June 2011

The Limits of Gaman    June 10, 2011

“Gaman” (perseverance, patience, endurance) is a word that really defies English translation. It’s almost a lifestyle in itself.  It is not just a matter of holding firm and hanging tough through hard times. It often can become a game of gaman kurabe (an endurance contest) that can defy rational limits. It can push one past logic into a place where gaman, once a virtue, can become an oppressive mechanism for keeping people in line and obscuring reality and rational thought. There really aren’t any rules or limits in a game of gaman kurabe. When is enough enough? When is it okay to surrender? When does gaman become delusion and the taunting of others who don’t want to play anymore? In Fukushima, we are beginning to see the downside of gaman, the limits of gaman in action.

NHK’s morning show Asaichi (weekdays, 8:15 a.m.) has become one of the most popular informational talk shows on Japanese TV and with good reason. It’s warm, cheerful and frank hosts were developing quite a following before March 11. Since then, the show has become even more popular. It’s one of the few spots on Japanese television consistently taking a deeper look at the everyday problems and fears of real people in post 3/11 Japan. On June 6, the theme was “Mothers’ Decisions.” Profiles of several Fukushima mothers showed the tough decisions they have had to make about protecting their children from radiation while still trying to preserve their family and community ties.  And they have had to do this while being bombarded with conflicting expert opinions and a lack of authoritative data on questions like: just how much radiation is there, how much are their children absorbing, and how long will they have to keep them indoors.

While many families with small children have decided to stay behind, other mothers have decided on temporary evacuation. The show reported Fukushima Prefecture has already lost 10,000 residents who have decided to evacuate, at least for a while, to other prefectures. But beyond the 30 km evacuation zone, the government has been wishy washy on whether other Fukushima residents with small children living in areas where radiation levels are abnormally high should also be evacuated. Basically, these people have been left to make their own decisions on relocation, using their own discretion and their own money. After generations of community and group think, people are supposed to become independent thinkers overnight. Some are up to the challenge of going. Others are stubbornly determined to stay. Everyone has to deal with the consequences of their decisions.

The NHK program talked to a mother of three from Iwaki City, who has temporarily evacuated to Tokyo. The last straw for her was when a particularly large aftershock struck while her husband was at work. It was raining and lightening outside and she had to evacuate with three small children alone. The power was out too so the road crossing lights weren’t working. Her husband has stayed behind and now wants them to come home. He hears other children in the area playing outside and is beginning to have second thoughts about how long they should be gone. Another family with two small girls evacuated for a few weeks. They have now returned but they keep their kids inside all the time and see them getting increasingly stressed. A single mother has sent her 8-year old son alone to stay at a Tokyo child care facility. A pharmacist, her work commitments mean she can only come visit once a month. She is torn between worrying about the stress she has caused him but also feeling his long-term health is more important.

One woman, who evacuated her children to her parents’ home in another prefecture, said she felt trapped. She had been getting along well with her in-laws but now cracks had appeared in the relationship. Another woman appeared in the program with her back to the camera. She did not want to be filmed as she commutes between an evacuation center and Tokyo, trying to keep others from knowing she has really left. People worry about being shunned by those staying behind and being labeled as scaredy cats or worry warts. Some mothers are afraid their children might be teased when they return. Friction and ostracism can make those who leave feel guilty that they have not persevered enough (gaman taranai ) and that evacuating equals running away.  Even if the radiation should miraculously disappear tomorrow, in some conservative communities, such invisible ostracism can have a half life longer than cesium.

The Asaichi hosts pointed out there is no absolute right or wrong decision just what is the right decision for one’s own family and this should be accepted but reality is more layered and complicated. No sooner had they finished the report than faxes started arriving. One Iwaki resident said she feels for the mother of three’s dilemma and would get out too if she could. But this was quickly followed by a fax from a woman complaining the reportage made the region look miserable and pitiful and she really wishes NHK would stop airing such reports. And then it was time for Asaichi to move on to its next topic–news plutonium was found 1.7km outside the Fukushima plant in what was once a residential area.

There are pressures to go and pressures to stay.  Much of this added angst might have been avoided had the government taken straightforward action providing clear information and guidance early on or even announced a mandatory evacuation of mothers and children as some have urged. The only bright spot is that more parents are banding together in Fukushima and other parts of eastern Japan to demand more action and answers and do their own measurements. While some people stubbornly refuse to leave areas with radiation readings resembling Chernobyl, those who are choosing to evacuate seem to be finding more and more experts and evidence to back up their decisions. The June 18 issue of Shukan Gendai reports Kyoto Seika University Professor Hiroaki Hosokawa is urging that some areas of Fukushima City and Koriyama City should also be evacuated. Even the government is finally talking about expanding the evacuation area. While this past week, a TV Asahi program filmed a woman in her Minami Soma home in the hills outside the 30 km exclusion zone. The gutters on her house were registering 10 microsieverts and the open drain pipe behind the house carrying this run-off water was measuring 250 microsieverts. The TV Asahi reporter had their expert of the day with them but noone mentioned the obvious–that the dripping water was being absorbed directly into the ground. So much information. So much misinformation. So much unprocessed information. So many decisions to be made, so little guidance.


The June 18 issue of Shukan Gendai also had a story on the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant, just 70 km from Sapporo. The magazine talked to Setsuo Fujiwara, 62, an engineer with a 40-year career in the nuclear industry. Until March 2010, he worked as a safety inspector for the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES). His problems began when he was assigned to do a two-day inspection of the moderator temperature coefficient of the newly completed No. 3 reactor at the Tomari plant in March 2009. The equipment failed the first day’s test but got a conditional pass on the second day. Fujiwara recorded these results in his report and was later ordered by a supervisor to alter the report of the first day’s test. When he refused to do so, his rank and salary were lowered.  When he came up for reappointment last year, his employment was terminated while all 28 other employees in similar positions were rehired. Having reached the limits of gaman, he is now suing his former employer for reinstatement. He emphasizes future nuclear accidents can’t be prevented until the whole system of safety inspections is revised.  Shukan Gendai notes JNES, which employs 426 people, was set up in 2003 and functions as an “amakudari” (post-retirement career) destination for top bureaucrats from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

It also looks like Hokkaido will be an even more popular travel destination than usual this summer. The local TV news is reporting Sapporo rental mansions are filling up quickly with long-stay reservations from Tokyoites eager to escape their sultry city heat and power cuts for Sapporo, where the evenings are cool and the escalators are still running. This summer, the ski resort of Niseko is also expecting an influx of Tokyo IT companies temporarily moving their offices to luxurious ski resort condos. Tokyo in the summer of 2011 promises to challenge the limits of gaman and a lot of people just don’t want to play the game anymore.

Change in the Air  June 23, 2011

It is hard to be positive in a world where meltdowns come in triplicate but, while the politicians dither in the Diet and TEPCO tries to quell its runaway reactors, there are a few positive signs this week. Slowly, people are becoming more vocal, more independent and more active in organizing to work for the change they want. Achieving it may still be a long way off, but there is a scent of change in the air (alongside still unspecified amounts of radiation).

Last weekend, one TV documentary program reported on some Tokyo-Yokohama area families who had moved to the remote Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Pref. to get their children as far away from the radiation as possible. At the other extreme, many Fukushima families, determined to remain in their homes as long as possible, are trying to clean up school grounds and buildings hoping, perhaps far too optimistically, to reduce radiation levels. In between, many people in eastern Japan are organizing to demand their school districts and local governments do more thorough measurements near ground level or are doing the measurements themselves.  Outside my local supermarket here in Hokkaido last weekend, women were distributing anti-Tomari Nuclear Power Plant leaflets. They were protesting plans for MOX fuel (a plutonium and uranium mix) at Tomari’s No. 3 reactor. This was scheduled for 2012 but is now on hold. The pamphlets read: “now is the time for change,” “stop gempatsu (nuclear power) and “building a nuclear power plant is like building a condo without a toilet.”

At the end of May, Fuji Television did a survey that found 81 percent of those polled no longer trusted government information on the Fukushima disaster. The Asahi newspaper took a survey on June 11 and 12 that showed 74 percent of the respondents were in favor of phasing out nuclear power. Back in April, a previous Asahi survey showed 50 percent still supported nuclear power. However, that was before people began to discover radiation “hot spots,” before green tea grown 400 miles away became contaminated, before people officially knew three meltdowns had occurred and before the news 38,000 children in Fukushima will be issued dosimeters.

The last six weeks have seen a considerable shift in public opinion on nuclear power. It was reported June 19 that Studio Ghibli, workplace of animation world genius Hayao Miyazaki, now has an anti-nuclear banner on its roof.  Last week, the famous author Haruki Murakami spoke out against nuclear power while receiving an award in Spain. A group of 232 shareholders in Tohoku Electric Power Co. have proposed that the utility give up nuclear power generation and investment in nuclear fuel reprocessing. The topic is expected to come up at their  general shareholders meeting June 29. (Meanwhile, the general meeting of TEPCO shareholders is scheduled for June 28.)

Even the media is gradually changing. In the past, there has been a taboo against even acknowledging there is a taboo towards anti-nuclear topics in the Japanese media. Now the cracks in that protective veneer are growing very obvious. In the last week, I have seen both a TV political discussion program and weekly magazine comments suggesting it is time for Japan to have a national referendum on the nuclear power issue as Italy did. The Italian vote was widely reported in Japan but June 11, 2011 anti-nuclear demonstrations inside Japan (at over 100 sites nationwide) were not. Over 20,000 people gathered in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district for the June 11 demonstration, many of them mothers and children. They got barely a mention in the Japanese media except for the TBS network’s documentary show “Hodo Tokushu,” which happened to be on air at the time and had a reporter on the scene. One of the show’s in-studio commentators stated that they really should begin covering the anti-nuclear movement more. Now that was a breakthrough. My favorite scene from the little bit of coverage TBS did give us that day was a little girl of 6 or 7 marching with her mother and carrying a simple sign that seemed to sum up many people’s emotions: “Byebye gempatsu.”

Hello, workers’ rights. NHK’s excellent morning show Asaichi(weekdays, 8:15 a.m.) scored another success this week in its efforts to provide viewers with the kind of real information necessary to navigate the current confusion. On their June 20 show, Asaichi reported on how the post-quake economic crunch is hitting employees in locations far removed from the disaster sites. They invited viewers to fax in questions for their in-studio guest–a lawyer specializing in labor law. He made it clear that knowledge and not giving in to the bosses too easily are  keys to protecting one’s rights as a worker.

Many of the repercussions businesses have felt since March 11 are very real but some people, now recovering from their initial post-quake shock, are also beginning to wonder if some employers took advantage of the disaster to streamline their staff and costs. The first viewer question concerned staff who were asked to agree to a wage reduction from 900 to 800 yen an hour right after the quake. Now, three months later, business is back to normal but  their wages are not. When the boss proposed the wage cut, the staff grudgingly said “wakarimashita” (I understand). The lawyer explained that once staff agreed to a wage reduction their road to recourse was pretty much closed. They had given their consent. Employees were advised to take their time and think things over carefully before using the old “W” word. (The problem, of course, is that in Japanese wakarimashita rolls off the tongue with amazing ease in almost any situation and, depending on nuance and context, it can mean anything from “Yes, I agree” to “Yeah, I heard you already (but don’t necessarily agree).”) The same goes for letters of resignation. Even if one is bullied, cajoled or pushed into writing a letter of resignation, if you do so, it is usually interpreted as resigning of one’s own free will.

The good news is that in most disputes with employers, workers have up to two years to pursue their case.  Some viewers asked what to do when a company stops paying wages. If the company still exists, they were advised to form a union. It only takes two people to establish a union in Japan. Individuals can find it difficult to get companies to negotiate with them but if there is a union, the Labor Union Law requires companies to negotiate.  On April 14, a Shinsai Union was formed to help deal with disaster-related cases.

If one’s company goes bankrupt, workers should consult the nearest Rodo Kijun Kantokusho (Labor Standards Inspection Office) for more information and advice. (In English, see: http://www.mhlw.go.jp/new-info/kobetu/roudou/gyousei/kantoku/dl/040330-3.pdf). The lawyer explained there’s a government program that will usually compensate workers for 80 percent of the wages they are owed (but not bonuses).  Thus, it is important to try to get a miharai shoko shomeisho (paper showing how much is owed) from the company if possible. In some cases, employees furloughed by their companies also may be able to get compensation equivalent to up to 60 percent of their salaries. However, only those who know about these government programs, and apply for them, can take advantage of them.  Knowledge is everything and Asaichi is doing a good job trying to spread that knowledge.

Copyright 2011