Hello?? Any Young People Out There??

My daughter and I took ourselves to another good-sized anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo this past Sunday,

“Hey! Lower your banners! We can’t see the Nobel Prize speaker!”

spending all day on our feet, enjoying the crisp, cold winter air. The day began with craning our necks to see and hear the speakers in Yoyogi Park (Oe Kensaburou-san may very well have been inspirational, but we couldn’t hear a word of the speech or see a thing. What we heard was, “Put down your banners!!  We can’t see!  Heeeeeey! Put down your banners!” And by the time this message had reached the stage area and the colorful anti-nuke banners had been collapsed, the speech had finished. Sigh. ).  The day continued as we followed our new friend Helen from the BBC Radio on her quest to find “good sounds”, and ended as we joined in the anti-nuke parade

BBC’s Helen Grady gets some good sounds at the rally!

( Genpatsu Hantai! ), which meandered at a snail’s pace through the Harajuku shopping district. The time flew by as we picked up friends along the way, met up with old “demo tomo” (friends who you know from past demonstrations), admired the costumes of other participants, and engaged in fleeting conversations with random strangers marching alongside us. By the time we had seen Helen safely to the Tokyo train station and settled ourselves into a restaurant for some solid food ( ramen-burgers and octopus balls at Yoyogi Park hardly count as nourishiment ), we realized we were exhausted. Truly exhausted. The kind of exhaustion that leaves you doubting whether your legs will obey the command to stand up again once you’ve collapsed into an actual chair.  But it had been a splendid and satisfying day.

Splendid and satisfying, except for one thing. “Where were the kids my age?” pouted my daughter (she’s 18). “I kept looking for some of my classmates, but didn’t see a single one. So many old guys, but no teenagers at all!”  Actually, we did bump into exactly one college student, who had come to the rally by himself.  Perhaps feeling forlorn, he latched onto my Ellen during the parade and tested her patience by insisting on practicing English with her as

“You can take our picture, but no interviews in English, please!”

they marched. We also saw a very attractive young couple, but they (unlike the Waseda college student) fled in a panic when Helen from the BBC asked if they spoke English and would they do an interview?  And that was it really.  A rally of 15,000 people, with only a small scattering of high school and college age students.  Well, in all honesty, I didn’t see any high-schoolish looking kids at all.  Pretty pathetic, really, and I wondered how the retirees and middle-aged company workers were enjoying the very loud rock band that kicked off the rally in the park. Probably enduring it and waiting for the speeches to start. Don’t get me wrong: the energy and spirit of the older protesters is admirable and astonishing; it should be balanced, however, by an equal or greater number of young people. The future, after all, is theirs, right??  So where were they?  Where ARE they??

Old Nellie and Japanese students wear blinkers.

Any number of places, is my guess. Third year middle school students and third year high school students are in the final stages of “ojuken”, the testing process that decides their future (or so it seems at the time).  Their life is literally on hold –and their mother’s life as well, in some cases– until the tests have finished, the results are out, and their high school or college has been decided. Those shooting for high level public schools often have only one chance: a written test.  No essays, personal interview, or other method of appeal available.  It’s no wonder they are balls of anxiety, and their mothers go gray overnight. Those kids certainly aren’t going to be marching through Harajuku to protest nuclear power plants–their mothers would disown them!  Most students in this year of their life would see a rally as having no connection whatsoever to their future; they’re like horses with blinkers attached to keep them from bolting at extraneous distractions. Those blinkers are attached by their mothers, their cram school coaches, and the pressure of their peers, and most are unable to imagine life without them.  Nuclear power is a vague worry, but lies well outside the radius of the blinkers and is therefore easily ignored. Their own immediate future is what they’re chasing after, and how current events might relate to their future or to a broader vision of the nation as a whole is not their concern.

Well then, what about the rest of the young people?  Those not preparing for exams have weekends free, right? Why do we not see them at rallys?  Sadly enough, I believe that many Japanese young people are not emotionally strong enough to participate. Until this point, I’ve been rather tongue-in-cheek, but the subject of mental health in Japan is a serious one, and one that’s troubled me since I spent five years teaching English in the Hadano public schools.  Sunday’s Japan Times column “Counterpoint” featured an excellent and moving article by Roger Pulvers on just this subject, calling depression “….the big gorilla on the basketball court, the one that’s stealing the ball but isn’t seen because everyone is willfully looking the other way.”

Pulvers, citing statistics from the Japan Committee for Prevention and Treatment of Depression, writes about conditions in Japanese schools, where 1 out of every 12 elementary school students suffers from depression; at the middle school level, this jumps to 1 out of 4.  He believes the actual numbers may be higher, due to misdiagnosis and unrecognized cases. In my five year teaching stint in the Hadano City elementary schools, I witnessed many children struggling with both anxiety and depression, feeling within myself an uncomfortable mixture of dismay, helplessness, and relief (that my own children were fairly well-adjusted and happy with their lives).  Many, if not most of these students become “futoukou”, or unable to attend school.  “Futoukou” is spoken of as a sickness in Japan (children suffering from it display physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, and unsteadiness), and children who fall prey to it have very few options.  Home-schooling is not recognized by the National Board of Education, and “alternative schools” are few and far between.

What sort of Japanese children drop out of school at a young age?  Let’s start with… extremely intelligent children who are bored with school (skipping grades not allowed).  Next, there are returnee children from abroad who are unable to re-adjust. And public school children planning to take exams for private schools.  And shy girls who get their growth spurt early on and cannot handle their sudden conspicuous height.  Of course, there are overweight children (a distinct minority here and easy targets for bullying).  And children with tics,  stutterers, and late developers (repeating grades is not allowed either. Children progress to the next grade whether or not they’re ready intellectually).  And children of different nationalities.  I have not seen statistics, but I imagine that since the 3-11 disaster, both children living in Fukushima and those who have evacuated to other prefectures have experienced frequent absences from school due to stress, anxiety, and depression.

And what is done to help these children?  I saw many different approaches used, depending on the school, and on the severity of the child’s distress. One girl at a small rural school in Hadano was able to “attend school” ( avoiding the problem of missed days, which can prevent graduation), but was unable to attend a single class. She ran straight for the school nurse’s office the minute her mother dropped her off and stayed there, literally clinging to the skirt of the extremely patient young nurse, who served as a kindly babysitter. This girl did not want to miss my monthly English lesson, and would creep into the room  after her classmates were seated and the class had begun. I would see her sitting on the floor in the back of the room, trying to be invisible, with the ever-present school nurse at her side.

Another boy I knew was studying to enter a private middle school. His evenings were spent at cram school, where the academic level was much higher than that of the public school he attended during the day. Bored with his studies, he began using his class time to study for his middle school entrance exams. Although he kept up stellar grades, this didn’t sit well with either his teacher or his classmates. Rather than defending his position (which this very intelligent child was capable of doing), he simply dropped out, for the entire last half of his sixth grade year. His mother, in a frantic effort to make sure he graduated properly, was able to drag him to school (Literally. This was a boy who threw up at the front gate, got jelly-legged, and refused to move) the required number of times to obtain his graduation certificate.  He successfully passed the entrance exams for the private middle school, but was so acclimated to “futoukou” life that he then refused to attend the new school as well. His mother, in a last ditch effort, drove him to school each day, where he was met by two stout male teachers. The teachers physically removed him from the car, carried him into the school, and deposited him in his classroom every morning for a full semester until he overcame his fear. In the end, he was able to return to the system and adjust himself to the school’s expectations. Whatever you may think of it (and I attempted to remain neutral in the telling), that’s the bare bones of the story.

There are many more stories, of older children who take “futoukou” one step further and become “hikikoumori”.  This is a condition where young people (and some adults as well) literally lock themselves in their rooms, refusing contact with not only their peers at school, but with parents and siblings as well. The boy I knew who had to be carried into school also went through a period of hikikoumori.  His mother told me calmly (how she could retain her calm demeaner was beyond me) that she would leave food outside his bedroom door and pick up the empty tray each morning. He only showered when there was no-one else in the house, and she’d find his clothes in the hamper every other day. Other than that, no communication at all. Personally, I think I’d borrow an axe and start whacking away at the locked door.

Manga lovers abroad may know “Densha Otoko“, the inspiring story of a train geek who is

“Densha Otoko” feels secure in his own room. Note the anime figurines lining his bookshelves.

borderline “hikikoumori”. Though the hero of the manga is able to leave the house (he goes back and forth to Akihabara, the electronics district), he’s unable to communicate with anyone face-to-face, finding security and solace in the internet.  Through a chance encounter with a kind-hearted attractive girl, he’s able to overcome his fear and rejoin society.  Most of the kids I came in contact with at the local schools were already long-term sufferers as small children, and I do not know how their stories will end.

Many Japanese children, unable to “read the air” (discern how to fit in naturally, without disrupting the status quo),  begin to drop out of society at an early age.  The school system is not kind to those children, who are seen as “meiwaku” (causing a disturbance and inconveniencing others),  and good psychological help is not easily available. A friend in Tokyo whose child is troubled waits a month for an appointment with a professional counselor.  These young people are busy fighting the battle to get up every morning, to leave the house, and to find a place in society where they feel safe and loved. They live from day to day, and anti-nuclear protests are not on their radar screen.

Well, alright then….what about the remainder of the students not battling depression or some form of anxiety?  Why are they standing along the sidewalks of Harajuku (in droves) instead of  marching through the streets carrying placards?  My guess is that although these kids are successfully maneuvering their academic and social lives, they lack the courage and

Proud to be seen marching with the Lego-Headed lady. Who wouldn’t be??

initiative to step outside the boundaries of their familiar social patterns: school, club, part-time job, and shopping or drinking on weekends. I guess it must be rather embarrassing, after all, to be seen in the same company as Lego-headed women, men wearing frog masks (in support of amphibians suffering from the effects of radiation), and gender-neutral folks with flowers sprouting from the tops of their heads…….No, no, wait a minute!  I would have loved putting together my own demo costume at their age!  What’s wrong with them?  Living in Tokyo, they have both the opportunity to participate in rallys and the freedom to express themselves without the fear of potential stigmatization that Fukushima residents experience daily. Okay, so they might lose a friend or two, or be considered a weirdo in some circles, but isn’t it all worth it?

Time after time I take the train into the big city, fight my way through the crowds in Shinjuku, manage the transfer to the government building district of Kasumigaseki, where women from Fukushima still occupy a tent along the sidewalk….and find the cavernous train station deserted. Kasumigaseki boasts over 13 exits, all of them accessed by eerie-dreary quiet concrete tunnels and staircases. Taking exit 12A, I climb the stairs and emerge onto the street where the Fukushima Women’s tent is still standing; it’s been there since September, when the hunger strikers set up camp. Next to the Women’s Tent is the Datsu Genpatsu (Stop Nuclear Power Plants) Tent. When I

Saito Michiko-san, who’s been speaking out for forty years. Puts those youngsters to shame!

last visited three weeks ago, it was a cold, cheerless day, and both tents were closed and sealed for the sake of warmth . Outside, a frail but beautiful elderly woman (“forty years of anti-nuclear protesting”) was speaking into a microphone, urging the few passers-by to visit the tents and learn about the situation in Fukushima. Inside the Women’s Tent, a handful of women and one transvestite, with perfectly applied lipstick and a bejewelled cell phone, were huddled into a heated table, discussing recent events. Inside the Datsu Genpatsu Tent, a steady trickle of visitors engaged in debate with four older “Occupiers”, who have been holding down the fort and sleeping in the tent at night, despite the bitter cold.  I encountered only a single college student that day, whom I promptly friended on facebook and will stay in touch with from here on in.  Making my way home that day, I passed through Shinjuku again, feeling the contrast between the station teeming with young people, and the too-quiet atmosphere of the Occupiers’ tents at Kasumigaseki.

All I can say is that the non-involvement of young people in the Tokyo/Kanagawa area is truly a shame. It’s a loss for the anti-nuclear movement, and young people themselves are missing out on history. My daughter attended a global conference on alternative energy in Yokohama last month….and again, was surprised to find no-one her own age attending the workshops.  Literally, noone.  Hello?  A global conference on how to change the entire way the country’s infrastructure functions?  Open to anyone able to register on the internet and pay the $30.oo entrance fee?  This is exciting stuff.  Why would young people NOT be there?  Because their friends aren’t going.  Because they will know no-one there. Because it’s something they know nothing about and feel no connection to. Because they’re not used to taking the initiative and doing something outside of their familiar routine.  Probably a combination of all these things.

In contrast, Japan’s seniors are outspoken and active. They regularly plunge into rivers (twice a year in my neighborhood) to dredge up trash and debris, wake up at four-thirty on hiking trips to reach the the top of the mountain before noon, patrol the streets with armbands and flashlights looking for loiterers or gangs of potential troublemakers, form committees to teach traditional skills to their neighborhood children, pack themselves onto busses to attend anti-nuclear rallies, attend alternative energy forums, take a mind-boggling variety of courses, classes, and lessons, and are not afraid to be interviewed, either in English or Japanese.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that many do all this while juggling the care of their grandchildren.  Who will carry the torch when they’re unable to?

My guess is that the leaders will be people like the Hunger Strikers for the Future: four

Hunger Strikers for the Future: They’ll be doing good things, and maybe even big things.

college-age students who spent 10 days sitting along the sidewalk outside the Kasumigaseki buildings  in peaceful protest to draw attention to their cause: the closing down of all of Japan’s on-line nuclear power plants, and a halt to the construction of any new ones.  They took in nothing but water and salt during the long hot days in early September .  I visited them twice during the ten day stretch, expecting to find signs of listlessness and fatigue, or at least crankiness, but they remained almost miraculously cheerful and patient up through the final day when they broke their fast and held a news conference. I found the hunger strikers themselves (and their entourage of faithful friends) to be well-informed, well-educated, cool and collected, and in possession of impressive reserves of inner strength. Responding with respect and thoughtfulness to questions posed by passers by and reporters alike, no-one could possibly accuse them of being subversive.  Watch their leader, Okamoto Naoya, explaining exactly why they are protesting, and sharing his vision of a nuclear-free future.

The hunger strikers are Japanese, but there are foreigners in Japan doing amazing

Jamie El-Banna, hard at work in Ishinomaki

things out of love for their adopted country as well.  I recently heard of Jamie El-Banna, a 26 year old from the UK who has lived and worked in Japan since 2008. You can read in detail about Jamie and his organization (“It’s Not Just Mud”) in this blog spotlighting  foreign volunteers in Japan.. To give a brief summary, El- Banna was living in Osaka at the time of the quake and travelled to Tohoku as a volunteer in May; camping on the grounds of a University in Ishinomaki known as “Tent City” and finding each and every day fulfilling, he realized he was in no hurry to return to his former life.  In a move that would unsettle most Japanese young person of the same age, he swiftly decided to leave his regular job and apartment in Osaka and installed himself in Ishinomaki permanently.  In the Tent City, he networked, and eventually formed his own volunteer organization made up of like-minded young people.  Their energy, skill, and good humor so impressed the locals that they were given two partially-damaged houses to use as their own base camp.  Undaunted by the “festering sludge under the floors”, rotting insulation, and shattered windows, El-Banna and his friends restored the houses in addition to their other community projects. These include gutting tsunami-damaged houses (done by those with strength, experience, and expertise), restoring and cleaning photographs damaged by the tsunami (done by those who cannot dig, haul, or do carpentry work), and delivering fresh fruits and veggies, winter coats, kerosene heaters, and fuel to those in temporary shelters who are carless.  Jamie, who admits to having no previous experience in volunteer work, now has his own soon-to-be-official NPO and a very professional blog site. He also keeps a personal blog, in which he  professes his desire to “become a super handsome force for good.”  Now that’s my kind of positive role model!  Japanese children, take note!

Rather than waiting around for central and local governments to find and implement solutions for them, young people like the hunger strikers and Jamie El-Banna are unafraid to buck the system and take risks in an attempt to affect change. They are already in the vanguard of the anti-nuclear movement and reconstruction projects. In addition, the high school students, college students, and young office workers who spend their weekends in Tohoku volunteering with Peaceboat (whose weekend trips to clean up Ishinomaki are booked solid, my daughter says) or Jamie’s “It’s Not Just Mud” group, are providing the people-power and experience needed to continue the fight for years to come.  Mothers who have learned to educate themselves and be pro-active for the sake of their children are creating wider networks and helping to foster ties between Fukushima and the rest of the country.  Renegade academics, scientists, and whistle-blowing experts are making sure that accurate assessment trumps propaganda; bloggers are recording all this, and making sure that those who speak truthfully become heros in the end.  Skilled translators are then making sure that everything gets passed around in as many languages as possible.  Artists, actors, writers, and musicians are providing the inspiration and energy to keep the movement flourishing.  I wish there were more leaders, more willing volunteers, more brave mothers, more renegade academics and whistle-blowers, more skilled bloggers and translators, many more artists, writers, and musicians, and at least twice as many young people involved.  In the end, that may happen, as the chain linking together those devoted to re-inventing Japan’s future becomes steadily longer and steadily stronger.

It will take years and years from here on in.  I still go through phases of impatience and

“Let’s live the slow life, not the life ruled by nuclear power”

frustration, wanting wrongs to be righted in a more timely fashion, but these days I try to return to the “Spirit of Madei” way of thinking. In fact, during my last visit to the Fukushima Tent in Tokyo, I found myself face to face with the words of the Iitate Village Mayor. “Let’s live the slow life, not the life based on nuclear power!” read the sign taped inside the tent. “Do you really believe this?” I asked the folks gathered around the tiny gas heater, warming their hands and snacking on Taiyaki cakes.  “Do you really believe that living gently and thoughtfully will instigate change in the end?”  “Absolutely,” replied Obitani Reiko, a 63 year old woman from Yokohama.  Obitani and several other friends live in the tent, spreading their bedrolls in a curtained-off part of the tent each night. Reiko-san sends me weekly updates in Japanese each week on the happenings in Kasumigaseki, and seems impervious to the frustrations I fall prey to. She is confident that, to quote the old Aesop’s Fable, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Let us hope that’s the case. It’s very late, so good night, and thank you so much for reading.

“Save the Amphibians”!


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.

Wisdom from my Grandmother: Pick up That Mess!

Wherever you live in Japan, everyone agrees:  there’s plenty to be angry about, and plenty to be

Fukushima children lined up for thyroid checks on October 10th (Mainichi Shinbun)

anxious about. Plenty of reasons to feel (at best) confused, and (at worst) betrayed. The past two weeks have flown by, featuring news stories such as FUKUSHIMA BEGINS CHILD THYROID CHECKS ,  STRONTIUM FOUND IN YOKOHAMA ,   CESIUM FOUND IN TOKYO ,  MINAMI-SANRIKU IN DANGER OF FISCAL COLLAPSE (NHK evening news), and RADIOACTIVE CLEANUP TO BE COVERED BY STATE . Each of these stories touched nerves, fanned anxiety, and evoked a mixture of sympathy and frustration in readers of morning papers and watchers of nightly news programs.  Bloggers report and opine, and comments fly fast and furious at the bottom of blog entries. There are those, of course, who don’t read the papers and adhere to strictly- entertainment TV….but even so, the news seeps in.  There’s really no avoiding it. Personally, I welcome it: compared to the vague reports following the March 11th disaster, there is now a wealth of information flowing from both home and abroad, translated into multiple languages, and folks are able to see the situation more objectively from a variety of different points of view.

Inevitably, among the constant barrage of stories and statistics, a single story will leap into my consciousness and stay with me all week, begging to be written about. I generally torment my co-workers and family for the next few days, demanding to know what they think about it, and if they think nothing at all, WHY? Then on the weekend, I’ll attempt to gather my thoughts together and make sense of it here.  This week’s troubling article was from Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune, a compilation of NY Times articles for overseas readers.

In “Japan looks overseas for future of its nuclear trade “,  Hiroko Tabuchi writes about Japan’s plans to continue selling nuclear power technology to developing countries, namely Vietnam and Turkey. “The effort is being made,” she writes, “despite criticism within Japan by environmental groups and opposition politicians. ” But here’s the paragraph that caused myself, and my friend Kimiko, to groan aloud: “It may seem a stretch for Japan to acclaim its nuclear technology overseas while struggling at home to contain the nuclear meltdowns that displaced more than 100,000 people. But Japan argues that its latest technology includes safeguards not present at the decades-old reactors at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, which continues to leak radiation….Japanese officials argue, their nation has learned valuable lessons and has a good nuclear track record for withstanding earlier earthquakes.”

My father-in-law would scoff at the flawed logic of pompous politicians.

Oh, well,  I’ll love to turn the ghost of my dead grandmother, along with my still-living father-in-law, loose in the Japanese Parliament to hear them shoot THAT statement down. “Pick up one mess before you start another!” my grandmother would say, and shame them with her look of moral indignation.  “It’s no use saying you’ve learned a lesson,” my father-in-law would say in disgust. “You have to prove it with action.” He would snort dismissively at pompous lawmakers, reducing them to babbling fools…..but that’s in my dreams. The reality is that it’s not just the central government involved here. Tabuchi’s article reveals that Japan’s top three companies-Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba, are all involved in some aspect of nuclear engineering, and are “more eager than ever to look overseas.” Well, simply put, that represents the husbands of some of my co-workers (Hitachi is one of the biggest employers in Hadano), and many other friends as well.  If you count guilt by association. Which I hate to do. In any case, I broached the subject with a friend whose husband works for the Hadano branch of Hitachi.

“Of course we know that Hitachi is involved,” she said. “Everyone does. But what can we do

Hitachi doesn’t just mean wide-screen TVs….

about it?”  Well, EVERYONE didn’t know, because I was still thinking of Hitachi in terms of vacuum cleaners and wide-screen TVs. What a mess. To what degree are ordinary citizens implicated in the corruption of the nuclear industry?  Should Hitachi employees quit their jobs, trade their briefcases for surfboards, and throw their retirement benefits to the wind? One former high-ranking TEPCO employee has done just that (see the video if you’re interested) , but that guy is definitely an exception.  I love my friends. Their husbands are great fathers, great spouses, and hard workers.  They’re not the real bad guys.  Just like the city officials who agreed to host nuclear power plants decades ago are not the real bad guys. Nor are the workers at the power plants, the majority of whom have been assigned their jobs by temporary employment agencies.  And yet, as Haruki Murakami said in his Barcelona speech, if we have remained silent in the face of corruption, we are implicated. It’s not a pretty picture.

In Tabuchi’s article, opposition party lawmaker Itsunori Onodera is quoted as asking, “Why is Japan trying to export something it rejected at home?” Well, obviously because the commitment to nuclear power has not been clearly rejected at home. It’s being “considered”, and that is quite a different thing.  Former Prime Minister Kan stubbornly attempted to commit the nation to a fast-track renewable-energy program, and was widely rebuffed for his hastiness.  Citizens interviewed on TV admit to having doubts about the safety of nuclear power plants, but think they are still a necessary part of the immediate future. Currently only one out of five of Japan’s  nuclear plants is still in service, due to safety checks and damage repairs since the quake; these reactors are technically “in limbo” rather than “out of service”.  The possibility/probability of their re-starting has not been rejected by the current government (they change so quickly), which now announces its intention to export its new and improved technology, complete with “lessons learned.”

With full de-comissioning of the  Daiichi damaged reactors still , according to anyone’s accounts, decades down the road, I would like to know what lessons have been learned. At the end of the summer, I read an article in the Mainichi Shinbun about the complications and costs of de-commissioning, and came away both humbled and appalled. Here’s what I learned:  In simple terms, the process involves cleaning (removing spent fuel rods and decontaminating pipes and containers), waiting (for the level of radiation to go down with time), and dismantling (the final stage, where the facility itself is taken down, and the site reverted to

Cheery-looking entrance to the no-longer-active Tokai Nuclear Power Plant

a vacant lot). Worldwide, only 15 nuclear power plants have actually been de-commissioned.  Japan has only had experience with de-comissioning one, and has not finished the process. That one is the Tokai Power Plant in Ibaragi, where the process of removing spent fuel began in 1998.  Dismantling of the facilities began in 2001, and workers have not yet begun to take apart the reactor itself. Projected cost upon completion?  88.5 billion yen.  Manpower involved?  563,000 people.  The next plant to be de-commissioned will likely be Hamaoka, the aging and controversial plant in Shizuoka Prefecture.  Experts from Hitachi predict the process will take thirty years to complete.

The point is that both Tokai and Hamaoka are “normal” de-comissioning projects, whereas Fukushima is anything but normal. Experts are divided on how long the process will take, how much it will cost, what measures will be most effective, and even whether or not the spent fuel rods can be removed at all. If they can, re-processing will be complicated, and storage sites will be equally problematic.  According to the three step de-comissioning process, work has barely begun, as TEPCO cannot begin to think of removing spent fuel while contaminated water must be constantly cooled and treated, and radiation levels are are so dangerously high that workers are only allowed to work short shifts in rotation. Meiji University expert in reactor engineering and policy Tadahiro Katsuta predicts, “…at least ten years just to determine whether it is possible to remove the fuel,” and a possible fifty years before the de-comissioning is complete. Best to not even attempt full de-comissioning.  Instead, entomb the entire site in concrete, he advises, and others in the field agree. Experts abroad  (as well as those at home, namely Kyoto University Professor Koide ) continue to ask, “Where is the corium?”,  fearing that the core of the reactor (a mixture of melted fuel and other elements) has breached the floor of the containment vessel and is sinking steadily toward the level of the water table, with possible deadly consequences.

As the Mainichi Shinbun article proclaimed, “…what we face is a great unknown to all of

The Fukushima Daiichi clean-up will be measured in decades, not years.

mankind”, and until the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been safely dismantled (or safely entombed) , the lessons have not yet been learned. Even then, environmental research must be continued to learn how the surroundings have changed (they can never return to what they once were) and adapted as a result of widespread contamination.  Of course, the thyroid checks of Fukushima’s children are just part of the medical and sociological research that must continue for decades as well.  It’s incredible to me that the former Prime Minister was condemned for “hastiness” in ordering the shutdown of the Hamaoka plant and in pushing his renewable energy program, while the current government is literally jumping at the chance to re-start negotiations for building new reactors abroad when their own very public disaster is still in a dangerously volatile state. “You haven’t cleaned up your mess!” says my Grandmother, glowering, “and here you go starting a new one!”  “Don’t TELL me you’ve learned a lesson,” frowns my father-in-law. “Show me the proof!” As for me, I mourn for the terrible waste of time and resources involved–time that could be spend in invention and creation, rather than tearing down and decontaminating. How on earth did we manage to become dependent on technology so deadly that it takes nearly half a lifetime to render it harmless after it’s shut down?

Yet because Japan has not clearly rejected nuclear technology, there is actually very little contradiction in its determination to export.  As long as the great majority of citizens remain uncommitted or silent, the government will move ahead with its own agenda. This is the burning question that I think about all the time now: Will enough ordinary citizens finally break their silence and take charge of their own future? It’s hard to know at this point.

Roger Pulvers thinks a volcano of anger could erupt….

It is a hopeful sign that many Japanese young people formally described as “..meek, mild and manageable”  have found  ” ..a renewed awareness in themselves and a belief that they should be doing something to redress the pain and ills their country is experiencing.” (Japan Times, Roger Pulvers, Oct. 8).  Pulvers, an author, playwright, theatre director and professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology believes that the country is ready for an eruption of major proportions.  “Conditions are Ripe for the Volcano of Japan’s Betrayed to Erupt Again” read the heading of his article, which traces a bit of the history of discontent and protest in Japan. Pulvers compares the current state of Japan to a volcano, appearing “..smooth, peaceful, uneventful and unchanging on the surface, while underneath growls the rough heat of anger…..The Japanese people may be placid and obsessed with decorum on the surface, but the cycle of generational change and the build-up of national anger-especially in those sections of society that feel betrayed-is never something to be taken lightly.”  He sees hope in the nation’s young people, who are skilled in social networking and bursting with potential energy.

It’s certainly long past time for college-age students in Japan to begin thinking independently and taking risks. I sent my own son back to the US for college (not that he wasn’t champing at the bit to be gone himself) precisely because I did not want him to living at home in his twenties and spending his part-time job money on electronic toys,

Handbag ad showing sweet and well-accesorized Japanese college girls.

cigarettes, or beer. I know that not all Japanese students do this when they hit the age of twenty, but plenty do.  I will send my daughter abroad as well, as she will be happier wearing jeans and t-shirts to school every day, rather than doing “oshare” with make-up and accessories, as Japanese college girls do. I want them both to live independently, make their own decisions, and bail themselves out of tricky situations rather than calling home.  Japanese college students might risk missing the last train home if they drink too much and forget the time, but otherwise they have fairly cushy lives, requiring very little in the way of sacrifice. This is because ( their parents will tell you)  they suffered terribly in high school studying day and night, and are now taking the reward they deserve. Whatever–it’s not the life I wanted for my own children, and I’m relieved that they made no fuss about studying abroad after living in small-town Japan since their Nursery School days.

Hopefully, Professor Pulvers is right, and the self-absorbtion and limited world view of the college-age students I see around me is morphing into something better and stronger.  It has been refreshing to read the blogs of college students who have volunteered in Tohoku since the quake; many of them have been deeply affected by the people they came in contact with and have returned again and again to continue helping. Most refreshing, of course, and most impressive, has been coming in contact with the hunger strikers–the four young people (plus one who joined halfway through) who camped outside of the METI offices in Kasumigaski for ten days, taking nothing but water and salt. They weren’t concerned with their dress or appearance, or worried that this time away from college might affect their future careers. They were angry, yes, but their anger was under control, and constructively channelled.  My daughter and I took a day to visit them, and I still marvel at their maturity, communication skills, and powers of determination. So I’ll end tonight’s post with a very well-made video clip of the four young people who represent hope for the country. Do take a look, and imagine things from their perspective. They do not want their generation involved in cleaning up a mess it did not make, but they will have no choice. The most they can do is attempt to make that burden lighter for their own children by fighting to bring the era of dependence on nuclear power to a close.