The kids are not alright

Nuclear Energy is the Energy of a Bright Future
Banner over a street in Futaba near the
Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant
As the first anniversary of the March 11, 2011 disaster approaches, foreign journalists with little knowledge of Japan have started to trot out the standard clichés about the Japanese resilience, patience and peaceful cooperation that has enabled them to recover quickly from their enormous triple tragedy. There is certainly some truth in such reporting, but it can also be condescending and offensive to suggest that the Japanese are not like any other people would be after such events; that is, traumatized, devastated and torn asunder. The list below is a brief description of some the scars and divisions that are yet to heal.

1. Rebuilding coastal towns

The towns destroyed by the tsunami could be rebuilt, but the question is whether they should be. Many of the towns were in decline before the tsunami, with populations that lacked young people. It has been politically popular for national politicians to promise reconstruction, and many influential construction companies are doing all they can to make the government take on more deficit financing to launch a construction boom. Yet people outside the affected areas question the wisdom of rebuilding, and young people from the ruined towns say they won’t return anyway. The young are pitted against the old.

2. Returning to poisoned land

The same divide between young and old has happened in towns that had to be evacuated because of radioactive fallout. The national government has promised to decontaminate the “lightly” contaminated areas and bring people back as soon as possible, but the residents are not convinced that decontamination is going to work, and of course, no one can prove to them what level of contamination will be no danger to their health. Even if it were safe to live in these towns, they will suffer from stigma and so will go into economic decline. As with the coastal towns destroyed by the tsunami, the old want to stay and the young want to leave. But if they leave they know they will face discrimination as being victims of radiation.

3. The suffering of the TEPCO rank and file

Some of the most horrific suffering has been experienced by the TEPCO employees and contractors who stayed at the ruined power plant after the earthquake. One could choose to show no pity for them for having taken the dirty money from the nuclear industry for so many years, but the same could be said of every citizen who failed to oppose nuclear power since its early days. I find it difficult to be cold-hearted toward the workers who were below the upper management level.
Some of the TECPCO workers in Fukushima lost their homes and family members but stayed on the job during the crisis. An excellent interview with a  psychiatrist in Der Spiegel describes the woeful lack of support these traumatized heroes have received in the last year. After losing their homes, they faced discrimination in housing, often finding that apartment managers had posted signs saying, “TEPCO people not welcome.” They have endured miserable working conditions with inadequate medical and psychological care.

4. Let’s all share the pain: redistributing radionuclides far and wide

Another divide has occurred over the removal of tsunami debris. It is an economic boon to the waste removal industry, as are the opportunities in reconstruction and decontamination, but much of it is low-level radioactive waste. If it is burned in modern, well-equipped incinerators in large cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, most of the radionuclides can be filtered out and concentrated in the ash, then the ash can be buried. But proper burial, with proper protection of groundwater, is not likely to happen when large volumes start getting processed. Right now, much of it is being dumped directly into Tokyo Bay. Local politicians, many with shady ties to the waste removal business, have been eager to process this waste over the wishes of their citizens. They claim to be the democratically elected leaders, so they take this as the freedom to decide policy as they see fit, without considering the objections of citizens who never elected them on this policy question. Meanwhile, some of the mayors of the towns where the waste originates are starting to question the rush to haul it away. They note that their towns are small, and the debris has been piled up at the edge of town, out of sight and out of mind. Why force it on people far away who don’t want it?

5. Occupy Tokyo

Alissa Descotes Toyosaki is a French journalist who has covered the encampment of protesters from Fukushima who have been in front of the Japanese government buildings in Tokyo for over 130 winter days. As they set up their camp, security guards put up a brief resistance, but since then the government has made no move on them. Japanese society seems to have matured in the same way as Western democracies. Instead of trying to censor and shut down such manifestations, protests and free speech are tolerated and respected – but also completely ignored. The strongest reaction against these protesters has come from the ultra-nationalists who come by at night in their gigantic sound trucks blaring military music (who finances this?). They too are antinuclear, probably because they see it as an American technology foisted on a subservient Japan, but they disapprove of the unseemly protest methods of these lefties who camp out in front of government buildings.

6. Radiation Divorce

This is the new term coined for families that have been split by fears of radiation. Many people from Fukushima voluntarily got their children out by sending them to stay with friends or relatives elsewhere in Japan, usually with the wife going with them and the husband staying behind at his job. Many couples couldn't agree about whether to stay or go, or whether it was safe for the children to come back. Sometimes it was not a disagreement between a couple but between generations. The older generation thinks the young ones are over-reacting.

7. Hot Deals on Cars
The absence of visible crime and looting leads to the false conclusion that there hasn’t been invisible crime and looting. Well-connected construction and waste removal companies have managed to get their hands on a nice slice of the national budget, which is 50% financed by deficit spending.
In other instances, the highly radioactive cars have been detected on car dealer lots, or, more commonly, at ports where the cars are destined for sale in Russia and South Asia. The government started testing the cars five months after the reactors exploded, but since then 500 hundred have been blocked from export. It is impossible to know how many were sent out of the country before monitoring began. If this is not a venal crime, what is? The dealers who brought these cars to port cannot claim to be the innocent dupes of the owners who sold the cars. Inexpensive radiation monitors have been available to them since the spring of 2011. And where was the lockdown on the movement of vehicles out of the exclusion zone? Where was the insurance industry and the government that could have anticipated the problem and made sure that the owners of cars left inside the exclusion zone would be compensated? On so many issues like this, officials showed a complete lack of imagination and anticipation of problems that would arise.

8. Radionuclides show up in the darndest places

Another example of one of the many problems that no one anticipated is in the news of a radiation hotspot on a school ground in Yokohama. The average radiation level in the city is between 0.05 and 0.14 microsieverts per hour, but in a ditch near this school it was 6.85. It turned out that suspected cause is the adjacent business specialized in cleaning commercial air filters for clients all over the city. This meant that radioactive cesium and other dangerous isotopes caught in filters were collected from a wide area and concentrated in the waste water flowing beside this school ground.

9. Food

Who should be protected? Should farmers be allowed to grow food on highly contaminated soil, or should they be paid not to grow in order to prevent the creation of contaminated food that might find its way into people's bodies? People with a normally functioning moral faculty find the answer easy, but the Japanese government is hell bent on denying that land has been ruined, and that means telling farmers they should plant the next crop - farmers who claim a right to sell contaminated food as long as the government refuses to compensate them for their ruined soil.

10. A safety culture that relies on day labor and organized crime

If you still think that Japan is a marvelously crime-free society, read about the excellent work done by independent journalist Tomohiko Suzuki. He took a job inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant during the summer of 2011 and wrote about working conditions of the people trying to tame the radioactive beast. He got the job due to yakuza (ogranized crime) connections, and this was also his topic of interest. The yakuza, the nuclear industry and the government regulators have had a cozy relationship for a long time.

11. Should I stay or should I go?

Finally, the biggest question about a divided Japan might be a great, existential question over who gets to live and who gets to die. I have never before heard people actually talking seriously about the extinction of a nation. It is not just idle speculation. The next great earthquake might produce a nuclear disaster that would be the final punch. Japan doesn’t usually produce refugees, but foreign countries have recently had numerous refugee claims from Japanese citizens. Furthermore, there have been rumors about the super-rich making plans to get out. There was recently the announcement of a plan to build a large Japanese town in Chennai, India. It is definitely an upmarket venture, aimed at Japanese who will do business or retire in the accustomed comfort that they had back home. The timing was curious, and it gave the impression of being similar to a hypothetical colony on Mars that would be needed for humans leaving a doomed home planet.

So to sum up, Japan is not exactly all patched up and back on the road to recovery. This morning, NHK TV news reports that many of the people who last year dug in and resolved to rebuild their lives are now dreading to watch the anniversary news reports. They now feel that their resolve was no match for the insurmountable obstacles they had to deal with. Yes, there has been some incredible progress that was achieved from the ability of Japanese people to persevere patiently and help each other. It was unbelievable that there was so little structural damage from a magnitude 9 earthquake. A massive amount of debris was cleared up quickly, and a commendable job was done or arranging housing for so many of the tsunami refugees. Nonetheless, it would be dehumanizing and cold-hearted to not look deeper into the situation and see the lingering trauma and divisions. This is not Syria, the Sudan or Haiti, but the world can look and learn a lesson about how quickly a black swan event can knock a developed nation on its back.

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