As radiation fears persist, ties unravel in society

January 04, 2012


A 4-year-old boy in Tokyo's Meguro Ward wears two flu masks and a raincoat every time he goes to his kindergarten. When he returns home, he is immediately told to shower and rinse his body with bottled water.

These measures are ordered by his 28-year-old mother, who remains fearful about radiation from the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant 230 kilometers away.

Her husband has told her to stop, and they once quarreled for three hours over the matter.

"I no longer tell him anything about my uneasiness. I don't think he will understand me," said the mother, adding that she wants to flee to western Japan with her son, leaving her husband behind.

Japan's worst nuclear disaster has caused a number of rifts in a society long known for its cohesion. The public no longer trusts the government. Families are arguing over protective measures against radiation exposure. Scientists are at odds over the actual dangers of the radioactive fallout.

Emotions are running so high that disputes are erupting even between groups on opposite sides of the country.

The divide in Japan started after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami knocked out power at the Fukushima plant, triggering the crisis and shattering the government's long-standing assurances that nuclear facilities in Japan were safe.

Radioactive materials were released into the atmosphere, especially when hydrogen explosions rocked buildings housing three of the reactors, two of which were later found to have suffered meltdowns.

The government had told the public that such an accident was impossible in Japan because of the layers of safeguard measures in place.

The government in December also announced that the situation at the Fukushima plant had been stabilized, and that efforts would increase to decontaminate affected areas and remove the mountains of debris created by the March 11 disaster.

But widespread anxieties about radioactive contamination have continued.

The mayor of Takeo in Saga Prefecture--1,000 km from the stricken plant--announced in late November that his city would accept some of the debris from the hard-hit prefectures in northeastern Japan.

The city received more than 1,000 e-mails and phone calls protesting the mayor's plan, most of them from outside the prefecture.

"You should protect the Kyushu region," said one of the protesters.

Some apparent anti-nuclear activists in the Tokyo metropolitan area used the Internet to call on others in remote regions to oppose the mayor's plan.

The mayor, who also received anonymous threats, retracted his decision several days later.

A Takeo municipal assembly member who worked in the stricken Tohoku region as a volunteer grumbled about the protesters.

"Why do people outside the prefecture have to meddle?" he said.

Takeo would have been the first local government in Kyushu to have accepted the rubble, including debris contaminated with low-level radiation.

Finding places to store the rubble and the contaminated soil is just one of the many difficulties facing governments in the disaster areas. But perhaps a bigger long-term problem is that things associated with just the name "Fukushima" have become dreaded and shunned in Japan.

J-Rap, a company in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, that sells rice and other farm produce, used to boast that the limited use of chemicals ensured its prodcuts were safe for consumption.

But its farm is located only 66 km from the nuclear plant.

Since the accident started, orders for J-Rap products have been halved.

The company noted that the radiation levels of rice and vegetables harvested in autumn were significantly lower than the safety standards set in Ukraine, site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The Ukainian standards are even more stringent than the ones in Japan, according to J-Rap.

But Toshihiko Ito, the company's 54-year-old president, said there are still no signs that customers will return in the near future.

"(Consumers) put on the brakes simply because the produce is from Fukushima Prefecture," Ito said.

A researcher of radiology says it is impossible to convince an entire population about certain aspects of radioactive contamination.

In a lecture he gave in Kyoto in late November, he touched on a bestseller by a noted scientist about the dangers of internal radiation exposure. The lecturer also showed a copy of the book, with a red cross on the cover, on the screen.

"In my opinion, the content of this book is wrong," he said.

But he says it would be futile to directly challenge the author.

"There are always people who cannot be convinced no matter what," he said. "It is impossible to persuade such people."

Yoshiko Okada, a 70-year-old resident in Tokyo's Suginami Ward, says the split over the current radiation scare reminds her of her mother, Akiko, who took part in a movement against nuclear weapons more than half a century ago.

Concerns about contaminated fish were heightened in Japan after it was reported that the No. 5 Fukuryu Maru fishing vessel had been exposed to radioactive fallout from U.S. hydrogen bomb testing at the Bikini Atoll in 1954.

To protect children, her mother and others became heavily involved in a signature-collecting campaign, which led to a nationwide movement against nuclear bombs.

Akiko often sat up late to work on the campaign, which angered her husband.

"Don't do such a foolish thing," he told her.

Not everyone around her mother supported the cause, either.

Okada says she thinks mothers are more sensitive to the radioactive contamination issue because they prepare meals for their families.

She also said people are justified in being skeptical of information concerning safety from the government, given its failure to prevent the serious nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture.

"If you feel scared, you should voice it," Okada said. "That is important."

Jun Sekizawa, 67, who has long assessed the health risks of radiation, said current anxieties in Japan will continue for years, no matter what data is offered.

At a study meeting in Miyagi Prefecture in early December, he tried to reassure participants that the radiation from the Fukushima plant was no reason to panic. It was one of more than 20 such study meetings he has held across the country.

"Even if there is low-level radiation present, its impact is negligible," he said. "Radiation also exists in the natural environment."

However, Sekizawa says scientific findings from experts will not necessarily lead the public to feel secure about the situation as new perceived risks are bound to arise.

"It is not the people's fault that they are upset by such risks," he said. "Specialists and local government officials should make efforts to convey to the public exactly what the risks are in a way that is easier for them to understand."

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A worker at J-Rap, a company selling farm produce, shows equipment to measure radiation levels in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A worker at J-Rap, a company selling farm produce, shows equipment to measure radiation levels in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • A worker at J-Rap, a company selling farm produce, shows equipment to measure radiation levels in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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