want him out immediately. His own party is befuddled, not knowing how to respond when asked exactly when “sometime” might be (he has revealed nothing, even to his own party), and shelter victims in Tohoku are, according to NHK polls, upset and “disgusted” with the situation. Personally, I was ready to wash my hands of him for good and start praying for a miracle (there are no other popular or capable candidates), when tonight’s news set me wondering.  “The Prime Minister is full of energy and spirit!” announced the NHK translator, “..and shows no signs of stepping down soon.” A grinning (literally, grinning) Kan was seen laughing into the camera, proclaiming, “You must be tired of seeing my face! Really! Are you really? Do you hate seeing my face?”  The reporter went on to say that Kan is now in league with the billionaire Korean owner of Softbank, Masayoshi Son, and the two have great plans for a natural energy bill. According to tonight’s report (the reports change on a daily basis), Kan has no intention of leaving office until his dream bill is successfully passed, and the future of natural energy in Japan is secured. He is literally laughing in the face of opposition (either that, or he’s lost his sanity completely. I must say, he looked almost unhinged as he cackled into the microphone). WELL. This is a new development, and I can’t write the Prime Minister off just yet. Anything could happen from here on in, and I want a front row seat. There’s more to tell, but I need my beauty sleep. More to come next week, and thank you again for reading.

Read Full Post »

The Problem of Kesennuma (photo by Yoshinori Mizuno, Asahi Shinbun)

The rainy season has begun in Japan, with a vengeance. Kicked off by a typhoon from the Philippines that was downgraded to a nasty rainstorm, the temperature has plummeted, the skies have darkened, and Tohoku is a soggy mess of dead fish,  flooded roads, clogged drainpipes, and potential landslides.

Let’s start with the dead fish, which really have nothing to do with the rainy season, but just add to the misery of the situation. Yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun featured the coastal city of Kesennuma  (Miyagi prefecture, just above Fukushima) , where 20,000 tons of fish and fish by-products have been liberated from processing plants by the tsunami, and are now rotting in heaps about the city. According to the Asahi article, farmers can only work in their rice fields for thirty minute stretches due to the “unbearable stench”, and the “official in charge of dealing with foul odors” has his hands full.  You want that job?  How do you feel about maggots and flies? Are you prepared to investigate the refrigerators and freezers that lie about (in the most unexpected places) and remove what’s inside?  There were ninety fish processing facilities in the city; the factories were devastated, and their contents now lie scattered about an area so wide that removal and processing still continue after two full months. The fish, once collected, are piled up along the piers, loaded onto boats, and tossed back into the sea from whence they came. At least in Kesennuma.

Moving father south to Ishinomaki, rotting garbage of all varieties is causing headaches, sore throats, and burning eyes, according to local surveys. Workers in Ishinomaki, whose shores sunk significantly as a result of the tsunami,  are dependent on the tides. Many roads (including roads that children take on their daily school commute) are now flooded during high tide, and garbage collection can only be done when streets are accessible. Though workers are sloshing about doing their best, they have not been able to keep ahead of the piles of garbage accumulating daily as the clean-up of the city progresses. In addition to this, since the rain began three days ago, volunteers and Self Defense Forces have been frantically building temporary levees with sandbags, hoping to contain even more flooding; they have been only been partially successful. Ishinomaki seems to be in a particularly desperate situation, despite the constant stream of volunteers from across the nation who take a week or so (some have stayed since the onset ) to shovel through mud, pry apart broken buildings, prop up fallen grave markers, and assist private home-owners in repair and clean-up work. Basically, there is not enough space: no space to house volunteers; no space to dump garbage; no dry, safe, flat space to begin constructing pre-fab houses; no space to house those who have been left homeless. In short, the landscape has been effectively gobbled up by seawater and rubble.

Moving a bit farther south to the city of Sendai,  it’s raining there too– in record amounts. Last night’s NHK news showed workers wading through the streets, and attempting to unclog drainage ditches choked with debris (my notes say “disgusting glop”, but I cannot remember if that was the direct translation, or my own paraphrase. Either way, that’s what it looked like).  Evacuation advisories are being issued in vulnerable areas, and what looked (on the news) like netting and tarp was being thrown over hillsides to ensure against landslides.  My friend Sumiko, whose husband was in Sendai this week reporting on the clean-up progress for Newsweek Japan, says that the Self Defense Forces in the city are exhausted. The first death from overwork was reported last week, and none of the men have been home with their families since the disaster.

Farther south, we come to Fukushima, where it’s raining as well….right into nuclear reactors 1, 3, and 4, whose roofs were blown off by hydrogen explosions.  TEPCO reported a “dramatic increase” in the water level of the No. 1 reactor over the weekend.  Well, since

Reactor No. 1...Topless! (image released by TEPCO)

workers have been assiduously pumping water into the reactors for two months now in a frantic attempt to cool them down, one might think that the rainwater would speed things along, right?  Perhaps this may be so, but the issue of potential (fairly certain) leaks is what has folks worried. When the contaminated water in the basement of the reactors is lower than ground level, a one-way leak from ground water into the tanks may occur; what is more worrisome is if the level of the contaminated water rises above the level of ground water, leaking out into the surrounding soil and flowing into the ocean.  Many experts are certain that this is already happening. In any case, as Asahi Shinbun reporter Sugimoto Takashi writes, “TEPCO has not yet decided how to deal with the issue. However, it has secured hoses to transfer contaminated water from the basements of the No. 2 and No. 3 turbine buildings. A large, floating container, dubbed a ‘mega-float’, is in place offshore to hold the contaminated water.”  So now there are ‘mega-blocks’ of radioactive slag (read “poop”),  ‘mega-boxes’ of radioactive playground sand, and a ‘mega-float’ to hold radioactive water…..and a growing “dead zone” outside the plant’s perimeter that is spreading fast. That brings us to the people who once lived in that zone, and what the outlook for their future might be.

For the present, they are scattered far and wide across Japan. I recently learned that there are a number of Fukushima families living in my own city of Hadano. Though it boasts a huge population, Hadano is officially considered “the country”, and is known for its pure mountain water and popular hiking courses.  A new camping facility has just been finished several years ago, complete with lovely cabins furnished with spacious kitchens and tatami sleeping rooms. Really, I hardly consider that camping at all, but since the cabins are on a mountain in the woods, that fits the Japanese definition, I guess. Anyway, the cabins are now home to the Fukushima families, free of charge, for a short-term stay (hopefully until July, so children can finish up their first semester of school ).  There are Fukushima children in every grade in Hadano, from elementary through Jr. High, and I hear that they’re fitting in just fine.

To my surprise, today’s Asahi Shinbun says there are also Fukushima families in the heart of Tokyo, staying en masse at the Grand Prince Hotel in Akasaka! “Luxury Hotel Home to Refugees” read the headline, with a photo of a charming toddler seated near the window overlooking the Tokyo skyline, surrounded by bags and bags of belongings. Eight hundred refugees from the towns of Iwaki, Minami-Soma, and Futaba are now living in the hotel, which was scheduled to close at the end of March, but decided to remain open with the aid of the Tokyo metropolitan government as a refuge for evacuees. The government is currently paying for meals and utilities, and keeping the hotel open until the end of June.  Although children won’t be able to finish up the school semester (summer vacation begins in mid-July), the hotel stay provides a safe haven and a chance for parents to catch their breath before considering their next move. Most evacuees have mixed feelings about being country families in the heart of fashionable Tokyo; I understand this completely, always fretting that I don’t have the right clothes to wear on the rare occasions when I take the train into the city. Older evacuees feel the irony and frustration of the situation. Hideo Kurosawa, a sixty-eight year old town official from Tomioka, looks out at the lights of Tokyo each night, knowing that, “The neon lights of the metropolis were made possible by the electricity from the nuclear plant.”

The families in Hadano and Akasaka are the lucky ones, at least as far as creature comforts. But they are living a long distance from their former communities, and far from friends and family. Those who remained closer to home face harsher living conditions, but at least retain the comfort of community ties. Though life in a school gymnasium for weeks on end  requires stamina and patience, old folks in particular find reassurance in being able to visit with neighbors, exchange news, and have company at mealtimes.  All of the evacuees–whether far or near–are living with uncertainty, and weighing their options.  As yet, those options are unclear, as the jury is still out on whether they will in fact be able to return home, and if so, how soon that might be.  Bloomberg News reported today that specialists are estimating that restoration of the contaminated land to “livability” could be achieved within three years, but that the government must move fast to begin the process if it hopes to be successful. This involves “cleaning” the soil, or even replacing it. And of course, everything depends on the successful control and shut-down of the power plant itself, which is the more immediate crisis.

Meanwhile, tsunami debris is on its way to Hawaii. US researchers predict some bizarre pieces of Japan will wash ashore on the North American west coast within three years, hitting Hawaii twice.  The International Pacific Research Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa reports that a  “..massive and concentrated arrival of debris,” including bits of buildings, cars, ships, and other tsunami trash will wreck havoc with the environment and harm the wildlife.  There could be potential lawsuits, even, that Japan should prepare for!

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister faces a vote of no-confidence on Thursday. Some say he’ll be ousted, and some say he’ll weather the crisis. Still others (my husband included) say his facial color is terrible, and he must be suffering from extremely poor health. Personally, I don’t think any Japanese politicians look either healthy or pleasing to the eye, but that’s another story. I do hope we do not change Prime Ministers in mid-stream, and I do hope that Kan does not have a bleeding ulcer, though it would not be surprising.

That’s the news for this week; I wish it were not quite so dark, but perhaps it’s the rainy season that’s coloring my perspective as well. There have been positive developments and bright patches, so I will attempt to focus on the good as well as the bad in my next post. I am off to Las Vegas next week for a wedding, so it may be some time before I get back on track….but I’ll be back for sure, as long as the story continues to unfold. Good night.

Read Full Post »

“Please protect us!”  (photo by Tsuno Yoshikazu, Agence France-presse-Getty Images)

“This is not like Libya, government forces will not shoot you down with guns. You will also not become a missing person, taken away somewhere never to return, like in North Korea. Will you raise your voice? Or will you just cry yourself to sleep? ”  ….This is a translation of the blog of Kouno Taro, a member of the government opposition party, published in this week’s popular TIME OUT TOKYO magazine. The accompanying article berates the Japanese people for accepting fuzzy explanations, compromises, and downright untruths from the government whose plans, Kouno says, are “…bound by the aims of protecting the organization of TEPCO, the shareholders, the banks who financed the company and those holding bonds, rather than the public.”  These are strong words, and there is truth to his claim, which was also backed up by a visitor from America. The visitor, a scholar fluent in Japanese, had come to visit evacuation centers in Fukushima. He looked around at the old folks sitting calmly in their impeccably neat sleeping spaces, shook hands and bowed with those who lined up to greet him, and declared to television cameras later, “Nihonjin was shikkari shisugite iru. ”  ( loosely translated, “The Japanese people are too self-reliant.” )  “Shikkari shite iru” is one of those hard-to-translate phrases, which can mean “firm, tight, reliable” or  “a person of good, stable character”.   The American scholar went on to lament that Japanese are so used to being self-reliant and enduring without complaint that they are easily taken advantage of by both the government and TEPCO.

Well, this week has been marked by many interesting stories.  Some stories are in line with the “shikkari shisugite iru” idea: examples of individuals or groups moving to protect themselves and carry on in the absence of  guidance from or action by government officials. Yet other stories hint that ordinary Japanese are too tired, too mentally and emotionally exhausted, unwilling and (in some cases) unable to “carry on” taking care of themselves. These folks are still a minority, but their voices are beginning to be heard on NHK broadcasts, and their faces seen in the Asahi Shinbun.

First, let’s look at this week’s inspiring stories, beginning with  GEEZERS HOPE TO SAVE THE DAY!!!  ( The actual headline was, “A Nuclear Offer from the Aged”, which was much less low key ) , Nakai Daisuke’s article from the Asahi Shinbun, reprinted in the International Herald Tribune.  A close reading of the article brought a stab of surprise and pain: over one hundred and sixty men over the age of sixty have volunteered to step in and assist in the clean-up and shut-down process at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The number of  young people willing to take on the job has been steadily decreasing, and current workers can only work for short periods of time because of the risk of over-exposure to radiation. “We’re the perfect solution!” say the group of geezers, whom one politician has dubbed “The Suicide Squad” ( The group members refer to themselves as “The Skilled Veterans Corps”) . The Skilled Veterans  point out that they are near-death anyway, so can work for extended periods of time and get the job done in a more consistent fashion.  Their leader, Yamada Yasuteru, is seventy-two- a cancer survivor who describes himself as healthy and ready to work. “I want to do my part so that a negative legacy will not be left for future generations,” he states.  I love that man. Despite their gung-ho attitude, and years of experience working  in a variety of technical jobs (Yamada-san’s background includes both waste disposal and plant construction), both the government and top TEPCO officials have stated that they do not plan on using the Skilled Veterans Corps, since ,”…there is no immediate need” for such a suicide corps. How the shut-down and clean-up will be accomplished within eight months (the target time frame, which has already been revised and extended once) without a steady stream of willing workers is still up in the air.

Here’s another brief mentions of folks “taking care of themselves” where the government has been unwilling or unable to step in: families in Fukushima Prefecture whose towns lie outside the evacuation zone but are still plagued by  high radiation levels, have repeatedly asked government officials for advice. Getting very little of that, they are taking matters into their own hands, shovelling away layers of topsoil from their children’s school playgrounds (teachers and parents working together), and declaring the grounds “unsafe”.  Children continue to stay inside at recess, windows are closed (no problem now, but just WAIT till the heat really sets in.  Public schools in Japan are not air conditioned, and summer vacation does not start until mid-July!) , and deciding for themselves to err on the safe side….and who can blame them?

In the Kanagawa and Tokyo areas, folks are continuing to be “shikkari” about saving energy. While the government and TEPCO battle to finance the Fukushima plant shut-down , pay compensation to the victims, and prepare for a swelteringly hot summer with only limited power, individuals are carrying on calmly and positively. Dark public spaces have become the new normal (stiflingly hot trains are still difficult to adjust to), and my friends say cheerfully, “Well, this station was really too bright before, wasn’t it?”  In  a recent NHK on-the-street interview , a reporter was encouraged to find many people willing to speak out on National TV (this is a country where people are not comfortable behind a mike, and run from, rather than welcome their chance for ten minutes of fame), especially about the energy crisis. Young people declared their consciousness raised, and vowed not to take a lifestyle of plenty for granted.  Although many dreaded the advent of the summer heat, they vowed to refrain from using air conditioners, and spoke of the conservation effort (“setsu-den”) as a way of reaffirming their existence as members of the post-quake society.  I think of it that way myself , yet wonder how vigilant I’ll be able to be when the temperature begins to soar in June and July…

Lastly, let’s switch from the topic of self-reliance to that of protest and the exposure of dirty deeds.  Caught up in a tangle of frightening and confusing circumstances, ordinary citizens in Tohoku–particularly Fukushima Prefecture-are often unsure of who to lash out at, and how to make their voices heard. Though Japan in technically a democracy, it is rare for individuals to be able to make their voices heard above the noisy din of bureaucratic debates and squabbles. Lately, families in Fukushima City ( a huge area to the north of the prefecture which is technically outside of the evacuation zone, but marked by “hot spots” of alarmingly high radiation levels) have been outraged by a  government declaration of “safe radiation doses” for children. The limit set is shockingly high, and “…equal to the international standard for adult nuclear power plant workers,” according to Tabuchi Hiroko’s article in today’s International Herald Tribune.

In April, an advisor to Prime Minister Kan issued his prompt resignation after the standard was announced, simply stating that he would not allow his own children to be exposed to those levels.  And Fukushima parents agree: they are not just uneasy, but confused and angry. Unable to get consistent information on radiation levels on a daily basis, they have no information at all on the long-term effects of  the “safe dose” of radiation they are receiving; in addition, they feel torn between wanting to believe local businessmen (who urge them to continue buying Fukushima products to save the economy), and their own instincts (which urge them, naturally, to be over-cautious).  Since there is only a limited understanding even among scholars of the affects of low doses of radiation over an extended period of time, there are no set guidelines to rely on other than the government’s declaration.

Many families in Fukushima City have already fled voluntarily, and those who remain (it is a huge city, and would be extremely difficult to evacuate) have been protesting the government’s radiation standard for children vigorously. On Monday, parents from  Fukushima travelled to Tokyo to protest outside the Japanese Education Ministry. The building itself is no beauty, but it’s in a very nice, very posh part of the city, close to the American Embassy. It must have been quite a sight, since reporter Tabuchi described the scene as “rowdy”, which is not usual at all. Unsurprisingly, they were rebuffed, but at least they made the papers and the nightly news.  On Wednesday, more parents took their complaints to the local school board, dispensing with civilities and shouting their questions and accusations angrily, asking if entire school buildings should not be decontaminated from top to bottom, and demanding immediate attention and action for the sake of their children. Local officials, caught between a rock and a hard place, pleaded for understanding and promised to do all they could.

Meanwhile, new exposures of dirty deeds at TEPCO continue to make the evening news. Recently,  more young workers involved with the clean-up at the plant have spoken out publicly about lax safety measures and other worrying situations. Many claim to have been “tricked” into working at the plant in the first place, being told at job placement agencies that they would be doing “construction work”, or other such vague descriptions. Those who stayed on to work at the plant despite the initial shock report being treated as “disposable items” by a company more concerned with the plant than with the safety of the men working to prevent further wide-spread contamination and  destruction. Working without dosimeters, ill-fitting masks whose filters slip off when bumped (!) ,warped doors which do not close properly to seal contaminated areas, and only a fifth of the workers receiving internal radiation checks….these are a few of the fears they voiced, and their fears were heard nation-wide. It is already old news now that the situation at Fukushima is far more serious that was first intimated  (it WAS a meltdown after all), and that TEPCOs defense of  “an unimaginable natural disaster” ( they blamed the unforseen height of the tsunami wave) does not hold. New evidence shows that the worst damage was done by the quake itself rather than the tsunami, and was therefore within the realm of imagination. Design flaws within the plant itself have been revealed, and an initial delay in making crucial decisions shortly after the quake caused the situation to escalate.  The situation in Fukushima has been far from “transparent”, and plant workers have every right to fear for their futures, and to publicly doubt whether they should trust their employers.

I’d like to close with the words of Yabuki Shin, who wrote in a recent issue of TOKYO TIME OUT,  “In the wake of the great earthquake, the Japanese people’s spirit of helping others, and the evacuees who lined up in such an orderly manner to receive supplies, were praised worldwide. But if we remain silent about the present situation….we’re likely to become an international laughing stock, known only as the docile Japanese. People of Japan, it’s time to take a stand.”  Enough said, and very well said.  We’ll see what new developments the next week brings.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 528 other followers

%d bloggers like this: