Courage, Troublemakers, Whistle-Blowers, and a Taxi

Shelter Life: neat and tidy...but still dreary. (photo from Asahi Shinbun)

Fight or flight?  Stay or leave?  An English teacher and former journalist living in Chiba prefecture who goes by the pseudonym of  “Our Man in Abiko” gives some insight into the “fighters”: those who are still, three months down the road, living in the shelters of Ishinomaki and other cities in Northern Japan devastated by the quake and tsunami. In a visit to Ishinomaki to distribute goods to shelter victims, “Our Man” and his co-volunteers were saddened by the fact that people continued to remain in shelters or dilapidated houses.  In his “Free Tohoku” blog entry on June 22, he posted photos, described the relief efforts, and admitted, “All the volunteers from different prefectures all think the same thing: Why are these people still here?”

Why indeed? The question must have weighed on him, as exactly a week later, an article appeared in the web publication “Japan Echo”, entitled “Fight or Flight: The Tests We Face”, written by the same “Our Man”, and containing some words of wisdom from a local Buddhist priest. “You might think the strong fight and the weak fly, but if any generalization fits it is the opposite,” writes Our Man, in his eye-opening look at the reality of shelter life. Our Man argues that though many of those still living in schools and gymnasiums are there for practical reasons (no money, no home, still looking for lost family members, waiting for disaster relief money, etc.), a good many are there simply because they lack the courage to move on and strike out on their own.  Higuchi Nobuo, a Buddhist priest who spoke with their group, reinforced this theory, stating point-blank, “They’re (the shelter residents) not strong-they have no courage to leave. Lots of newspapers have said that Japanese people are patient so they’re here, but that’s wrong. They simply don’t have the courage to leave. There’s an element of patience in people here, but they’re not waiting for anything.” Of course, this was not meant to be a blanket statement indicting people who suffered more physical and emotional loss in one day than most people experience in a lifetime; many of those still in shelters, for instance, are elderly and lack physical strength as well as resources.  Still, the words of the Buddhist priest and the English teacher rang true to me. I came away from the article greatly saddened myself.

Lack of courage (which has often, as Our Man and the Buddhist priest both note, been mistakenly portrayed by the media as humility or patience) is a topic that, once introduced, deserves a thorough and unbiased examination.  I cannot do it justice. Folks in Japan do have opinions, both about politics, about nuclear energy, but they have been silent for decades.  Apathy, or lack of courage?  Perhaps both.  Martin  Fackler, writing for the International Herald Tribune, published an article in this weekend’s paper, speculating that, “…a deep apathy as well as a fear of being ostracized prevents many here who are concerned about nuclear power from taking action.”  In light of this, let’s take a look at a few of the courageous and opinionated  folks making news in Japan right now. They’re meeting with mixed success, but at least they’re trying…..and making a splash.

SPLASH! An unidentified (at least to the public) stockholder faces the Tokyo Electic Power

TEPCO stockholders lined up for the annual meeting(photo by Toshiyuki Hayashi)

Company officials and suggests they “Jump into the reactors and die!”  Emboldened by this, another stockholder suggests “hara-kiri” (ritual disembowelment) might be more fitting.  Well, why don’t they sell their stock and break their connection with the disgraced TEPCO (you might wonder)?  The answer is a good one: because they belong to a block of 402 shareholders who bought their shares a decade (or two) ago, with the sole purpose of causing trouble for TEPCO.  Yes, they are anti-nuclear protesters, who have showed up at the annual stockholders’ meeting faithfully for twenty years, each year submitting a proposal to abolish nuclear power, and each year returning home in defeat. This year, however, they were especially hopeful, and local authorities were especially fearful, arranging for 250 riot police (outnumbering the members of the anti-nuclear block!) to provide extra security during the six hour meeting.

It was, as you might expect, an action-packed, drama-filled six hours, described  by Washington Post World reporter Chico Harlan as, “…a go-round of apologies and jeers” between TEPCO officials and the “raucous audience”.  TEPCO’s chairman apologized profusely, only to face a motion for dismissal brought forth by a nameless stockholder (teary-eyed, says the article) declaring, “If you are really feeling responsible, how dare you serve as chairman!”  Yet the upshot was…….defeat on all counts, yet again, for the anti-nuclear block. The sleazy chairman retained his post, and the motion to abandon nuclear energy in Japan was again defeated, as the majority of the shareholders submitted votes via the internet to defeat the anti-nuclear block. Well hey, this time those guys made the news, big time—and as heros, rather than troublemakers. That’s progress, right?  I’ll bet they slept well that night, knowing they’d fought the good fight and given their cause some excellent PR.

Kei Sugaoka (photo by Jim Wilson, NY Times)

And let me just mention how valid that cause is, as I move on to more courageous troublemakers. Though every blog entry I’ve written has mentioned TEPCO and how their criminal negligence and dishonesty has “ruined Japan” (admitted by an anonymous TEPCO executive who was recently interviewed by reporters Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima in the Atlantic Monthly Wire), there are still more revelations to come. The article by Adelstein and Nakajima (“TEPCO: Will Someone Turn off the Lights?”), further describes the turn of events at the annual stockholders’ meeting, and features an interview with Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American engineer who had worked at the Fukushima Number One reactor….until asked to falsify data.  Sugaoka became a whistle-blower eleven years ago in June, relating the series of events that led to his departure from TEPCO, and his disillusionment with Japan’s nuclear industry as a whole.  According to Sugaoka, in the year 2000, he found cracks in a vital piece of equipment called the “steam dryer”.  Upon reporting his findings, he was ordered to edit a video of the reactor so that the cracks were not visible. He refused, but the edited video was made by another worker and used as evidence of the plant’s compliance with safety levels.  In 2002,  an investigation revealed that TEPCO had been falsifying data for over two decades. The plant was shut down for inspection, and the cracks fixed, but no criminal charges were filed.

Sugaoka speaks out yet again in the Atlantic Monthly article, in reaction to TEPCO’s claim that the the tsunami was an “unprecedented” disaster (attempting to absolve themselves from a good deal of responsibility and blame) .  In his words, “TEPCO knowingly used a defective, misaligned piece of equipment for over a decade and doctored video footage showing massive problems. Is it any surprise that the reactor would eventually break down? The containment vessel was never designed to withstand an earthquake. Reactor One is 40 years old, it should have been shut down ten years ago. What was the Japanese government thinking when they gave them firm permission to extend the reactor life for another ten years? And that TEPCO had the audacity to ask, should tell you how close their ties are to the Japanese government.” Words from an experienced professional and an insider that came too late to prevent disaster, but still need to be heard and remembered as the Japanese government and local prefectures struggle to decide the nation’s future energy policy.

Next, let’s talk about the ladies. On Friday, Bloomberg news did a fascinating piece on a

woman named Atsuko Ogasawara, who is carrying out her late mother’s wishes by refusing to sell the family’s log bungalow to the J-Power Electric Company. She has refused to sell for some twenty years now, forcing J-Power to move it’s still-under-construction nuclear reactor back 250 meters, and causing them no end of frustration.  Though her neighbors have, without exception, taken generous payments from J-Power and abandoned their houses in favor of the facility (which is set to open in 2014), Ogasawara is standing firm. She lives in the rural village of Oma, on the very northern tip of Honshu, “where Pacific bluefin

A choice piece of maguro, courtesy of bluefin tuna shipped straight from the port of Oma. (Photo from advertisement for Yoshino-Zusshi)

tuna weighing as much as 555 kilograms are still caught using a rod and line.”  These same fishermen, however, have chosen to support the nuclear power plant, in an effort to revitalize the town’s economy and ensure that young people stay around.

Though J-Power insists that they have only “encouraged” Ogasawara to sell her land,  she sees things differently. She describes the harassment faced by her mother which led to her reluctance to even answer the phone, and has saved letters and notes sent from J-Power over a period of years as evidence. She has been followed by unidentified men, and plagued by callers threatening to sabotage the family fishing boat.  Her small house lies just a stone’s throw away from the nuclear plant construction site, and she is not budging, refusing to be intimidated by threats or won over by the promise of easy money (she has rejected an offer of more than 160 million yen for her rustic little cabin).  Her cabin has become a focal point for Japanese anti-nuclear protesters, and she has finally won support and praise from like-minded strangers across the country.  Whatever the outcome of her battle, this must be at least some consolation for her, after years of swimming upstream on her own.  Ogasawa does not believe in hypocrisy; she has equipped her cabin with solar panels to ensure that she will never need to be dependent on the plant whose existence she has consistently fought against.  Her justification for two decades of protest is simple: “If nuclear plants are safe for people to live near, they should build one in the middle of Tokyo, ” she says stubbornly. If one believes that any life is valuable, then yes, this is true.  Lives in rural Northern Japan are just as valuable as the lives and ensuing infrastructure of Tokyo, and the country needs both to survive and preserve its balance. The country’s balance has been thrown off by the multiple disasters, and the courage of folks like Ogasawara-san is needed to set things aright again. In her case, fight rather than flight was the brave choice.

Finally, here’s a photo of a well-known (depending on your circles) Japanese reggae singer

Rankin' Taxi wants YOU!

who goes by the name “Rankin’ Taxi”.  He’s one of the multitude of singer/songwriters who have been re-writing old hits with new anti-nuclear lyrics, or penning new and wildly popular tunes protesting TEPCO and nuclear power in general. Radio stations will not play their music, but young people find them on you tube, and their music gets thousands of views-the number steadily increasing.  The theme of Rankin’ (Mr. Taxi?) ‘s latest popular video is the lack of discrimination shown by nuclear radiation.  In “You Can’t See It, You Can’t Smell It”,  a multitude of world leaders, movie stars, sports players, anime characters, and even famous monsters (both Godzilla and Mothra make an appearance) flash across the screen,  juxtaposed against images of nuclear explosions.  Mr. Taxi is undoubtably glad to be getting attention with his music, but under the circumstances, it’s hard to celebrate. (“I sang, and people listened, but it came after the fact so it was almost like salt in the wound,” he said ruefully in a recent interview).

Still, no movement is complete without music, and Mr. T. is undoubtably underestimating his own potential to effect change from here on in. He’s got young people (and those of his own generation, like myself) interested, and other musicians stirred up as well. Friday’s  International Herald Tribune says an “electricity-free music festival” is planned for August 15th in Fukushima. Wouldn’t it be excellent to get them all together for that event: the Suicide Squad of old guys who want to go in and clean up TEPCO, “Our Man in Akibo” (the blogger and activist from Chiba), the anti-nuclear TEPCO shareholders, Sugaoka-san the whistle-blower, Ogasawara-san (the lady who refuses to be bought), and of course Mr. Taxi.  Now THAT would promise to be some event. Thank you all again for reading, and good night.


3 thoughts on “Courage, Troublemakers, Whistle-Blowers, and a Taxi

  1. An alternative to fight or flight is camouflage. And I wonder if that isn’t what’s going on with some of the survivors–it is a slow process of course, but it too can be effective and as life-saving.

  2. Camouflage is another alternative to imminent danger, rather than just fight or flight. At it’s most basic, camouflage means just blending in to the local environment, in the hopes of being unnoticed and unharmed.

    But I also see it, as in the case of the survivors discussed here, as camouflage allows a waiting period before having to choose an action. It is a non-response response to the danger in some ways. What is time? What is one month after a catastrophe? What is three months? A year? All time is the same until we do something different., and this may not be a bad response.

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