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 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.


What the children have to say…..

Drawing by Naoya, age 8, Koriyama City. "I'm worried about nuclear power plants".

Drawing by Naoya, age 8, Koriyama City. “I’m worried about nuclear power plants” (Geoff Read)

Thirteen-year-old Kenji shook his mane of tousled black hair and clutched his head with

disgust. “I don’t care whether Japan uses nuclear energy or not! Everyone has a different opinion anyway, and it gives me a headache to think about it.  It’s too difficult!  We kids should leave that stuff to the adults and be done with it!”  Kenji was having a rather extreme reaction to my line of questioning, and was probably getting hungry and tired as well, since it was nearly eight in the evening. I called it a night, and let he and his friends go home to eat dinner and watch their favorite TV quiz shows.

I am actually a mild-mannered English teacher. As a rule, I do not provoke children to tear their hair out over moral dilemmas, but for one week, I had decided to conduct interviews with my older students (sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, with three older high school students thrown in for good measure) to see what they thought of the situation in Fukushima and how they felt about nuclear energy.  I had mailed their mothers in advance to ask permission, and most of them were a bit nervous about sitting down with a microphone in the middle of the floor, doing something outside of the usual routine. The boys acted goofy and the girls refused to say anything at all for the first few minutes, but I resolutely forged ahead, and they eventually became involved with the questions in spite of themselves. Some of their responses surprised me, some were disappointing, and a few were worthy of applause. I questioned them all in small groups to minimize stage-fright and peer pressure ( as in, “Twenty kids have already agreed, so I ‘d better agree as well…” ), and  here’s what I learned from the twenty-three children who participated: ten boys and thirteen girls. The interviews were done in Japanese, and I’ll try to put their words into natural-sounding Jr. High School English.

Drawing by Kurumi, age 7, Koriyama City, Fukushima. “Flying with Dogs” (Geoff Read)

First, I asked about their schools (they represent four different public schools in the neighborhood, plus two private schools), and whether or not any evacuees from Tohoku were in their classes. Not surprisingly, children from  two of the three public schools reported “yes”, and that the new students were from Fukushima.  “Well, how are they doing?” I asked. “Are they making friends, and are Hadano kids treating them alright?”  Hiromasa-kun from School A. never blinked, replying that the girl he knew was having no troubles at all, and had plenty of friends. Sayaka-san, from the same school, confirmed this, adding, “Man, she’s like the most popular kid in the school!”  Keiko-san from School B. also knew of a Fukushima student in her school; no problems fitting in, she said, and knew of no bullying incidents.  Tadashi-kun from School C. was disappointed that there were no Fukushima students in his school. “I want at least one to come!” he said. “If they did, I wouldn’t bully them. Just the opposite: I’d want to play with them and make them happy if they were sad after losing a relative or something.”  Tadashi is an unusually outspoken and sweet-natured boy, whose words flow easily, straight from the heart. Pretty rare (and rather uncool) in a sixth-grade boy, but he’s sporty as well, and his friends don’t give him a hard time. Whatever the case, if Fukushima kids were being bullied in the Hadano schools, my students knew nothing about it. “I heard some rumors…” said Rina-san hesitantly, but that was as far as I got.

Next, I asked them to imagine that they lived in Fukushima, close to the evacuation zone. They were “allowed” to live there legally, but the area still had a high level of radiation, and they wouldn’t be able to play outside for long periods of time. Would they want to stay there, or would they rather evacuate to a new, safer place where they would have more freedom? I purposely left their parents out of the equation, saying that “Your mom and dad have left it up to go. They’ve agreed to do what you want.”  I had some ideas about what my students might say, but still it was surprising to hear how quickly they formed their answers and defended their positions.

As I expected, many students (eleven in all) answered without hesitation that they would

Drawing by Yamato, age 13, Fukushima City. “Let’s be bright, like Sunflowers” (Geoff Read)”

not leave Fukushima.  Their reasons?  They would not want to leave their hometowns, friends or club activities “I couldn’t leave my band,” said Masaya-kun, one of the three high school students. “We’ve been together for a year now.”  Well, a year is a long time in the life of a sixteen-year-old.  Some said that even if they got sick from radiation exposure later on in life, at least they could be together with their friends.  Kanako-san, from School A. said she didn’t believe there was any real danger from radiation exposure anyway. Ryou-kun, from School B. said he had “never given a thought to radiation exposure” before.  “I’d want to stay and help clean up and rebuild my hometown,” said Hiroki-kun, a serious, soft-spoken boy from School A.  They were all in agreement that their relationships and ties to their hometown were more important than fleeing from an invisible enemy (that they cannot yet conceive of, and are not convinced really exists).

The remaining students were divided. Three of them were unable to decide without knowing what their friends would do. “Well, if my friends all decided to evacuate, there’d be no reason for me to stay….” said Fumiko-san, looking uncomfortable. The  girl next to her immediately agreed, and Haruto-kun declared he would wait till the end of sixth grade before evacuating.  “That way I could graduate with all my friends, and then I’d decide what to do.” he declared.

Nine out of the twenty-three declared they would evacuate. Knowing all the students fairly well, I can vouch for the fact that these were the outgoing and strong-willed kids, who would have very little trouble assimilating anywhere. Most of them were the ones who sang loudly and without inhibition in first and second grade (you think all first graders like to sing?!  Hah!  Not in Japan! ) , and who were, as they got older, not afraid to admit they liked studying. Some were even brave enough to come to English practice sessions rather than soccer practices. Although they make different choices than their peers, they can also “read the air” (get along smoothly with those same peers, without deliberately or accidentally antagonizing them) and are well-liked and admired in their schools and in my classes.  Two students in particular spoke well, using both confidence and logic. The first was Kenji-kun , who stated simply, “Well, if I couldn’t play outside, why would I want to stay there??  Besides, there could be another tsunami or earthquake, making an even bigger mess!  I’d get the heck out!”  The second, and most interesting comment on evacuation came from Keiko-san, a tall, intelligent, no-nonsense girl. “Well, in reality,” she said,  “we’re all going to leave our friends and strike out on our own as adults, aren’t we? So it’s just like starting the process a bit earlier.  I’d rather get to a safe place as soon as possible rather than waiting around!”  Though I was doing my best to preserve a neutral stance, I couldn’t stop myself from muttering, “Go, Keiko!” and several girls looked at her, wishing they could be that cool–or brave– themselves.  No-one changed their stance because of her comment, though, and she remained the only one in her own class in favor of evacuating.

Drawing by 8 year old girl from Fukushima. “Ganbare, Nippon!” (Geoff Read)

Another question I asked was about pressure that some students are reportedly experiencing in Fukushima public schools. “If your mother insisted you bring a box lunch full of vegetables and rice from safe regions of the country, but your teacher insisted you eat the school lunch (containing Fukushima vegetables and milk), what would you do??” This question proved to be even more troubling to many of the students, especially the boys.  Only two children feared their teachers more than their mothers, and declared that they would eat the school lunch without complaint.  Seven others thoughtfully proposed various compromises, such as eating both ( boys, who were confident in the voracity of their own appetites), eating half of each, or, in the case of one very troubled-looking boy, eating neither. “I wouldn’t have any appetite in that situation anyway,” he confessed sadly. The remainder of the students proudly proclaimed (boasted?) that they would complain to the teacher and eat their mother’s box lunch.  “I’d tell that teacher to quit messing with us!” said  Tadashi-kun from School C. with mounting excitement, while Kenji-kun, who said that all this gave him a headache, declared, “No way!  Stories like that must be lies!  I’d never listen to a teacher like that!” Anna-san, an older private school girl, said quietly, “Obviously, I’d follow the orders of the adult who really cared about me. I know my mother loves me and that’s why she  would make me a special box lunch; the teacher is just following a school rule without caring about us personally, so I’ve no obligation to him at all. I’d eat my mother’s lunch.”  Again, I had to restrain myself from applauding here, and some of the other girls looked impressed, too. The school lunch/box lunch, teacher/mother dilemma was one that every student could relate to, and it challenged them to take a stand against one of two authority figures in their lives (fathers are not authority figures here , but that’s a different topic altogether).  Other questions provoked blank stares and only a few comments, but this one struck a gold mine of emotions.

Before wrapping up each fifteen minute session ( short, but we did these talks in the evening, after their regular English lessons, and I was acutely aware of rumbling stomachs and stifled yawns), I asked each of them what they felt about nuclear power. “Do you want to see all of Japan’s nuclear power plants shut down?  Or do you think the country should continue to rely on them?  Or should we use alternative energy sources??”  By now, readers of this blog know where I stand, but my students did not, and I was determined not to influence their answers with my own opinions. But, as my friend Joseph notes, kids are influenced by their parents’ views, and the answers I got here would doubtless be a refection of what they heard in discussions at home.  Still, this was the big question, and needed to be asked. I had already asked how many of them were watching the news on a daily basis; around half they kids were. And surprisingly, all the students agreed that the situation in Fukushima was not being discussed at school. In other words, a good number of students were not watching the news, hearing nothing about Fukushima at school, and probably not discussing the situation at home. What kind of opinion would these kids have?  Holding my breath, I waited to see who would say what. And the results were…..

Out of twenty-three, nine were brave enough to speak out in favor of shutting down all of

Drawing by Erika, age 17, Koriyama City, Fukushima. (Geoff Read)

Japan’s nuclear plants, the sooner the better. “People say than nuclear power is cheaper,” said Tadashi-kun, “but life is more important than money. Too many people have been hurt by the Fukushima Daiichi accident!”  The practical and cool-headed Keiko said, “I think of what happened to the people in Fukushima, and I can’t imagine going back to a nuclear society. I can’t help wondering what it must be like for people in Tohoku…..”  And certainly, every student expressed sympathy for the citizens of Fukushima.  But most students came down strongly on the side of compromise. They offered all manner of suggestions, such as “half nuclear/ half solar”, or “doing away with nuclear power veeeery slowly”, or  “building the kind of nuclear power plant that absolutely won’t break.” Or “building more nuclear power plants in Japan, but not near me!”  More than a few seemed worried about Japan’s debt problem (these were the kids who’d been listening to their parents and watching the news) and were convinced that the country would fall into deep financial straits by attempting to develop forms of alternative energy. Others said that alternative energy sources could never produce enough power to satisfy their electricity-guzzling country.  I wanted to remark that electricity-guzzling was a factor that did not have to be permanent; average citizens and large corporations alike have reduced their energy consumption drastically since the quake, and it has not been all that painful.   In any case, on the subject of nuclear energy, the students’ opinions were scattered all across the board. This was the point when Kenji-kun clutched his head in despair, howling, “This is too difficult!  We should just let the adults deal with everything!”

And that’s what my students had to say, in a nutshell.  As for my own thoughts……well, it ‘s clear that many Japanese children literally fear change, and were raised by mothers who probably fear change themselves. Although my students assured me that the Fukushima students who have evacuated to their schools are fitting in just fine ( and are, in fact, wildly popular in some cases), if they themselves had the choice to evacuate they would decline, out of fear.  Not fear of bullying, but fear of the possibility of bullying. Here’s a quote from a wonderful blog entitled  Strong Children Japan.  The author, Geoff Read, is a Japan-based artist from the UK who works with children who have suffered emotional distress. He talks with them, and they create portrait pictures together based on the child’s dreams, wishes, or worries. The drawings I have included in this entry are all from his Strong Children project, and there are many more worth seeing.  The quote is from the mother of a girl named Hanako, whose picture appears in his blog . Hanako’s mother writes,”Our family has decided to keep living in Fukushima….When people say `All  mothers in Fukushima, be brave and evacuate from there!’  I feel pain. I  just cannot make that decision because I read about Fukushima residents who evacuated to somewhere else and the children got bullied by local children. Also, I can’t help being concerned about work, money, and the stress that might be caused by starting life in a completely new place as a stranger.”

Hmmmm…..I feel this mother’s pain, but I also hear the word “might”.  She’s more afraid of what might happen in a new place than of the danger of an accumulation of internal radiation. I am tempted to feel impatient with this line of thinking. I remind myself, however, to stay calm and sympathetic, remembering that government officials, school principals, and other figures of authority have led  women like Hanako’s mother to believe that they are safe. Or at least “not in immediate danger”.  Surely if this woman truly felt her situation dangerous, she would not hesitate to leave, for the sake of Hanako.  I want to believe this.

Other families do not have the luxury of choosing whether or not to evacuate, as they are in dire financial straits. It is certain that if the central government provided financial assistance, many more would choose to leave, and Fukushima women activists are working round the clock pressuring the central government to provide funds for families who wish to evacuate.  Children of  mothers who are able but unwilling to evacuate are placing their trust in adults to make decisions for them and tell them what to do next, as Hanako’s mother is probably trusting in government officials.  Neither children nor adults have been used to questioning authority (at least openly), and truly the betrayal of the people of Fukushima by the central government has been a difficult reality to come to grips with. It’s something that no-one wants to believe, and something that sounds like a bad soap opera rather than reality.  “Fukushima produce shipped abroad as aid??  We hear the news and think, surely not.  “Radioactive rubble burned in Tokyo bay“??  Again, we think, yeah, right.  “Japan selling nuclear power plants abroad?  That was the hardest for me to swallow. And the list goes on.  It seems that those in charge are not doing such a good job of it–okay, they’re doing a terrible job–and that everyone, children included, needs to be thinking for themselves and being proactive these days.

I was pleased, in the end, with the response from my own students. Knowing the reluctance of Japanese to stand out in any way (this is called “medatsu”), I did not expect so many kids to take such a firm stand and to express themselves so clearly. While some attempted to avoid conflict by finding a compromise and others wanted to avoid making any decision at all, more than a third of the students were not afraid to consider the unknown: a move from their beloved hometown. They also declared themselves willing  to face punishment from an authority figure (the teacher promoting school lunches) , and were able to come down firmly on the side of “datsu-genpatsu”, or the shutting down of nuclear plants. These kids are already leaders in their own sphere, and will go on to think more, say more, do more, and make a difference in their world.  As Geoff Read, the man behind the Strong Children Japan project writes, “…no record of important historical events, or thinking about policy choices or ethics for that matter, can be complete without including children.” And he’s right. There’s been a whole lot said about children in Tohoku (they are pitiful….no, they are strong! ….no, they are victims…ad infinitum…)  but has anyone really been listening to what they have to say in the matter?  The adults sure aren’t making sense these days, and I’m more than ready to give the children a chance. Want to see what children are capable of? Good!  Take a look at this video if you’re a music lover. Take a look even if you’re not, and you might become one. It’s a recording of a choral group from a Fukushima high school who have taken either the silver or the gold medal in national choral competitions for several years running. Enjoy what you hear, and think about the children of Japan. Their voices deserve to be heard.

Replace that Roof? Or try the Mysterious Blue Gel……

The sign on the building says it’s a church.  It’s a Baptist Church, actually, in Fukushima. The assembled group of Japanese and Americans are (according to the caption on the website), “standing safely on the porch of their newly decontaminated school”. The church serves as a Nursery School for a group of small children who spent five months inside after the March 11th disaster. Well!  Here are the kids, standing outside (looking both solemn and a bit bewildered ) , with the adults behind them looking downright exuberant. Did some sort of miracle occur here?  I found this photo accidentally while doing a Google search for photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Of course, that happens repeatedly during the course of a single day, and many detours, in fact, lead to nothing of significance. Having followed the detour (gotten off the known entity of the paved road and onto that dirt road leading to…?) , I’m usually left with mixed feelings of satisfaction (“Well, now at least I know where THAT road goes. “) and regret (” Oi, oi, but what a waste of time!”)  This time, however, I dug right in, feeling certain that I wouldn’t regret the extra twenty minutes. And I didn’t. The website on which the photo was posted described a project initiated by a company in Honolulu, Hawaii to introduce their relatively new (proven and tested in the last two years) miracle product to the radiation-ridden communities of Fukushima City.  Company representatives travelled to Japan this past summer and volunteered their time in “de-contaminating” the church/ nursery school,  donating both their manpower and large amounts of their product (called “DeconGel”) at an estimated value of $250,000.

I’ll get back to that story in more detail, I promise. But first, let me explain exactly why I was trawling through photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima.  It began with an excellent article from the Economist, entitled “Hot Spots and Blind Spots” (October 8th). The article described the predicament of Iitate Village, located 45 kilometers Northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; technically outside of the 30 kilometer evacuation zone, the village was showered with cesium when the wind blew to the West after the hydrogen explosions, carrying radioactive particles farther than anyone had anticipated. Although the central government  recognized the area as a “hot spot”,  villagers were not

Iitate Village resident listens to the mayor explaining the evacuation plan. (AP/Kyodo)

immediately urged to evacuate. Months passed before the village was finally determined unsafe and it’s nearly all of its 6,ooo residents evacuated.  I remember watching several NHK news reports focusing on the villagers and their emotional struggle to accept the loss of not just their homes and farms, but of their community and the traditions that had kept it alive and given it meaning for generations. The Iitate villagers had no choice but to scatter, taking refuge with friends or family in nearby prefectures, or taking temporary refuge in evacuation shelters.

The story continues: as of September 30th, the central government has lifted its advisory warning for towns between  20 to 30 kilometer distance from the Fukushima plant, and a decontamination plan has been announced , to cover 2,419 square kilos of soil (an area larger than greater Tokyo).  Iitate village is also scheduled for decontamination, and efforts have begun to cleanse the land in anticipation of its inhabitants’ return. This was reported on the nightly news as positive proof of the progress being made in Tohoku and reduction of the level of radioactivity in general.  Decontamination measures are now in full swing, and including the removal of cesium-laden dead leaves

Fukushima City: decontamination by pressure hosing…..does it create still more problems?

from forests and cesium-laden sludge from drainpipes and gutters, the removal of the first 5 centimeters of topsoil from playgrounds and farmland, and “pressure-hosing” of houses in urban areas. This top-to-bottom hosing of houses is being taught in do-it-yourself workshops, and pressure hoses are flying off the shelves in Fukushima.  All good? Well, listen to what Kunihiro Yamada, Professor of Environmental Science at Kyoto Seika University has to say on the subject. “The water cleaners” he states, “wash surface dirt off but then that tainted water goes into sewers and can contaminate rivers, thereby affecting farm goods and seafood.  If people in highly populated areas were to begin using water cleaners, we may end up finding people forcing tainted water onto each other. ” Well, yes, that does seem to be the logical conclusion, and it’s a wonder that we need a PhD to tell us what public officials should have foreseen in the first place. Well, what about scraping off the top layer of soil then?  This has so far proved to be the most effective method in reducing the amount of cesium; unfortunately (and again, quite logically), winds blowing dead leaves from the wooded mountains of Iitate deposit their offerings squarely atop the newest layer of clean soil, thus re-contaminating the land, and undoing any previous work.  Is the only answer, then, to cut down entire forests?

You live in Japan? Better check where your shrooms were grown.

Heaven forbid.  Yet the forests in Fukushima are deadly repositories of radioactive cesium, from leaves clinging to the branches to the shiitake mushrooms, thriving and unharvested, which attach themselves to wet fallen tree limbs.

Still, the council chief of Iitate, Chohei Sato, hopes that families with young children will return to the village, declaring, “The revival of this town depends on the children returning.” As of this month, however, many families are choosing not to return to the former evacuation zone areas; as a mother, I certainly would not. Even the Economist correspondent, reporting from Iitae, admitted to feeling, “….strangely reluctant to inhale.”

Yesterday’s Mainichi Shinbun also featured an article that sparked my interest and explained the complications involved with decontamination in laymen’s terms. Entitled “True Radiation Contamination Still a Long Way Away”,  the article contained an interview with Professor Yamauchi, a radiation metrology specialist from Kobe University, who describes radioactive cesium as existing in three states: dissolved in water, loosely bonded to organic materials such as moss and leaves, and tightly bonded to rock ( think: roads, gutters, cobblestones….or roof tiles).  According to Yamauchi, cesium bonds so tightly to substances like roof tiles that power hosing has only a very limited effect in reducing the level of radiation of the house (and only serves to transfer those particles that are washed away into the water itself).  “To bring the roof’s radiation levels down,” he postulates, “there’s probably no other way than to replace the roof.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

An unauthorized landfill site in Fukushima City.

  Now waaaaait a minute! Hold everything!                                        Here’s where my head started to spin, envisioning full-to-bursting bags of roof tiles, joining the bags of radioactive grass clippings, moss, soil, leaves…..and don’t forget the radioactive sludge!  And don’t forget the radioactive water, still building up in the tanks of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, as well as in enormous “Mega-Floats” positioned ominously along the coastline (As a sidelight, a Japanese news station today released a short video of Fukushima workers spraying large amounts of that radioactive water from reactor tanks into nearby shrubbery, in an effort to prevent possible overflow from the tanks of reactors 5 and 6. TEPCO spokesmen stated the water was “not significantly contaminated”, and would affect no damage on the surrounding environment. But that’s another post in itself). Is it any wonder that Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe compared the current situation of Japan to a science fiction story in his recent speech at the Sayonara Genpatsu demonstation rally in Tokyo? There must be a light shining somewhere in all this murky mess (I thought, as I trolled the internet, looking for photos of power hosing and such)……and then I stumbled onto the photo of the happy gang in front of the Baptist Church.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The

Check out the miracle sticker-gel!

company from Honolulu is called CBI Polymers. They use polymer-based decontamination technology to deal with radiological, nuclear, and chemical threats. Now there’s a career your great-grandmother never could have imagined. Their product, DeconGel, is promoted as “green”, being water-soluble with a neutral PH level. It looks like blue slime. As I understood from the article accompanying the photo, DeconGel acts as a giant peelable sticker. Brushed on with a squeegie-like implement (that part looks fun), it dries solid, trapping radioactive particles as it hardens. Finally, peel the whole thing off (that looks like fun, too) and you’ve got a radioactive sticker to dispose of. Much more compact than a bag of roof tiles, I’d say. The company promises that nearly 100 percent of the radiation can be removed with this gel, and the Fukushima Nursery School geiger counter readings proved that. The headmistress, overjoyed, immediately let the children out onto the newly-cleaned playground for the first time since the quake, and a short video (you can see it on the above link) shows them frolicking about outside in their adorable school uniforms. You also get to see this awesome gel being applied, which is more interesting than you’d imagine. Oh, and as a final note, the Hawaiian-based company who invented the gel won an award from the US government this past summer for their work in Fukushima, and in Hungary as well. 

In the end, peelable stickers will not solve the whole problem. Think of the estimated cost of just that one project, and imagine the hundreds of other Nursery Schools in need of decontamination. And then wind will blow, water will flow, and previously decontaminated areas will be re-contaminated. But something like these stickers may in fact be a practical solution for the moment. When the Mainichi Shinbun article mentioned that Professor Yamada ( he who scoffed at the effectiveness of power hosing ) and his project team are currently working to develop “cloth-like adhesive stickers to affix to roofs”, I thought, “That’s been done! Get the guys from Honolulu back!  Or else hurry up and figure this out for yourselves!”  At least they’re on the right track.

Prof. Kodama: a hero who gets his hands dirty, too.

 In any case, what is painfully evident from the latest attempts at decontamination is that the efforts are too little, too late, and too short-sighted. Tokyo University  Radio Isotope Center’s  Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama (hero of the anti-nuclear movement since making an impassioned speech to the House of Representatives this summer ) has been doing weekend stints in the Fukushima town of Minami -Soma, teaching parents and local officials how to decontaminate homes and nursery schools. He recently stated to the Japan National Press Club, “The decontamination I’ve done is a type of emergency measure to protect children and pregnant women, and not true decontamination….Permanent decontamination requires the knowledge and technology of experts and corporations, and a massive amount of funds. It must not become an interest-driven public project.” In other words, do-it-yourself power hosing will not change much in the long run, and could lead to a false sense of security-just as dangerous as the invisible radiation particles themselves.  Your average Japanese citizen is not only skilled in scrubbing and scraping, but (I believe) takes some sort of moral satisfaction from the process. This time, however, citizens cannot  scrub away the damage that’s been done.  Japan must invest money, and work round the clock to discover new and creative solutions to the puzzle/nightmare of nuclear contamination.

Let me end with words from Professor Kodama’s book, entitled  The Truth about Internal Exposure: “We have contaminated our country’s earth, this irreplaceable inheritance from our ancestors that we had been charged with and must pass on to our children. However, if humans are the ones who contaminated it, then we humans should be able to clean it up again. ” I would not call Kodama Senseii pessimistic, yet his hope is tempered with a dose of reality. We “should be able” to clean it up (rather than “will be able”) leaves room for hope, but is still plenty sobering. That’s about as accurate an assessment as you’ll find these days. Good night, all.  If you’ve learned something from this post, please pass it on, and I thank you for doing so.                                                               

Restoring Damaged Ethics

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

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

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

Haruki Murakami

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yamada-san and his squad are ready and waiting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice from a Former Swashbuckler (now an Old Bear)

“Reading and watching the news can be so damned depressing. I am sure that many of

Here’s the Big Bear.

you, like me, are sick to death of hearing about plummeting economies and useless, senseless wars. It is much more fun to nurture woodlands, land and streams, to collect delicious mushrooms by the bucketful, to gather firewood and make charcoal to render harsh winter more comfortable, and from our own little fields to harvest potatoes and parsnips, cabbages, broccoli and brussel sprouts, leeks, turnips, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and what-have-you–all to be shared and enjoyed and to bring nothing but good to the land.”

That’s “Old Nic” speaking,  from a 2008 entry in “Old Nic’s Notebook”, a nature blog carried by the Japan Times that I have recently begun reading with great interest. Described by an interviewer as “….a character straight out of a swashbuckling 18th century novel”,  C.W. Nicol has lived an extraordinary life, and I only wish I had discovered him sooner.  You do Karate? Old Nic, whose interest in the discipline is what drew him to Japan in the first place, is revered world-wide in Karate Circles; his book, “Moving Zen-One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Karate” has been read and re-read by Karate aficionados.  You dream of one day visiting an African game preserve?  Nicol has not only visited, but has worked to establish a National Park in Ethiopia, where he served as a game warden for two years. You’re a fan of Moby Dick?  Love those old whaling museums in Nantucket?  Well, Old Nick has lived in Taiji (the setting of the controversial film “The Cove”), sailed to the Antarctic with a whaling fleet, and written a historical novel, “Harpoon”, while onboard ship. The novel sold well and set him up as a writer upon his return to Japan.  Born in Wales, he has also had Canadian citizenship (from his days of study at McGill University), and is now a naturalized Japanese citizen, having continued his studies at Nihon University. He is fully fluent in Japanese. He has published in both English and Japanese and, in 1980, won the Japan Broadcasting Writer’s Award for his screenplay of a TV drama written in Japanese.

This is all well and good (you say), but why is this timely? Why would I choose to write about a man who describes himself as a big old bear from the deep woods when it’s the 6 month anniversary of the Tohoku Triple Disaster (“Daishinsai” in Japanese) AND the 10 year anniversary of the 9-11 terror attack on New York City?  Well….precisely because these two events are being covered in such detail; for the past few days there’s been nothing else on TV in Japan, and newspaper editorials and facebook posts seem obsessed with squeezing out the last drop of meaning from the disasters.  I will let them squeeze away, and instead introduce you to Old Nick, whose writings are, in fact, very relevant to the issues at stake in Japan’s disaster recovery process.

Let me start with the first article from “Old Nic’s Notebook” that made me sit up and take notice (I had been briefly skimming the blog whenever I got the  weekend edition of the Japan Times from the train station, but hadn’t had any jaw-dropping revelations. Probably hadn’t been concentrating hard enough, in my eagerness to get to the book and movie reviews).  It was last Sunday’s post, entitled “Children-and their children-must be saved from Nature Deficit Disorder”.  “Aha!” I thought. “Fukushima!” (for those of you who have not been following, children in the emergency preparedness zone in Fukushima have not played outside in months), and I dug right in to the article. I was well-rewarded. Nicol begins by reminiscing about his first years in Japan (he arrived in 1962), and how the

Found in the river: what a prize! ( that’s my river-loving daughter)

Nagano Prefecture countryside was a place for children to play. He writes of his joy in observing children catching tadpoles, frogs or beetles, helping in the rice fields, and gathering sticks for firewood. Now, he says, the rivers in his district are empty of children; because of a drowning in Miyagi Prefecture (two boys out frog-catching), the local elementary school has forbidden children to play in the river at all.  As Nicol stated, these things happen, but still children are probably in more danger crossing the road every day (Japanese children ALL walk to school, sometimes navigating extremely narrow streets shared with cars , bicycles, and motorbikes) than they are playing in the river.

Well, before you start feeling sad or indignant, let me inject some humor (though there’s a poignancy in this story as well).  Nicol was so disgusted with the school’s ruling  that he began plying his friends’ son (his “little buddy”) with the promise of money to disobey the rule and go down to the river to play.  “His parents and I encourage the little chap to ignore this order,” he writes. “I have offered to give him pocket money if he will just write down simple observations, such as the birds or fish or dragonflies he sees out there. That way, should some sneaky twit play teacher’s pet and report him to the school, he could claim he is doing a holiday river-assignment research task for me. If the school then tried to push him around I will give them, and their bosses, a right Celtic bollocking.”  Well!  You can understand why I liked the man immediately. The poignant part of the story is that the little boy absolutely refused to disobey the school rule, no matter how hard Old Nic (and his own parents) poked and prodded. This is unsurprising  given Japanese children’s reluctance to go against the grain or stand out in any way, but still disappointing.

As a side note, I was curious to know how Nicol could declare his intentions to give the school board a “bollocking” with such confidence. Most foreigners here are low on the totem pole; their voices go unheard, or are heard with condescension rather than respect. That’s when I began digging around to find out who the man actually was, and how he came to be writing the “Old Nic’s Notebook” column. Here are some tidbits of what I learned.

After his swashbuckling days, C.W. Nicol decided to settle in Japan. Some years ago, he was asked, in an interview by a Karate devotee, why he

Nagano is over 70% forest land. (photo by Kenji Minami)

never returned to his native Wales.  Word for word, here is his reply:  “I am as proud to be a Japanese citizen as I am of being Welsch. A Welsch Japanese.  As a country for wildlife, it is amazing . For example, more the 70% of Nagano Prefecture is covered with forest, in which there are bears, wild boar, monkeys, deer, and so many other creatures.  If you don’t include Alaska, Japan has a longer coastline than the United States.  We have sea ice in the North, coral seas in the South. I look out of this study window to see Mount Kurohime…the Black Princess..a dormant volcano, forested to the top….Really, Japan is a beautiful and varied country if you get out of the big cities.” (interview w/Shaun Banfield, 2009).  Nicol has also written of his first impression of Japanese farms in the Nagano area, which he likened to gardens, because of their beauty. He admired the Japanese ability to strike a balance between nature and human culture, and their respect for the land they worked. He decided to buy land in the Kurohime district of Nagano, and thus began his settled life in Japan.

Within two years, Nicol began to see changes in the Japanese attitude toward forest land (“sato yama” in Japanese).  After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, woodlands fell into neglect, many becoming tangles of brush rather than well-tended havens of bio-diversity.  At the same time, a forest in his native Wales was being revived and restored after suffering the effects of years of coal mining.  Nicol, drawing inspiration from the restoration of the Afan Argoed Forest in South Wales, became determined to do the same for forest land in Nagano.  With the money acquired from the sales of his historical novel and other writings and appearances (he had already become somewhat of a celebrity in Japan), he was able to buy up a succession of neglected and abused land plots in the Kurohime area. The land was originally called  “Yurei no Mori”, or “Ghost Forest”…..well, that name was thrown out immediately. Re-named after the forest in Wales, Nicol decided to make his land in Japan a “twin” of the Afan Argoed forest.

Nicol and Princes Charles, taking a stroll through the woods.

To make a long story short, he and his head forester, Nobuyoshi Matsuki (who has lived in the forest since age 15)  still live in their forest.  It is now officially a “woodland trust”, recognized and protected (Nicol became a Japanese citizen in 2002 in order to legally establish the trust), and has been visited by the royal families of both Japan and Britain ( I loved Nicol’s blog entry describing Prince Charles’ visit as “The Proudest Day in my Life”).  More to the point, he and his co-workers have so far brought back 22 endangered plant and animal species, and have established a college that trains young people to work in eco-tourism, wildlife conservation, and research; according to Nicol, they graduate around 80 students a year. The woodland is a flourishing mixed-growth forest, made up of oak, chestnut, walnut and other species, and access to the public is strictly controlled to preserve the fragility of the eco-system. Nicol remains in close contact with the staff of the twin forest in Wales, and the two woodlands share resources and information.

Because of what he has done to repair the damaged eco-system of Nagano, C.W. Nicol has become a well-loved and respected figure throughout the country.  If he decided to give the school board of his hometown a “bollocking” , they would undoubtably listen. He has earned the right to speak his mind bluntly.  In fact, in other writings he has mentioned his own personal war against Japan’s “yakuza” (think “mafia”) , because of their practice of dumping toxic wastes in deserted forestland.  Believing  that his status offers him a certain protection (though he tries not to tempt fate), he is unafraid to be quoted in his criticism of Japan’s underworld criminals.  Though he talks tough, he is also modest, often referring to himself as a “stupid man” or “a big old bear, bumbling through the woods”.  In dipping into the many C.W. Nicol you tube videos (all but one in Japanese, with no sub-titles), I was quite surprised to note that his speaking manner in Japanese was actually very gentle and unassuming.  A big old gentle bear in Japanese, whose strong opinions seem softened by his direct, open gaze, and pleasant speaking manner.  Quite a contrast to his written English!  He often writes of his propensity for strong drink, so perhaps he does let loose in rough Japanese when off-camera at an izaka-ya (drinking hang-out) with his buddies.

Most unlovable-looking insect brought home by my children: Kabuto- Mushi.

Back to the Japan Times article from the “Old Nic’s Notebook” column.  In his Sept. 4th post,  Nicol promotes a book by another Welschman entitled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” (Richard Louv, Algonquin Books).  The book proposes that “children in nature are becoming an endangered species,” and this has been brought home to me repeatedly as I’ve watched my own children growing up in rural Kanagawa prefecture.  Technically “rural”, the population of Kanagawa has been steadily growing, and its schools and community centers for seniors are now packed to overflowing.  In the twenty years that I’ve known my neighborhood (in the city of Hadano), its grassy empty lots have all disappeared, and every inch of space has been taken up with buildings.  That grass was where my kids spent afternoons catching grasshoppers, crickets, or butterflies and finding wildflowers. No grass means fewer insects, and no wildflowers at all.  I never even catch a glimpse of a dandilion, and those things are supposed to be ubiquitous.  I rarely see kids running around outside with their insect nets and plastic bug cages, covered in sweat but determined to score a prize beetle or cicada before the day’s end.  Man, my own kids caught some strange and unlovable-looking insects in their day, and had a blast doing it.

Now let’s talk about rivers. Old Nic would be happy to know that the river in my

neighborhood is still clean, and populated with wigglers of all sorts, and that my children (now eighteen and twenty) still love

My daughter Ellen’s wild river adventure!

hanging out there. My daughter, especially, still considers the river a “big adventure”, and looks forward to a chance to splash around and check out the wildlife.  This July, while cruising the internet, she found a “River Wildlife Adventure Tour” advertised, and decided to sign up. The river was quite a distance away and her friends were all uninterested or unavailable, yet this did not deter her. She would go alone (for the record, her grandmother protested loudly, and was convinced she would drown), and it was no big deal. So off she went.  Arriving home that evening, imagine how surprised we were to hear that the “tour” had in fact consisted of only herself!  Two park rangers led the expedition, and she and a ranger from a neighboring park (who had come to help, but ended up as a participant) were the only trekkers to show up. Since the tour was a “reservations only” deal, the rangers must have known about the lack of interest, yet they jovially went on with the show, taking the entire day to teach my daughter about the fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects they encountered (“some really rare ones, too!” she said) and recommending books and articles for her to read.  Again: a lucky chance for my Ellen (she was given royal treatment), but how sad that a “river adventure” did not appeal to anyone but her. Parents would rather have their kids inside playing video games? Or maybe they were all off at Disney World. If so, too bad for them; the poor suckers shelled out several hundred dollars, while my daughter got an adventure and an education for free.

Mothers are leaving Fukushima for Tokyo….Bye, Dad!

Now back to Fukushima. The ecosystem has been changed and damaged (not just from the dispersal of radiactive particles, but from the tsunami as well.  NHK news reports that there will not be cicadas on the coast of Tohoku for many years, as all their larvae were washed away), and families and communities have been broken up.  Because nature has become something to be feared (those radioactive particles cling stubbornly to grasses, moss, leaves, and soil and reappear with each rain shower), children are either taken away from their communities or sealed  inside their homes and schools.  New reports tell of mothers who have fled to Tokyo to raise their small children, choosing to live apart from their husbands or parents, and of children who remain close to the Fukushima evacuation zone and can no longer play in community parks or swim in the school pool. Mothers must be driven to distraction keeping their children inside on sunny days, and consumed with worry when they do go out.  Nicol writes in his blog, “Children need to play in nature with other children in order to properly develop their brains and characters, their power to make decisions and to work with other people. They need nature to teach them to listen and hear, smell, feel, look and see.”  He recognizes Nature Deficit Syndrome as a very real condition that carries serious consequences for society as a whole, and his woodland trust is attempting to counteract the situation.

For the past eight years, the Afan Woodland Trust has brought abused and neglected children, as well as visually challenged children, into the woods for three days of play and direct contact with animal life in the forest. Three days seems like just a taste of a very rich and tempting dessert to me–enough to linger in your memory and make you want more. Hopefully those kids will return every year, and seek out bits of nature wherever they find it during the other months. This year, Nicol has extended the program to include the children from Tohoku who have lost homes, schools, family, or friends. Or the combination of all of these things. Listen to his description of the program: ” These children will be encouraged to play in the streams and ponds, to swing on a rope in the trees and run

Japanese Dormouse: Yamane. Much easier to love than those horned beetles.

around in woods that are the domain of bears, boars, deer, raccoon dogs, badgers, foxes, civit cats, martens [my daughter saw a martin on her river trip] , weasels, squirrels, dormice [would love to see one!], moles and shrews…..not to mention frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and snakes. And needless to say, there are insects and spiders galore there, too……The kids just love this experience away from electronics, and many of them cry when they leave because they don’t want to go.”  Hey, sign me up, too!  I’d happily throw my responsibilities to the wind for a chance like that, especially if I didn’t have to cook dinner after traipsing through the woods all day long.

So that’s an introduction to C.W. Nicols, and a reminder of what is at stake here. The ocean has been violated ( and I don’t want to hear any more explanations of its vastness, and how potentially harmful radiation will be dissolved and dispersed. What’s wrong is wrong, and it’s not a matter of degree), the ground has absorbed poison and is being used as a dumping ground for even more poison–tons of it, neatly bagged and labelled).  Because the earth, the ocean, and the air are the ultimate victims, every living thing dependent on them will be affected in some way, some sooner and some later. And a generation of children may very well grow up not having known or experienced the natural world because of decisions made by adults.  There’s no denying that something terribly wrong has occurred. And as an indicator of just how twisted people’s  thinking has become, I was stunned to read the comment of a man  (on one of the many Tohoku-related blog sites) who belittled the potential after-effects of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. “Even if people do get thyroid cancer,” he wrote, “that’s a form of cancer with a high recovery rate.” ……Do I need to remark on how strange and surreal the situation has become?

In the 2009 interview by Shaun Banfield,  Nicol speaks about the “heart” of Karate. What he says also applies to our responsibility as adults in regards to children, and to all of nature as well. Here it is: “[we must]…have the courage and morality to stand up and protect those creatures who are weaker, more vulnerable, unable to protect themselves. To speak out against evil. Never to be a bully. To never stop studying.”  The nuclear industry in Japan is a powerful force, and one that has caused as- yet- unmeasurable damage across the globe, both physical and emotional.  Until now, those who have fought against it in Japan have been labelled as crazy, “meiwaku” (someone who makes a disturbance), or embarrassing.  Slowly but surely, these labels are disintegrating, and people are finding the courage to speak out. Whether it will be enough, or come in time, has yet to be seen.  I am doing my best to keep studying, to pass on what I learn, and to be open to what I learn from others. My own children have moved safely into adulthood, and I feel a responsibility to ensure that other children do as well.

Let’s turn away from Fukushima now and take a walk through the woods with C.W. Nicol. This short clip was filmed in his woodland trust in Nagano, and should refresh your heart and serve as a reminder of what’s left of the natural world that we are yet called upon to preserve and protect. Learn from the Old Bear, and thank you again for reading.