“Will You Raise Your Voice?”

“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.

4 thoughts on ““Will You Raise Your Voice?”

  1. Thanks as always for working on this. I really enjoyed what you wrote but am unsure why you closed with the quote about the Japanese being quiet and docile. I don’t know how anyone can say the Japanese are being silent or accepting when much of what you wrote cites examples of people speaking up, protesting, and being activists, and you specifically say how unusual that is in this society. I guess people far enough away from the disaster are relatively quiet, but I’m really happy to hear that those speaking up and speaking out are being covered by the press, and I like that you are sharing these stories, too, because if enough people spread the word and relate how others are speaking up, more will follow.

    I have often wondered why the Japanese are not out in the street more protesting some of the bizarre things the government does, and have always attributed it to the shoganai attitude that both drives me crazy at times and helps me understand when to fight and when to accept the inevitable. I think that this earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster with its effect on farming, fishing, children, industry, family is the catalyst for helping people to find their voices and understand that the government is the people and the people have to be involved to have their voices heard. It may be just the local people directly affected at first, but if the news keeps covering it, it also might spread deeper into the country. Let’s hope anyway.

    • Linda! Let me explain why I closed with that particular quote, and why I chose the examples that I did. It’s the difference between “shikkari” (self-reliant), which is viewed positively by society, and “urusai” (loud and complaining), which is frowned upon. The stories of the old guys who want to clean up the Fuushima plant and the teachers and parents who began cleaning up school grounds on their own are examples of “shikkari shite iru”….the kind of values and practical spirit that are highly valued in Japan. The stories that followed (parents protesting high radiation standards for children and plant workers going public with criticism of their TEPCO employees) are examples of what is usually considered “urusai” by Japanese standards. Regardless of the validity of the cause, public displays of anger or emotion are considered bad form, offensive, and embarrassing. This is why the positive coverage of protests and such by NHK is both unusual and encouraging! Figures like Kouno Tarou and the reporter whose quote I used in the final paragraph are attempting to push more people into protesting against a flawed system, rather than just carrying on in spite of the chaos around them. It seems to happening already, though on a small scale, and I look forward–as you do–to seeing what will happen next. Thank you for forcing me to think my argument through again, and present it more clearly.

  2. Are company whistle blowers suppressed and threatened in Japan the same way they are often here with job loss and blacklisting?

    Are there any Japanese examples of writings like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair that have pushed social/cultural/economic change?

    It seems like people there may be realizing that “urusai” may be a necessary part of “shikkari shite iru” to make things that are wrong change for the better.

    • Sandra, yes! Whistle-blowers are suppressed and threatened here, too….I do not know of any book that was influential in pushing change, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Keisuke couldn’t think of one either, though, and that’s his neck of the woods. I do think that the media is portraying “urusai” protesters at this point in time in a positive light because of the issues involved….the long-term health of an entire region, and more specifically, small children. No matter how politically incorrect it may be to complain in public, what folks are saying is valid, everyone agrees, and everyone sympathizes.

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