David Slater and Yomiuri on how activism re Fukushima is being stifled, contamination efforts stymied


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Hi Blog.  This is an email written by an academic in Japan sent to a public Japan listserv.  It is a very indicative accounting of how protests and grassroots activism is systematically stifled and stymied in Japan (in the context of Fukushima), and how even local governments are given the wrong incentives and making weird (and wrong) decisions (e.g., the apparent public shame in decontamination).  Plus the terminology (i.e., kegare) that is shifting the blame from the perpetrator of the contamination to the victim.  Followed by an excellent conclusion that is worthy of print that the social effects of this disaster (particularly in terms of discrimination) will last a lot longer than anticipated.  The bits I found most enlightening I’ve rendered in boldface.  Arudou Debito


From: “David H. Slater”
Date: 29 November, 2011 
Subject: Re: [jaws] reports of bullying Fukushima kids, and roaming cows
Reply-To: “East Asia Anthropologists’ discussion”

Just to follow up on an old thread–if anyone else has been working on these topics it would be interesting to share what we have…. dhs
Levels of contamination: kegare in official designations, in community activism, in young bodies

As the process of decontamination in Tohoku gets going, we see a range of often chilling representations and bad options, pollution and risk everywhere. “Contamination” today goes beyond the early reports of avoidance behavior and school bullying. Fear of this stigmatization is forcing some townships to forgo governmental relief and retarding local protest efforts. These fears and choices are being played out in municipalities, communities and individual images of life course.

Municipality Funding

In yesterday’s Yomiuri [full text below] there was an article about municipalities that have refused governmental help with the decontamination processes for fear of stigmatization. ‘”If the government designates our city [as subject to intensive investigation of radiation contamination], the entire city will be seen as contaminated. We decided to avoid such a risk,” a senior municipal government official said.” Another official is quoted: “If our town receives the designation, it may deliver a further blow to our image, already damaged by radiation fears.” This, despite the fact these townships have already received excessive radiation measurements. Usually, the townships are afraid of hurting tourism or exports of agricultural products, but often the cost of decontamination is too high for them to pay themselves. Here is the English version of the article: http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T111127003736.htm

In Community Activism

In a set of interviews that I have been doing among Fukushima women anti-nuke activists, one explained that it was very hard to enlist other women from her community for similar reasons. “It is sort of crazy–even though these women are afraid of radiation, and even though they actually know that areas all around [their children’s school] have high radiation, they do not want to say anything…. because they are afraid of the being singled out.” This activist was frustrated with the other mothers, angry because their reluctance to say anything weakened the voice of the community in taking a unified position. She also understood their reluctance, albeit with some impatience. “I know, I know. If you object, then you are also bringing attention to yourself and maybe worse, to your community, as dirty, as full of radiation. I know that story.” But she said, “If we do not say anything, are we really protecting our community or even our families?” Later in a more reflective moment in the interview, when she was acknowledging the ambiguous progress that activism has made, she said “We mothers know that activism might puts these ideas into other people’s heads sometimes, and this might hurt us, mark us, for years. It is a hard situation, knowing what to do.”

In Young Bodies

In my class on oral narrative of disaster, one group of my students at Sophia U. is interviewing another group of college students from Fukushima University, old high school friends now separated by radiation. The result is alarmingly direct, intimate interviews. (Besides being gifted interviewers, they are also of the same age, which seems to be important.) In one interview, a Fukushima college student addressed her own fears in a way that frightened my students. She resents those who call it the “Fukushima” disaster, marking everyone who lives in the prefecture. And yet, she also called herself contaminated, using the work kegare, a Shinto term meaning unclean, impure, defiled. She wondered, seemingly more to herself than to the interviewers, if she would ever marry or have children, knowing that this is how she will be thought of, knowing this is how she thinks about herself. Then she snapped out of it to explain the many active and constructive programs and events that the young people in her college relief and support club were doing, how they were looking ahead (mae muki) to a fresh start to the next year.

Not knowing how far to push this religious connection, my understanding is that usually kegare is the result of natural occurring contamination, unlike tsumi, which is more the result of human transgression. If radiation were considered tsumi would there be some transgressive agent who might be held responsible (Tepco)? In either case, is purification possible? If so, does it coincide with the on-going decontamination procedures? In any case, radiation is not just science nor just ritual pollution, but because now it involves official government designation and the transfer of funds (or not), these labels have consequences beyond the reports of random discrimination that occurred almost as soon as people began to evacuate. By linking contamination to official nomenclature and funding schemes, marks of contamination might last far longer than the excessive levels of radiation.

David H. Slater, Ph.D.
Faculty of Liberal Arts
Sophia University, Tokyo



Towns avoid govt help on decontamination
Keigo Sakai and Tomoko Numajiri / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
Yomiuri Shimbun Nov. 28, 2011

MAEBASHI–Municipalities contaminated with radiation as a result of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are concerned that the central government’s plan to designate municipalities for which it will shoulder the cost of decontamination will stigmatize those communities, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

As early as mid-December, the government plans to begin designating municipalities that will be subject to intensive investigation of their contamination, which is a precondition for the government paying for decontamination in place of the municipalities.

Municipalities with areas found to have a certain level of radiation will be so designated. The aim of the plan is to promote the thorough cleanup of contaminated cities, towns and villages, including those outside Fukushima Prefecture.

However, many local governments are reluctant to seek such designation, fearing it may give the false impression that the entire municipality is contaminated.

Based on an aerial study of radiation conducted by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry in mid-September, municipalities in Tokyo and Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama and Chiba prefectures were candidates for the government designation.

The aerial study examined radiation in the atmosphere one meter above the ground. Municipalities with areas where the study detected at least 0.23 microsieverts of radiation were listed as candidates. About 11,600 square kilometers of land, equivalent to the size of Akita Prefecture, reached that level, the ministry said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun has asked municipalities in the prefectures–excluding Fukushima Prefecture–whether they would seek the government designation as municipalities subject to intensive investigation of radiation contamination. Fifty-eight of the cities, towns and villages that responded to the survey said they would seek the designation.

Almost all the municipalities in Gunma and Ibaraki prefectures had areas where radiation in excess of the government standard was detected. However, only 10 municipalities in Gunma Prefecture and 19 in Ibaraki Prefecture said they would seek the designation.

The figures represent only about 30 percent of the municipalities in Gunma Prefecture and about 40 percent of those in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The Maebashi municipal government said it would not request the designation.

In late August, radioactive cesium exceeding the government’s provisional regulatory limit was detected in smelt caught at Lake Onuma, located on the summit of Mt. Akagi in northern Maebashi. The opening of the lake’s fishing season for smelt has been postponed.

Usually, the lake would be crowded with anglers at this time of year, but few people are visiting this season.

However, in most of Maebashi, excluding mountainous regions, the radiation detected in the September study was below the regulatory limit.

“If the government designates our city [as subject to intensive investigation of radiation contamination], the entire city will be seen as contaminated. We decided to avoid such a risk,” a senior municipal government official said.

The Maebashi government wants to prevent the city’s tourism and agriculture from being damaged further, the official added.

Daigomachi in Ibaraki Prefecture, a city adjacent to Fukushima Prefecture, said the city has also refrained from filing for the designation. Usually about 700,000 people visit Fukuroda Falls, the city’s main tourist destination, every year, but the number has dropped to half since the nuclear crisis began, the town said.

“If our town receives the designation, it may deliver a further blow to our image, already damaged by radiation fears,” an official of the town’s general affairs department said.

In recent months, citizens in the Tokatsu region of northwest Chiba Prefecture have held protests demanding local governments immediately deal with areas where relatively high levels of radiation were detected. All six cities in the region, including Kashiwa, said they would file requests for the government designation. The Kashiwa municipal government said it had already spent about 180 million yen on decontamination.

“People are loudly calling for decontamination. We hope that the designation will eventually lower the cost of decontamination,” an official of the municipal government’s office for measures against radiation said.

Observers have said one of the reasons the six cities decided to request the designation was their low dependence on agriculture and other primary industries that are vulnerable to fears of radiation.

Kobe University Prof. Tomoya Yamauchi, an expert on radiation metrology, said: “It will be a problem if decontamination activities stall due to local governments’ fears of stigmatization. To prevent misunderstanding of radiation, the government needs to do more to disseminate correct information.”


10 comments on “David Slater and Yomiuri on how activism re Fukushima is being stifled, contamination efforts stymied

  • This just makes me so sad for the residents. That their own governments would let this happen, just pretend that nothing is wrong just to preserve face. I understand that it’s a complicated issue, many variables at stake and no real procedural background to go on. But at the same time it seems that putting people’s safety first would be the right thing to do. Not to mention the health of the environment and ecosystems.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    This is a really depressing post.
    Bullying against those who only wish to see adequate action taken, voluntarily foregoing assistance for fear of being stigmatized, Tepco ducking responsibility, and the meme that radiation is not science, but has some ‘mystic’ value. A culture of bullying in regards to this disaster, rather than the much vaunted Japanese ‘harmony’.
    I am glad I read it even though it is not what I would like to hear.

  • beneaththewheel says:

    This issue is interesting. To me, it all stems from those who do not understand radiation, or any others that wish to incite fear about it to those who are ignorant. I have a Japanese friend who left for overseas after the earthquake, and many people wouldn’t meet her incase the radiation was contagious (she’s from southern Kanto). I remember hearing about (perhaps here) Fukushima refugees who needed certificates from the government saying they were not contaminated.

    It’s not a shame of Japan, but of the world (including Japan). Overseas media definitely did not help with creating radiation as a sort of boogeyman.

    WIth the issue of radiation being so controversial and “experts” being on all sides of the spectrum, I don’t see the issue going away as well.

    I wonder how the government could combat this stigma. Due to their and TEPCOs blunders after the earthquake (well, and the TEPCO coverups before the earthquake), any program by them could easily be labeled as lying or a cover up. Even if “anti-nuclear” activists tried to set the record straight on the most outlandish rumours, it’s easy to think that they’d be accused of “selling out”.

    I’d love to hear a proposed solution if anyone has one. How to change global opinion on radiation that is based mainly on ignorance and that is highly political.

    As for the Sophia article, I don’t mind the use of the case study of one girl to discuss the use of the word “kegare”, it’s good writing. However, a sentence mentioning how it’s not a single case would make the paragraph more convincing. Now the two sides of a fence can take this information and jump to different conclusions (self-blaming of contamination as a new norm or dismissal of the paragraph for being anecdotal evidence).The point that the crisis being called on of Fukushima is unfortunate. I wonder if they will change the names of the power plants. My father-in-law took his homeroom on a school trip to the mountains in western Fukushima (on the border with Niigata), and even there tourists were almost non-existent. I wonder what would have happened if that nuclear plant in Kyushu called Sendai would’ve had a problem.

    Anyways, I look forward to seeing what others have to say on the issue.

  • Jim Di Griz says:


    Hello. I think it’s a bit unfair to say that this ‘all stems from those who do not understand radiation, or any others that wish to incite fear about it to those who are ignorant.’, don’t you think?

    I see it as an effect of a pattern of behavior tacitly endorsed by the government in order to reduce liability. Towns don’t want to receive money for decontamination for fear of being stigmatized? I am sure that the government will hold that card up their sleeves for the day when the resident of one of those towns brings a court case for radiation related sickness. Then you’ll see the J-Gov turn to them and say ‘but you can’t have been affected! we offered to pay for the decontamination of your town, and you all said that you didn’t need it’.
    Tepco has already washed it’s hands of liability. If your land is contaminated, it’s not Tepcos radiation, it’s yours now! Lucky you! (see the golf course case).

    I think it’s going a bit far to claim that public or government opinion on this issue has been affected by the international media. The international media hasn’t affected Japanese sensibilities on the issues of whaling or child abductions (for example). What percentage of the Japanese population even watch non-Japanese language news or read a non-Japanese newspaper?

  • beneaththewheel says:

    @Jim: All good questions. The International media influence is from anecdotal evidence, which of course isn’t that strong. Whaling and child abductions are different for one very good reason: they don’t directly affect the person themselves or (more importantly) their family. When the stakes are that high, the distrust in the Japanese government is very real (understandably), many people I know indirectly (i.e. not Westernized) turned to Western media for the “truth”. I have no actual source backing it up. Whaling and child abductions is like to the average Canadian and the tar sands in Alberta or the third world First Nations conditions in northern Ontario: it’s sad, but it doesn’t directly affect me or my children.

    I think saying “all stems from…” was too strong, and me being emotional/angry after reading the articles; however, I do think the misinformation on radiation is the main problem and disagree with you in your second paragraph.

    Here we have the central government having a policy for decontamination, and standards to uphold it, but giving local governments the freedom to accept or deny it. I honestly cannot think of a more competent way to go forward. The only way to attack this in my opinion is with carrying a bias against the Japanese government. If you do that, then it doesn’t matter what the Japanese government does, the response will always be negative and assuming some sort of ulterior motive. The policy itself seems sound.

    Which is why I asked my question, what could they do to confront this? If I’m reading what you’re saying correctly, it’s that the Japanese government should take responsibility for the potential cancer cases (let’s ignore that causality will be very difficult to prove) that occur 30 years down the road in cities that refused funding for decontamination. Do you see a way where the Japanese government could avoid this? Should they make decontamination mandatory perhaps, and not let local governments have the right to decide?

    As for the Tepco case, it sounds horrible that they want to do that. If I read the article correctly, they haven’t gotten away with it yet, and it’s going to a higher court. Hopefully there they will not get away with it there. I’ll definitely be following the case more closely now, thanks for bringing it up.

    As a side note: in another topic I never replied to your last words. It’s because all I would’ve said was “okay, I’ll check out that book when I get the time”. Which is still true, will probably be over Christmas/New Years.

  • @Beneaththewheel

    You make good points. I have to admit that I may be biased against the J-Gov, although I consider myself to be cynical rather than biased. I do not consider myself to be any more cynical of the J-Gov than I am of my own. In this instance my cynicism is based on the track record on issues like Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing contamination victims, Minamata byou, ‘Ita, ita’ byou, and the strife over the of building Narita Airport by compulsory purchase orders. In all cases, the J-Gov faought against accountability in the courts at such a slow pace that most plaintiffs died before any settlement was reached.
    I think that in the case where the central government believes that there is a contamination risk, local government should not have the right to refuse that decontamination, who-ever pays for it.

    P.S.; I hope that you enjoy the book.

  • The incorrect belief that most humans unconsciously hold is: “The Rulers do what is best for the Ruled.”

    The correct reality that humans should consciously realize is: “Each Organism does what is best for Itself.”

  • The way to fix this? Stop using nuclear power. The only way to do that is to provide a viable alternative…which is the subject of endless research grants. Ethanol, biofuel, algae, bamboo, water, solar and on and on ad nauseum. It’s a bit of an impasse.

  • Anyone interested in Fukushima might find this web site interesting. It is a blog by a Japanese civil engineer in Yokohama. There is alot of factual information (from the Japanese press and TEPCO) on this site. For example I had no clue that temperatures and hydrogen concentration were increasing in unit 2 until I came across this blog (with link to TEPCO news release).

    I believe the blogger is against nuclear power. I am a supporter of the responsible and safe use of nuclear power.

    The amount of radiation released from the sites has been enormous. I still think the long term effects are unknown.

    For those interested and who have an open mind on this issue…enjoy.



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