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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.