POINT OF VIEW/ Katsuno Onozawa: Government's lethargic response stresses Fukushima mothers

April 30, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

As concern over nuclear accidents and radiation lessens, people have begun to go so far as to talk about restarting idle reactors.

Now, in the third year since the onset of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, an event we were told would change our values and the way we live, there are still evacuees who cannot return home.

Is concern over nuclear accidents already fading away? Or are people consciously trying to forget?

The Asahi Shimbun asked Katsuno Onozawa, a doctor of psychosomatic medicine, who has taken part in children's health consultations in Fukushima Prefecture.

* * *

I regularly join children's health consultations organized in Fukushima, Koriyama and other cities by a group of physicians gathered from across the country at the behest of a Fukushima NPO (nonprofit organization).

What shocked me the first time I participated in January of last year was the gap between what the newspapers and TV news were reporting and the reality in Fukushima as attested to by the mothers who came for consultations.

Wanting to protect their children from radiation, they pleaded with the prefectural and city governments and local doctors, but none would take their side.

They just said things like, "It's safe. You don't have to take any special action. There are lots of radiation-phobia mothers, and we can't deal with them all."

They worry that they have to continue living amid high radiation levels due to their inability to evacuate the prefecture for financial or other reasons.

But even other mothers said things to them such as, "The prefecture and city say it's safe, so it's OK," and, "It's strange of you to express alarm, even though you're staying." Even spouses differed, with husbands telling their wives they worry too much.

These women are isolated in their communities and families as they conceal their discomfort. Many reproach themselves, thinking, "Maybe I'm the one who's strange," and become depressed.

It seemed they were meeting disapproval simply for coming to the consultations. I was at a loss for words because of these mothers' situation, and I could not sleep at night because I was so enraged at the government's heartless response.

Since soon after the nuclear accident, the national government and industry experts have repeatedly said that radiation levels are not high enough to immediately affect one's health.

Thinking they could not know what effects it would have in the future because of the example of the Chernobyl disaster, mothers desperately gathered information and pleaded for the authorities to prepare.

But all the experts did was say, "It's safe so you don't need (radiation) checks, and we do not recommend evacuating the prefecture."

Yet the children were exhibiting a range of symptoms including sore throats, nosebleeds, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches and rashes. The most dangerous thing is to write off causes of illness as psychosocial factors with statements like, "Your child's stress comes from not being able to go outdoors" and that a "mother worrying will make her child sick."

When I talk with mothers coming for consultations lately, it seems more of them are exhausted and trying to maintain their psychological balance by forcing themselves to think, "There's nothing I can do," "This, too, is fate" and "It's easier on my mind to forget about the radiation and just live my life." Perhaps because their feeling of powerlessness is unchanged despite all their pleas.

The same thing is happening in Tokyo, too. At the request of parents and guardians, the school my child attends is still being careful about where school lunch ingredients are made, and they invite radiation experts to give talks to the children on ways to protect the body from radiation. But schools like this have become the minority.

If we say "it's safe" despite the risks only to erase fears, then we simply leave in place the danger that defenseless children may be contaminated.

I hope people will take what the government and media say with a grain of salt and will not stop thinking and acting for themselves.

***

Katsuno Onozawa, born in 1965, earned a degree in women's health from Melbourne University Graduate School in 1996. She conducted research for the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and now works at a Tokyo clinic.

(This article is based on an interview by Eiji Yamaguchi.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Katsuno Onozawa (Eiji Yamaguchi)

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