Those who do not fit the norm, for whatever reason no matter how abusive, are outcasts.
In retrospect, societal norms throughout history have sometimes become fatally irresponsible. When it comes to popular movements and health trends, humanity has had its share of shameful events stamped forever into the history books. While working in Vienna General Hospital’s first obstetrical clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis proposed the novel idea of hand washing in 1847. Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality from 35% to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected. After his discovery, Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum and promptly beaten to death by guards. As horrific as these visions and events can sometimes be, they continue to be played out in today’s society partially due to public ignorance, corruption, conflicts of interest and imbedded norms.
The world is rapidly approaching the five year anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in human history. The triple meltdown at the Fukushima daiichi nuclear power plant has seen shameful omissions by global leaders and officials at every level. To compound matters, Japanese survivors are forced to submit to a complicit medical community bordering on anti-human. While the solutions to the widespread nuclear contamination are few, media blackouts, government directives and purposefully omitted medical reporting has made things exponentially worse. Over the last five years, the situation on the ground in Japan had deteriorated to shocking levels as abuse and trauma towards the survivors has become intolerable.
Even before the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan endured another nuclear disaster as a testing ground for the US military’s new nuclear arsenal on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The numbers of Japanese civilians killed were estimated at around 226,000, roughly half of the deaths occurred on the first day. After the initial detonation of the two nuclear bombs, both Japanese cities endured a legacy of radiation damage and human suffering for decades after. Tomiko Matsumoto, a resident of Hiroshima and survivor of the bombing described the abuse and trauma she endured by her society:
“I was shocked because I was discriminated against by Hiroshima people. We lived together in the same place and Hiroshima people know what happened but they discriminated against each other. ..I was shocked.”
“There were so many different kinds of discrimination. People said that girls who survived the bomb shouldn’t get married. Also they refused to hire the survivors, not only because of the scars, but because they were so weak. Survivors did not have 100 percent energy.”
“There was a survivor’s certificate and medical treatment was free. But the other people were jealous. Jealous people, mentally discriminated. So, I didn’t want to show the health book sometimes, so I paid. Some of the people, even though they had the health book, were afraid of discrimination, so they didn’t even apply for the health book. They thought discrimination was worse than paying for health care.”
A similar scene is playing out today in Japan as residents of the Fukushima prefecture, who survived triple nuclear meltdowns, are forced to endure similar conditions over half a century later. Fairewinds Energy Education director and former nuclear executive Arnie Gundersen is currently embarked on a speaking tour of Japan as their population continues to search for the truth about nuclear risks and the reality of life in affected areas of Japan after the 2011 disaster. Many Fukushima prefecture residents are still displaced and living in resettlement communities as their city sits as a radioactive ghost town. Visiting one such resettlement community, Gundersen had this to say:
“Today I went to a resettlement community. There were 22 women who met us, out of 66 families who live in this resettlement community. They stood up and said my name is…and I’m in 6A…my name is…and I’m in 11B and that’s how they define themselves by the little cubicle they live in — it’s very sad.”
Speaking with the unofficial, interim mayor of the resettlement community, she told Gundersen
“After the disaster at Fukushima, her hair fell out, she got a bloody nose and her body was speckled with hives and boils and the doctor told her it was stress…and she believes him. It was absolutely amazing. We explained to her that those area all symptoms of radiation [poisoning] and she should have that looked into. She really felt her doctor had her best interests at heart and she was not going to pursue it.”
Speaking about how Japanese officials handled this resettlement community’s (and others?) health education after the disaster, Gundersen reported:
“They [the 22 women who met with Gunderson] told us that we were the first people in five years to come to them and talk to them about radiation. They had nobody in five years of their exile had ever talked to them about radiation before…Which was another terribly sad moment.”
When asked if the women felt isolated from the rest of Japan they described to Gundersen the following:
“Some of them had changed their license plates so that they’re not in Fukushima anymore — so their license plates show they’re from another location. When they drive back into Fukushima, people realize that they’re natives and deliberately scratch their cars…deliberately scratch their cars because they are traitors. Then we had the opposite hold true that the people that didn’t change their plates and when they left Fukushima and went to other areas, people deliberately scratched their cars because they were from Fukushima.”
Gundersen summed up the information he received by saying, “The pubic’s animosity is directed toward the people of Fukushima Prefecture as if they somehow caused the nuclear disaster.”
When it comes to health decisions, the medical community and political class has polarized the conversation into an “either-or” “us vs. them” mentality. Reckless lawmaking and biased reported has only driven the Japanese public further down this slippery slope. In many countries, the public watched as medical dogma and ideology captured healthcare, which in turn began to direct policy and law. Many societies beyond Japan are now facing difficult choices as the free expression of health preservation and medical choice has fallen into a dangerous grey area. Oscillating between authoritative legal action, medical discrimination and public abuse, society’s norms appear to be rapidly heading down the wrong road. Untold damage and traumas are unfolding as governments hide information and quietly omit vital data further fueling the fire. Alternative media and the work of those in medicine with true integrity and compassion have herculean tasks awaiting them as they work to change a historically dangerous narrative attempting to root.
Tokuo Hayakawa carries a dosimeter around with him at his 600-year-old temple in Naraha, the first town in the Fukushima “exclusion zone” to fully reopen since Japan’s March 2011 catastrophe. Badges declaring “No to nuclear power” adorn his black Buddhist robe.
(For a video of ‘Fukushima refugees face a bleak return home’ click here)
Hayakawa is one of the few residents to return to this agricultural town since it began welcoming back nuclear refugees five months ago.
The town, at the edge of a 20-km (12.5 mile) evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, was supposed to be a model of reconstruction.
Five years ago, one of the biggest earthquakes in history shook the country’s northeast. The 10-metre (33-foot) tsunami it spawned smashed into the power plant on the Fukushima coastline triggering a meltdown and forcing nearby towns to evacuate. The disaster killed over 19,000 people across Japan and caused an estimated 16.9 trillion yen ($150 billion) in damages.
Only 440 of Naraha’s pre-disaster population 8,042 have returned – nearly 70 percent of them over 60.
“This region will definitely go extinct,” said the 76-year-old Hayakawa.
He says he can’t grow food because he fears the rice paddies are still contaminated. Large plastic bags filled with radioactive topsoil and detritus dot the abandoned fields.
With few rituals to perform at the temple, Hayakawa devotes his energies campaigning against nuclear power in Japan. Its 54 reactors supplied over 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs before the disaster.
Today, only three units are back in operation after a long shutdown following the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Others are looking to restart.
“I can’t tell my grandson to be my heir,” said Hayakawa, pointing at a photo of his now-teenaged grandson entering the temple in a full protective suit after the disaster. “Reviving this town is impossible,” he said. “I came back to see it to its death.”
That is bound to disappoint Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rebuilding Naraha and other towns in the devastated northeast, he says, is crucial to reviving Japan.
Tokyo pledged 26.3 trillion ($232 billion) over five years to rebuild the disaster area and will allocate another 6 trillion for the next five years.
More than 160,000 people were evacuated from towns around the Daiichi nuclear plant. Around 10 percent still live in temporary housing across Fukushima prefecture. Most have settled outside their hometowns and have begun new lives.
In Naraha, two restaurants, a supermarket and a post office, housed in prefabricated shacks, make up the town’s main shopping center. The restaurants close at 3 p.m.
No children were in sight at Naraha’s main park overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a recent morning. Several elderly residents were at the boardwalk gazing at hundreds of bags stuffed with radioactive waste.
In fact, the bags are a common sight around town: in the woods, by the ocean, on abandoned rice fields.
Little feels normal in Naraha. Many homes damaged in the disaster have been abandoned. Most of the town’s population consists of workers. They are helping to shut down Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (9501.T) Daiichi reactors or working on decontamination projects around town.
Other workers are building a new sea wall, 8.7 meters high, along a nearly 2 km stretch of Naraha’s coast, similar to other sea walls under construction in the northeast.
A local golf course has been turned into dormitories for workers. Some families have rented their houses to workers.
“Naraha is a workers’ town now,” said Kiyoe Matsumoto, 63, a member of the town council, adding that her children and grandchildren have no plans to come home.
The town’s future depends on young people returning, residents say. But only 12 below the age of 30 have returned as worries about radiation linger.
Radiation levels in Naraha ranged from 0.07 to 0.49 microsieverts per hour in January, or 0.61-4.3 millisieverts per year. That compares with the government’s goal of one millisievert a year and the 3 millisieverts a year the average person in the United States is exposed to annually from natural background radiation.
The significant drop in atmospheric radiation allowed the government to lift the evacuation order last Sept. 5 – “the clock that had been stopped began ticking again,” Japan’s Reconstruction Agency said on its website.
“It is hoped that the reconstruction of Naraha would be a model case for residents returning to fully evacuated towns,” the agency statement said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the town a month after that and repeated one of his favorite slogans: “Without reconstruction of Fukushima, there’s no reconstruction of Japan’s northeast. Without the reconstruction of the northeast, there’s no revival of Japan.”
But with few people coming back, there is little meaning in what the reconstruction department in Naraha does, said one town hall official who requested anonymity. “I don’t know why (Abe) came,” he said.
Back at his Buddhist temple, part of which he has turned into an office for his anti-nuclear campaign, Hayakawa called the idea Naraha could be a model of reconstruction “a big fat lie”.
“There’s no reconstructing and no returning to how it used to be before (March 11). The government knows this, too. A ‘model case’? That’s just words.”
($1 = 113.1100 yen)
Given the option of leaving their hometowns or risking radiation poisoning five years ago, families living near the Fukushima radiation disaster are falling apart, facing divorce, suicide, and cancer. The breakdown of Fukushima families comes as Japan faces a dwindling population it continues to struggle to replenish.
Mothers desperate to save their children from cancer or other side effects of radiation poisoning have been forced to choose between their husbands and their children, an in-depth report in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun notes. Many men stayed in the radiation-affected areas, unable to find jobs elsewhere. The mothers who moved as far from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as they could afford say they made the decision to save their children from radiation, but have lost their husbands and families.
One woman tells the Asahi Shimbun that her husband mailed her divorce papers in 2014 after she fled the area in 2011. “I cannot send money to my family whom I cannot see,” he said in a letter. She has not told her two children their parents are divorced. She made the choice to risk her marriage, she said, because she “could not trust the data released by the central government.” She laments, “My family has collapsed.”
Residents of Fukushima were forced to evacuate the area after a March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The plant’s operators expect it to take up to 40 years for the site to be fully safe and usable again.
The new Asahi profile of Fukushima mothers reflects similar fears the Japan Times found in speaking to others who had fled and refuse to trust the government’s assurances that their hometowns are safe. In September 2015, the newspaper spoke to mothers who said on the condition of anonymity that their families – especially their husbands’ families – were pressuring them to risk exposing their children to radiation to keep families together. “Consciously or subconsciously, women are aware of the role we are expected to play in a family. After the earthquake and nuclear disaster, however, everything changed. … I can’t live up to those expectations any more, and society judges me,” a woman identified with the pseudonym Yukiko said. “Some were accused of abandoning or running away from their families, particularly those they married into. Relatives labeled the wives disloyal and overly sensitive,” The Japan Times noted of others who fled. Those judged harshest are the ones fleeing areas for which the government issued only a voluntary evacuation order.
Those who stayed face the opposite fear. “Sometimes when I’m alone in the house, I start to cry, imagining the future of my children,” a woman identified as Hiroko said. “I fear my children may become sick, and the ones who I love most will hold a grudge against me for failing to protect them. That is my biggest fear.”
Those who fled to neighboring towns fear radiation so much they refuse to allow their children to eat food they know has been produced in any part of Fukushima prefecture. The Asahi report highlights one mother who sends her 11-year-old to school with a specially made bento box, refusing to allow the school to feed her Fukushima-produced rice and vegetables. The girl has been bullied as a result, her mother mocked for being “neurotic.” A school official noted that other mothers make their children “wear surgical masks when they participate in footraces during outdoor school athletic meets.”
Asahi estimates that 70,000 people remain prohibited from returning home due to the Fukushima disaster, and another 18,000 have voluntarily chosen not to return.
Those who stay must live with the fear of radiation and the absence of those who do not return. Officials have marked a surge in suicides directly tied to the Fukushima disaster. Asahi reported in December 2015 that police confirmed 19 suicides in 2015 related to the disaster, up from 15 in 2014. A total of 154 people are believed to have resorted to suicide as a result of the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
Masaharu Maeda, a professor of disaster psychiatry at Fukushima Medical University, says torn families can account for many of these suicides and a significant rise in depression and other psychological problems in these communities. “The elderly may return to their homes, but the generation who are still raising children do not return, meaning families are torn apart,” he noted.
In one of the most prominent suicide cases related to Fukushima, a 102-year-old man hung himself after being told he would have to evacuate his home in 2011. The family sued the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which runs the plant, for 60 million yen ($485,000).
Mothers who fear radiation poisoning have been vindicated by a number of tragedies following the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. Doctors in the region have found that children living in the area are 20 to 50 times more likely to develop thyroid cancer. The government confirmed the first cancer case related to the plant’s collapse in October 2015, a former nuclear plant worker who was diagnosed with leukemia.
The combination of family collapse and surging cancer cases is threatening an already dwindling Japanese population. Japanese officials have estimated that the population will diminish from 100 million to 80 million by 2065, leaving the nation without a reliable workforce. While some legislators have suggested making immigration to Japan easier, most appear reluctant to take that avenue. Raising the native birth rate would require significant cultural changes, many speculate, because of a Japanese work culture that pushes women to forego family life if they intend to keep their careers. Twenty percent of young mothers report experiencing harassment in the workplace, and many who wish to be mothers are encouraged to avoid pregnancy or abort.
In the third installment of Fairewinds’ Japan Speaking Tour Series, Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen recounts his visit to a resettlement community of displaced refugees from the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi. Meeting with 22 women, ages 17 to 60, Arnie is the first person who has met with them to talk about the effects of radiation during the 5-years that they have been evacuees. Nuclear industry reports from TEPCO and the local newspaper have been the only information available to the isolated groups of victims from the atomic disaster.
A woman introduced herself to Arnie, “I am 6A.” Stigmatized and reduced to a numbered identity, these women have suffered radiation poisoning, and been told that their symptoms are simply due to stress. Their homes destroyed, their health in jeopardy, and their future unknown – this is the outcome of nuclear risk.
Aug. 26, 2014 (Tue.)
This matter goes right to the root of disaster recovery support. The Reconstruction Agency is now churning through data to come up with a new figure for the number of people made refugees by 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns after finding that central and local government estimates were well off the mark.
What’s especially surprising about the massive miscount is the sloppy handling of relevant data, which is the very basis for disaster recovery policy. We call on the government to consider a uniform management policy for all data on its support for long-term evacuees, and thereby prevent those who fled the Fukushima nuclear disaster of their own accord from being cut out of the assistance loop.
One case of a poorly managed refugee estimate happened in Saitama Prefecture. The prefectural government only counted people using prefectural and municipal temporary housing as disaster refugees, and only did regular recounts in a few cities and towns. That the true number was quite a bit more was discovered when a local citizens’ group pointed out that the prefecture’s disaster refugee count seemed too low.
The Saitama Prefectural Government stated that there were 2,640 evacuees from the 2011 disasters living within its jurisdiction as of June this year. Simply toting up all the refugees living in municipalities in the prefecture, however, apparently showed there were possibly more than 5,000 evacuees within Saitama Prefecture’s borders.
Why the discrepancy? In May 2011, about two months after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan’s northeast, the Cabinet Office asked prefectural governments to total up the number of disaster refugees in their jurisdictions based on the type of place they were staying in. Actually confirming these numbers proved difficult in practice, however, and in July 2012 Saitama Prefecture told the central government that it would stop counting evacuees receiving direct housing assistance from the Fukushima Prefectural Government and other sources.
For its part, the central government failed to set comprehensive standards for counting evacuees, suggesting that the lowball number of refugees is the result of a mutual failure to communicate.
It’s quite possible that Saitama Prefecture is not the only government body miscounting its refugee population. Reconstruction Agency figures for July this year put the number of refugees at 247,233 nationwide. However, the agency has asked all the prefectures for a recount that includes “voluntary” nuclear disaster evacuees. Standing here in the summer of 2014, you could say this is too little, too late, but then it also goes without saying that double-checking evacuee figures is a necessary step.
There are in fact two running counts of nuclear disaster refugees; one by the Reconstruction Agency, and one based on the number of evacuees from 13 municipalities in eastern Fukushima Prefecture. The latter is the basis for assistance under the special law on nuclear disaster refugees, and most of these evacuees have filed assistance claims with the local governments where they now live. What this figure does not include, however, are people who left their homes in Fukushima Prefecture on their own recognizance, for whom there is no support system. As such, these evacuees are not even informed of available support measures. Efforts must be made to make sure these people are not overlooked.
Right after the March 2011 disasters, the government briefly considered allowing refugees to list a “second address” on their resident certificates, but the idea was dropped due to legal difficulties. In April 2011, the government set up a “national evacuee information system” to allow refugees to report their own status. The information on the system, however, soon proved to be out of kilter with reality, and it is no longer used for nationwide evacuee number estimates.
The true number of people who remain disaster refugees more than three years after that terrible March day is unknown, lost in the cracks of government negligence. To ensure that recovery assistance is delivered smoothly to those who need it, the government has a responsibility to set standards and expand the activities of existing support systems to their maximum potential. It must come up with good ideas, and fast.