Kiroku Project

The divide as seen from the Dialogue (2)

by Ryoko Ando

Each Dialogue meeting had a different color, reflecting its theme or the participants’ character. But looking back, sessions on education and child-rearing were memorable for the strained atmosphere. The participants sounded guarded and wary, as if they did not dare speak freely. It may have reflected the difficulty of talking about radiation in school or among parents. 

One reason why it was difficult to discuss the problems in schools, especially in the early days after the accident, was the lack of consensus among the parents and the teachers. A heated discussion ensued on the importance of including radiation in the school curricula in the 4th Dialogue. 

I don’t have an issue with teaching scientific facts about radiation itself in a science class. However, teachers and parents were divided on how to respond to radiation and to protect against its harmful effect. Even among teachers, there wasn’t a consensus. (November 2012)

People had vastly different attitudes and way of thinking to start with. Then they kept receiving new, sensational information. As teachers, we can’t teach something we don’t fully understand. Thus, we face a huge problem to decide what can be used as the basis of education and how to go about it. (November 2012)

As teachers differed in their opinion/stance on radiation, it was extremely difficult to set a unified policy. In the initial days, they did not have actual data that could be used to discuss radiation objectively, although measurement results became more available over time. Thus, it was impossible for teachers to provide explanation on radiation based on data. The teachers’ reluctance to teach students something that they were not certain about was only natural. 

A case of a school that offered a class on radiation successfully was introduced in the Dialogue. The school provided a teacher training and set rules on teaching the subject. These included: not forcing any conclusion, avoid callously using words like safe or dangerous, and, letting the children and their guardians make the final decision on safety. Teachers were advised not to voice their personal opinion against nuclear power or doubts on the effectiveness of decontamination. Schools that built consensus and set the tone of the curriculum on radiation could do so because they had been able to agree on the basis for addressing radiation in class. 

Other schools that failed to do so sometimes experienced serious problems. A school is an organization that many people from diverse backgrounds get involved. The children and the teachers are not the only groups associated with an educational institution; the parents, the authorities and the local residents are all stakeholders. Often, the thinking on how to respond to radiation differed even among the guardians or in the family. A school cannot handle such complex situation, as described by the following comment in the 9th Dialogue. 

When each family has its own policy on radiation, should a school accept the difference as diversity? I think this poses an exceedingly difficult problem for schools in the future. As of today, schools try to meet the needs of those who are most worried, respecting their concerns. (August 2014)

A characteristic of discussions on education and parenting in the Dialogue was that rarely if ever did children themselves participated. In most cases, guardians, teachers, PTA, and those who supported the school attended these meetings, but not the students. The grownups were aware of their professional and ethical obligation to protect children. And this might have been the reason they were so tight-lipped. If it is about something that only affected you, you don’t have to worry about the consequence to others, no matter how bad the outcome was. But it is different when someone else enters the equation. Especially if it involves children who must be protected, you can’t help being constrained. The words of this parent in the 9th Dialogue show this point. 

Mothers are humans, so they suffer from stress. Today, I am raising my children in an atmosphere of anxiety. And sometimes, I find myself venting anger at them. Hearing about child abuse makes me nervous, too. Once, when I was scolding my child, I wondered if this was abuse. I got so worried later and apologized to my sleeping child, “Please forgive your mum for scolding you like that.” I could not sleep with worries that night. (August 2014)

A mother uttered this comment after listening the words of another mother in the same Dialogue meeting. 

It’s the sense of responsibility that is so agonizing. We carry responsibilities as a mother and in our workplace. Listening to the words of my fellow participants, I could not help noticing it. (August 2014) 

She may have been talking about herself, as someone who has always carried the heavy responsibility of childrearing.

Listening to the discussions in the Dialogue and re-reading the records for this project, the almost desperate sense of loneliness among those taking care of children is striking. After the accident, many people felt some degree of loneliness or being cornered. However, the distress of those parents seemed especially strong. Why were they driven into such state? A participant in the 5th Dialogue explained it like this.

The government could not be trusted. Nor the experts. In a situation when no one had the correct answer, mothers felt that only they could protect their children. That is why the mothers were determined to do whatever was possible within their means. (March 2013) 

The importance of trust comes up here again. Even in normal times, raising a child is full of worries. Parents somehow get by with help and support from those around them. And such relationships need to be based on trust. But the accident shattered this basis. Now, you could not be sure if the words of those who normally give advice were reliable. If mutual-help became impossible, it is not difficult to imagine how isolated these mothers were; they were overcome with fear that only they could protect their children. This may have been a situation that many mothers experienced, as in this testimony from the 9th Dialogue.

You can never raise a child without experiencing some fear or worries. Today, in Fukushima, families are divided, and the local ties and communities are broken. In such situation, mothers are isolated. They feel so desperate that they can trust nothing but their own judgment. (August 2014)

You can imagine how lonely and stressed the mothers were, with nothing to rely on but their own decisions in a situation where nothing or no one could be trusted. The attention given to raising children in post-accident Fukushima was another factor that made the mothers feel alienated. 

At the time, someone pointed at my child and said, “Poor kid, your child will develop cancer in three years.” Another person asked me, “How are you going to take responsibility if anything happened to your child?” (August 2014)

Schools and nursery schools in Fukushima were quick to adopt countermeasures since immediately after the accident. Even before the authorities decided the official policy, the educators enlisted the help of not just the guardians and the PTA but also volunteers and other helpers in the local community. They started initiatives such as measuring radioactivity, decontamination of the yards and study groups. Institutions that offered lunch also worked on procuring safe ingredients and measuring food. 

However, the parents could not overcome their fear. Sometimes, frustrated persons threw harsh words at their efforts. How tough it must have been to become a target of thoughtless words despite doing what they could under the circumstance, though it may not have been perfect. In the 12th Dialogue, it was pointed out that such behavior―mom bashing― was not limited to a post-nuclear power accident situation. 

Even in normal times, mothers in Japan must bear the responsibility and the burden of parenting by herself [even if she had a partner]. This has been pointed out from earlier on. For mothers in Fukushima today, it must be so hard to be solely responsible for parenting. (September 2015)

An expert pointed out in the Dialogue in March 2013 that a disaster exposes the structural vulnerability of a society. It refers to a phenomenon where a vulnerability that already existed in a society becomes exacerbated and highlighted after a disaster. Applied to parenting, the Japanese society had already placed a huge burden on the mother. Mothers were already prone to the risk of isolation even before the disaster. The accident was a trigger that exacerbated the problem and made it more noticeable.  

The seriousness of the mother’s isolation was more exposed when the Dialogue discussed the ‘voluntary’ evacuees (those who decided to evacuate although their residence was not in an area designated as an evacuation zone).  From the beginning of the Dialogue, its organizers made an effort to reach out to these evacuees and invited them.

From very early on, it was being pointed out that the administrative system in Japan was not designed to deal with the residents who evacuated outside the prefecture. A municipality, the basic unit of governance, provides public service to the residents within its boundary. It neither had a system nor required skills to respond to the needs of the people who evacuated outside the municipality. In other words, municipalities in Fukushima were not equipped to support the evacuees. Some even pointed out that, given its mission to provide service to the local residents, municipalities are not supposed to implement measures that could accelerate the outflow of residents. This naturally weakened the evacuees’ ties with their hometowns/villages. And the evacuees faced difficulties in keeping up with the news and developments in their old municipality. 

Over time, the number of voluntary evacuees decreased. And when we sent invitations to the Dialogue, more of them replied their hesitation to participate. This was because they felt reluctant visiting Fukushima and speaking about their situation. They were also afraid of being rejected from the people who remained in Fukushima. A participant described this issue in the 9th Dialogue. 

I heard that some evacuees hid the fact that they were from Fukushima in their current location. It is because of some problems with the families they left behind, or out of a sense of guilt that they abandoned their mom friends in Fukushima. Even among those who returned from other prefectures, I also heard that some did not feel welcomed, or, found it hard to make friends because of a sense of guilt that it was selfish to evacuate and come back. (August 2014)

Many current and former evacuees spoke about a sense of guilt for evacuating. This caused some people to overjustify their action and criticize their hometown/village, which resulted in heated exchanges that left many scars. Another comment from the 9th Dialogue illustrates the complex situation.

I chose to remain in Fukushima and raise my children. This made an acquaintance [who evacuated] fret over my decision in an unthoughtful and excessive way, and I was hurt. Today, I heard about voluntary evacuees who suffered from a sense of guilt. Those who evacuated and those who remained, both camps went through terrible pain. No matter what decision you made, there is no clear answer who was right. (August 2014)

The sense of guilt did not go away after coming back to Fukushima. Because information on what was happening in Fukushima was not readily available outside the prefecture, some who returned felt out of place by the change and were perplexed and bewildered. A comment from the 11th Dialogue shows how these people felt isolated even after returning. 

An acquaintance who evacuated with her child recently returned to Fukushima. She keeps asking me questions like, “Is it safe to drink tap water?” or “How about local vegetables, are they safe?” It would have helped if she could casually such questions to her mom friends or the teachers of her child, but she couldn’t. Only after finding a friend with whom she could speak freely, did she find the courage to ask. (May 2015)

There were initiatives to support these former evacuees who returned to Fukushima, by providing an opportunity/venue to get together, such as “mom’s café.”In the Dialogue we heard stories of people who found friends who were understanding and became a close confidante. By speaking with such friends, the returnees eventually felt more comfortable in their life after returning. 

Voluntary evacuees and those who stayed behind often came into emotional conflict about their decisions. A participant explained the situation in the 7th Dialogue. 

Those who remained in Fukushima also worried about the health risk. Some endured hardships living in a temporary housing. They made the decision to stay after much thinking. On the other hand, those who evacuated avoided the radiation risk at the cost of giving up the entire social capital they had built in Fukushima. You could choose either option, but neither was satisfactory. Neither decision was a happy one. I feel that the residents of Fukushima were between a rock and a hard place. (November 2013)

If only the accident did not happen, no resident had to think whether to evacuate or remain in Fukushima. They were forced to make a decision they never asked for. Neither option made them entirely happy. Evacuation meant losing your former life. By remaining, you had to live under the effect of the accident. This comment is from the 7th Dialogue. 

What is possible for experts in such situation is to suggest a new option. An expert can make a suggestion to help the residents’ decision-making. For someone who made a certain decision because he/she was worried about radiation, the expert should honor the decision and make an advice that is best under the circumstance. For those who chose to evacuate, it is not the expert’s role to judge whether the decision was right or not. If experts could honor and support the residents’ decision without being judgmental [and make proposals that help their current situation], I believe the residents can feel more confident about their life thereafter. (November 2013)

The decision of whether to evacuate or not, and, whether to return or not had huge repercussions on the life of an individual and his/her family. It also determined where and how to make a living. Hence, whether the decision was satisfactory or not had deep impact on the person’s subsequent life.

Unless there are multiple options, someone will inevitably drop out. This applies to choosing whether to evacuate or not. A lack of option meant some people were forced to make a decision they did not want because they had no other alternative. (November 2013)

It was a difficult situation even for the grownups; how hard it must have been for the children. A parent who returned from evacuation described it like this in the 9th Dialogue. 

I feel that children know much more than I imagined. They also think a lot and make many decisions beyond my understanding. But they cannot express it in words. I believe that the children who evacuated and those who remained in Fukushima hide many things deeply in their hearts. (August 2014)

The post-accident events tend to be told from the grownups’ side. But the children were also present; they saw, experienced, and sensed what happened. Although these were not expressed in words, they must have lived through those difficult days with so many reflections hidden deep in their hearts. 

High schoolers were mature enough to express their feelings. A high school teacher made the following comment in the Dialogue. 

My profession is to teach, but this accident was new for people of all ages. Everyone was clueless, regardless of age. A model that assumes that adults understand better than children does not work. Therefore, I am not in a position to impart knowledge from above. If I can somehow suggest there are multiple ways to think about a problem, the children can think for themselves. Maybe we are in a situation to share a problem and sit together: “We don’t know the answer, so let’s work on it together.” (November 2012)

It may have been rare for grownups to own up like this participant and say they did not have an answer, so, “Let’s work on it together.” If it were possible, if the grownups could be more flexible, the children may have had more sense of being the main character in their lives[rather than a dependent with no agency]. 

Many educators and academics participated in the Dialogue, and they suggested using the accident as an opportunity to improve science education in Fukushima. A nuclear power accident was no doubt a horrible disaster; but they tried to find a silver lining. Others pointed out that many people came to support Fukushima and provided opportunities to learn how people can support each other and form ties. A participant spoke about this in the 4th Dialogue. 

Children in Fukushima may be going through a precious experience. Radiation, [the importance of] energy, human bond, these are not just knowledge but lived experience for these children. I believe Fukushima has a bright future if these children grow up and use their experience to think about their country and the world. (November 2012)

Not everyone shared this opinion. A resident from the evacuation zone raised his hand to speak, after listening to the above words during the comment round. 

For people who were forced to evacuate by government order, including myself, it isn’t something so simple that can be summed up as a precious experience. Every one of us had his or her everyday life stolen. Life itself was shattered. No one is sure how to live from now on. Lives will be lost during evacuation. Some areas may be ready to talk about a future or hopes. We are far from reaching the stage. (November 2012)

A similar exchange took place in another Dialogue meeting in 2014. A participant commented that if science education could be enriched, Fukushima may witness many world-class scientists being born. Another person who was forced to evacuate criticized the comment, “Science, my foot! No words can describe the hardship we endured; how can someone want to study a subject based on such a hurtful experience?” 

The exchange shows that people needed some time and space before they could see a silver lining in an unwelcome disaster such as the accident. Whether you had time and space depended a lot on a person’s position or situation. Personality played a major role, too. Someone grappling with pain would have found it unbearable hearing a suggestion to use this experience to lighten up and be more positive. On the other hand, once things have settled down, it is natural for people to start thinking ways to be more positive and not just lament what was lost. Even within Fukushima, there was a huge difference between the evacuation zone and the other areas―they faced different challenges and were on a different wavelength. 

In the 8th Dialogue, there was a discussion on what can be done to prepare for the future. A participant whose home was still under evacuation order made the following comment. 

It makes a huge difference whether people were allowed to stay overnight or not. Just one glance, and you’ll see. In a place like that, the question “what can we do for the future?” becomes so difficult. We don’t have an answer, we have just started from scratch. My point is, whether people live there or not is a huge issue to grapple with.  (May 2014)

I built a new house, and four years later, I was ordered to evacuate. Everything inside the house became a waste. If you ask me what my future vision is, I must say I haven’t come to terms with the situation yet.  (May 2014)

If you face challenges where you live, there is something you can do about it, although it may take a long time. But the difficulties of a no-man’s zone are entirely different. Without people living, it is difficult to even imagine what is at stake, how it can be addressed and where to start from. As described above, if the house you used to live is so damaged you have to rebuild it, it becomes harder to visualize your new life in a new house after returning. As more time passes after the evacuation order, your old neighborhood will have changed further. . Houses become damaged, infrastructure is broken, and farmland is wasted. Children grow up, and adults grow old. If you demolish and rebuild a building, it creates a new scenery. Even if the evacuation order is lifted, life does not get back to old times. So, for any evacuee, trying to imagine a new life after returning to your hometown/village in an environment that you have never lived in was not an easy task. 

Another cause of the divide after the accident may have been the government authorities and their response. Before the accident, you knew these existed, but unless you had to deal with the authorities, they were not something on your mind all the time. They formed a part of the social infrastructure. As long as they were working without a hitch, you did not think much about it. But the authorities were at the frontline of the post-accident response. They were now responsible for important matters, that appeared to have grave influence on the residents’ lives. Especially determining the evacuation zone and when/how to lift the evacuation order became a source of conflict. The scope and the time schedule of decontamination also caused much tension. 

The residents’ complaints were not groundless. It is natural to be concerned about decisions related to your livelihood or safety and wish to know more about the background. The words of a participant in the 5th Dialogue describe this sentiment. 

I know the authorities have done a lot, and I am grateful for their efforts. But I wish they could have listened to the residents’ opinion and paid more attention. Although the PTA made a request, they were not allowed to attend a meeting with the authorities. Only the head of local wards got invited. I cannot overcome a sense of regret that our voices were not heard. (March 2013)

This participant requested to attend an explanatory session when the central government designated “Specific Spots Recommended for Evacuation,” but her wish was rejected. In many cases, the residents had similar complaints: the authorities do not listen, but the decision is instrumental to my life. They were upset about how the authorities made the decision unilaterally. Decontamination works in the areas where all the residents were ordered to evacuate were met with deep mistrust, as explained in the 6th Dialogue. 

For two years after the accident, all they did was a round-table discussion in name only, because they just gave one-sided explanation in those sessions. Even worse, they just repeated a predetermined conclusion. (July 2013)

I don’t understand why they don’t care to set up opportunities to listen to the residents’ voice. (July 2013)

Every time there is an explanatory meeting, the central government sends a different staff. They haven’t done any homework; they do not have any answer for the question asked in the previous meeting. It makes you wonder if the government is serious about solving the problem. (July 2013)

A participant who worked for the government, although not directly in charge of decontamination, made the following comment in the 6th Dialogue. 

Decontamination is a public project ordered by the government and funded by tax. Any project using taxpayer’s money must meet certain standards and comply with certain rules. Considering the nature of public projects, decontamination works have limitations. (July 2013)

Decontamination is a public project. Even if it is conducted in a private land owned by the resident, the authorities, such as a government ministry or a municipal government orders the work to a contractor. Therefore, the contractor must follow the instructions of the authorities who ordered the works. The authorities need to apply a common set of rules to all decontamination projects because it is a public project funded by tax-payers’ money. Because of this nature, it was difficult to reflect the needs of an individual resident. 

This system works when the authorities know the best way to implement a policy. But it didn’t work in many, if not most cases after an unprecedented nuclear power accident. There, the authorities had to work from ground zero, including how to decontaminate the environment. Sometimes, a non-government entity succeeded in finding a new and more effective method than what was prescribed in the authorities’ manual or guidelines. The residents suggested adopting the newer and more effective way for decontamination. But such innovation was almost never reflected in the authorities’ manual. The residents’ request was neither illogical nor impossible. They merely thought that the new method was more efficient and effective. However, such request was hardly ever granted. Or, by the time the authorities changed their ways, it was too late to reflect it. Such conflict was only known to those who negotiated with the authorities about the decontamination work. Hence, this problem is not well known. 

A participant pointed out that this problem was rooted in the government’s organization and system. 

I feel that the organization of our government is not designed to respond to such crisis. Its structure is too compartmentalized. The Ministry of Environment is responsible for decontamination. In a farming village, it is necessary to decontaminate both the residential area and the farmland [including paths connecting them] to cover the space a resident would visit frequently. But the Ministry of Landis responsible for roads, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for farmlands, and the Ministry of Transport for rivers. All parties need to work together for decontamination, but the government did not have means to enable such cooperation. Each ministry can only work on what is prescribed by law. In other words, the government only had compartmentalized silos to work on this huge problem. (July 2013)

It was not just the ministries that were compartmentalized. The problem of silos existed at the prefectural government and municipal level, too. In addition, each siloclaimed control over its own turf. You can only imagine the frustration of a resident who had to contend with all of them. For example, if you were a resident from the evacuation zone, a simple task like clipping grass on your land and disposing the waste became a Kafkaesque nightmare. You will be shuffled around bureaucratic red tape and left waiting for an answer for a few years. A story like this was quite common after the accident. 

An individual who worked for the authorities acknowledged its weakness in the 8th Dialogue. 

A government can be extremely inefficient and ineffective to respond to individual situations. By its nature, it is extremely difficult to provide a case-by-case response. We have tried hard to build trust by avoiding unilateral, one-way communication. However, I feel it will be difficult to achieve a common understanding. (May 2014)

Even if an individual working for the government became aware of the authorities’ failure to respond well, the system and the complex rules and traditions of an organization became roadblocks for change. This is not to say that everything the government did was a failure. Sometimes, the residents found ways to work with frontline staff in local municipalities, as described in the 7th Dialogue.  

At first, we were like, “It’s the government’s responsibility. You guys should measure radiation.” Sometime later, we worded it like a proposal, “Is there any plan for the government [to measure radiation]?” Then the contact person replied, “If that’s what you want, we will try to get it done. Let’s work together.” (November 2013)

The problem was that a relationship built in this manner only remained at the level of the staff responsible at the time. In Japan, all government organizations, both central and local, undergo major personnel change every two or three years. Hence, it was common to witness the relationship and the initiatives built from cooperation with the residents to go right back to scratch after the staff in charge moved to a different assignment. What could have been done to alleviate this problem, so that a relationship like the one above could grow and become a foundation for a new movement for the government and the residents to work together on the many pressing problems? If only this was possible, the divide after the accident could have been less serious. A participant spoke about this problem in the 4th Dialogue. 

If we can embed it [the lessons learned] in laws and regulations, it can take its root in the society even if people forgot about them. Otherwise, individual efforts remain isolated success stories. How to embed those lessons into our social infrastructure is important, for it allows us to build a better and more resilient society. (November 2012) 

We want memories of the accident to remain vivid, but it is human nature to forget. The only remedy is to embed what should not be forgotten into laws and customs, in other words, to build a system in the society. Then, the lessons will remain to function in the society even if the memories of people have faded away. We would like to take note that the Dialogue addressed this point from the early stage. 

We have been discussing the divide and the authorities. The authorities played a huge role in creating divide through its reparation schemes. The compensation made an unrepairable chasm between those who received it and those who did not. The details were not spoken in detail even in the Dialogue [because it was so delicate]. However, people repeatedly pointed out how money became the cause of a serious divide that sometimes drove even family members apart. Money is a difficult issue that leaves a lingering bitterness in your heart. Money-related conflict makes relationships difficult, and the effect lasts long. Was it possible for the authorities to build a better reparation system that did less damage to human relationships? This is another challenge that the accident left behind.