Kiroku Project

The divide as seen from the Dialogue (1)

by Ryoko Ando

Divide is one of the words that became widely used after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power accident. It is a tricky word. It sounds convincing and we stop thinking what it really means, like, “Divide―Yes, that should be it.” However, the word itself does not explain the nature of the divide, what caused it, or how the divided people felt. In this chapter, I would like to draw a more detailed picture of this divide, quotingthe words from the records of the Dialogue meetings. 

It started from “A family with two tables”

“A family with two tables” often came up in the early Dialogue meetings as a symbol of the divide. In Fukushima, there were many traditional households where three generations, the grandparents, the parents, and the children, lived together and ate together. After the accident, different generations developed different risk perceptions about radiation, and many multi-generational families in Fukushima found it impossible to share the dishes made from the same foodstuff. The tale of “A family with two tables” told a story of the families that had to prepare separate dishes, and the grandparents who could no longer share meals with their children and grandchildren. 

It was believed that radiation had more harmful effect on children than grownups. Thus, in most cases, families chose to be more risk-averse about their children. This meant avoiding foodstuff grown in Fukushima prefecture and homegrown vegetables / fruits, or not allowing them to play outdoors. But the grownups did not always take the same route. The higher the person’s age, the more likely they continued their pre-accident lifestyle than averting risk. 

“I won’t live much longer anyway, so I’m going to eat what I want.”

In the days shortly after the accident, we often heard words like this from the elderly residents. Taken literally, it sounds rebellious. But in truth, the words conveyed their sadness and frustration.

Even among people who were close, like a family living in the same household, it was not rare to have vastly different opinion on risk. And this spoiled their relationship. The following is an episode told in the 7th Dialogue meeting.

Young fathers and mothers do not want their children to eat locally-grown foodstuff.The grandparents find the home-grown vegetables most delicious, and they eat what they want to. The children who saw this started saying the vegetables look really good and they want to eat the same dishes. This ruined the parents’ consideration and developed family conflict. (November 2013)

It was not only across generations that the difference of risk perception came up. Another testimony from the 3rd Dialogue tells a story of a husband and a wife who could not agree. 

I don’t want my children to eat local foodstuff and homegrown vegetables, but my husband thinks differently. He says I am too nervous. I want to hand-pick what they eat, something I was assured about its safety. (July 2012)

We started hearing less about such conflict as time went by. However, this was a common story for a few years after the accident and everyone had experienced or heard about it. Why did this happen? As described earlier, people tend to use the division to explain this phenomenon: it is because of people were divided in their perception of risk. 

I would like to probe deeper by examining the actual words spoken in the Dialogue meetings. The issue of different risk perception was addressed as a pressingly serious issue during the discussions about food or education. The Dialogue in July 2012 focused on food, and those in March 2012 and May 2014 focused on education. In fact, both topics were raised in every Dialogue, regardless of the theme of the meeting. In every Dialogue meeting, people with different roles and stances participated and spoke with each other face-to-face about these difficult topics. 

In the immediate days after the accident, the government of Japan made some key decisions regarding the radiation standards for food and education. The first was the standard for schools. In April 2011, the Government announced the air dose level to determine whether a school could be opened. Before the accident, there was no such standard. After the accident, the authorities had to set standards for people to use in determining if they could continue their everyday routine. The Japanese school year is from April to March. As the disaster occurred during spring break, between the school years, if and when to reopen the schools became a huge problem to decide. On April 19, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) released an interim policy which in essence allowed schools to reopen if the air dose rate was less than 3.8 μSv/h. Many voiced concerns that this was too high. The policy did not remove the worries of the parents and the educators. In some cities in Fukushima, including Date city, volunteers decontaminated school yards and school routes to reduce the radiation level below the government-set standard. 

Radiation standards for foodstuff also caused conflict. In May 2011, the Government of Japan set 500 Bq/kg as the regulation value for radioactive cesium for most foodstuff sold in markets. This was based on the concept to limit the dose from food intake to less than 5 mSv per year. In April 2012, less than a year later, the Government lowered the value to 100 Bq/kg, based on a goal to limit the annual dose to less than 1 mSv. 

This change got mixed reaction. The initial regulation value of 500 Bq/kg had been criticized by many as too high and too lax. These people felt better about the change. On the other hand, some were concerned about its effect on the livelihood of the farmers in Fukushima. In their logic, if the standard was too strict, the only products that failed to meet it might be from Fukushima, and it could mean a death sentence for the already hard-hit producers in Fukushima. In addition, the change in the Government’s standard left a lingering taste of discomfort. People voiced their uneasiness: “Last year, the limit was 500 Bq/kg, and I recommended something that was 200 Bq/kg. Maybe I shouldn’t have…” or “This is a proof that the earlier standard was not safe. The government deceived us once again.”

The whole picture of the crisis was not available in 2011 and early 2012. Even so, the government decided new standards and measures in rapid succession. Every time they did so, the action caused confusion and added on to the stress in everyday life. Looking back, this was the situation we faced in those days.

The entire scale of the disaster was not visible in those days. It was vastly different from today when there are devices to measure the radiation level all over Fukushima. A system to test radioactivity in food has been built and individuals can measure vegetables and other foodstuff if they have any concern. In the spring of 2012, it is true that monitoring devices were installed in major locations and food testing was conducted for many types of foodstuff. But what we knew about the overall situation is not comparable to what we know today. In addition, it took some more time before the results of the measurement became known to the public. 

The words of a participant of the 2nd Dialogue in March 2012 describe this situation. She was a mother nursing a young child at the time.

When the accident struck, I was clueless and became extremely anxious.Although I was worried, I did not understand anything about radiation or radioactive material. It was so scary. I worried about everything, every day. Now my life has become somewhat normal. However, when I purchase food in stores, I feel compelled to check its origin, whether it is from Fukushima or elsewhere. If possible, I would like to understand radiation better and apply it in my life.I am so busy just getting by, there is no time to read a book. Anyhow, radiation does not decrease by washing or freezing. Only time can reduce radiation. I don’t know if there is anything I can do about it. I guess all I can do is just go with the flow. (March 2012)

Another comment was, “Parents are too busy with their responsibilities [they don’t have time for radiation].” Immediately after a major disaster, society pauses. Relief efforts and support for the victims and the affected areas become the highest priority. And society devotes much of the resources for relief and rehabilitation efforts. Once this phase is over, society starts functioning again. Those who can return to regular life resume their busy life. Just because everyday life has resumed for some people, it does not mean that the disaster response has been completed, or everything is back to normal. 

The residents of the affected areas tend to be even busier because they have to continue the additional measures required after the disaster on top of their everyday chores. At first, people expected to settle down over time. Instead, new information kept coming, forcing them to constantly update any knowledge they had learned. Furthermore, the content depended on who you got it from.  The following words from the 3rd and 4th Dialogue tell the story. 

I read a book by a certain scholar that said, “As a result of the Chernobyl accident, these things happened…”And I felt like, wow, there is evidence. But I got confused because another book denied its relevance. This book says A, but another book says B.I couldn’t tell which was true.(March 2013)

Everyone is reading books. We received a lot of information, too. But the problem is how to apply the knowledge in our lives. The answer is so different, it causes more confusion. (November 2012)

It was not easy to study about radiation amid busy lives. It was even harder trying to determine which information was right out of the massive information that kept coming. Then, some adopted a new attitude, like this participant in the 5th Dialogue. 

Eventually, I lost sense of who my enemy was, and gave up fighting. After so many worries, I reached a state of mind where I decided to look away, so I won’t have to fret over radiation. All I could do was to live on, trying to find happiness in small things in life. (March 2013)

In the 3rd Dialogue (July 2012) that focused on food, Farmers and people working for the agricultural co-op JA as well as those from the food distribution industry participated. JA had already started working on its own initiatives to measure and reduce radioactivity. Their attempts included measuring the radioactive concentration in soil, washing and stripping barks of fruit trees to remove the radioactive material sticking to the bark, applying zeolite (substances known to fix or substitute for radioactive cesium), implementing deep cultivation to decontaminate farmlands, and measuring the products before shipped. A member of JA-Fukushima Mirai gave a presentation on such efforts in the Dialogue. 

Parents who listened to the efforts of the agricultural producers gave the following comments. 

I feel guilty avoiding locally produced food. I feel bad for the farmers who toil every day. [Listening to the presentation] I now trust they are shipping products that they feel confident. As a resident, I feel it is meaningful for people in Fukushima to set an example to eat local food. Of course, there are many types of information. I felt that what is important is not to be too nervous. I will keep getting the minimum required information and live my life. (July 2012)

The most important finding for me was JA co-op’s monitoring activities. It gave me assurance. Now that I am reassured, I feel I can let my children eat their produce. I worried over this point up to now, but hopefully, my children can eat what they grew. (July 2012)

These words reflect the changes that started in the parents’ minds after listening to the words of the producers actually engaged in the efforts. Her words show that trust was the key factor. The words of another participant point this more clearly. 

My father grows vegetables in his garden. He was concerned whether it was safe for the children to eat, and voluntarily measured the vegetables he grew. He said the results were OK, so all our family eat his vegetables. If we can’t trust the information of the central government and the prefecture, we can’t survive. Some say they can neither trust the central or the prefecture. [I believe] Such attitude causes too much stress; you won’t be able to live your everyday life. I would like to trust the farmers and trust what is grown in Fukushima prefecture. And it is my wish that the government won’t betray the producers. (July 2012)

The word trust comes up many times in this short comment. Her father grew the vegetables, she measured these vegetables, and said they were OK. That is why she decided to trust. Her words also seem to say that to feel something is safe, it is important whether the person providing the information could be trusted. Another person said it like this in the 5th Dialogue:

Can I trust the person in front of me?―This is the first point I think about before talking to someone. (July 2013)

The accident threw many people into a situation where they could not tell from left or right. It was as if they suddenly lost track of where they were during their daily routine. They did not know where they were heading, what is the road sign, if the direction their fellow travelers advised was correct, if they were moving in the right direction. If you had to find direction in such situation, what was most important? First, you may want to conduct measurement to check if your compass is accurate. Next, you may want to find a partner to discuss the direction to travel and who will walk with you. You can walk together, build a road as you go, and make a map that can be shared. Only then can you be assured that your life is safe. This process is not linear. As time passes, you may forget and have second thoughts. A participant in the 9h Dialogue described this process. 

Initially after the disaster, I used to attend the lectures frequently and consulted with the dosimeter every day. But now, I stopped going to any lecture. Neither do I check the dosimeter.The experts who gave the lecture may have been saying similar things, but the nuance made all the difference; sometimes I felt they were giving completely different explanations.I could not tell who was right and became worried once again. So, I decided to only listen to the experts whom I felt I could trust and ignored the rest. Today is the first time I heard about radiation in a long while. I have forgotten many things. It is human nature to forget as we go. (August 2014)

Trust has a big, perhaps a decisive effect on our risk perception. When laypersons evaluate risk, their first tendency is to seek someone they could trust. Then, they would temporarily “buy-in” the words and ideas of this person and make them the starting-point of their own risk assessment. This can be summed up as: let’s find a trustworthy person, listen to him/her, study what was explained. This seemed to be a strategy many people in Fukushima adopted at the time to move forward. 

The damage of trust by the accident had a major effect on people’s risk perception. This issue was often addressed in the Dialogue. Especially what happened right after the accident left a huge mark. This comment is from the 3rd Dialogue. 

I check the safety of vegetables and only allow my children eat what I feel OK. But not rice. It may be just my personal feeling, but…Rice reminds me of the accident. I cannot forget it was planted and harvested when the plant exploded. I can’t bring myself to put it on the table. (July 2012)

Even after seeing the result of the measurement, learning about the farmers’ efforts and the measures taken, often the memory from the time of the accident was too powerful for this participant that she could not accept it. Another participant’s comment from the 4th Dialogue explains the background. 

During the first month after the accident, there was not enough information. I never thought that the radiation would come to my place. Residents of Tokyo may have received information before radioactive material, but it was reverse where I lived; radioactive material came first. We were not notified about the harm from radiation. We could not act proactively. I wish we knew at least how bad it could be, if worst comes to worst. Then, we could have made our own decision. That is why, when thinking about radiation, I believe it is necessary to have a good understanding of risk and then decide how respond. (November 2012)

This comment is an accurate explanation of the shock felt at the time of the accident. It is well known that the Government of Japan used to say that a nuclear power accident will not happen in Japan until the accident at Fukushima Daiichi occurred,. Not only the government but the electric power companies and the experts on nuclear energy all said so. In fact, the entire Japanese society complacently believed that something such as a nuclear power accident will never happen. This lack of preparedness naturally resulted in a failure to respond appropriately. Communication broke down. Radiation monitoring did not start immediately. 

Failure to act proactively at the time of the accident made this participant feel that her sense of ownership was deprived, and she was subject to avoidable risk. If only she had the necessary information, she could have responded better. There must have been many who felt betrayed. The answer to the question “who was responsible for the betrayal?” may differ by each person. It could be the government, the electric power company, or the experts, etc. But the real culprit may be the society itself or even each of us―because no one considered the possibility of a nuclear power accident. Once we start wondering why we could not have done better, our self-trust is damaged, too. And it took a long time to overcome this feeling of betrayal and build trust. 

Ms. Satsuki Katsumi, a former school principal of Tominari elementary school in Date City, gave the following comment looking back on the decontamination project carried out in 2011 at the school. 

The parents of the children attending Tominari elementary school were deeply grateful to the commitment of the teachers and to those who helped. At the time, they faced many problems at home. They also harbored anger towards TEPCO and the accident itself and did not know what to about it. These parents used to be incredibly supportive of the school’s activities. The school was a beloved local institution. Thus, we did not receive a strong negative reaction to the decontamination project or on restarting school, such as, “How can you say something like that?” or, “Absolutely not.”Neither did we suffer from any interference. However, some demonstrated their dissatisfaction by saying, “I am not sending my child to school.” or, “I won’t let my child swim in the pool (that was decontaminated)”. 

The parents knew about the measures taken to reduce radioactivity and they were grateful to those who were involved. However, they were still struggling to come to terms with what happened. And they needed to decide what to do about the radioactive material in their environment. People had so much to think about, the term risk perception was inadequate to describe what went through their minds.

There was an unforgettable comment in the 6th Dialogue. 

I couldn’t stand being derided for what I was doing, like, “Why are you doing something so useless?” (July 2013)

This person was a radiation expert. Immediately after the accident, when the defunct plant was still emitting radioactive material in the environment, she started measuring radiation using her own device to understand the contamination in the neighborhood. Her acquaintance learned about it and made the snide remark, “Why are you doing something so useless?” Her words symbolize the deep divide created after the accident. 

For a few months after the accident, people were thrown into chaos with no idea about what was going on. They had to work with what piecemeal information just to get by. Each person had to respond in the way he or she considered the best, and you often found that the others around you chose a different course of action. And you had to make some serious, life-changing decisions under time constraint. Therefore, the acquaintance’s sarcasm was a punch in the gut. It was only natural to feel bad, or even be mad. Maybe her acquaintance was also badly shaken at the time, and it was just a careless comment towards someone who was doing something different. However, this episode portrays how such exchange could damage relationships. And there must have been many such cases. The participant trusted that his/her acquaintance understood him/her, and thus felt betrayed and deeply hurt. 

Most people feel they are the main character in their lives, or at least like to imagine so. You may not be aware all the time, but few people would be happy to have their lives micromanaged. The nuclear power accident rudely shook this subconscious sense of being the main character [in one’s life]. The experience that he/she could not act proactively and fell victim to risk as well as the ensuing sense of powerlessness hurt many people’s pride. And this experience left a deep, unhealing wound.

Then, life with radiation started. There was so much new knowledge to learn. Relationships with the so-called experts started. A Dialogue participant who has worked as a liaison between the experts and the residents made the following comment in the 9th Dialogue about this relationship. 

I felt that the knowledge gap between the experts and the ordinary citizens was so huge that they could not understand each other. They did not share the same language.(August 2014)

That they did not share the same language may sound bizarre, because both parties spoke Japanese. However, this may be an excellent way to describe the communication, or rather the miscommunication between the two parties after the accident. You could carry a conversation but felt impossible to get the point across. The more you spoke, the farther you were from mutual understanding, and became more exasperated by empty exchanges. This is a sketch of what happened in many places across Fukushima. In the 4th Dialogue, an experts spoke about his regrets.

We scientists, especially experts on radiation, have a habit of viewing humans as objects. But this does not work [in Fukushima]. We need to address each person as a subject. Every person has his or her life and a story to tell. The onus is on us for not being able to grasp it. (November 2012)

In the Dialogue, the issue of communication between the experts and the ordinary people continued to exist as an undercurrent alongside topics on radiation (such as how to measure radiation). Knowledge is rarely received as pure fact. It is given through people or exchange. Thus, any attempt to convey knowledge or information has a lot in common with communication. Thus, knowledge transfer becomes a communication issue. And the significant difference between the perspectives of the scientists and the public became the major cause of miscommunication. A scientific viewpoint examines an object from the outside to understand it. However, a person looks at his/her way of living from the inside, and he/she is always in the center. One looks at a human being as an object, the other regards it as the main character of his/her life. How can these completely opposite viewpoints be reconciled? And how can they be utilized to rebuild people’s lives? The conversation between the experts and the ordinary citizens was a process to think through these questions. 

The difference of view sometimes caused a rift in the Dialogue, too. Once, a certain expert proposed a decontamination plan that cleared a hill and completely changed the topography and built new residential lots for the purpose of reducing the radioactive material in the environment at a village in the hill. The plan created a new residential develop in what used to be a hill, completely changing the old landscape. A local resident present at the Dialogue adamantly opposed the plan; he knew it was not what he wanted, although he could not express it precisely.

The expert may have been well-meaning to suggest the plan. But it lacked a story that someone living there, someone who should have been the main character, could relate to. This was a typical situation that became a cause of divide. In most cases, the experts did not mean harm or had malicious intent. They merely overlooked the viewpoint of a resident who was a main character of his / her life, and unilaterally presented the expert’s view. Often, the residents felt being force fed the expert’s opinion. In another Dialogue meeting, I happened to hear the residents speak back, “Please don’t force your view on us.”

Unfortunately, it is hard to mend a rift once it has been made. It takes a long time to build trust, but it only takes one moment to be shattered. It is so difficult, maybe nearly impossible, to rebuild trust after it was broken. That is why people who regularly engaged in such communication were always extremely cautious. These comments from the 9th Dialogue describe this point. 

Different people have different thoughts and sentiments. It is one thing for someone to understand that the level of radioactivity measured is safe, but there is a long way to go before the person starts to feel assured. My conclusion after meeting many different people is that everyone has the same goal despite their differences: to live a happy and healthy life. Some may worry and others may not, but they share a common wish.Because they are connected by this goal, they can express different opinions or try different things. I believe that we need to build a society where we can respect each other’s differences. (August 2014)

It is important to measure radioactivity and to learn about radiation. At the same time, you can say you are afraid if that’s how you feel. (August 2014)

Communication after the accident was sensitive and had to be handled with kid gloves, like a game to lay a complex shaped piece on top of each other. The painstaking act to rebuild trust must have existed not just in the Dialogue but all over Fukushima Prefecture. It was repeatedly pointed out in the Dialogue that if there is a venue where people can feel safe speaking about his or her opinion, it will help foster mutual respect for each other’s opinion and judgment. Therefore, it is important to keep providing a place where people can carry on such conversation and deepen their understanding. 

On the other hand, we heard comments such as, “I felt out of place when I expressed my worries.” and “There is an atmosphere that speaking about radiation should be avoided.” This is a comment from the 9th Dialogue. 

In my role as a counsellor, I feel that there are fewer clients who speak about their fear of radiation during my regular session. However, there are still surprisingly many people who are worried. In a written survey, many write about their concerns raising children in Fukushima. (August 2014)

Some people found it more difficult to voice concerns as more measurements of radioactivity were conducted, decontamination measures were implemented, and radioactivity decreased over time. This problem may have become more noticeable over time. If this happened in a personal or a family setting, it may have been addressed by respecting each individual’s judgment without discussing the difference. Alternatively, the involved parties could have made some sort of compromise in their relationship. However, it caused a serious problem when people with different attitudes had to make a group decision.