Listen to the Children

This past week, Japanese television has been full of programs marking the six month anniversary of the triple disasters of March 11, 2011–the megaquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdowns.  On the September 11 edition of the variety show “Tetsuwan DASH,”TOKIO’s Tatsuya Yamaguchi made a nostalgic journey back to the DASH Mura farm (See: Ostriches of Fukushima, April 28) located in Namie-machi, Fukushima Prefecture.The little farm sits inside the exclusion zone and Yamaguchi was eager to see how it has fared. (So was the public. The program was the top-rating variety show on TV last week.)  It was a short homecoming. Yamaguchi travelled with a group of scientists studying the ability of sunflowers to absorb cesium. (This week, it was announced it is now clear sunflowers are not a potential cure for cesium pollution afterall.) The researchers warned they could stay no longer than two hours. Radiation readings were higher than expected. Their Geiger counters measured 10 microsieverts at the gate, 15 in the rice paddy and a whopping 18.3 microsieverts in the meadow where the goat used to graze.  Traipsing about the farm decked out in an anti-radiation suit and breathing device, Yamaguchi was a vivid reminder of Japan’s new realities. So was Monta Mino on his Sept. 14 morning show where he reported the Japan Consumer Information Center received 391 complaints in July from unhappy purchasers of faulty Geiger counters.

On September 10, Akira Ikegami, the nation’s most erudite TV news specialist, hosted a four-hour special that traced the roots of Japan’s involvement in nuclear power back to 1954, just nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima. Ikegami claims the Shigeru Yoshida government was spurred on by the United States’ “peaceful use of atomic energy” argument and a young Diet member named Yasuhiro Nakasone, who later went on to become a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader and the prime minister from 1982-1987. On September 15, 2011, Nakasone, now 93, was interviewed by NHK’s “News Nine” and he still felt nuclear power was necessary for Japan.  It makes one wonder how many prefectures will have to be polluted and how many livelihoods destroyed before the powers-that-be no longer deem nuclear power necessary for Japan?

The six month anniversary of the disaster also feels like the appropriate time to indefinitely suspend this section of the blog. I’m going to stop posting articles related to Japan’s March 11 disasters. I really haven’t had the heart for it lately. It’s getting more difficult to maintain perspective, harder to understand what’s going on and even harder to accept it. It’s time for a rest, new writing projects and an attempt to get back to the rhythms of normal life.  Despite a half year of observing and reading as much as I can in English and Japanese–television, newspapers, weekly magazines, websites, blogs and government statistics–the confusion and the questions only grow. So many questions, so few clear answers.

Q. Are my favorite English-language websites over-exaggerating the problems at Fukushima or is the mainstream Japanese media under-reporting them? Perhaps a little of both but I suspect it’s mostly the latter. The print media are chasing many facets of the story but Japanese TV, despite an excellent special now and then, has been carefully choosing its words, not wanting to cross lines that will offend the people of Fukushima or people in power in Tokyo. In so doing, the truth becomes watered down and the constant din of competing and conflicting messages leaves the head numb after a while, jolted to attention only by the latest aftershock. For all of Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, is still shaking.The occasional strong tremor reminds us that six months later nothing is really over–not the quakes and not Fukushima. The one thing the media has been excessively frank about is that everyone has to be prepared for another major quake at any time, anywhere.

Q. What has happened to Japanese television’s in-depth coverage of the anti-nuclear movement? Few of their demonstrations, their leaders or their arguments make it onto our TV screens. This week, four young people (age 19-22) are conducting a 10-day hunger strike from Sept. 11-21 in the Tokyo heat outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).  There has been no national TV coverage of the event but complete details (including videos of the hunger strikers explaining their motives) are available at <>.  Some of the more interesting Fukushima reporting of late has come from an unlikely source—a Kansai comedy duo called “Oshidori Mako and Ken” from the Yoshimoto Kogyo agency. They’ve been delving into the issues, monitoring TEPCO press conferences and producing an informative Japanese-language blog at <>.

Q. The new media catchphrase is “josen” (clean-up and decontamination). (In some communities, residents without masks or protective gear are volunteering to dig up the toxic soil themselves.) The “josen” concept is being pitched to the public as a way to give people their lives back, a hope upon which to cling but is it really possible? If clean-up were really a valid alternative, why is Chernobyl still off limits 25 years later? How can Fukushima be different? Or, like planting sunflowers, will it just prove to be a false hope? These are questions that seldom get asked on TV.

Q. How thoroughly is food being checked and tested and what elements are the authorities testing for? Shopping is no longer fun. Last week, a major Sapporo department store held a Fukushima Food Festival but the cameras showed only a handful of customers milling around in the background as a local TV announcer gushed on cheerfully and nibbled a Fukushima peach. Who could blame the wary shoppers?  Who knows what is really safe anymore?  Suddenly food from the southern hemisphere is high on my list–Chilean salmon, Argentinian shrimp, lamb and green tea from Australia.

Q. Why does the media seldom emphasize that our national chemistry studies are still a work in progress? We are only slowly working our way through the periodic table of elements.  In the first days after the Fukushima disaster, all the media talked about was iodine 131 with a half life of 8 or 9 days. That sounded manageable. It sounded like something with which this nation, raised on “gaman” (perseverence) and “gambari” (strenuous efforts),” could cope. Then, we gradually discovered something called cesium and people began to notice it has a half life of about 30 years. Hmmm…less manageable but still with gaman and gambari, perhaps…  We are only now occasionally being taught about plutonium with a half life of 24,000 years, give or take a hundred.  And if that were not depressing enough, neptunium, americium, strontium and a host of others “ums” are all waiting in the wings for their turn on stage.

Q. And yet despite all this, where does the nation’s stoic calm come from? I’m constantly awed and impressed by how serenely people go about their daily lives and how ordinary people keep the wheels of society moving smoothly. The downside of this admirable virtue is that sometimes the resolve seems infuriatingly misdirected and naive.  In August, for example, was it really wise for Fukushima’s Hanawa-machi, just 70 km from the Daiichi plant, to carry on as usual with its 4th annual Fukushima Doro (Mud) Festival, an event that involved slipping and sliding about playing volleyball in a muddy field? And one’s heart aches for the children of Fukushima. How long will adults make them live and play in heightened radiation areas, wearing dosimeters to school each day? How can anyone condone a “new normal” in which mothers have to chide: now don’t forget your handkerchief, your backpack, your indoor shoes, your mask and your dosimeter.

Q. What’s going on at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant?  Who knows? We do get daily press conferences but little information on the brave people struggling to get the plant under control. The Government of Spain honored the heroes of Fukushima with an award but these courageous workers are getting very little attention at home. Seldom do we hear anything about them on Japanese TV and, in this way, an important part of the story goes untold.

Q. Why did Hokkaido’s lady governor Harumi Takahashi approve the resumption of commercial operation of the third reactor at Hokkaido’s Tomari Nuclear Power Plant on August 17?  An HTB television survey shows the majority of the population are against it. The survey asked simply: do we need nuclear power? Sixty percent answered “no” and only 17 percent “yes.”  Hokkaido’s wide open spaces offer good prospects for solar, wind and even snow power. (A system that stores winter snow for summer air cooling is already in use in some Hokkaido buildings.).  Unlike Tokyo residents, even now, with only one of Tomari’s three reactors on line, Hokkaido has not needed to consider any serious conservation measures.

Takahashi’s decision was symbolic too.  It made Tomari’s No. 3 reactor the first in the nation to resume operation after the 3/11 disaster. The “datsu genpatsu” dream of more quickly moving Japan away from nuclear power seems to have departed with former Prime Minister Kan. Takahashi’s decision was not entirely unexpected. Born in Toyama Prefecture and the granddaughter of a former Toyama Prefecture governor, she was formerly a METI bureaucrat who did not arrive in Hokkaido until 2001. (Gee, even I’ve lived in Hokkaido longer than that.) In 2003, she ran for governor with the backing of the LDP and won. The government of new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda seems likely to allow those nuclear reactors now in operation to live out their lives. For Hokkaido, that means the reactors would shut down in 2029, 2031 and 2049 respectively.  Will our luck hold out that long?

Q. When PM Noda (who now has a blog in English <>) tried to give his first major address to the Diet on Sept. 13, he was almost drowned out by opposition hecklers; but can the politicians, especially the LDP, really afford to heckle? Afterall, the LDP ruled, almost uninterrupted, for over 50 years. Noda’s Minshuto Party are just the new guys on the block, so to speak. Neither the LDP nor Minshuto have distinguished themselves these last six months with their power games, verbal attacks and counter attacks. Many politicians seem strangely insulated from the real world and the “new normal” beyond the Diet doors and their behavior appalls voters. With their intransience, heckling and bickering, the legislators have been acting….well…like children. Ironically, it is the children who are acting like adults.

So many questions and the only clear answer, the only possible solution, is to concentrate on the nation’s children.  The only way out of this mess that the 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90-somethings have created has to be concerted, immediate efforts to do what is best to protect the health of the children and to preserve as much of the archipelago for their generation as possible. It will require some tough, perhaps unpopular, decisions on how to best contain the spread of the radiation to other prefectures and strict, enforceable rules to limit contamination of the food chain and other products. Government needs to show real leadership on this and then move over and give the children a chance. The voices of the hunger-striking young people outside METI and the Fukushima children addressing the government in the video below <> are far more eloquent and profound than anything we’ve heard coming out of the Diet debates this year.  Japan’s greatest need now is to listen to the children and let them decide their own future. If the politicians have the courage and determination to do that, there may finally be hope on the horizon.

And now, because this is Japan, I leave you with a musical interlude from one of Japan’s many all-girl teen idol groups. This one–Seifuku Kojo Iinkai–has been around (with an ever-changing cast of young members) since the 1990s although they are having trouble getting attention for their latest song.  It’s called Datsu Datsu Genpatsu and it’s rather catchy. <>