Yes, this is a pretty extreme title for one of my blog entries, but I’m only quoting the words of the Mayor of Namie Town, Fukushima. My previous post,” The Spirit of Madei“, told the story of another Mayor , Norio Kanno of Iitate Village, who advocated “slow life”, controlling one’s anger, and living in harmony with man and nature. While writing that particular post, I came to feel a great respect for the thoughtfulness and restraint of Mayor Kanno. I still feel that respect.
However, I am forced to admit that following the Mayor’s philosophy of retaining one’s dignity by not making a fuss will not effect change. Each day brings new and more outrageous news reports, and I’ve already been knocked off my peaceful plateau by stories about what happens when citizens don’t make a fuss. Mind you, I still think that retaining one’s serenity in the face of chaos is an admirable thing, and though I feel completely comfortable marching in demos, I would not be comfortable hollering into a microphone or leading the ranks. This past month’s news, however, makes me think I may need to move outside my comfort zone. For instance…
News reports during the third week in January featured reports from a town in Fukushima called Nihonmatsu, where
evacuees from Namie Town had been re-located. Children living in a newly-built apartment complex had been wearing dosimeters indoors and out, and monitoring the results; when a Jr. High school student’s dosimeter showed consistently high readings (radiation levels higher inside than out, and higher on the ground floor than on the upper levels), investigations showed that the culprit was….concrete. Ironically, the stones used to make the cement for their brand-new apartment complex had come from a quarry in their former irradiated hometown, Namie.
Neither the NHK televised report nor the reports in the daily papers used adjectives like “ironic” or “unbelievable”–just the facts. Well, reports are one thing, but this is also a human interest story that begs to be written. Kevin Dodd, in his “Senrinomichi” blog, uses the analogy of a ghost train to describe Fukushima. While passengers doze in their seats, unaware of exactly where they are and what is passing by, the train progresses without ever reaching its destination . That is, unless (and this is the crucial part) passengers force themselves to stay awake and write postcards containing the stories, to be recorded in history and remembered. Thanks, Kevin, for that analogy, and here’s my postcard.
More on the contaminated concrete: a January 15th report from Kyodo News, stated that some 5,280 tons of crushed stones were shipped to some 19 different contractors from a quarry in Namie between the day of the quake and April 22nd. By the following week, investigations showed that at least sixty houses and condominium buildings in Fukushima Prefecture had been tainted by concrete made from Namie stones. According to another article from Kyodo News on January 24th, the same concrete was also used to re-build the infrastructure of damaged cities. In other words, Fukushima cars travel along roads built from radioactive asphalt, and walkers may stroll along the river, following the radioactive embankments. By January 26th, the amount of stones shipped from the quarry was listed at 5,725 tons, and more temporary housing units in Fukushima were deemed “likely” to have have been built from the radioactive concrete.
According to the head of the quarry in Namie, “I never imagined the crushed stones were radioactive when I shipped them. I feel very sorry for those who have been involved.” Fukushima Prefecture officials will help in finding new accommodations for those living on the first floor of the Nihonmatsu condominium, where radiation levels are highest. The Central Government “closely studied” the distribution routes of the Namie stones and the radiation levels of various housing units, but has declared that the annual radiation exposure in the units will not be high enough to warrant evacuation.
And that’s it: there’s been no news since then. Plenty of other head-shaking and even jaw-dropping incidents to focus on ( particularly the revelation that the central government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency failed to keep records for 23 meetings held directly after the nuclear catastrophe. No records—nothing at all. They are now in the process of “reconstructing” the events of each meeting, for what it’s worth, ten months down the road. Although failing to keep public records is in violation of Japanese law, there is in fact no punishment involved for perpetrators, so the central government is legally off the hook, although its reputation at home and abroad is even further tarnished. Never mind tarnished, it’s shot. There’s really nothing left to uphold. )
Since the news has already moved on, let me go back and piece together the story of Namie Town for those of you who are not yet in the know. As you can see from the photo, Namie stretches from East to Northwest, and borders the ocean. The eastern area in particular suffered heavy damage from both the quake and the tsunami. After the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the town was under an information blackout which would prove to bring about tragic and still-reverberating consequences. While the citizens of Namie Town (dealing with the fresh emotional horror of the quake, the aftershocks, the tsunami damage, and the ensuing fear of the uncertain situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant) were being assured that radiation levels outside of a 10 kilometer radius were safe, the central government was reviewing data based on radiation measurements that showed a blanket of radioactive fallout stretching as far south as Tokyo.
On March 14th, the central government’s computer-produced map predicting the pattern of the radiation fallout (the SPEEDI map, now a well-known and infamous entity) was shared with the US Military. This , oficials explained afterwards, was an effort to ensure US support, advice, and cooperation in the days to come. The US used this information in deciding on their own “safety zone” of a full 80 kilometers from the Daiichi plant. The SPEEDI map was not shared directly with residents, or even with the local government officials in Tohoku, who desperately needed the information to make life-changing decisions on behalf of their citizens. In fact, in those first days, there were no communications at all from the central government. Naoto Kan was busy directing an attempt to dump water from a tiny helicopter onto the smoking inferno that was the power plant. We all watched, as time and again the wind blew the meagre amount of water off-course and another helicopter bravely hovered over exactly the right spot in a futile effort to do something–anything–to avert further disaster. And so, lacking guidance and vital information, the Mayor of Namie decided to evacuate his people North, to the area of the town that lay furthest away from the still-smoking reactors.
The people of Namie, alerted by a community radio station broadcast, evacuated to the district of Tsushima, a mountainous region lying a full 30 kilometers Northwest of TEPCO, but still within the confines of Namie. Approximately 10,000 residents fled to Tsushima, where they were welcomed with generosity, receiving shelter and comfort as families, friends, and strangers set up housekeeping together in what they believed was a safe refuge. Mizue Kanno, who owns a spacious house in Tsushima, took in 25 friends and strangers on March 12th. She later told her story to Japan’s Asahi Shinbun, where it was published in serial form, under the title, “The Prometheus Trap“.
The serial story reveals that the radiation levels in Tsushima were, in fact, dangerously high on that day, but that police were forbidden to tell locals. Kanno-san and her
housemates learned of this from two mysterious men in white protective suits who drove to the house, stopping only long enough to warn them to evacuate immediately, then speeding off into the night. Sounds like something out of a novel?? Well, everything was surreal at that point in time, and Kanno-san and her new friends decided to trust the warning. Leaving in staggered groups, they all fled the Tsushima district; “Prometheus Trap” follows up, giving details on how they fared and where they eventually landed. Many others who had not been warned and chose to stay on in the district were exposed to varying levels of radiation. Although I share in the widespread dismay over the lack of detailed media coverage on many aspects of the 3-11 triple disaster, I give credit to Asahi for publishing the story, eight installments in all, in both its English and Japanese editions.
Let me continue the story where Prometheus Trap leaves off.
Take a leap of the imagina, and put yourself in the shoes of Namie mayor, Tamotsu Baba. He had successfully taken the initiative and evacuated citizens from the eastern part of the town when the western half of Namie (the Tsushima district) was then declared to be dangerous, and designated as part of a new, expanded evacuation zone. Those who had taken refuge in Tsushima from the eastern Namie were forced to move again, this time scattering far and wide. The Mayor himself became homeless, and felt the heavy burden of having chosen the wrong refuge for the citizens who had depended on him.
Some of the Namie citizens who fled the Tsushima district in March found shelter in the northerly village of Iitate, whose Mayor Norio Kanno welcomed them to his “slow life” community. Happy ending at last? No, not yet. Those of you who read my previous post know what happened in Iitate: an unexpected northwesterly wind had blown a blanket of radioactive snow straight across the village, effectively causing radiation levels matching–and in some places exceeding–levels within the evacuation zone. This was discovered some weeks after the fact, and Iitate was also evacuated, marking the third move for a number of Namie families.
Other Namie citizens fled from Tsushima to Nihonmatsu, a city lying well to the west of the evacuation zone…. and now it has been discovered that evacuee housing in Nihonmatsu has been built with radioactive cement from the Namie rock quarry, which continued to function after the majority of its citizens had evacuated. When I saw the article in the Japan Times, my heart sank. It seems that families from Namie have been betrayed many times over.
The radioactive cement incident is terribly disturbing, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry can certainly be blamed for establishing no radiation restrictions on crushed stones (if other products within radioactive zones have restrictions, why would stones not?) , and for allowing shipments to continue to leave the quarry well after residents, fearing for their health, had deserted the area. The head of the quarry’s protest (“I never imagined the stones might be radioactive!”) also rings hollow, and the central government’s easy dismissal of the incident is troubling as well. I remembered that the Mayor of Iitate had also fought to ensure that industries in his village could continue to function after the evacuation orders were in place, and wondered if similar damage was unknowingly done as a result of his desire to preserve his beloved Iitate’s economy. Complicated, isn’t it? I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I certainly recognize and feel the injustice suffered by the residents of both Iitate Village and Namie Town.
Now, fast-forward to January 2012, ten months after the quake. Namie Town’s Mayor Baba has learned that vital information that could have changed the fate of thousands of his town residents (the data contained in the SPEEDI map) had been purposely witheld. Apologizing for the “delay”, Reconstruction Minister Goshi Hosono explains that the central government had “feared it might trigger panic. ” Ummmm…maybe a bit of panic had actually been in order, and certainly a measure of haste would have limited residents’ exposure to the high radiation levels in Namie following the quake and nuclear explosions. Certainly, if the mayors of both Iitate and Namie had realized the scope of the radioactive fallout, they would have acted differently, evacuating residents to areas well beyond the danger zone and preventing later multiple moves.
Mayor Baba of Namie recently spoke out in an Australian news broadcast, regretting that, “Because we had no information we were unwittingly evacuating to an area where the radiation level was high, so I’m very worried about the people’s health. I feel pain in my heart but also rage over the poor actions of the government.” Yes, his word choice was “rage”. And it’s understandable rage at that. One never hears such extreme language in Japan (at least I personally do not), and his concluding statement is even more startling from the Japanese point of view. The Mayor himself realizes he’s breaking a social taboo by beginning it with an apology: “It’s not nice language, but I still think it was an act of murder. What were they thinking when it came to the people’s dignity and lives?” The answer is, tragically, that the central government was not thinking at all about either dignity or life, and Fukushima residents have every right to feel betrayed.
In fact, so do residents of Tokyo, and my own Kanagawa Prefecture. While we assumed ourselves well out of harm’s way, data generated by the government that we never saw clearly showed otherwise. Specifically, it showed that radiation levels on March 15th were alarmingly high, not just in Tohoku, but in Tokyo and Kanagawa as well. Hiroaki
Koide, from the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University ( a position he was relegated to as a form of “purgatory” according to some, because of his unguarded criticism of Japan’s nuclear industry) knew of the extent of this radioactive fallout, but was pressured to withhold the data from publication. Koide-san got his revenge by testifying in front of Japan’s Upper House Government Oversight Committee on May 23rd, and has since become somewhat of a national hero. His speech exposing the government’s dirty tricks and the reality of the threat of radioactivity to Japan’s children was viewed on live stream by thousands at home and abroad, while the you tube video has been widely viewed, shared, and translated into English. At every demo and rally I have attended, I’ve seen at least one, “Thank you, Koide-Senseii!” sign or banner.
And so, in the end, the full extent of the damage caused by the withholding of vital information by the Japanese government has yet to be evaluated. While Itaru Watanabe, representing the National Science Ministry, now admits that, “….maybe that same data [the SPEEDI map] should have been shared with the public, too. We didn’t think of that. We acknowledge that now,” residents of both Iitate Village and Namie Town continue to suffer from the aftermath of their respective evacuations and re-evacuations. Google Iitate Village, for instance, and you will find some disturbing statistics gathered from a recent survey of residents who evacuated. One third of all families, if the Wikipedia article is accurate, are now living apart from their children, which cannot be a good thing. The authors of the fine bi-lingual blog “SeeTell” take a strong stand on the SPEEDI incident, concluding that, “In the end, no-one will be held accountable for this act which was either a calculated and deliberate cover-up to protect the interests of the politicians, bureaucrats, nuclear industry, the US, and whoever else holds influence over this corrupt government or…well…there is no other explanation.”
As for me, I’ll do my best to speak up and speak out, in defense of those who were betrayed. Calling the government’s witholding of the SPEEDI map an “act of murder” is an extreme statement, but if there are a rash of deaths in years to come from the effects of internal radiation exposure, the Mayor’s words will have been prophetic. In the meanwhile, thousands of people must live with uncertainty and fear, for themselves and their children. That alone is reason for anger and for action. Thank you again for reading.