Restoring Damaged Ethics

The four young hunger strikers finished up their tenth day this Wednesday, just before a typhoon hit Tokyo in full force.

Do these these two look tired and hungry? It’s been nine days….

Miraculously, the first nine days had been mostly sunny, with only a few scattered showers. ” How will they fare in the pouring rain?” I fretted, opening up my laptop and clicking on the link to their live web camera…..and there they were!  Draped in head- to- toe raingear and grinning unconcernedly, they were engaged in spirited conversation with reporters as if this were a normal day.  I concentrated on Masaaki, the young man from Chiba with the stylish hair, who was speaking with a reporter about what had most impressed him during his ten day ordeal (though I tell you, it did not seem like an ordeal at all. Curiosity-seekers wondering what it’s actually like to deny oneself food for a ten day stretch would come away disappointed, as none of the four betrayed obvious signs of hardship.  They did occasionally stretch out and nap at times, but normal Japanese do that, too).  Anyway,  Masaaki’s response to the reporter both startled and touched me, so I will paraphrase it in English for you: ” We were all surprised,” he said, “by the older people who continued to stop by and apologize to us.  Some wept as they apologized for what their generation had done to our generation, and the four of us didn’t know what to say.  We don’t think of the situation that way at all, and felt there was no need for such humility…”

Haruki Murakami

Listening on the live camera, I thought about the depths of sadness and responsibility felt by those older people, and about the gentle spirits of the young people, who were not about shaming and blaming, but about constructive action in the spirit of peace and healing.  I then re-read the fine English translation of Murakami Haruki’s speech (given on June 10th in Barcelona, Spain, at his acceptance of a prestigious literary award), remembering that Haruki had said something that might be of relevance to the situation. Here’s a link to the speech itself,  found on the blog Senrinomichi...  And I’ll follow with a few tidbits from the speech that I want to share.

Speaking of the years following the second World War,  Murakami speaks of Japan’s choice to follow the path of efficiency and convenience, relying on nuclear power generation as a means to rebuild the country, eventually becoming so dependent on it that alternative power sources came to seem unrealistic and impossible. “Those who harbored doubts about nuclear power generation came to be labelled as ‘unrealistic dreamers’ “, says Murakami , reflecting that “We should have been working to develop alternative energy sources to replace nuclear power at a national level, by harvesting all existing technologies, wisdom and social capital. ”

I have written about some of the “unrealistic dreamers” in past blog entries, including a group of  renegade TEPCO stockholders who faithfully attend meetings each year in order to cause trouble for the nuclear power industry. For twenty years they have held onto their TEPCO stock for the sole purpose of submitting a yearly proposal to abolish nuclear power.  It took a crisis the size of Fukushima to get them news coverage, but this year we finally heard their story, and millions read in the daily papers how one emboldened renegade suggested that the President of TEPCO should  “Jump into the reactors and die!” Another suggested hara-kiri, or Japanese ritual disembowelment. Mind you, I am not suggesting that we express our sentiments in this extreme fashion (anyone who knows me well will vouch for this), but the man is an example of just the sort of person Murakami was speaking about. Those stockholders had probably endured decades of being labelled as crazy, embarrassing, or (at the least) unrealistic. Some of them, no doubt, had wives and family who were mortified by their behavior. After the Fukushima disaster, they were finally vindicated, but it was hardly a moment to rejoice.


Murakami also speaks of the crime committed against the environment, which has been poisoned beyond our ability to fully comprehend,  stating boldly that, “we are in fact both victims and perpetrators at the same time…Insofar as we are threatened by the force of nuclear power, we are all victims. Moreover, since we unleashed this power and were then unable to prevent ourselves from using it, we are also all perpetrators.”  And here’s the part that hurts: “….we must be critical of ourselves for having tolerated and allowed these corrupted systems to exist until now. This accident cannot be dissociated from our ethics and values.”  In short, people in Fukushima (and across the country as a whole) are angry for precisely this reason. In many ways, both government and TEPCO officials have refused to take any sort of moral responsibility for the disaster, and seem disassociated from the pain and suffering of the victims, and impervious to the plight of the damaged environment itself.

According to Murakami’s standard, these victims are also “perpetrators”, since many of them took a passive stance when nuclear power plants began to spring up in economically depressed coastal cities. They also enjoyed the benefits of wide-screen TVs (digital, of course), dishwashers, clothes dryers, and other luxuries they could not have dreamed of before , all powered by electricity that they gradually began to take for granted.  And now, many of the older generation that invited the nuclear power plants to their towns and

Plenty of older folk waving placards at Monday’s protest in Tokyo…

earned their livings working for the industry itself are sunk in a morass of deep regret. So….. are they wallowing there in the morass, unable to move beyond their own mortification?  Hardly!  Seniors who are physically able are taking themselves to Tokyo (those in nearby prefectures come by train, and those from Fukushima arrive in chartered busses) to protest.  Although Japanese have a paranoia about giving out any sort of personal information or signing petitions, they are signing

everything in sight. They are marching in the streets along with young mothers pushing strollers; they are carrying placards and cheering loudly at rallys.  I cannot say how unusual this all is, and how stunned I was to attend my first “Demo”in Tokyo this past Monday, to find the streets full of old people. They wanted to talk, they wanted to be interviewed.  They visited the hunger strikers in Kasumigaseki, tearful and apologetic for leaving the country in such a mess.

Spotlight on still more senior citizens: In another previous blog post, I had mentioned Yasutera Yamada, the 72 year old leader of a

Yamada-san and his squad are ready and waiting!

squad of hundreds of older men and women who are ready and waiting to be called in to clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Having lived full lives already, they are willing to risk potential exposure to radiation and propose working longer shifts to increase efficiency and spare younger workers. According to recent news reports, Yamada and his team are fully organized and prepared to go in to work at a moment’s notice.

I have nothing by respect for the great majority of older people in this country, my own parents-in-law included.  Many feel duly ashamed, are doing their penance by radically cutting their electricity usage, and are willing–even in their seventies and eighties–to literally stand up for change by marching through the streets of Tokyo. Murakami says, “It is the job of experts to rebuild broken roads and buildings, but it is the duty of each of us to restore our damaged ethics and values.”  These old folks might know little of Murakami besides the name, and most are probably not aware that he made the Barcelona speech. Yet they’re on the right track with his value system, are they not?

Okay, skip back to the central government and the TEPCO officials. During Monday’s demonstration in Tokyo, I was asked by an Italian man toting a heavy video camera if I “trusted the Japanese government”?  I thought back to the first days of the nuclear crisis , when the hydrogen explosions were described on television as “a big booming noise” (What? Are we in Nursery School here?).  I remembered assuring friends in America that we hadn’t experienced a meltdown (because that’s what we were told), only to cringe in embarrassment weeks later when it was revealed that my friends were right.  I recalled watching the video of Shunichi Yamashita, the advisor to Fukushima Prefecture on health risk management during the nuclear crisis…..and maybe I’ll share that particular video with you, since this is what really influenced my ultimate mistrust and sense of outrage. The video was taken at a meeting held this Spring, when residents of Fukushima Prefecture were confused and anxious:  should they still be wearing masks?  Should they be hanging their laundry outside?  The current safe standard of radiation dosage per year had recently been “raised”, and what did that mean? And most pressing of all, were their children really safe?

Well, take a look at the “answer” they got. Yamashita-san, a graduate school professor from Nagasaki University,  began the session with what is known as “Ojisan-Gag” here in Japan. In other words, a very bad joke told by an old guy who thinks he’s funny. “Hey, Fukushima is famous, you guys! ” he chortles. “Even more famous than Chernobyl!” (He gets a bit of nervous laughter) Then comes the gag that fell flat as a pancake. “If you’re laughing right now, you won’t experience any effects from radiation. That’s scientifically proven!” he says with a smarmy smile…..followed by dead silence.  The video’s English subtitles are (again) not the best, but please be understanding.  You’ll definitely get the gist.

The meeting that was made famous in Japan by  Yamashita Senseii’s patronizing and unscientific speech took place in the Spring. There are more and longer videos of his advice to Fukushima residents,  always given with a smile (to ensure he won’t have any effects from the radiation?). When residents voiced their concern over government standards for a “safe” level of radiation (the standards had just been raised),  Yamashita-san deferred, “I don’t set the radiation standard. The government sets the standard. I have to follow the government as a Japanese citizen……Our country decided this, and we are its citizens. I think it’s better to think it’s safe and live a normal life than to worry too much about the future.”

Before the nuclear disaster, that kind of pat answer might have worked for some people.

Cesium-tainted topsoil being scraped from the grounds of an elementary school in Fukushima Prefecture.

For many people, even. But the stakes were too high, and parents were not satisfied with Yamashita-san’s answer. When schoolyards, tap water, milk, vegetables, and even sewage were regularly tested and found to contain high levels of cesium, parents became furious. Some had believed the advisor’s words, trusted that they would be safe, and chosen not to evacuate the prefecture.  And most incredibly, although other government officials have been fired because of callous remarks regarding Fukushima, Yamashita-san is still on the job. Mothers in Fukushima want him OUT, and there is currently a petition circulating with his dismissal listed as one of the conditions.

Lastly, let me mention a page I follow on facebook called “Embrace Transition”, dedicated to publishing articles and essays about post-3/11 Japan and the changes and choices that will shape its future.  This week’s offerings featured a moving- and yet ominous- essay by Angela Jeffs, a former London editor who has worked as a journalist and writer in Japan since 1986.  In her essay “Treasure”, Jeffs asks why, in the age of internet and cell phones, Japan’s central government did not move swiftly to evacuate the children of Fukushima, contrasting today’s situation with that of another era, when  230,000 children (including my father-in-law) were evacuted from Tokyo during the US bombings of 1944, with “Only the radio and community spirit and will” to facilitate the process. She makes the point that if such an evacuation had been instigated six months ago, Japan as a country would have rallied to the cause and welcomed the refugees.  Now, she fears, it may be more difficult for those wishing to leave, as discrimination and fears of ‘catching’ radiation sickness could prevent Fukushima evacuees from finding a warm and welcoming community. Although children are constantly referred to as “takara-mono”, or “treasure” in Japan,

Japan’s children: are they really treasures? (photo from Asahi Shinbun)

Jeffs believes the government has not treated them accordingly; in fact, she says, it has betrayed them. Here is her powerful closing: “It is my belief that the Japanese government, hand in hand with the nuclear industry, has committed a crime against humanity. And not only against the children of Fukushima and the north east but-in an ever-widening zone of suspicion and alarm-the children of Japan and the world at large.” Here’s the link to the “Embrace Transition” page on facebook, where you can find more of Angela’s writing and other thought-provoking pieces of writing:

Many people are angry these days.  Many people are worried, anxious, even paranoid about their own health.  Just yesterday, a blogger living in the relative safety of Yokohama posted about his planned “escape”/evacuation to France.  Mothers in Fukushima are moving to Tokyo.  Mothers in Tokyo are moving farther south, west, or even abroad. The population in the big city has already shown a slight decrease.  The anger and anxiety are justifiable, and we all feel a bit of both, to some degree. Yet we must not be overcome by either.  As Murakami said in his speech, we must begin the process of restoring our damaged ethics.

Although the hunger strikers in front of the Economics, Trade and Industy building did not make headlines, they affected individuals, gave people pause to think, and undoubtably made the government officials working inside extremely uncomfortable. Would you want to be feeding your face at noontime when the view from your window is rail-thin students (nice students! not the dirty, foul-mouthed, rough-looking kind), protesting the policies you represent?  Not me, thanks. The hunger strikers had an agenda (bringing an end to reliance on nuclear energy), a well-written and specific petition (asking for, among other things, the immediate halt to the construction of a new nuclear plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture), and infinite reserves of stamina, patience, and goodwill.

 They were pros, who did not slip up once, and saw their project through till the final press conference on the tenth day. They’ve already done their part in repairing damaged ethics as far as I’m concerned, and their generation had nothing to do with the building of nuclear reactors. For them, it’s not about repentance, but about preserving the future for their own children. The path of efficiency and easy living?  They’ve already proved they’re not interested. Flee the country out of fear for their own health?  No, they’re not that type either; there’s work to be done, and my guess is that they’re staying put. Friends of mine have mixed reactions to the hunger strikers, especially since they have already rejected the traditional Japanese path to adulthood. But Murakami would certainly salute them as just the kind of dreamers the country needs. I’ll end with his closing words, since I couldn’t hope to be more eloquent myself.

“We must not be afraid to dream. We should never allow the crazed dogs named ‘efficiency’ and ‘convenience’ to catch up with us. We must be ‘unrealistic dreamers’, who stride forward vigorously. Human beings will die and disappear, but humanity will prevail and will be constantly regenerated.  Above all, we must believe in this force.”

Good night; the air is cool and clear since the last typhoon, and the cicadas have finally ceased their shrilling. I will miss them, till the next summer. Thank you once again for reading.


3 thoughts on “Restoring Damaged Ethics

    • You’re welcome, Angela. I’ve enjoyed everything you’ve written so far, and would love to meet and thank you for your words in person. It’s not such a big country, so maybe that will happen.

  1. Pingback: tofu mary» Blog Archive » A crime against humanity.

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