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
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.
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!