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Voices / Viewpoint

Japan, one year later

A native of a land hit hard by an earthquake and tsunami talks about life after a nuclear catastrophe

Chiho Kaneko, a permanent resident of the United States born in the Iwate prefecture, which is near Fukushima, has returned to visit family there a number of times since March 11, 2011. These words are adapted for print from a speech she delivered in Brattleboro at a ceremony to commemorate the first anniversary of the tsunami and the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.


A year ago, I woke up to the news of the massive earthquake in northeastern Japan. The ensuing days, weeks, and months have been an emotional roller-coaster ride as I have experienced anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, hopefulness, depression, gratitude.

I have traveled to Japan three times since last March and witnessed how people are coping with this new situation forced upon them.

In an instant, the tsunami carried away everything: lives, cars, houses, and the entire downtown. A year later, people are being tested for their resilience more than ever.

Even though rebuilding is happening slowly on the coast, it will be a long time before people can feel life is back to normal. For some, that day may never come. Life is so hard and painful sometimes.

But we must live on.

It was the love and compassion of their fellow humans that gave so much courage and hope to the communities destroyed by the tsunami. And that love came from outside Japan, too.

Of course, we have had our own natural disaster here in Vermont last year.

I am convinced that having a strong community is the key to our survival. Natural disasters happen no matter what, but having an intact community goes a long way in coping with the challenges of the aftermath.

You could say that an intact community can actually prevent huge disasters from happening. Some disasters are exacerbated by man-made factors, but some of those factors can be eliminated if the soundness of the community is the collective priority.

* * *

The southern part of Iwate is about 120 miles north of Fukushima Daiichi. My sister and her family live in this area, in Oshu City. My parents live in Morioka City, about 156 miles away.

Both cities are inland, so they were not affected by the tsunami directly. However, my sister’s city is one of the radiation hotspots in my prefecture.

My brother-in-law is an elementary school teacher, and the soil of his school’s ground was scraped and removed last summer in an effort to reduce the radiation level.

Oshu City is famous for its brand of Maesawa beef, but that product was banned from the market from July to August after some feed hay was found to contain a high level of cesium.

Last month, dried shiitake mushrooms from my sister’s region joined the list of banned agricultural products.

And just the other day, Iwate prefecture conducted urine testing of some 3-to-15-year-olds. The number of testing slots was limited, but the government was inundated by the applications from parents who are concerned about internal radiation exposure of their children.

Of 132 samples tested, including 36 samples from my sister’s city, 119 samples — 90 percent of all samples — contained the radioactive isotopes cesium-134 and cesium-137.

If you believe as I do that any amount of radioactivity in one’s body, especially in children’s, is unnatural and therefore unacceptable, you would understand how serious this is.

On Feb. 26, I saw my sister in Morioka City. She, her husband, and her children — my 11-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew — all looked great.

There hasn’t been much change in their lives. My sister told me that although some families moved out of her community due to the radiation concern, she has concluded that worrying about radiation is more detrimental to the family’s well-being.

Her family’s food comes mostly from local sources, including her mother-in-law’s garden, and I sense that she is trying to balance many factors: concern about her young children’s health, responsibility to behave calmly and properly as a parent and as a schoolteacher, physical and economic feasibility of sourcing food from afar, and sensitivity toward local farmers who would go out of business if consumers reject their products based on radiation data or — worse — out of speculative fear.

During my three-week stay in Morioka, I found myself unable to express my concern about the food put in front of me by others. It was partially an act of solidarity.

But it was also due to confusing and conflicting information about what is safe and what is not. Or simply due to lack of information. You don’t know how badly contaminated your food is until you test it.

And most people don’t even want to know. It is a form of coping, I suppose.

I took small comfort in knowing that at least the seaweed I was eating had been harvested before the Fukushima Daiichi accidents. It’s not that easy for someone like me who is in the area temporarily, who has a place to return, to openly express ambivalence about one’s food.

* * *

An unexpected thing happened just a day before I left. My second cousin, a dairy farmer in his sixties, visited my parents. He brought us as gifts a bag of his own rice and a two-quart bottle of fresh unpasteurized milk from his cows.

While we were chatting over coffee, I politely observed, “So, you must be feeling relieved that you are exempt from the turmoil of cesium-contaminated grass and hay, since you are farther north of Morioka.”

He replied, “Well, in fact it’s in our grass, too.”

I didn’t know what to say, and I just stared at him.

He continued, “We test the milk twice a month, and so far, the radiation level in the milk is below the government-set temporary limit. But come April, the limit will be lowered, and who knows what will happen?”

“I have to till in the soil of the grazing field and sow new grass seeds there this year,” he added. That means he will have to buy feed instead of letting his herd on his pasture this year.

What about next year?

This is but a very small example of what’s happening in Japan. As you can imagine, the situation is a lot worse in Fukushima.

* * *

It’s said that 100,000 people are displaced in Fukushima. While some of them are temporarily living in other towns within Fukushima, an estimated 60,000 people left, including many women with small children whose husbands chose to stay for work.

That means they maintain two households. The family is united maybe two weekends a month. As the separation prolongs, stress and fatigue mount.

What’s worse, in many cases these women are considered voluntary evacuees, with not much support from the government. They are constantly pressured from their husbands, their in-laws, or their friends to return home.

A huge gap is created between people who remain and people who leave. Mothers who have left want to protect their children, but they feel guilty for breaking the unity of the community and family. They feel guilty for stigmatizing their own hometowns. They feel guilty for being perceived that they have the financial means to relocate on their own, even thought that’s not always the case.

Some mothers chose to stay, and they, too, struggle with a different kind of guilt — a guilt that they are putting their children at risk. They suffer now, and they will probably suffer for the rest of their lives.

There are many cities and towns outside of the evacuation zones, where radiation levels are several times higher than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “dose limit for individual members of public.”

Among those cities is Fukushima City, the capital of Fukushima prefecture whose population exceeds 280,000.

So is Nihonmatsu City, the sister city of Hanover, N.H.

And so is Koriyama City, hometown of Keiko Kokubun, a Salisbury, Vt. resident who returned recently for the first time since the disaster. Her initial emails to me upon arrival revealed so much conflict within herself.

Keiko, who has been one of the most steadfast voices against nuclear power over the past six months, found herself overwhelmed by the social pressure to keep quiet about her fear of radiation and the anger she feels towards the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Keiko eventually she posted some of her observations around the anniversary on her blog.

* * *

Most people in Japan would agree that the government has been trying to cover up the facts and downplay the seriousness of what’s going on at the Fukushima Daiichi.

However, some choose to cling to the more optimistic evaluation of the radiation levels in the air, soil, water, or food. Even some people from the most contaminated areas hold out hopes of returning to their homes soon — say, within two years.

These rosy views go hand in hand with the government’s and TEPCO’s desire to get out of the responsibility.

We must keep our eyes open to the reality of a nuclear disaster. Here are some of the facts.

In the village of Iitate, or as far as in the city of Date, 31 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi, dairy farmers are experiencing a sudden surge of miscarriages and stillbirths of their herds since last year’s reactor accidents.

In the town of Namie, now part of the no-go zone, 125 people died from the tsunami. A firefighter there is still tormented by his not having been able to rescue at least some of the people who were still alive under the debris. He heard their voices in the dark during the night of March 11. By the next morning, his mission was changed from search-and-rescue to assisting the emergency evacuation, and he had no choice but to abandon the people under the debris.

The enormous amount of debris in northeastern Japan needs to be either buried or incinerated. However, very few municipalities throughout Japan have agreed to accept such debris. Many citizens oppose incineration in their backyard, because they fear it might send radioactive materials into their air.

People are advised to be mindful of the provenance of compost and potting soil sold in stores. Deciduous tree leaves and wood bark from the north contain higher levels of cesium. Organic farmers in the north are confronted with the decision of whether to use their own compost this spring.

During the first six months since last March, the number of childbirths in Fukushima declined by 20 percent compared to the previous year. This is primarily due to the fact that women are afraid of bringing their newborn babies to the radioactive environment; many of them are opting to give birth elsewhere at their own expense. Many young Fukushima women, including high-school girls, feel a sense of resignation that they should never have children.

* * *

A tsunami wipes out towns in an instant; a nuclear disaster, on the other hand, is hard to see at first. You cannot see radioactive particles. You cannot smell them, nor can you taste them.

And yet, these particles quietly seep into all the nooks and crannies of your life. They descend on your mind. They sow seeds of discord among family members. They destroy communities.

Without including the physical or environmental impact, the damage that a nuclear disaster causes is vast. And it lasts for a long time.

While I was in Japan, I was disturbed by how some people still seemed to accept nuclear power as a necessary evil of the modern time. They cited a steady supply of electricity, jobs, money for the local towns.

Furthermore, I was disturbed by how victims fight against one another rather than directing their anger to the true cause.

Some say this infighting is the result of the government propaganda.

It’s true. We almost never see or hear someone in the government call nuclear power “dangerous” or “harmful.” For many decades, the Japanese government has kept saying how safe nuclear technology is.

Today, the Japanese government keeps telling us that the level of radiation we are exposed to right now is safe. People are skeptical of what the government says, but it takes a lot of energy to counter the prevailing force.

When I was in Japan, I felt so helpless.

Then I read a book by the philosopher and professor Tetsuya Takahashi.

“The system of nuclear power cannot exist without assuming the sacrifice of some,” he said. “The sacrifice includes: people who mine uranium while risking exposure; communities who house nuclear power plants; and workers at nuclear power plants who subject themselves to the risk of exposure each day. They are all sacrificed for the sake of corporate profit and people in the distant communities who use the electricity.”

Professor Takahashi continued:

“If you think human prosperity requires certain sacrifice, I would like to ask you, then, who decides to sacrifice whom? Who has the right to make that decision? Do you have the courage to be the sacrifice yourself?

“What we have to do now is to envision and to work to create the society free of sacrifice. We have to find ways to abandon the system of sacrifice, which is nuclear power.”

He has articulated what I had been feeling.

Having witnessed the faces and nuances of sacrifice in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi accidents, I feel so clear in my mind that we have made a mistake by allowing nuclear power to exist. Besides, nuclear power has the potential to destroy — and therefore sacrifice — all of us and everything in the world.

I want to emphasize that whether in Japan or in the United States, it is our fellow humans who work at nuclear power plants. They are our neighbors and friends, and they are our families. It is the responsibility of each of us to redesign and build a community where no one is sacrificed.

I would like to believe that the soundness of our community is our collective priority, because being part of a healthy and intact community is crucial for our survival in this ever-changing world. It is our only hope.

I do not want to lose sight of this hope.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #144 (Wednesday, March 21, 2012).

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