Pondering Peaches, and other Moral Dilemmas

“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.


4 thoughts on “Pondering Peaches, and other Moral Dilemmas

  1. I like the video at the end particularly. Science does not answer the situation, man and his actions can answer the situation. Do what you can do, and get on with it, seems to be the message. But yes, would I eat a peach? I often apply the mantra, “When you’ve been warned, you must listen” to my life. And that usually keeps me from doing anything potentially harmful to myself. I also often say, “How you deal with the issue, is the issue.” But I don’t seem to be getting to an answer to your question, Would I eat a peach?

    I think not. And I would be fine with that.

    • In the end, problems will not be solved without science OR faith OR determined effort and grit. It’s heart-wrenching to see people here working hard, but with no faith that they’ll succeed in the end. I posted the video of the monk because he’s a beautiful example of the combination of all those things. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Joseph. So far, no-one has said they would eat the peach.

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