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A report from Japan: Part 1

Junko Habu, professor, anthropology | March 16, 2011

The situation of the Fukushima Daiichi (No.1) Nuclear Plant has been getting worse each day since Saturday.  My research deals with environmental anthropology and archaeology.  I was born in Japan and was raised by parents who were and remain active in the environmental and peace movements. My parents’ activism and my interest in environmental issues have meant that I have been aware of the problem of building nuclear plants in Japan for many years.

I was at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Hayama near Tokyo when the earthquake hit.  Since Saturday, I have been closely monitoring information about Fukushima Daiichi (No.1) and Daini (No.2) using websites and other sources.  I have also been exchanging information and opinions with other scholars in Japan, including a couple of nuclear physicists.  In addition, as an anthropologist, I have noted people’s reactions to the situation.  Below are some of my observations.

1. Let me first say that people here are trying hard to cope with the horrible situations created by the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear power plant crisis.  As a Japanese citizen, I am proud of their efforts and courage.  Individuals I talk to and meet every day and those I see on the media are amazingly strong and extremely patient.  We have had no riots, and the report of vandalism is scarce.  People are working together and helping each other.  We are extremely thankful for the generous help from US and many, many other countries.

2. As several English-language sources have reported, the information flow here is slow.  It often takes between 1 and 5 hours or more before we receive news of a new development, usually a new disaster.  I do not necessarily suggest that the government is doing this intentionally, but many people in Japan are frustrated by the slow flow of news out of the plant and from the government. We would like to see a better system of communication put in place immediately. One good source of information is the website of the Citizens Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) where a video clip of a daily press conference with the foreign press in both Japanese and English is posted.  Summaries provided by the CNIC press conferences, especially reports and comments from Masashi Goto, a former designer of containment vessels for nuclear reactors for Toshiba, are extremely informative.  Few people in Japan or abroad know about this website, so its influence is limited.  Also, a daily conference is not fast enough.

3. The Japanese Government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) seem to have been struggling to find a balance between ending this crisis, saving some of the remaining Units of Fukushima Daiichi, and not affecting the lives of people living and working in Tokyo and other areas further south.  They need to make ending this crisis and saving people’s lives their first priority.

4. Japanese citizens are not informed by their government of possible disasters when the worst occurs.  Most people who do have information about the situation that might worry the population are not speaking openly.  Those who are speaking up risk being labeled as overly cautious, hysterical or even unpatriotic.  Many foreign embassies in Tokyo have informed their citizens of possible dangers to their health.  In contrast, the Japanese government has told the Japanese people virtually nothing about possible dangers or how to prepare for the worst.  This means people are left on their own to deal with a situation they do not understand.

5. Yesterday, the public web site of the Yokosuka US Naval Base (near Tokyo) posted some precautionary measures that encouraged people to limit outdoor activities, and secure external ventilation systems if possible.  The Japanese government and the media have not recommended any precautions to be taken by people living outside of the evacuation zone.  I wonder whether the US military has more information than the Japanese public?

6. The immediate evacuation zone set by the Japanese government is much smaller than that announced by the US government for their people today.  Information from other governments.

I fully understand that moving a large number of people presents logistical problems, but people who are living near the immediate evacuation zone should at least be informed that they may want to consider moving.

Two days ago, I temporarily moved from Kamukura to Kyoto.  Kamakura is located near Tokyo, about 250 km away from Fukushima Daiichi.  Kyoto is about 300 kms southwest of Kamakura, further away from the Fukushima Nuclear Plants.  Given the information I had, I judged it best not to stay in the Tokyo area.  Most of my American friends have also left Tokyo.  My parents, who are aware of possible dangers, refused to come with us.

Before I left Kamakura, I spent three days stocking my parents’ home with food and with tap water in plastic containers (bottled water was sold out).  I also sealed some of the windows of their house.  My parents made an informed choice to stay at home.  I respect that choice.   Many other Japanese people, however, do not have enough information to make a decision about whether to leave their homes or stay.  Many also have family and work responsibilities which make moving difficult if not impossible, unless the government urges them to move.

This does not seem right, and I fear for the people of my country.

Comments to “A report from Japan: Part 1

  1. Excellent article. It was very sad what happened to Japan. Dealing with the consequences can very challenging. I have been doing a lot of research as recently there was a terrible earthquake in Greece Kefalonia where several of my relatives live.

  2. A thoughtful post about the Fushushima Nuclear Power plant and with lots of feeling. It is good to read a point of view from someone who grew up in Japan.

  3. Dear Junko,

    I hope that you are still doing okay. I tried contacting you by your UCB email, but it bounced back. I was soaking in the furo at home on the 3rd floor in Arakawa-ku when the quake hit, and of course, I am still deeply concened because we now know that three meltdowns have occurred, which are still not resolved, and there is some speculation that there may have been a fission event at #3 reactor during, or just after the hydrogen explosion there. Naturally, one wonders how the ancient people here may have been effected by similar natural catastrophes, and I am thinking about that masive six-legged wooden structure at Sannai Maruyama and wondering if it may not have been a tsunami survival tower!

    Anyway, it would be great to hear from you if you have time. Kiwotsukette kudasaii. O henji matte masu.

    ~ Kerry Drew @}:^)

  4. A thoughtful post about the Fushushima Nuclear Power plant and with lots of feeling. It is good to read a point of view from someone who grew up in Japan.

  5. Dear Professor Habu,

    I took your class while I was studying in Cal and am glad to hear that you are safe. I live in Yokosuka, Japan now. Although I respect your decision to leave, I do TRUST what the Japanese government and experts say. Besides, what else can we do now?

  6. I got back from Japan and my dad also left Tokyo and arrived in SF. My aunt in Chiba is pretty hard-harded, so isn’t interested in moving (even temporarily to the western portion of the country, where I have another uncle), so I can understand what you’re going through with your parents.

    Please take care of yourself Junko!

  7. Im an east Asian studies second year student at the hebrew university in Jerusalem, when i spoke with a Japanese news agency reporter, he pointed out that the main problem is that the electricity company is hiding info from the public and from the government, i wonder what are your thoughts about this subject.
    Anyway i would like to speak in the name of most of the Israelis and wish you to be strong, here in Israel we are supporting you in Japan!

  8. This is strange. We get pictures from the Fukushima plants by the hour, specialists are talking on every television set, the news are reporting the situation every few minutes, and Edano, the Cabinet Minister is having press conferences almost every hour. And still, there are accusations for not informing enough. Wouldn’t it be better not to publish speculations and rumors and create panic? About the nuclear plants, according to all nuclear specialists I listen to once sea-water were used it is not possible to operate these facilities again. So I am not sure that TEPCO is trying to recover anything. Although it became a fashion in foreign news to say what Japan should have or should not have done, frankly speaking, I don’t think any other government would have handled this situation better (see what happened during Katherina).

  9. Thank you Junko,
    We’ve just come back from staying in LA with my wife’s oldest sister and husband(a hearty 92 year old). His family is from Sendai, but he and his cousins in LA haven’t heard anything yet. We’ve heard directly from many in Japan but not from north of Tokyo. I have signed up on a Japanese search site for the Sendai cousin’s name and address. You only hear of they are found dead or injured…no news so far.
    There is one persistant Japanese (American) nuclear expert on TV every day (in California) who thinks the “watering down” is not enough, especially since two of the containment vessels have cracks. He advocates a Chernobyl-like burial NOW to avoid the escaped radiation getting worse. Does anyone hod that view in the Japanese media?
    Nelson and Kathy

  10. Thanks for the excellent “front lines” report. It helps to confirm the impression formed from other reports that Japanese in general are responding very well under this extreme stress. The characteristic Japanese strength of character is serving the country excellently in these circumstances.

    MEXT has been publishing fairly frequent reports on radiation dose rates for areas 20 km and further from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. See their Web site at for indexes to the report locations. (Only in Japanese, although some of the reports themselves have been published in English versions.) For myself and my family, I would think that an accumulated dose as great as 100 mSv (= 100,000 µSv) from this disaster would not be a source of grave concern if we were in a position to be exposed. One must multipy the rate by the number of hours one might be exposed to estimate the overall risk, selecting the accumulted dose regarded as tolerable.

    I am entirely certain that your parents in Kamukura run zero effective risk of exposure to a dose as great at 100 mSv, no matter what happens. I do think it would be prudent for the authorities to organize and carry through evacuation of areas up to a radius of 50 km, on a deliberate basis, just in case the situation does really get out of control.

  11. Junko, we had a session at IEAS yesterday with Dr. Joonhoon Ahn and Dr. Shinya Nagasaki. Dr. Nagasaki is a professor at Todai who s a visting professor at Cal, and Dr. Ahn, one of our faculty, was trained at Todai. Both are well versed in nuclear issues.

    Both experts agreed: your parents made a very acceptable decision in terms of the nuclear danger. The MOX fuel is most likely not in storage pools (though it in in Daiichi no. 1) and much of the radiation will degrade quickly within the evacuation zone. Go anshin kudasai.

    God be with you. We’ll all be happy to have you back home with us at Berkeley.

  12. I live in the Philippines and we keep receiving text messages from relatives from Japan that we should prepare and protect ourselves from any possible rain that might happen in the coming days or weeks. I am not a techie guy so I don’t understand how this stuff happening in Japan’s power plants might affect us. Do you guys think that it is possible that our country might get hit or be affected by what’s been going on in Japan? Thank you very much.

  13. Dear Junko,

    This is Ioanna Dafermou with the Weather Channel in the United States. I’ve read your blog. I am so sorry about what’s happeing in your country.

    We would love to speak with you here on-air. Would you be available?
    My number here is 770-226-2119.

    Thank you,


  14. While I do not think that there are any malicious intents involved, I think the Japanese government and the international nuclear industry are suffering too much institutional momentum to fully prioritize the safety of the Japanese citizens. I think the world leaderships, rather than passively bystanding the current nuclear crisis in Japan, need to act together to put pressure on the Japanese government – so that people’s safety may come better in its handling of the situation at Fukushima. I worry for the people in Japan as well…

    • To the poster who mentioned about opinion vs. fact, as if everybody agreed it was a threat, please consider this viewpoint. And about ten more from different angles.

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