To Fukushima and Back with Hiro

A Japanese man sits on the floor of a 4-mat-sized room, staring at a TV set neatly fitted into a corner. There’s enough room for the man, the TV, and a low plastic coffee table. Clean clothes and hung on hooks along the wall, and laundry hangs from the curtain rail. What’s the story here?

Watanabe-san's living space.

Watanabe-san’s living space.

I asked that question to photo journalist Hiro Ugaya as we pored over his photos from a recent trip to Fukushima. “He’s an old friend,” said Hiro, “whose wife and son have evacuated to Yamagata. He’s been looking for work for six months, but the only available jobs are related to decontamination or decommissioning of the crippled nuclear power plant, and he doesn’t want to resort to either of those options. Still, as bad as the situation is in Fukushima, the economy’s worse in Yamagata, so he stays where he is.”

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Photo Journalist Hiro Ugaya in Tokyo.

Hiro, a native of Kyoto living and working in Tokyo, has made nearly 50 trips back and forth to Fukushima since the triple disaster of 3/11, capturing scenes of life near the evacuation zone with his trusty Canon 5D Mark 3.  Read more about him here. He travels alone, going as far north as possible by train and then renting a car in Fukushima to drive along the coast. This month, he visited his friend Watanabe-san (pictured above), and stayed at a local hotel filled with temporary workers hired from all parts of Japan to do decontamination work in the outer regions of the evacuation zone. “Business is booming,” said Hiro, “but only if you want to work in irradiated areas.”

Although Hiro took hundreds of photos from the various coastal towns near the disabled Daiichi power plant, I want to focus mainly on his photos from Iitate Village. They reflect the slow but steady progress of the Herculean task of decontamination and serve as a sobering reminder of the sheer ugliness and shame of what happened in Fukushima. All photos in this post are Hiro’s, and all but one are from his recent November trip.

The beautiful groves in Iitate have been contaminated.

The beautiful groves in Iitate have been contaminated.

Iitate Village (pronounced EE-ta-tay), a highland farming area northwest of the crippled nuclear power plant, lies outside of the designated 30 Kilometer radius of the government-determined evacuation zone. But those of you who have followed the story, know that on March 15th, a gusty winter wind blew particles of radiation straight toward the mountains of Iitate. The wind was accompanied by snow, which blanketed the entire area.  Stores, schools, houses, trees, rice paddies, vegetable gardens, and grazing pastures were all heavily contaminated, though no-one guessed at first because of the village’s physical distance from the center of the nuclear disaster.  Of course, the evacuation map was drawn as a perfect circle, with multiple rings indicating distance from the radius, and Iitate was far from that radius. If only radiation travelled so neatly, without regard to weather or topography, right?

Iitate Village, northwest of the official evacuation zone, was heavily contaminated and later evacuated.

Iitate Village in relation to the original designated evacuation zone.

The evacuation of Iitate did not begin until April 22nd (over a month after the meltdown and the explosions occurred) and was not finished until late August of 2011; residents were inadvertantly exposed to high levels of radiation as well as emotional stress and confusion. For many of the elderly people who evacuated from Iitate and are still  in temporary housing, living with depression, disappointment, and lingering sadness has become the new normal. Worse yet, residents from towns near the epicenter of the accident were also exposed to excess radiation when they were initially relocated to Iitate, which was considered a safe refuge shortly after the meltdowns. This was a tragedy that could have been prevented if the central government (not wanting to “incite panic”) had released a map known as SPEEDI, containing specific data regarding the path of the plume of radioactivity. You can read about it here, in an early blog entry from 2012.

So what’s the story on Iitate now, more than three years down the road? Well, some readers may be surprised to learn that although the level of radiation in many areas of Iitate remains high, the village is no longer “off-limits”. Former residents can now come and go freely and decontamination work is progressing–slowly, painstakingly–in hopes that the village will be revitalized. The mayor is determined that it will be. The problem is that Iitate is bordered by forestland. Since the nuclear disaster, trees are now cesium repositories, and many traditional houses in the village are situated in close proximity to sheltering groves, which serve as windbreaks. The trees that once sheltered homes have now contaminated them, and they are uninhabitable.

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Good luck cleaning the whole forest .

The central government does not consider forestland “residential”, and does not place a high priority on decontamination of the trees that define residents’ backyards. The reality is that many local residents must either abandon their homes, or attempt to “clean” the forestland lying closest to their houses, essentially stripping the forest of its ecosystem.  Think of Iitate as a mountainous forest which humans have made habitable by clearing and cultivating the land for generations. Now it is

No-one's picking persimmons in Iitate this year. (photo by Hiro Ugaya)

No-one’s picking persimmons in Iitate this year.

impossible to guarantee the safety of the land for humans without destroying the ecosystem itself, which is steeped in cesium, from the shiitake mushrooms that flourish in the contaminated forest to the wild boars that feed on the mushrooms. Cesium from the forest is carried down to the village with each rain or snowfall, and previously cleared terrain is re-contaminated. On the flat areas below the forest, work progresses at a painfully slow rate, and deadlines that prove impossible to adhere to are continually being re-assessed and re-determined. Booming business for the decontamination workers means a longer exile for residents still hoping to return in the near future.

The above assessment sounds and is harsh, but there is another vision. Many residents of Iitate and of similar small villages and towns in Fukushima believe that the land can be rescued and revitalized without destroying the ecosystem. You can read more about them in this transcript of an NHK broadcast from December 2013.  Although the English translation reads imperfectly, the photos, personal stories and quotes from local residents gathered by Swiss journalist Susan Boos are food for thought.

Decontamination means plant life is cut down or pulled up, and topsoil is dug up and bagged neatly .

Decontamination means plant life is cut down or pulled up, and topsoil is dug up and bagged neatly .

Unlike the land around  the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, which was left to revert to its natural state, Fukushima’s contaminated areas are being stripped, scrubbed, plowed, drained, and stirred up; Boos wanted to know why. The transcript describing her visit to Iitate Village is interesting because it makes no mention of the decontamination work being funded by the central government, focusing instead on the efforts of individual farmers who have lived and worked in Iitate for generations. Frustrated with the slow pace of the clean-up, Iitate residents have been doing things their own way, taking detailed measurements of radiation levels, creating radiation maps, and developing alternative methods for reducing the effects of cesium in the soil.

“From now on,” says Iitate farmer Muneo Kanno in the transcript, “we will need to coexist with nature in this contaminated area over many generations. In other words, I think it’s our job to collect all the data we can about contamination and pass it on to the future generations….I strongly believe that this is the first and foremost role both for me and all the other local people.”

Iitate residents have co-existed with nature for generations.

Iitate residents have co-existed with nature for generations

Kanno and other volunteer farmers and researchers are committed to accurately evaluating the state of their land, recording their findings, and experimenting with solutions. For them, decontamination  is “Not just to remove everything, to wash, to brush and to think now the problem is done.”  Boos, who has travelled the world reporting on the conditions of nuclear disaster sites, was deeply impressed by the devotion of the Iitate farmers to their land and by their determination to preserve it for future generations. The transcript reads, “Susan has travelled to many parts of the word, but this is the first time for her to be exposed to such deep affection for someone’s home.”

Decontamination workers in Iitate, November 2014 (photo by Hiro Ugaya).

Decontamination workers in Iitate, November 2014 .

So who actually lives in Iitate Village right now?  As of September 2014, a few hundred people have received permission to return home permanently, based on the location of their land. They are living in the zone that’s deemed “safe”, or at least”safe enough”. The area of Iitate still under decontamination and deemed “uninhabitable” is populated by day-trippers (former residents who commute into the village weekly–or even daily– to check on their houses, pets, or gardens), professional contamination workers, and the occasional journalist like Hiro, collecting stories, measuring radiation, and snapping pictures. It’s a ghost town at night.

Decontamination work: is it worth the money?

Decontamination work: is it worth the money?

On his most recent trip to Fukushima, Hiro, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, stayed in a local hotel south of the Daiichi nuclear power plant. “I was lucky to get a room,” he said. “It’s always full these days. All guys, and all working in decontamination. ” Since there were no restaurants in town (read: nuclear zone, no tourists), Hiro and the other workers made a mad rush to the 7-11 , which closed at 8 p.m., to buy box lunches for their dinner every evening.  According to Hiro, the going rate for a decontamination worker in Fukushima right now is around ¥16,000  to 17,000a day–approximately $145 U.S. dollars– before money is taken out by contractors and sub-contractors.  Is it worth the money? That’s something that every man ( I saw no women in any of the photos) must come to terms with on his own.

From here on in, I will let Hiro-san’s photos speak for themselves. You can read more about Iitate’s mountains of trash bags full of contaminated soil in this Japan Times article, which describes the current plan to build a 22 million cubic meter temporary waste storage facility in the Okuma/ Futaba area, home of the crippled power plant. That’s a space big enough to fill the Tokyo Dome Stadium 15 times. And you can read more about the plight of the old folks who have evacuated from Iitate and other neighboring towns in this article by The Guardian’s Justin McCurry. And you can support the excellent work of free lance journalists like Hiro Ugaya by passing on their words and images. Take a look at more of his stunning photos and read about his life here.  I’ll post some of my favorites as well. Thank you for reading, and take care.

In Iitate, bags of radioactive waste are encircled by bags of sand, used to "seal in" radiation.

In Iitate, bags of radioactive waste are encircled by bags of sand, used to “seal in” radiation.

The same site, seen from a distance.

The same site, seen from a distance.

...and finally, the site seen from above, complete with fall foliage.

…and finally, the site seen from above, complete with fall foliage.

Bags of topsoil are transported by truck and neatly stacked.

Bags of topsoil are transported by truck and neatly stacked.

"Fukushima smells beautiful," said Hiro. "The flowers have gone wild."

“Fukushima smells beautiful,” said Hiro. “The flowers have gone wild.”

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DEFEATED or LEARNING TO STAND STRONG ? Women’s life in Fukushima since the quake

“IS STUPIDITY A SYMPTOM OF ACUTE RADIATION EXPOSURE TOO?”  (read the headline of  a blog post I received via e-mail the other day. ) Startled and offended, I marked it with a star and put off reading the article.  When I calmed down and skimmed through the post , I found its offensiveness consistent; in short, blaming parents in Fukushima for allowing and the Japanese government for encouraging children to play in a contaminated environment. “Everyone has gone mad!” declared the author of the post, peppering his diatribe with exclamation marks!!

Hmmmmmm….

And then there were these words from a cover letter I received after buying some badges to support the opposition of nuclear power in Fukushima:  “Fukushima people are silent. They do not have the courage to express their concerns regarding the future use of nuclear power…..The true defeatists are those who remain in Fukushima, who say they have no choice other than to make their living in the contaminated areas….They are beaten. Constant radiation and relentless social pressure has (sic) clearly made many Fukushimans tired and passive.”

Really?  Fukushima residents are “stupid”? “beaten”? “passive”?  Robbed of their wits and their voices by the effects of radiation and social pressure? Isn’t it only too easy to be judgmental from the outside, and to mistakenly attribute one’s own voice and heartfelt conviction to others who are deemed “voiceless”?  Other troubling phrases and declamations embedded in the blog posts and facebook updates I scroll through regularly had been nagging at me, and when my geographer friend Yukari invited me on a day trip to Fukushima City, I jumped at the chance. “Hah!” I thought. “The whole truth won’t be revealed in a day, but at least I’ll have had a peek at things from the inside.”

Hayabusa

Our bullet train to Northern Japan. It’s sleek and awesomel

And so I set off, leaving Shinjuku at 6:58 in the morning (trains run precisely to the minute here)  meeting up with Yukari in Oomiya, the very cool station where several different bullet trains converge briefly before gliding off again to their respective destinations. We rode “Yamabiko”, named after a Japanese “echoing spirit” that’s heard but not seen; try to touch it, the legend says, and you feel something like molasses on your hand.

After we had devoured our boxed breakfasts and enjoyed an hour or so of gossip on the train, Yamabiko slid smoothly into the Fukushima station, and we were ready for business. Yukari’s two geographer friends joined us at the station and we squeezed into a taxi, directing the driver to the address of the Fukushima Midwives Association ‘s main office in the Watari district.

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No shortage of taxis at the Fukushima station…

Why exactly were three geography professors keen on interviewing the president of a midwives association? Well, having assisted in translating Yukari’s papers over the course of fifteen years, I can tell you. Geography is more than just countries, capitals, landscapes, and vegetable crops. It is subdivided into two related fields–human geography and physical geography–with geographers focusing on one or the other, or (not uncommonly) on the interaction between the two. One of the best examples of this would be my daughter’s college in Bar Harbor, Maine, which offers only one degree, in “Human Ecology”, or the relationship between man and his environment.  All students of the College of the Atlantic are geographers by the time they graduate, and the geography professors packed into the taxi in Fukushima were human ecologists as well: prepared to ask hard questions about raising children in a contaminated environment. I was there as an interested third party, and as the official photo publicist.

Our driver guided the taxi through a maze of narrow residential streets quite similar to my own neighborhood in Hadano, and left us off at an unobtrusive little white apartment building.  Up a steep concrete staircase, and before we could ring the bell, the door few open. “Well, here you are!”  beamed a small grandmotherly-type woman with fuschia-colored lipstick and a lovely floral patterned jacket and skirt.  I mention this because my image of a “midwife” is of unshaven legs, Birkinstock sandals, and long flowing hair. Certainly the midwives who attended me at my two births had done nothing to dispel that image. Ishida Tokiko-san, President of the Fukushima Midwives Association, was dressed fancy to receive visitors, and she welcomed us into her office with a warm smile.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy "office" table.

Ishida-san and her assistant, Yuri Sanpei, seated at their cozy “office” table.

Her “office” was nothing more than a one room Japanese-style apartment, with tiny kitchen and bathroom attached, yet it was light and pleasant; the main centerpiece was a good-sized low table (we call them “coffee tables” in the US, but they’re used for serious eating in Asian countries) with cushions rather than chairs. The decor was a large white banner with messages of love and encouragement sent from America. “You must be surprised at this tiny place,” said Ishida-san cheerfully, “…but imagine how difficult it was before we found a place to set up headquarters after the quake!” …..And that was the beginning of a four hour story session, as each question posed by one of the three geographers led naturally to an incident that begged to be related.

Here are bits and pieces of what we learned:

It was chaos for mothers with babies and small children when the quake occurred, followed by the tsunami and the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Those who survived but lost their homes fled to public evacuation centers, sleeping on gymnasium floors along with other families and  scores of elderly citizens.  But communal living was stressful; babies howled uncontrollably and needed to be nursed, and mothers felt the strain of trying to “keep the peace” so that the family on the futons next to them could sleep. Public officials did their best to move families with babies into the only available housing in the prefecture: civil servants’ office buildings and rooms at Japanese-style inns located far west of Hamadori, the area of Fukushima hardest hit by the plume of radioactivity. This was only a temporary solution, since the office buildings had no utilities or furnishings, and rooms at the inns were cramped quarters for extended families. Eventually, families moved again, some moving multiple times before finding something that functioned as “home”.

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Many mothers fled with small children to live with relatives in less-contaminated parts of the prefecture, leaving fathers behind to “keep house”.

In short, during the first few months after the quake before temporary housing was completed, mothers and their small children were scattered, scrambling to find safety, privacy and protection from the elements. Some lived in cars, some in tents, and some with relatives in other cities or prefectures; some went back to stick it out in partially-damaged houses and some accepted offers of temporary housing from far-away parts of the country.  And as the first temporary housing complexes were completed, some families moved into the tidy little box-like apartments to begin new lives in artificially-created communities.

During those first few chaotic months, Ishida-san and her staff worked tirelessly (though I’m sure they were tired to the point of collapse) to make sure that new mothers received both practical and emotional assistance and that pregnant women received adequate care.  Since town registers were in the process of being re-created, midwives had no other recourse but to take their own population census, going door-to-door looking for pregnant women and mothers with small children. Gas was scarce, so they walked or bicycled about their neighborhoods armed with diapers and baby wipes. Needless to say, their diaper crusade was a volunteer effort until some months later, when money began to trickle down from various places. I was humbled and impressed to learn that in the first year, the midwives of Fukushima were important connecters: they scouted out young families in apartments and reported their residence to town officials for the registry; conversely, they also received information on available apartments from town officials and brought the news directly to families in need of shelter.

Mothers who took advantage of the "Satogaeri" facilities pose for a photo.

Mothers who took advantage of the “Satogaeri” facilities pose for a photo.

In the fall of 2011, an aid group in Tokyo stepped in to create a unique and much-appreciated option for pregnant women and young mothers:  a center for rest and recuperation after birth, located in relatively safe (everything related to “safety” is relative here)  Aizu district of Fukushima. The “Satogaeri”, or “Return to the Hometown” project was popular from the start, providing a physical and emotional shelter for mothers.  Yet after an all-too-brief two week stay at the safe and welcoming center for new mothers, women returned to their previous living arrangements to face the challenges of motherhood in post-3/11 Fukushima.

At this point, Ishida-san’s assistant, Sanpei-san, told us of her own experiences raising her one-year-old son during the first year after the quake. Those were the days when children did not play outside. When Yuri and her son did leave the house, she could not use the baby stroller or let him walk, as the child would be too close to the ground (where radiation levels were highest).  She carried her son everywhere, no matter how far, and returned to the house exhausted. Coming home meant brushing off outside dirt (again, dirt meant radioactive particles) , and washing and hanging (inside) more loads of clothes.  What did she do inside with her toddler all day long? ” We read books. I tried baby massage. I fought with my husband.” Many women, she said, took their stress out on their children. Husbands and wives fought. Mother-in-laws and their daughter-in-laws fought. Friends drifted apart. Some individuals owned multiple geiger counters and obsessively measured the radiation level of their houses and yards which often increased anxiety, rather than relieving their fears. Everyone was vulnerable to criticism, vulnerable to unfounded rumors, and struggling with fear and uncertainty.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

A Fukushima midwife on a home visit.

Throughout this difficult time, Ishida-san and her colleagues increased their efforts to rally  fellow midwives and organize services to ease the emotional needs of mothers who had chosen to live in Fukushima prefecture. The Midwives Association set up a telephone support line, which was flooded with calls on a daily basis. They also started a “salon” where mothers could bring their small children to meet regularly and interact in a supportive environment, free from criticism and negativity. Midwives paid home visits to new mothers and helped them through the first stages of breast-feeding. They received samples of breast milk from nursing mothers and sent it off to labs to test its radiation level. They got out their calculators and helped nervous mothers figure out their daily exposure to low-level radiation. Rather than giving advice, the midwives provided practical assistance, emotional support, and a collective listening ear.

And now, let’s get to the meat of this post. What I really wanted to know and really hated to ask was, Why were so many mothers still living in the Watari area, which has been the focus of negative publicity for the past two years?  “Save the children of Watari!”  has been the rallying cry of NGOs and citizens’ action groups who believe that the Japanese government is guilty of criminal neglect for not providing evacuation money to the citizens of this district.

Fukushima's Watari district in the spring. Beautiful...but is it safe to life here?

Fukushima’s Watari district in the spring. Beautiful…but is it safe to live here?

The district known as Watari is 60 kilometers from the Daiichi nuclear power plant, well outside of the designated evacuation zone, and the government has chosen to tackle the issue of low-level radiation via ongoing decontamination rather than providing financial support for those who choose to leave. Opponents of the government’s decision, however, claim that the radiation levels remain alarmingly high and that families should not be raising children there.  I  wanted to know how many mothers still wished to leave the Watari district, but were unable to find financial support.  I wanted to know if mothers were simply stuck there, or if they had made a choice to remain despite the negative publicity.

Ishida-san answered my questions  bluntly. “Hmm.” she said. “Wanting to leave, but don’t have financial means? No, we get no calls like that here at the center. That’s not a factor at all these days. Those who live here have made their choice.”

Oh.  Well, then.  I guess “Save the Children!”  is a campaign without a cause. Or a cause that has run its course and is no longer relevant?  Or perhaps those families waiting to get out are still too paranoid or ashamed to go public with their appeal?

According to Ishida-san, the “Save Watari Kids!” organization has done more harm than good in Fukushima by urging residents to flee from their hometown. “Women had just begun to calm down and pick up their lives again and feel positive when people from outside Fukushima Prefecture came in and shook things up.  Mothers who had begun to make progress in coping with their anxieties began doubting again and fell into depression and paranoia.”  Until this point, Ishida-san had spoken matter-of-factly, but here she looked to be holding back tears. I was riveted to her face as she spoke; the issue was undoubtedly more complicated than she intimated, but certainly she was speaking a part of the truth, and speaking it with certainty.

Another part of the truth: internet links to NGOs supporting the evacuation of the

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called "Global Giving".

These children enjoyed an extended vacation in Hokkaido, thanks to a charity fund-raising website called “Global Giving”.

Watari district show that many residents responded positively to the NGO’s efforts to force the central government to enforce stricter safety standards and provide financial support to families wishing to leave. Many residents appreciated the fact that outsiders were able to increase awareness of their situation throughout the country, and even abroad.  And many NGO-sponsored projects to provide children with “radiation-free vacations” in the countryside have proved popular. I have met people involved in the “Save Watari Children” projects (mostly in Tokyo, where they pass out leaflets promoting their activities), and they are good people.

Well-intentioned people also produced the “No Nukes in Fukushima!” badges and wrote the cover letter that gave me pause this morning.  What can be said, then, about their declarations that Fukushima residents are “beaten” and defeated? That they are too passive, and unable to take steps to control their own destinies?

Uuummm….I don’t want to touch that issue with a ten foot pole, a hundred foot pole, or any kind of pole at all.  No-one outside the prefecture has the right to make that kind of judgement, and even Fukushima natives had better choose their words carefully. Ishida-san did have something to say about the character of women in Northern Japan, however, and after a few decades of delivering babies and caring for their mothers, she’s probably qualified to speak out.  Here’s her assessment (translated as accurately as possible by myself) :

“Women of Northern Japan do not express their opinions easily. They often do not have their own opinions, because they are not aware that this is acceptable. They do not know where they stand, because they have not had to take many stands. They are taught to follow, to grit their teeth and bear what’s unpleasant, and to persevere in the face of rough circumstances rather than to affect change. This makes them vulnerable to criticism, to pressure from family, to propaganda campaigns, and to anxiety stemming from uncertainty and indecision. Women are unable to decide anything on their own, so they turn to us for help. We listen, we do not criticize or advise, and we teach them gently how to make decisions. We work with them, rather than telling them.”

Wonderful, right? A midwife service that not only delivers babies, but teaches decision-making and inner strength! …but does it work?

Sadly enough, Ishida-san admitted that women in Northern Japan are emotionally weaker, rather than stronger, since the Great East Japan Earthquake, despite the best efforts of the Midwives’ Association.  And it is a good-sized network: 114 registered midwives serve the Fukushima prefecture, not counting those with licenses who work independently.  Their efforts, however, are not enough to stem the tide of anxiety and fear stemming from the post-meltdown environmental contamination. I realized that since the quake, midwives have been serving as counselors and therapists (Japan has a dearth of both) as well as baby-whisperers, and again was both humbled and impressed.

You can't be too careful. Little ones spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

You can’t be too careful. Little ones still spend most of the day indoors at many nursery schools in Fukushima. Outside, radiation levels are being checked (photo courtesy of Greenpeace).

Ishida-san and her assistant Yuri-san spoke of their patients with understanding and sympathy, rather than pity.  Since they live in the same district of Fukushima as their patients, they share the same challenges, and they also have chosen to take precautions against nuclear radiation rather than leave their homes and break up their family units. They test their food. They hang laundry inside. They shake dirt off on the doorstep. They clean the outside of their houses with power hoses (courtesy of the central government). They check radiation levels around their homes on a daily basis. They try to stay informed, though this is not easy to do as they are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. They believe that radiation levels have gone down significantly, and that they can build a new life for themselves and their children without leaving Fukushima.

Is this wise?  Have folks’ brains been, as some bloggers like to intimate, addled by radiation poisoning?  Well, that is none of our business, is it?  We all have the right to decide our own course, and as Ishida-san firmly stated, health is not just about physical well-being.  She and Sanpei-san both believe that those who have chosen to stay in the Watari district have made valid decisions based on ties to their family, work commitments, and living arrangements, and that these factors are important for their emotional health.  Ishida-san and her colleagues believe that their job as midwives is not to judge, but to support women, and to encourage them to think for themselves and decide their own futures.  The Fukushima midwives teach by example, dealing with hardship calmly and providing steady encouragement and a dose of old-fashioned common sense.  Isn’t that what’s needed, more than “saving”, when all is said and done?  Perseverance and endurance doesn’t have to mean weakness.

As I mentioned at the onset, our visit at the main office of the Midwives Association lasted a full four hours. Finally, realizing that Ishida-san must be hungry (we ourselves were starving), we excused ourselves and grabbed a taxi back to the Fukushima Station. It was a beautiful day, flowers were blooming, high school girls were hanging out in short uniform skirts, and Main Street looked like any ordinary rural Japanese city center except for the dearth of people. Too many taxis hanging out, too few shoppers lining the sidewalk, and too few tourists buying souvenirs at the station shops. Yukari and I bought some sweet little dumplings to take home, and boarded the super-sleek bullet train headed back to Tokyo, equipped with both food for literal consumption and food for thought.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

An ordinary summer day on the main street in Fukushima City.

Whatever happened to….??? Following up on stories from Japan’s 3/11 Triple Disaster

Well, hello!  It has been some time since I’ve been able to sit down at my MacBook with a cup of tea and a free afternoon ahead of me.  And that is because I have been true to my last year’s resolution (no more complacency), which has kept me in a state of constant motion.  In re-reading my New Year’s entry from approximately a year ago (December, 2011),  I sound more than a bit pleased with myself and with that year’s achievements:

“… by golly, I did it all and never got sick!  True, it is now the end of the year and I am fighting an exhaustion unlike that of years past…..yet here I am, still able to type out another blog entry, and only slightly more short-tempered than usual.  Must be that my definition of  ”impossible” was far too cautious to begin with. From here on in, I will toss it in the trash bin!  Or better yet, burn it in the January ritual burning ceremony that takes place by the river every year.  Along with amulets and charms from the Year of the Rabbit, my over-cautious nature will go up in flames, with a great whoosh!  And if I do pay the price in the form of a nasty cold brought on by over-exertion, I must grit my teeth, drink hot tea, and forbear any excess whining.”

Most exciting rally in the Tokyo government district: summer, 2012. That's me in the no-nukes t-shirt, and Jacinta in the sweet little red dress.

Most exciting rally in the Tokyo government district: summer, 2012. That’s me in the no-nukes t-shirt, and Jacinta in the sweet little red dress.

That was me, one year ago. Buoyed by my own enthusiasm, I began that New Year of 2012 with a burst of energy, and did my best to sustain it throughout the coming months.  I leaped at opportunities (writing workshop? sure!  wait…what?–it’s in a remote coastal village that’s way off my train line? well, I’ll get there somehow! ), became still more familiar with the streets of the government district in Tokyo (where all the anti-nuke protests take place, of course ), plunged into volunteer activities on my free weekends, and continued reading, networking, and blogging furiously.  And of course, I continued working full-time at my cram school in Hadano.  During the summer vacation, I toured the US by car with my daughter, checking out liberal arts colleges from coast to coast. We couldn’t be happier that she was accepted by and chose to attend the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she will work toward a degree in Human Ecology.  And now, at the start of the New Year of the Snake, I am paying the price that was not demanded of me last year (Year of the Dragon)–the nasty cold that settled in my lungs and knocked me flat.  And what’s worse, it looks like I promised not to whine about it. That’ll teach me to brag, right?

But nasty colds mean a respite from work and from the demands of a hectic schedule; in short, they mean precious down-time.  And down-time means a chance to catch hold of the many loose threads left hanging in the past two years of blogging and tie them together properly. “Whatever happened to the Mayor of Iitate Village? ” you might wonder.  Or Naoto Matsumura,  guardian of the forgotten animals of that same village? Or Yoshizawa-san, the farmer fighting to save his cows from slaughter in Namie Town?  Or Yasuteru Yamada, elderly leader of the “Suicide Squad”?  Or former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has disappeared from the media spotlight?  I’d like to spend this afternoon and evening catching you up on some of the stories of individuals whose names became known nationwide after the 3/11 disaster that occurred nearly two years ago. In the interest of brevity, I’ll chose three from the list of characters just mentioned, leaving open the possibility of writing about the others in a later post.

The former Prime Minister: hero or villain? (Getty images)

The former Prime Minister: hero or villain? (Getty images)

So let’s begin with Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister.  Since the chaotic first week after the quake, Kan-san had been the object of both admiration and also of anger and outright scorn; there were few fence sitters.  Although some saw Kan-san as a hero who did his best in the face of a crisis of unthinkable proportions, most saw him as a bull in a china shop, whose hot temper and unguarded words made a horrific situation much worse. Because the central government effectively betrayed its own people by not revealing accurate facts and figures and by failing to initiate a swift and comprehensive evacuation (among other things), Kan’s own reputation would never recover, whether or not he personally was to blame.

As Prime Minister, Kan was quick to renounce nuclear power ( “Let’s start from scratch” was his motto), quick to envision the worst and begin formulating drastic evacuation plans ( he admitted to having considered the evacuation of Tokyo in the first few chaotic days ), and quick to display anger and frustration in his public appearances.  He spoke bluntly.  He broke the rules of discretion and polite language. While the ground in Tohoku was still shaking, the former Prime Minister was busy shaking up a system that had not been disturbed for decades, at the cost of his own reputation.  He was (and he would not deny it) attempting to force change.  “I refuse to step down until you pass my bill!”, he declared  (with wild eyes and a grin that appeared almost unhinged) in his last weeks of power, determined to launch a nationwide investment in renewable energy.  The bill finally passed, and he was out of office in a flash.  One of the most important things he did in the short time he hung onto power was to initiate the closing of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, in Shizuoka Prefecture.  The Hamaoka plant was the first domino to fall, causing a chain reaction resulting in–for some months–a nuclear-free Japan.  Two of the 52 power plants are up and running again, but the rest remain on hold.  Before 3/11, this would have been unthinkable.

"Hey, guys, remember me?....no, I guess not." (Kan-san standing on platform reading "Zero Nuclear Power")

“Hey, guys, remember me?….no, I guess not.” (Kan-san standing on platform reading “Zero Nuclear Power”)

So where is Kan-san now?  Well, according to a recent Japan Times article, he’s standing on a wooden box on the sidewalks of Tokyo, preaching his anti-nuclear message to the wind.  Are you familiar with the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone can get up on a platform and preach about anything?  If so, you know that the platform alone doesn’t guarantee an audience, and plenty of those long-winded orators look awfully lonesome.  Even their mothers don’t make the effort to come out and listen.  Kan-san did his best this past December, campaigning on the streets of Tokyo for anti-nuclear Mayoral candidate Kenji Utsunomiya and attempting to preserve his own seat in the diet as well.  However, he not only failed to draw a crowd, but many passers-by did not even recognize him.  Some who did shouted rudely, “You are a liar! You failed once, and you won’t get another chance!”

Just days before the national election, Kan-san’s campaign car crashed into a pole; Kan suffered a head injury, but even that failed to dampen his spirits or curtail his schedule. He looked a pitiful figure on public television, campaigning with a brave grin and a white bandage across his forehead.  In the end, his candidate Utsunomiya-san was trounced and Kan-san lost his seat in Tokyo’s number 18 district.  Somehow, he managed to cling to his seat in the diet, though, and continues his career as a politician, representing Japan’s out-of-favor Democratic Party of Japan.

Perhaps that was to be expected of a public figure who lists one of his hobbies as origami, and who is still waiting for the patent for his invention: a machine that calculates points for Mahjong. He’s a nerd, and he’s “kawatte iru” (strange in an unacceptable way).  Japan wasn’t ready for him. But all this means nothing, really, and is a terrible underestimation of an extremely intelligent man, who understood the implications of the Fukushima disaster and was willing to fight the system, tooth and nail.  Could those who taunted him on the street corner even imagine what it must have been like to be in charge of a country spinning out of control?  And to have no blueprint to work from?  How about some respect and appreciation, no?  After his brutal rejection by the Japanese public, the former Prime Minister could have gone abroad to lick his wounds and retired from politics altogether….yet he didn’t.  He’s like the Energizer Bunny in the old battery commercials.  Naoto Kan is on facebook, and I have friended him, figuring he needs all the friends he can get.

Now let’s travel up the coast, from central Tokyo to the rural town of Namie, where Masami Yoshizawa, whose farm lies square in the heart of the evacuation zone, refused to desert his cattle after the hydrogen explosions that rocked Fukushima.  I wrote in some length about this charismatic and determined man in a post called “A Tale of Two Farmers”, back in July of 2011.  At that time, Yoshizawa-san, the former manager of a large and profitable cattle ranch, was struggling to maintain the ranch despite the contamination of the land, the abdication of the ranch’s owner, and a government edict to euthanize his herd.  The cows, worth as much as $13,000 per head before the nuclear disaster, were now worthless in a monetary sense, yet Yoshizawa refused to either cull the herd or abandon them to their own devices.  Obtaining a renewable permit to enter the no-go zone on a weekly basis, he continued to feed them with contaminated hay, picking up stray cows from other ranches along the way and adding them to his herd.  Why?  It was his own private resistance movement; he refused to desert his cows as the central government had deserted the people of Namie Town.  Here’s a video of Yoshizawa-san, taken by Ed Koziarsky and Junko Kajino, two independent filmmakers from Chicago (see more of their work on the Uncanny Terrain site):

 

 

Remains of dead cattle lay untouched near Yoshizawa's ranch.

Remains of dead cattle lie untouched near Yoshizawa’s ranch.

At the time the above video was taken, Yoshizawa-san feared that in six months time his cows would have eaten all the available grass on the ranch and would be nearing starvation.  That was the terrible period of time when livestock within Fukushima’s evacuation zone were dying in large numbers on a daily basis, some still locked in their stalls and abandoned, unable to escape and forage for food.  Photos that appeared on the internet were appalling.  Yoshizawa-san was there in person to witness this death by neglect (though he blames the government, rather than the farmers), and he determined that the cows of his own herd would not fall victim as well.  Though they had been contaminated by the wind-born radiation from the initial hydrogen explosions and had been consuming contaminated hay and water, he vowed to let them live out the rest of their natural lives in the evacuation zone.  In doing so, he committed himself to the risk of long-term low-level radiation exposure as well.  For the record, he is unmarried and has no children.

So, let’s fast forward, and see what’s happening at the ranch in Namie these days.  Are the cows still alive?  Has Yoshizawa-san kept his promise?  Well, what do you think?  Yes, and yes.  It only took a bit of poking around to find that he is now somewhat of a celebrity, with his own blog and with a new name for the ranch: “Kibou no Bokujyou”, or “Ranch of Hope”.  The Asahi Daily Newspaper reported last May that he was battling authorities who wished to check and approve of his blog posts and to prevent members of the media from visiting his farm. “Cattle farmer in no-entry zone battles muzzling of information!” read the headline.  Apparently, the muzzling of Yoshizawa-san was unsuccessful, as shortly after that the Uncanny Terrain filmmakers did another brief interview with the loquacious farmer (see the film clip “Four Farmers“…he’s the second one).  Never camera shy, Yoshizawa appears confident and speaks eloquently about fighting radiation, refusing to desert his hometown, and working toward a rebirth of Fukushima. “Nuclear energy and agriculture,” he says, “cannot coexist.”  He is actively promoting renewable energy.

Yoshizawa-san’s blog (written, of course in Japanese, but sometimes with English translations following), however, reveals another side of the farmer.  Along with determination and righteous anger, he carries with him a constant sadness.  As of last October, in spite of his best efforts, cows on his farm were dying at an alarming rate. Diarrhea, runny noses and skin disease suggested compromised immune systems, whether caused by lack of nutrition, the spread of disease, or the effects of radiation.  Yoshizawa blames it on what locals are calling the “Fukuichi Syndrome” (Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Syndrome).  In a particularly disturbing entry from October 10th, he re-names the Ranch of Hope as “Ranch of Despair”.  He describes his feelings of trepidation as he visits the barn each morning: “Yesterday, three died. Four, the day before yesterday. How many would be dead this morning? I don’t want to step foot into the barn.”  Yoshizawa-san also echoes a sentiment that the former Prime Minister could certainly relate to, confessing, “I don’t want to acknowledge my own lack of power.”  If this man could will his cows back to health, there is no doubt that he would.  Because he cannot, he rails against the government, who have not intervened to help, but only to hinder.  And the scientists that he hoped would investigate the effects of radiation on his cattle have not materialized….the potential subjects will die without being studied.

Masami Yoshizawa remains loyal to his herd. (photo by Masakazu Honda)

Masami Yoshizawa remains loyal to his herd. (photo by Masakazu Honda)

Fast forward again to the new year, 2013.  A BBC video about the Fukushima 50 was just released that also focuses on Yoshizawa-san, who is still fighting.  As of January 3rd, his herd has increased from 300 to 400, and he continues to care for them with the help of outside donations and support.  Despite setbacks along the way, he’s held true to his original promise of keeping alive the cattle who remain for him a symbol of the nuclear disaster.  For their sake, for the sake of the animals who did not survive, and for the sake of the farmers who whose livelihood has been taken from them, he goes back and forth into the evacuation zone to feed his herd of “worthless” cows.  Where once he saw cattle as profitable assets, he now feels an affinity with the abandoned animals.  And every month without fail, he takes his show on the road, driving his personal megaphone-equipped van to Tokyo to stand on a street corner (again–the former Prime Minister can relate) beside a life sized model cow. “Don’t forget the farmers of Fukushima!” he shouts at passers-by. “We’ve been betrayed, and we need your support!”

Yamada Yasutera, leader of the Skilled Veterans Corps.

Yamada Yasutera, leader of the Skilled Veterans Corps.

Lastly, I’d like to focus on Yasutera Yamada, the internationally-lauded organizer of the “Skilled Veterans Corps”, a group of over-60 men who were ready and willing to assist in the clean up of Fukushima Daiichi. I first wrote about the group in a post entitled “Will You Raise Your Voice?” , in May of 2011.  Not just random volunteers motivated by a spirit of self-sacrifice, these were former civil engineers and builders (one member had assisted in the construction of the plant itself) eager to lend their know-how and assist in speeding up the dangerous and delicate process of decommissioning the crippled reactors.  Work on many areas of the reactors had been delayed by continually high radiation levels; this posed no obstacle to Yamada-san and his colleagues, who argued that they would die of natural causes before radiation-induced cancer had time to develop anyway.  If they could get in to the most dangerous areas and begin working, they reasoned, the whole decommissioning process would move more swiftly.  Yamada, a 72-year-old who had already survived cancer, made news shortly after the nuclear meltdowns for his fearless offer.  The offer was considered, but never accepted.

Yasutera Yamada (center), presenting his case to US officials.

Yamada-san (center), presenting his case to US officials.

So has all the fuss died down?  Have the members of Yamada-san’s Veterans Corps disbanded and given up on their dream?  Having seen nothing in the news lately, I did a quick search on the net and found an article by former diplomat Akio Matsumura from August, 2012. Clicking on the link, I was surprised and pleased to see a photo of Yamada-san, age 73 at the time, touring the U.S. !  Convinced that Japan’s nuclear contamination issue was affecting the world at large, Yamada attempted, over the summer, to convince officials in the U.S. to put pressure on the Japanese government to support his plan.  His group of skilled veterans is now 700 members strong; they are still ready and willing to jump into most dangerous areas of the nuclear reactors and put their expertise to work for the benefit of the nation and–by extension–the world. “Don’t risk young lives!” (they say) “This is our work!”  They are not motivated by money, but by the desire to be part of a practical solution to a problem they believe to be wildly underestimated by TEPCO, the government, and the people of Japan.  Yamada scoffs at TEPCO’s estimation of 40 years for the completion of the decommissioning process.  Fifty years is more accurate, he claims, and in that time Japan’s food chain will have become thoroughly irradiated, presenting further risks and complications.

Perhaps Yamada-san does not see himself as a hero, but his fans both in Japan and overseas view him as one.  And whether or not the members of the Skilled Veterans Corps are successful in their proposed mission, they have chosen to pursue something that brings meaning and purpose to their lives, rather than taking it easy on the golf course.  I hope their grandchildren are paying attention.  Finally, let’s hope that the former Prime Minister and Namie Town’s Yoshizawa-san continue their good fights as well.  Thank you for reading, and take care in the winter cold. Whatever your good fight is, don’t give up on it.

An Act of Murder?

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

Apartment complex in Nihonmatsu…looked fancy, but it hid a deadly secret. (photo by Gen Hashimoto, Asahi Shinbun)

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. )

Namie Town

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

Kanno-san’s  house in Tsushima (photo by Jun Kaneko)

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.

Niihonmatsu in relation to the evacuation zone

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

Thank you, Prof. Koide!

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.

The Spirit of “Madei”

” A wonderful thing happened when TEPCO visited us. Some villagers were naturally angry with TEPCO and were calling on them to apologize and generally giving them a hard time. But many others told them [the hecklers] to stop as they were bringing shame on the village. ‘We’ve really made a good village here,’  I thought on seeing this. ”

These words were spoken by Norio Kanno,  Mayor of Iitate Village in Fukushima Prefecture.

Iitate Village, northwest of the official evacuation zone, was heavily contaminated and later evacuated.

Iitate village is technically outside of the 30 kilometer evacuation zone, but was heavily contaminated due to a change in wind direction after the hydrogen explosions in March of 2011.  As a blanket of radioactive snow fell upon the village, its citizens, believing themselves outside of the danger zone, were providing shelter for evacuees from villages closer to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. When it was officially announced that levels of radiation in Iitate were alarmingly high (much higher than places within the evacuation zone in some cases), the news was met with shock and disbelief, and the damage was already done.  One month later, the first government-ordered evacuations began, and as of this month, approximately 90% of all residents have fled to neighboring towns or prefectures.  Mayor Kanno told the story of the residents’ meeting with TEPCO officials in May, praising their ability to hold back what could have turned into a raging flood of anger and accusations.

With  Mayor Kanno and the Iitate residents in the back of your mind, let’s move on to a series of articles recently published in the Japan Times about (among other things) anti-nuclear activism and the volunteer spirit in post-3-11 Japan.  According to the Times, although activism and volunteerism are currently at a record high within the country, things look different from a global standpoint.

A January 4th  Japan Times article begins by noting that although change in Japan has traditionally been brought about due to outside factors (i.e. Commandore Perry’s warships in 1853), the country is beginning to change from the inside out, with grassroots activism finally taking a strong hold and young people participating enthusiastically. The movement, given impetus by Internet-savvy mothers who are both emotionally and intellectually engaged,  has empowered average citizens to begin  “..moving toward a more active kind of democracy in which people realize they are the primary actors, not the government.”  Yet, in conclusion, the writer of the article doubts whether the movement is strong enough to impact fundamental change.  Quoting sociologist Ken Matsuda, the writer declares that  “Japan’s affluence is an obstacle. Most people live comfortably and are reluctant to make too big a fuss, even if they’re unhappy with the political leadership.  Culturally, it’s considered better to adjust to one’s surroundings than to try to change them. Most people aren’t hungry or angry.”

Chief Priest of Kiyomizu Temple writes “Kizuna” (photo by Kazunori Takahashi, Asahi Shinbun)

On the same day, January 4th, a Japan Times editorial discussed “Kizuna” (translated as “bonds” or “ties”), the official kanji chosen to represent the year 2011.   The editor praised ordinary Japanese citizens for reaching out to care for the victims of the Tohoku disaster in an unprecedented–in this country– show of generosity and spirit, while chastising TEPCO and the central government for breaking these same bonds, and betraying the social contract between the people and those (supposedly) in control or power.  As an important side note, the editor also regretted that according to an international survey, “….even in 2011 Japan ranked only 105th in giving money, volunteering time and helping strangers. That relatively low worldwide ranking suggests that social bonds in Japan may be more emotionally felt than practically carried out.”  Those statistics bothered me terribly.

One can see why those outside of Tohoku might not feel compelled to protest against the government’s energy policies, or even to disrupt their lives with volunteer trips to Tohoku.  Most Japanese live relatively comfortable lives, and  it’s only too easy for them to disconnect from the events of 3-11 and remain in their cocoon of work, family, and  comforting routines. Yet one would think that those directly affected by the drama would be up in arms, protesting the loss of their homes and livlihoods.  How can we begin to understand why the mayor of Iitate, speaking in early summer when those living in proximity to the evacuation zone were in a state of constant stress and turmoil, expressed his disapproval of the TEPCO hecklers rather than TEPCO?  The Japan Times reporter credits the stoicism and perseverance inherent in Japanese culture (pronouncing these traits to be “liabilities” rather than assets).  Well yes, that certainly makes sense, though it’s difficult for those living in more aggressive cultures to fathom.  But there’s more to it than “gaman”, or stoicism.

Let’s return to the words of  Mayor Kanno, who gave an interview in May with JB Press , which has been translated into excellent English.  In the article, he praises the restraint and gentleness of village residents, explaining that they have been raised in the tradition of “Madei”. Here’s an excerpt:

We have been living a madei life.  ‘Madei’  is local dialect and a concept that has been with us for years. We have many sayings that use this word: If you don’t bring your child up with madei (to be respectful and considerate), there will be trouble later. If you don’t eat your food with madei (with wholeheartedness or without waste), you’ll be punished by the gods and go blind.

The word consists of two kanji characters, one meaning ‘truth’ and the other ‘hand’. If you look in a Japanese dictionary, it will say it means ‘both hands’.  In other words, when giving someone tea, the right way is to use both hands. When catching a ball you can use one hand, but it’s safer and better to use two. ‘Madei’ means respectfully, considerately,  modestly, with care, with spirit, without haste and without waste.

New energy and the like are also important, but the true starting point of the recovery should be making use of people with such feelings-or in other words, people with spirit of madei.

I had not been familiar with the term ‘Madei’, but I could certainly understand the analogy of

Be sure to admire your tea bowl when you’ve finished drinking…and hold it gently.

the tea bowl.  With no “handle”, a Japanese chawan is cradled gently in both hands, very naturally and yet very carefully.  The last dregs of matcha  should not be left to sit, even if drinking them requires a slightly embarrassing (to a westerner) slurp.  When those last dregs have disappeared, some drinkers admire the bowl itself,  turning it and even tipping it upside down to view the craftsman’s seal on the bottom. The whole process is done calmly and without haste, with appreciation for all involved: the tea master (who whisks the powder into frothy tea),  the server (who delivers the bowls with grace, modesty, perfect timing, and perfect placement),  the tea itself (to be savored),  the bowl it is served in, and finally the view from the tatami room or the floral arrangement and scroll displayed in the Tokonoma.   No haste, no waste and no inappropriate chatter, any of which would break the air of serenity and respect.  That same spirit of respect and consideration must be shown, implied Konno-san, even to the representatives of TEPCO, the company that had caused the displacement of an entire community and the contamination of an environment that had sustained them for generations. There is more dignity in silence than in protest.

May 15th: Mayor Kanno comforts a woman on evacuation day (AFP photo/ JIJI Press)

The Mayor of Iitate Village’s words were well-chosen and beautifully expressed; I found them shared and re-printed in countless blogs and newspaper articles as an example of the spirit of Tohoku.  Soon after the  article about Madei was published, the village of Iitate was evacuated, and a photo of Kanno-san, continuing to work at his desk on the last day of official business, appeared in the Mainichi Shinbun. “Even with preparations continuing apace around him, Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno continued his official duties,” read the article. “These are not happy days for his village, and though he appears calm in his work, there is no mistaking his frustration. ‘Where can I put my anger?’ he said. ‘I have to transform it, turn it into a different kind of energy that I can direct to try to get us all back home even one day sooner.’ ”  The Mayor was sounding stressed, but not yet broken or bitter. I followed up on my search, to see what he had to say after the evacuation process had been completed and the de-contamination process had begun.

What I found was not encouraging. Despite findings of plutonium in the ground soil and

Will children return to Iitate Village? (AP Photo/ David Guttenfelder)

continued re-contamination of residential areas due to the village’s proximity to a cesium-laden  forest, Iitate is scheduled to be fully “disinfected”, spruced up, and re-populated within the next two years.  At least that’s the plan of the Central Government. The village is now a ghost town (though one central government official lost his job for saying as much), families with small children have declared their intention not to return, and Mayor Kanno is bluntly critical of TEPCO’s declaration–and the government’s acceptance – of a state of cold shutdown at the Daiichi power plant.  In the December 17 issue of AJW Asahi Shinbun , the Mayor is quoted as saying, “It’s out of the question to call it [the Daiichi Power Plant] under control. They know nothing about the reality here.” I found this in sad contrast to the serenity of his “Madei” speech, yet perhaps this transformation from sage to short-tempered local official was inevitable.  Though the Mayor has lost his serenity (and has become an insomniac, staying awake worrying about the future), he retains his dignity, continues to work hard, and remains devoted to the people of his village, though Iitate’s shops are closed, and its people scattered far and wide.

After reading up on the recent history of Iitate Village, I came away feeling overwhelmed at the complexity of the situation and nothing but sympathetic toward those involved. Residents and local officials of Fukushima are what we call “sei ippai”, or pushed beyond their limits. Families are forced to leave their homes behind, yet still making mortgage payments. Fathers are living alone in Fukushima while mothers and children make new lives for themselves in Tokyo, learning to get along just fine without Papa (this was confirmed to me by several mothers I met at an event for evacuees. “We know we should be depressed,” they said. “but the children are happy here in Tokyo, and they keep our spirits up. It’s our husbands who are suffering.” ) Families are being shuffled from one temporary housing complex to another without being able to put down roots anywhere. Saddest of all are the men who have lost their livelihoods; many have worked at a single profession for twenty or thirty years, and lack the flexibility and skills to start again in a new line of work. Not that there are openings outside of clearing rubble, patrolling areas inside the evacuation zone, or taking a turn at cleaning up the mess at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Mayor Norio Kanno : devoted to his community.

When the central government first acknowledged that Iitate had suffered heavy contamination through a fluke of weather, the Mayor set about trying to protect the residents’ safety (he evacuated mothers, babies, and small children immediately, along with those who expressed worry or anxiety) while at the same time attempting to keep the infrastructure of the village functioning. Kanno-san did his best to keep businesses up and running in Iitate until the very last factory was forced to shut down, and established a task force of local residents to patrol  deserted streets, protecting the homes that still held their inhabitants’ possessions. He also fought to let elderly nursing home residents stay within the evacuation zone, arguing that the stress of moving could be more injurious to their condition that the threat of radiation. His own mother-in-law died en route to an evacuation center, as did many other elderly patients. One horrific news report that sticks in my memory is of a busload of bedridden elderly folks, unused to sitting, caught in traffic trying to reach the “safety” of a neighboring city. By the time they reached their destination, many of them had become critically ill, and one old woman was dead in her seat.

In some areas, families near the Daiichi plant evacuated hastily, leaving pets outside to fend for themselves and livestock trapped in their stalls to die of hunger. Mayor Kanno wanted to make sure that the evacuation of Iitate was done slowly, carefully, and with consideration for

“The Power of Madei” was published in April of 2011.

the needs of everyone in the community. Whether or not he was right to take things slow– in the spirit of madei– one cannot argue that he has not been devoted to his community. That community has already broken apart, but before the evacuation they were able to publish a book they had been putting together called “The Power of Madei”, adding a photo of their scenic village (as it was before the quake) to the back cover.

I was saddened (but not surprised) to hear that Mayor Kanno received severe criticism and even hate mail regarding his reluctance to evacuate each and every citizen immediately.  This was  tragically misdirected anger that should have been directed at both TEPCO and the central government. While Kanno-san spent sleepless nights fretting over the moral implications and practical issues involved with evacuation, TEPCO was callously re-locating tsunami survivors in bayside apartments in Yokohama (true: I read it–again, in the Japan Times– just this morning. A sixty-year old woman has spoken out about re-living the trauma of the tsunami from her window each and every day)!  And then there are the 60 page forms that must be filed to receive monetary compensation from TEPCO; the company has actually paid out very little money so far, as so few of the complicated forms have been successfully completed and filed. I could list more examples, but you get the picture.

 Now let’s return to the Japan Times articles, deploring the reluctance of  Japanese citizens to engage in activism,  speak out,  volunteer, or give as generously as citizens of other well-to-do nations.  The point I want to make is this: Japan as a country must take more action and give more generously, and it is up to those outside of  (or in relatively unaffected areas of) Tohoku to stand up for those who are pushed beyond their limits and focused on survival.  As long as victims of the triple disaster are still recovering from the loss of family, friends, homes, and communities, the rest of the country needs to be working diligently to try to right the wrongs that have been done. The central government must not seek to patronize or reassure, but must present the facts as they stand.  As this does not seem likely to happen in the near future,  reporters must be willing to take risks to bring outright lies or unpleasant truths to light (Japan’s top journalists did not report from inside the evacuate zone until late April, as it had been deemed “dangerous”, and employers literally forbid their reporters to go) , and major networks and newspapers must publish their findings.  Again, as this does not seem likely to happen for some time, individuals have a responsibility to dig for facts on their own, going to blogs, videos, and  reputable on-line publications.

Since it also does not seem likely that the average Japanese middle-aged woman will be spending her evenings surfing the internet (she is busy serving dinner on a staggered time-scale, as her children and husbands all arrive home at different times from their various cram schools and work. She also drives back and forth to the station to pick them up, cleans their dishes afterwards, and does the preparations for making the next day’s box lunches. She then is the last one into the family bath, and the last one to bed.)  The average middle-aged man will not be checking out underground blogs, either.  He’s too exhausted from work, and a beer and a good TV game show are more tempting.  Those of us who do dig for facts and stories (and find them!) would probably do best to wait for the opportunity to poke and prod, rather than trumpeting our findings.  Beating our friends over the head with “the truth” will only cause greater damage in this country where “speaking out” means “causing someone to worry”, and ensures our alienation  from the audience we so hope to reach.

…but what if someone sees me on the nightly news?!

Multiple polls have shown that the majority of Japanese citizens are in favor of closing down the remainder of the country’s nuclear power plants and investing in alternative energy sources…..yet those who cast their vote with the reassurance of anonymity are “not comfortable” marching in demonstrations (“What if someone sees my face on the nightly news?!”), signing petitions (“They might get my name and send me things!”), volunteering on weekends ( “Who would take care of my husband?”), or even donating a significant amount of money (“You never know if it’s going to be used appropriately!”).  I’ve heard all of these reasons/excuses, and think very little of them. It seems that the Japan Times is right on target: people feel sympathy for victims of the Tohoku triple disaster and are truly worried for the future of their country; however, this does not translate into action, and it is a shame.

So how can those who are emotionally involved begin to poke and prod? Among like-minded friends in the blogging world this is a constant dilemma, as we read each other’s articles and encourage each other, while realizing that the people we would most love to connect with are not reading our words. We continue writing, however, and I believe this is crucial. We write to formulate our own arguments, define our own ideas, and then throw them out to sea…perhaps we might get a bite, and a complete stranger will find them. The stranger reads them, learns something, is motivated to act, and our efforts have been worthwhile.

Writing is hardly a social endeavor, though, and I am a social creature. I therefore poke and prod in my workplace as well, by bringing up various human interest stories shown on the NHK nightly news; it’s the national TV channel, and I know my women friends are watching,  so it’s a natural topic of conversation. I do my best to keep Tohoku on the radar, and to find out where friends and relatives stand on various issues, as well as inserting my own thoughts and challenges whenever possible. I poke carefully, rather than insistently, with results that are probably dubious at best. I feel an affinity with Mayor Kanno, I suppose, wanting to prevent potential harm by moving too swiftly or without proper care and consideration.

In the end,  I’ve been touched by the story of Iitate Village.  I relate to the

Iitate grampa showing off his family tree. I wonder where he’s at now…

story of  Mayor Kanno, struggling to preserve the dignity, as well as the safety, of his community. I’m saddened to think of the community that no longer exists in a physical sense,  yet its members have managed to preserve the spirit of their tradition in a book, and in the words of their mayor, which have been so widely shared.  Good for them, and shame on the government and on TEPCO for breaking the bonds of trust by not protecting those dependent on them.  Let us hope and pray that the villagers who have left Iitate will become vital members of new communities and create new bonds, while continuing to honor those who lost their lives on 3-11 through a mixture of natural tragedy and human folly. Thank you for reading, and good night.

 

I Hereby Resolve….

It’s the eve of the New Year, Heisei 24, Year of the Dragon, and I hereby resolve to leave behind my complacency.  I began the process during the Spring and Summer of this past year, and have been prodded by friends Angela and Jacinta to put my resolve in words.  And now that I’ve booted up my laptop and begun, I might as well expand on my list of resolves. Here goes.

In the weeks immediately following the 3-11 disaster, I was relatively complacent about the hydrogen explosions occurring at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the ensuing release of radioactivity into the environment. Despite the flood of concerned e-mails that poured in from family and friends abroad, some of whom I had not heard from in years, I felt no sense of panic, and never even remotely considered leaving the country.  As the Tokyo Electric Power Co. claimed that the tsunami was “beyond imagination and expectations”, the fact that a meltdown might possibly have occurred and the Japanese people were purposely kept uninformed was a possibility that some part of my mind could not accept. While friends in the US were mailing me their thoughts about the “meltdown”, I continued to assure them that, in fact, a meltdown had not occurred and the situation was under control. We had been assured of it, and had no reason to think otherwise.

Needless to say, when NHK eventually announced that at least one meltdown had occurred

TEPCO officials apologize…but “sorry” didn’t quite cover the damage done.

(an official announcement was made at a press conference on May 16, over two months after the fact ), the news felt like a cold slap in the face. Or so I assume. I have never, thankfully, been on the receiving end of such a slap, but I imagine it feels as jarring and piercing as Hosono Goshi’s announcement. The official explanation was that TEPCO officials had actually been unaware that the meltdown had occurred, but no experts were buying that, and ordinary citizens were outraged that even the possibility of meltdown had not been broached by the media.  From that point on, I could no longer be complacent; I continued to watch the nightly news, but began searching the internet as well, for videos, blogs, and articles from newspapers and magazines around the world.  Facebook proved to be a treasure trove of resources, as groups focused on volunteerism and information exchange began springing up and strangers banded together in an effort to translate information into as many languages as possible.  Once I realized that truth was something that must be thought over, fought over,  sought after and finally caught (after some effort, rather than received as a natural occurrence), I set about playing by the new rules. The truth that was gradually revealed was, again, uglier than I had imagined: beyond expectations. There were more lies, more cover-ups, more betrayals,  and all supported by a system corrupted by greed and cowardice.  A glimpse into that world has been more than enough to destroy my complacency (though I still have faith–that is another issue altogether), and I hereby resolve to make sure that complacency does not come creeping back up on me in the New Year. I will stay vigilant.

I also resolve to leave behind my sense of the impossible.  Living in a very conservative neighborhood of a city that is considered “the country”,  it is easy to fall into patterns.   Folks in my neighborhood are early risers, hard workers, and keep fairly predictable schedules. This is especially true of my own family, where the influence of my risk-averse and extremely

Grampa Iida runs a tight ship. No unnecessary risks and never late for dinner.

health-conscious father-in-law rules the household. Visiting relatives are briskly shooed of the house at an early hour so that bath-time can proceed on schedule and everyone can get to bed “on time”.  My husband also becomes anxious around late afternoon when we’re travelling, fretting that we need to find a restaurant as soon as possible so we can get home “on time”. Heaven forbid we might either skip dinner or get home after bath time!  Drinking alcohol at home is done only in moderation, and red wine is preferred over white as “healthier”.  Anything stronger would be frowned upon. The concept of throwing caution to the winds and dispensing with schedules and traditions is decidedly unpopular both in my home and in my neighborhood, as proven by the level of alarm and curiosity shown by my next-door-neighbor, Tamura-san whenever I leave the house at an “unexpected” (i.e. a time that she herself is not used to seeing me leave) hour. “Oooooh, where are you going??”  she will fuss. “And what are you going to do??”  She will not rest until she has the details, and I have become quite adept at providing facts just specific enough to satisfy her curiosity but just vague enough to preserve my own privacy. I provide all this information as an explanation of my own gradual slide into the world of healthy living, predictable schedules, and lack of adventure. Which is what I now wish to leave behind, if I can do so without risking the support and respect of my extended family.

I began leaving behind my “sense of the impossible” this fall, when faced with opportunities that forced me to choose between my potential health and stability and…..the lure of contributing to a good cause with the added bonus of adventure.  It pains me to admit that there would have been no conflict of interest at all twenty years ago; I could’ve worked full-time and had energy to spare for racing about and having adventures. But I’m now fifty years old, and hesitate to push my body beyond a certain point. Racing about on weekends means a backlog of tiredness going into the workweek.  I work between forty to sixty hours a week, and the sensible thing to do is to recuperate and conserve my energy when not working.  Trips to Tokyo from Hadano involve long and tiring train rides, battles with crowds, and treks up and down steep concrete staircases…… But how (I reasoned) could I miss the September Sayonara Genpatsu anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo, when tens of thousands of people were expected??  And how could I not pay a visit in support of the Hunger Strikers for the Future, when these four intelligent and courageous young people had

Hunger strikers for a better world…and nice kids, too. Proud to know them.

given so much of themselves to support their vision of the future? I did both, on the same day, and came home energized.  Bounced right back into work the next day and got through my week just fine. When my friend Linda called in October and asked if I’d be interested in a volunteer trip to Miyagi (involving a weekend of very early mornings and late nights) , I surprised myself by agreeing on the spot. I also surprised myself by doing it, enjoying myself immensely, and–best of all–not getting sick afterwards. Well, if I could do that, then I could certainly swing another day in Tokyo to support  mothers from Fukushima who were sitting outside government offices for ten days to plead their case for government-funded evacuee status. I went, met a group of strong intelligent women, and learned still more about the complications of life in Fukushima Prefecture.  On a roll, I then ventured back to Tokyo to participate in another event for Fukushima evacuees living in the

Check out Geoff Read’s portraits of Fukushima children…

city, helping UK artist Geoff Read as he drew portraits of children; my contribution was listening to and recording their stories in words. In between all these events that involved commuting on the weekends, I interviewed the people around me to get a feel for their viewpoints, fund-raised like crazy, sent boxes of shoes to an orphanage in Aomori, and organized the staff of my school to donate money to send Christmas trees and presents to folks living in temporary housing in Miyagi (another project spearheaded by my friend Linda, whose energy is truly boundless).  And by golly, I did it all and never got sick!  True, it is now the end of the year and I am fighting an exhaustion unlike that of years past…..yet here I am, still able to type out another blog entry, and only slightly more short-tempered than usual.  Must be that my definition of  “impossible” was far too cautious to begin with. From here on in, I will toss it in the trash bin!  Or better yet, burn it in the January ritual burning ceremony that takes place by the river every year.  Along with amulets and charms from the Year of the Rabbit, my over-cautious nature will go up in flames, with a great whoosh!  And if I do pay the price in the form of a nasty cold brought on by over-exertion, I must grit my teeth, drink hot tea, and forbear any excess whining.

Lastly, I hereby resolve to continue blogging, as long as I have something to say. I also resolve

Sayonara, over-cautious nature! You’re going up in flames, along with self-indulgence and other nasty things…

to blog for the right reasons (attempting to either move, edify, provoke, or challenge my readers) rather than as self-indulgence or as a bid for either pity or praise. I resolve to resist the temptation to become obsessed with my ratings rather than my writing, or to draw attention to my own volunteer efforts and away from the folks on the receiving end, who still  need  publicity, sympathy, and practical assistance. As I say this, I realize that this entire entry is full of me; New Year’s resolutions are necessarily so, and I ask your forgiveness. Please do click on any or all of the links in this entry that lead to the people of Tohoku and their stories, as well as the people who are fighting to preserve and restore the fragile ecosystem and to keep Japan’s future free of nuclear power.  In the end, this blog will continue to be about post-disaster Japan: a country that has barely begun to heal, and whose open wounds will continue to bleed for years to come.

I want to close, however, on a hopeful note. Healing has begun and volunteers from around the world have been a vital part of the process. Here’s a video that I’ve watched many times over, showing the joy of a group of Japanese children involved in an intercultural art project organized by a team of French film makers, and featuring narration by a granny that will make you grin through your tears.  The film makers’ love of children shines through, and their talent for capturing  expressions makes every second a delight. Fine music, too.  Take a look at the video of a  French art project in Tohoku.  Enjoy it, and remember the children of Northern Japan in this New Year.  Thank you for reading, and I wish you love and light in the Year of the Dragon.

Advice for Conspiracy Theorists

This post has been waiting to be written for quite some time. I have nearly written it, thought better of it, and convinced myself to back down several times in the past few months; a peek into a controversial blog this morning determined me to finally do it and get it out of my system. So here goes: tonight’s entry is about conspiracy theorists, how folks respond to them, and how they can help themselves.

People are anxious these days. They are fearful and mistrustful. You could even say that many have become paranoid. While government and TEPCO officials present the current situation at Fukushima Daiichi in a positive light (things are stable and progressing smoothly towards cold shutdown, the de-contamination efforts are going well, etc.) , various underground figures in the blog world are having a heyday, spouting hatred and spreading panic not only within Japan, but overseas as well.  Mind you, I believe the situation here is far from stable (despite official reports to the contrary), but I have had quite enough of wild speculation and bizarre conspiracy theories. To be precise, I’ve had enough of one specific fellow, a blogger from Yokohama who churns out posts at a prodigious rate, each one stranger than the one before.

So, ignore him, you say. Well, I’d like to, but I can’t.  This is because the blogger in question has such a large and devoted following, and I am fascinated to see how his fans respond to his over-the-top declarations. I’m involved in a sociological study (despite the nagging inner voice that says to let it go, and certainly against my own better judgement), and what I find is deeply disturbing. Let me provide some background first…..

The blogger is a young man, single, living in Yokohama with his beloved turtles. I keep turtles myself, but that’s as far as our shared interests goes.  He lists his work as “Civil Engineer” and “Importer of Pop Culture Goods”.  Yet given the time he invests in his blog (and his facebook posts), he cannot be working full-time…..or perhaps he does not sleep?  I first ran across the blog on another site, where he,  Mochizuki-san, was described as a brave Japanese posting from the front lines of the nuclear disaster. His blog was in danger of being censored and taken off-line ( the site said) and we all should read it and re-post. I imagined someone near or in the evacuation zone in Fukushima, and was surprised to find that he was based in Yokohama, in my own prefecture of Kanagawa. Well, I thought, if he’s a hero, then I must be, too. Hmmph.  At any rate, I began reading his blog fairly regularly, to see what the fuss was all about.  I will add a link to his site so that you may check it out for yourself rather than taking my word for it.

Dipping into the pages of Fukushima Diary with Mochizuki-san was like plunging down

Hoshino Goshi, as seen with dubious-looking “spots”…

the rabbit hole with Alice (that’s an analogy that he himself uses in one of his posts)–things got curiouser and curiouser, with strange stories becoming further befuddled by his poor English translation. Just last week, I was shocked to see a blurry photograph of Hosono Goshi, the minister in charge of decontamination, with what appeared to be two brown spots on one cheek. This was juxtaposed with a photograph from Hiroshima of a spot-

Image of a Hiroshima radiation victim. Is this the future for Hoshino-san??… I think not.

raddled victim of radiation sickness, which the blogger calls “city entering exposure”.  I do not personally care for Hosono Goshi, but I felt indignant on his behalf.  Japanese are very self-conscious about any spots on their skin anyway, and there was no need for leaping to reckless conclusions.  But that is the specialty of this particular fellow it seems, who is now convinced that the Emperor himself, who is currently hospitalized with pneumonia, is also a victim of radiation sickness!  In short, the author of this blog believes that the entire country is unsafe, and  that residents of Tokyo should evacuate.

The blogger in question is convinced that he himself has “caught the plume” of radiation from his visits to Tokyo, and is suffering from radiation poisoning (according to one of his entries, he’s being well-supplied with iodine and various supplements from Chris Busby, an outspoken and controversial UK expert/advisor on low-level radiation ). Recently, he noted that his diarrhea has stopped, but he assures readers that this is because his body has become “used to the sickness”.  He plans to evacuate himself to France, and has set up a Pay Pal account to fund his own move. He writes disparagingly of de-contamination efforts, believes everyone in Tohoku should evacuate, and–as far as I can see–has no further constructive advice or solutions to offer. He also believes that both the government and TEPCO are out to get him, and has posted on facebook of his desire to get “revenge”, urging others to join him in his cause.  Whew. He is an extremely busy man, what with analyzing his own symptoms, taking his supplements, speculating on the situation in Fukushima from afar, evading stalkers and censors, plotting revenge, and responding to all his fan mail.

Again: I should be able to ignore this guy. Instead, I find myself reading his awkwardly-written and inflammatory posts and delving into the comments that inevitably follow. At first, back in the spring and early summer, most of the posts were warm and supportive. These days, however, it’s a mixed bag. I myself have mailed him twice, urging him to hire a proper English translator and check his facts, and others now voice similar opinions. Your English is “mecha-kucha” (all garbled)!!  wrote one woman in a recent post, and several others advised him to calm down, though one fan attributed his agitation to the stress of living in the radioactive zone, and urged others to have compassion for him. Most sympathetic comments inevitably come from those living abroad, who do not know the geography of Japan, and imagine that they have found an inside source of direct information. In fact, they have found a hypochondriac who spends day and night in front of his laptop in Yokohama– he goes nowhere near Tohoku itself and speculates from a distance, imagining himself in grave danger. It bothers me that his blog is listed on others’ blogrolls, and that he’s considered a legitimate source of information.  Yes, he does some good work, but way too much of what he writes is sloppy, inaccurate, and downright mean-spirited.

On the other hand, he and I are technically on the same side. We both attend the same Anti-Nuclear rallies and are committed to seeing Japan become a nuclear-free country. It’s just that (as I see it) he’s chosen the wrong path to get there, and has taken a whole lot of others with him. I do not wish revenge on him, and I do not hate him, by any means. I believe his self-centered nature, lack of clear perspective, and hasty temper have done great damage to an important cause, and that saddens and disappoints me. As his elder (this approach is allowed in Japan. I am technically an “Obasan” and may speak with that authority of life experience), I would like to offer my advice to Mochizuki-san. Here it is, as follows:

1. Get out of your apartment!  You live in Yokohama, not Fukushima, and you need the fresh air!  Yes, there are “hot spots”, so don’t stand in puddles of muddy leaves or hang around abandoned houses for long periods of time.  Get out and walk–or better yet, take up jogging!  Look around you, and don’t be afraid to breathe deeply.  2. Get out of your own head!  You are not the victim here, and there’s no need for martyrdom. The real victims are in Tohoku, not Tokyo or Yokohama, and you are detracting sympathy from them to yourself!  3. Stop typing and do something!  Get over your fears and get yourself

Try volunteering! Shovels ready and waiting to be used…..

to one of the northern prefectures to volunteer!  Get your hands dirty! This will serve the purpose of transforming some of your anger and frustration into constructive action as well. You might start learning to love, rather than focusing on revenge, making your days more pleasant and your sleep more restful and refreshing.  4. Leave the internet for a time, and talk to real people. Go out of your way to meet all kinds of folks, listen to what they have to say, and learn from them. Be willing to change your own pre-conceived notions as a result of what you may learn.  5. Do not beg for money!!!  This is an insult to families  in the north who are in desperate need of cash–some are unable to evacuate from Fukushima because of personal debt and lack of family connections outside their prefecture.  Instead, economize as best you can, and send anything you can spare to an NPO that is doing good work and will use the money efficiently and wisely.  I’ve seen photos of you and all your accessories (everything Mac, like me) and know that you are not in dire straights.  6. If you truly are strapped for cash, cut down on your blog time and get back to work at a regular job, doing ordinary tasks, on an ordinary schedule.  Your mind will be healthier and you will salvage some of your pride as well.

And  that’s all.  Just following any one of these six helpful suggestions will do you a world of good. You will see that it is not your job personally to save the country, and that you are just one of the many who are concerned for the future of Japan.  Coming away from your laptop and becoming involved with real people will show you just how complicated and heartbreaking the situation is for people in Tohoku. You speak of evacuating as if it were a black and white issue, when in fact it is not. Many people with means to leave have chosen not to, and not a few of them have very good reasons. You scoff at efforts to de-contaminate Fukushima, but would you rather leave the land as it is?? Do you think Tohoku should be abandoned entirely??  You urge readers at home and abroad not to eat Japanese produce, but what have you done in support for the farmers whose livelihood has been taken from them? So leave off typing and join forces with some of the doers.

Aileen Mioko Smith

Let me mention some of those doers:  There’s Aileen Mioko Smith, founder of the Green Action organization, who has devoted the past thirty years to opposing Japan’s plutonium program, an uphill battle with very little funding from within the country. Smith and a group of women from Fukushima were in Tokyo for ten days this month, sitting outside the Ministry of Environment, Trade, and Industry. Their purpose? To garner support and for and publicize their petition, which demands that Japan’s existing nuclear power plants be shut down, and that Fukushima City residents, particularly those of the Watari District, be given the “right to evacuate”, which would provide government compensation for those who wish to leave but are financially unable.   The petition was presented to the Prime Minister’s office on November 11th, and the tireless Smith along with members of the Avaaz oganization have vowed to continue gathering signatures and to present the petition again and again until the government takes action.  As of three minutes ago when I checked their site, they had 132,818 signatures, with the meter still clicking away.  You, too, can add your signature, by clicking here.  In fact, I urge you to do so.

And then there are Ed and Junko, an international couple who flew to Fukushima from the US

Fukushima farmer interviewed by “Uncanny Terrain” filmmakers, Ed and Junko.

when others were fleeing.  Concerned for the fate of organic farmers in Tohoku, they spent the post-quake months living among farming families, following their efforts to cleanse the soil and continue growing crops. Knowing that their produce would not be salable, many of the farmers were determined to continue the planting cycle to feed their own families, while experimenting with different ways to reduce the level of radiation in the soil. Junko and Ed spent hours talking with residents, filming them at their work, and doing the groundwork for an independent film they plan to produce, hopefully for international viewing.  The farmers you can read about in Ed and Junko’s blog, Uncanny Terrain, are those who have chosen to stay in Fukushima despite the risks, and despite an uncertain future. They love their land, they love their work, and a peek into their world gives us a new respect for those who chose to stay. Don’t miss the video of Yoshizawa-san, the strong-willed farmer who fought to save his cows.

Blogger EX-SKF uses a splashy Ultraman header….

Who else can I mention? There’s a long list, including EX-SKF, the mysterious bilingual blogger who provides pithy and insightful commentaries on  Japanese news reports, printing the original articles along with his own excellent translations.  Click on his page to see a giant Ultra-Man, urging Japan to “Ganbare!”

And there’s Hirose Takashi, who has been researching and writing about the danger of nuclear power plants since the early 1980’s.  After the 3-11 triple disaster, he wrote and published a book called Fukushima Meltdown, working with a team of translators to produce an English version as well. In a “burst of energy”, the book and the translation were finished, and both versions are now available on amazon.com. Reading a positive review in the Japan Times, I ordered the book for my Kindle, and have been devouring it this past week. It’s clear, comprehensive, and eye-opening, revealing some conspiracy theories that are quite plausible (ever wonder why the 3-11 quake was upgraded from 8.4 to 9? The author has his own theory, and he’s pretty convincing).

Lastly, let me quote from “Quakebook“, a slim little publication (also an e-book) put

Look for the Quakebook on amazon!

together by a team of writers and translators and headed by a blogger known as “Our Man in Abiko”.  The book, which was organized on Twitter, is a collection of personal reflections and experiences on the quake itself and the ensuing chain of disasters. It was published when the horror of the quake and tsunami were still fresh, and the rest of the world was still humbled by the courage and stoicism of the people of Tohoku in the face of death and destruction. Because of this, Quakebook is largely devoid of the cynicism that has infected the entire country in recent months. The last essay in the book, called “Test”, asks the reader to judge whether or not he is capable of being a “good person” in the face of disaster. Here are some of the questions the writer asks us to consider:

“…what exactly makes a good person?

When they speculated that there might be a shortage who so shamelessly spent money for unnecessary hoarding?

Who sold currency in the ensuing inflation after the quake?

Did you have fun consciously writing posts fanning the flames of doubt from the comfort of your warm room?

Did you donate a pittance with a solemn face while leaving the rest for nature to run its course?

Do you only worry about the radiation while putting the land itself at a distance?

Are the victims just others, and not a part of you, too?

In the end, is this all the responsibility of the government?

……..Isn’t this test for us to see whether or not we can start to become Good People? To be a Good Person, it requires neither showy performances nor great self-assertiveness, nor fancy rhetorical arguments nor any great technique; but instead…a soft but composed and sincere definition. ”

Hmmmm…..I know that’s an awkward translation from the Japanese, but does the meaning come through?  Basically, the writer urges us to calm down, quit showing off, and do what needs to done for the sake of others and ourselves as well. If  Mochizuki-san can stand to learn humility and empathy,  I probably need more of both qualities myself. And so, in the end, my advice to the blogger who brings me no end of frustration must not go unheeded in my own life. * Sigh. *  And now I will have the added uncertainty of wondering if this post will ever be read by Mochizuki himself, and whether or not he will deem me worthy of “revenge”.  I could get myself pretty worked up imagining a Mochizuki-out-to-get- Ruthie conspiracy if I chose, but I believe I’ll pass.  I have things to do, places to go, friends to meet, and a life to get on with.  Now I’ll stop typing and get busy. Good night, and thank you all for reading.