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