Let the House Burn, but Save the Children

After spending the week of Halloween frolicking about dressed as either a jolly pumpkin,

My Alter-Ego, Jolly Pumpkin.

fashionable witch, funny witch, or good witch (depending on my mood and the age of the children I would teach that day), I was tired of fun and games, and ready to return to Tokyo to touch base with anti-nuclear protesters. Sunday would be the day, and I looked forward to it all week long.  Life in my corner of Kanagawa (quite far from the hub of Yokohama) goes on as if nothing has happened in Tohoku, and as if the country is not in a state of crisis. A trip to Tokyo, where people from prefectures far and near congregate for weekend demonstrations these days, always reminds me that the crisis is real, and all the more urgent because so many are not speaking, not acting, and not thinking deeply about the future.

Although it’s their own future, and that of their children and grandchildren,  a good majority of folks are choosing to step back and remain silent these days. Read more about this silent majority in an excellent article by Kevin Dodd, from his blog, Senrinomichi. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an uncomfortable and eerie silence, often descending when I most want to tell friends about where I’ve been (Tokyo), what I’m doing (reading and educating myself), and what I’m thinking ( The nuclear power industry is insidious and rotten to the core. The central government is equally corrupt. The whole system could potentially continue for years to come if people don’t find the courage to seize the moment…). I have found that certain friends will listen politely, wait for me to finish, then change the subject. Other friends listen with interest and sympathy, venture their own opinions, but would not–in a million years–accompany me to a demonstration in Tokyo.  Mind you, the majority of my friends agree with my anti-nuclear sentiments (in varying degrees), but they are not personally engaged. They have not been changed in a essential way by the March 11th quake and the ensuing nuclear crisis, and their complacency serves to increase my own sense of urgency and frustration.

Though I have not yet convinced any Hadano friends to attend a Tokyo demo together, my

The girl who will go to a good demo any day!

daughter will accompany me at the drop of a hat. She’s eighteen, and I marvel at the fact that when I say, “Hey, do you want to go to Tokyo to meet some women from Fukushima?”, she says, “Mmm. Iku.” (“Sure, I’ll go.”)  Just like that!  What’s so difficult for some people is so easy for others, I guess. So anyway, we boarded the Romance Car (an express train that’s not so romantic, especially the older model that smells like mildewed seat covers) to Shinjuku on Sunday, and set off to meet a group of women from Fukushima who are in Tokyo for the week to tell their stories and make an appeal to evacuate children from areas close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. As with the Hunger Strikers, I had read about these women in various blog sites and seen videos of them speaking. I was curious to meet them in person, and determined to show my support by hanging out with them at Kasumigaseki for the day.

We arrived at the station, ascended the staircase from the subway level, and there we were, right in the middle of things. There were camp chairs set up along the sidewalk in front of the METI building (Ministry of Energy, Trade, and Industry), so we sat ourselves down next to a group of women wearing Fukushima tags and struck up a conversation. A tall, serious-looking woman with a gentle voice told of her decision to evacuate from Fukushima City ten hours after the quake, and I found myself involved in her tale almost immediately. Here it is:

Uno Saeko-san. I call her one brave woman.

Saeko-san is the wife of a professor at Fukushima University, and the mother of a four-year-old daughter. Living only 60 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, she had begun researching into the history of nuclear power in Japan a full two years before the quake had occurred, and was already convinced that that Daiichi plant was a potential disaster waiting to happen. On the day of the quake, her husband was away on business in Saitama Prefecture, and she was alone in the house with her daughter. The quake was terrifying, and she and her daughter fled the house, seeking shelter outside and hugging each other tightly. “There’s a giant under the ground roaring and shaking, but don’t worry-you’re safe, ” she told the little girl. When the shaking stopped, they returned to the house to inspect for damage. I did not ask if Saeko’s house had lost power, but most houses in Fukushima did, so it’s possible that she did not know of the ensuing tsunami. Many older people in Fukushima and Miyagi who do not use the internet were ignorant of the situation for days. My guess is that Saeko-san was on the net that afternoon, and probably knew of the giant wave that had washed over the reactors repeatedly.  She knew enough, in any case , to foresee dire trouble at the Daiichi power plant, and to know that she needed to leave as soon as possible. After several hours, she was finally able to reach her husband by cell phone, and he agreed that she and her daughter should evacuate that night.

They left the house by car around midnight, with only an overnight bag, headed for the mountains in the western part of Fukushima. “It was snowing, and the driving was terrible,” she said, “but I just wanted to make it over the mountains where I felt safer.”  Saeko-san and her daughter made it over the mountains, and arrived in the city of Aizu in the early morning, where they took shelter in a church. After a rest in Aizu, Saeko determined to go south, eventually arriving in Kyushuu (Yamaguchi Prefecture) via Niigata, Oosaka, and Hiroshima. The country’s transport system was overwhelmed in those first few weeks following the disaster, and just getting out of Tohoku itself was a minor miracle due to a myriad of factors: roads were damaged or blocked by rubble, trains were not running, cars that had not been washed away by the tsunami had no gas (even in Kanagawa, few people were driving after the quake, and gas stations all across town were sold out), and the weather was horrendous. Saeko-san was lucky to be living far enough inland to have escaped tsunami damage and to have gotten out of the city safely and in a timely fashion. I can only imagine the tension and fear she must have experienced driving in the middle of the night with a small child, in blinding snow , on damaged roads, hoping to outrun the hydrogen explosions that she feared were coming. They did come, and she did outrun them. I call her one brave lady: educated, prepared, and unafraid to act swiftly and decisively.

She and her daughter now live in Kyushuu, though they have not officially moved, and their house in Fukushima City remains

Does Fukushima University have a future?

untouched since the day of the quake. Her husband, who cannot leave his job at Fukushima University, is currently renting an apartment in nearby Yamagata Prefecture, and commuting to Fukushima.  He had flown to Kyushuu for the weekend, she said, to watch their daughter so she could be here in Tokyo to join the demonstration. “Have many students left the University since the disaster?”  I asked. “No, she said, “in fact, very few have left. They’ve paid their tuition for the year, and feel that leaving is would be a waste of money.” “Well, what about next year?” I continued. “Will the school be able to get new students and continue operations?”  The university was considering offering free tuition for incoming students, she said, in a desperate attempt to save the school. It didn’t sound hopeful to me, though, and I can’t imagine any student considering Fukushima U, even with the lure of free tuition. Sounded like the next year would be a rough one for Saeko and her family, but she was not the self-pitying type.

I asked Saeko-san how or if she talked about the past year’s events with her daughter (nursery school age) , and she responded swiftly, “Of course I talk about what happened with my daughter. I don’t believe in deceiving children, or covering up bad things. She knows that radiation has spread around her old home, and that it came from the nuclear power plant. She knows that this makes her mother cry, and she thinks of the nuclear power industry as the bad guys, like in a book or cartoon”. Her daughter  reverted back to babyhood for a short while after the quake and the traumatic move, refusing to walk by herself, be separated from her mother, or attend Nursery School, but now she’s adjusted to her new life and shows very few signs of stress or anxiety. Not so, unfortunately, for the majority of children left in Fukushima City. According to Saeko-san, only a fraction of the large population (Wikipedia estimates 290,064) have actually moved to other prefectures; the remainder of the city is comprised of families living in limbo. Some families have stayed due to a lack of financial options, and are lobbying for government assistance so they can pack up and leave. Others have chosen to break up the family unit, as Saeko’s family did, with mother and children fleeing the prefecture and father staying behind to save the family business or to rebuild the company. For those families who have stayed, daily life is full of stress and uncertainty. Many mothers, mistrustful of food safety standards ( food is simply labelled “safe”, and the exact level of radiation does not appear on produce ) would prefer their children to eat box lunches from home, made from foods carefully chosen ( preferably from faraway prefectures ) and carefully prepared.

lunchtime helpers in a Japanese elementary school.

Teachers in Fukushima, however, insist that their students eat the school lunches (made with locally-grown produce) to show their loyalty to the prefecture. Children are torn between their mothers’ wishes and their fear of humiliation and punishment. This sounds hard to believe, but it’s been reported in various blog sites (watch a video clip to find out what happens to students who refuse to drink local milk), and was unanimously confirmed by the Fukushima mothers that I met on Sunday. Worse yet, one mother reported that students who refuse to eat school lunches are now bullied by their peers as well as berated by their teachers.

Fukushima mothers speak their minds

Still more common is the tension and unbalance caused by broken family ties. Fukushima families that managed to survive the quake and tsunami intact have been torn apart by circumstance and necessity; children have spent nearly eight months already living apart from their fathers. Women that I talked to said that even families who have stayed together in Fukushima are often divided in their thinking, with mothers hoping to evacuate and fathers wanting to stick it out. I watched an NHK special last week on a small company in Fukushima run by a group of men who have been friends since childhood; they have evacuated their wives and children and are staying on in Fukushima to keep their company going. This seems to be a common pattern, with men choosing financial stability and loyalty to the workplace rather than taking the risk of starting fresh with their families. Either choice is a hard one, and residents of Fukushima City are on their own, with no financial assistance from the central government (they are outside of the evacuation zone), and the situation complicated by community ties to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. As Saeko told me, “I wish I had more friends working with me to halt the spread of the nuclear industry, but so many in Fukushima work for the company itself, or have connections.”  There is tension between husbands and wives, tension among friends, tension between teachers and students, and tension among students. It’s obvious by now that the central government is unable and unwilling to take responsibility for the chaos that has ensued since the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. They are busy making plans to build and sell new, improved nuclear reactors in third-world, energy-starved countries.  One mother that I spoke with recalled her own incredulity when she realized that families in her city had literally been abandoned by the government.  “Is there anyone at all that you trust in the Prime Minister’s cabinet?” I asked. Saeko and her friends looked at each other and agreed, “No, no-one. ”

And so, they have brought their demands to Tokyo. Their demands are simple: provide government assistance for the evacuation of children from Fukushima, and keep off-line nuclear power plants off-line. The women I met on Sunday were well-organized, well-spoken, gracious and hospitable (serving snacks intermittently to folks standing around in the cold), and constantly busy. Every woman had something in her hands, from finger-knitting (with the intent to yarn bomb the government building on the last day) to patchwork, and visitors were invited to create something along with them, on the spot.

Finger-knitting for Fukushima…I hope the yarn-bombing happens!

There were no hysterics (“They’d like to dismiss us as hysterical, wouldn’t they?” said one woman, shrugging), no tears and no angry bitter words, but plenty of strong words and plain speaking. Now that I think about it, one of the reasons I came away energized after meeting these women was the breath of fresh air that comes with directness and down-to-earth speech. None of this apologizing when you’re not really sorry, no pretending you’re fine when you’re seething with anger, and very few of the standard conversational niceties that are required in my everyday dealings with Japanese women. The Fukushima mothers were focused, intent, and devoted to their message; they were impressive.  Nobel Prize-winning author Oe Kenzaburo also spoke of the strength of Japanese women in his speech at the mass rally in Tokyo on September 19th. Oe made a point of directing his speech not toward men, who have no ears to listen, but toward women, citing a recent incident in Italy as an example.  “After Italian voters rejected the resumption of operations at their nuclear power plants,” recounted Oe, ” a senior official in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) attributed the referendum result to “mass hysteria,” suggesting that the power of women was behind the results. An Italian woman in the film industry responded to the insult, saying: “Japanese men are likely moved to action by a ‘mass hysteria’ that puts productivity and economic power before all else. I’m only talking about men here, because no matter where you are, women never put anything before life. If Japan were to not only lose its status as an economic superpower but fall into long-term poverty, we all know from Japanese films that women will overcome such hardships!”  Thanks to the unknown Italian woman, and thanks to Oe-san for the re-telling of a fine story.

In closing, I will let two of the Fukushima women speak in their own words. Muto Ruiko, who also spoke at the September 19th rally says, “Everyone has the courage to change. Take back your confidence. Join with others. If the nuclear proponents are a vertical wall, we can go around it horizontally. That’s our strength.”  And Sato Sachiko, one of the most compelling personalities I met at the Tokyo demonstration, says bluntly, ” We should save children first and put out fire next. We can’t save them if we put water on fire while leaving them inside. We don’t care about the house. All we want is our children.”  These women know their priorities. They speak their minds with both courage and eloquence, and their stories need to be heard.  Whether their words can help effect change on a national level remains to be seen, but in any case, I know whose side I’m on. Watch the video.  

7 thoughts on “Let the House Burn, but Save the Children

    • Joseph, this is such a delicate subject….some feel that Fukushima families are to blame for not evacuating themselves; individuals need to be stronger and take the risks required to save themselves. Others argue that for some families, evacuation without government support is financially impossible. People still have loans on houses and cars, and would have to leave their jobs, starting over with less than nothing because of their debt. Those who got out on their own were smart, brave, financially stable, and often well-connected, with ties to close friends or family living outside their prefecture. What people cannot forgive is that the evacuations after Chernobyl included a much broader radius. The Fukushima “assisted evacuation zone” is only 20 kilos, or 12 miles!

  1. I know whose side I am on too Ruthie, so we stand shoulder to shoulder. The best piece you have written so far. So glad you are still able to find the words, because I find myself almost beyond speech. After the milk debacle, we now have children being forced to eat new rice harvested in Fukushima from Tuesday. If this is not fascism, what is?

    • I read about the new rice ruling too, Angela. When Fukushima mothers say their children are being used as scientific experiments, these stories back them up. It’s been an unsettling week, hasn’t it, going from “criticality” to “not criticality” and back again, along with radioactive rubble set to burn in Tokyo and other incidents. Working full-time and trying to process everything that’s happening is like holding two jobs. But ignoring the reality is dangerous, too, and I’m sinking my teeth in. I know you yourself will get your words back, and I wait for your next article to hit the “Embrace Transition” page. Go to it–your words are powerful!

  2. Great writing, Ruthie. Gives us all a true picture. Esp. enjoyed Grandma’s comment in an earlier blog: clean up this mess before starting another! Wonder why the buses of children never showed? Auntie A.

    • Auntie Abbie! What a surprise! I notice that no other bloggers have their “Auntie” posting comments. : ) Well, that’s too bad for them–leave your comments any old time, and I’ll post them with pride. I still wonder about the busses from Fukushima, too. I talked with my volunteer group leader about it the other day, and she doesn’t blame the NPO. She suspects that the towns were unwilling or financially unable to provide the busses, and the NPO had their hands tied. Communication between town govts, prefectoral govts, central govt, and NPO’s is often difficult these days….

  3. Pingback: Damage Beyond Bankruptcy « InvestmentWatch

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