Kiroku Project

The divide as seen from the Dialogue (3)

by Ryoko Ando

Up to now, our focus has been the divide inside Fukushima. But the accident also created a huge gap between Fukushima Prefecture and the rest of Japan. This divide was often discussed in the Dialogue, as people from outside participated in the sessions. If radiation was the problem, discussing the prefectural difference is a strange way to think about it because the radioactive fallout from the defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant did not just fall inside Fukushima prefecture. However, the prefectural border created significant difference in the measures taken by the authorities. 

Marumori-cho is a small town in Miyagi prefecture. It sits on the border with Fukushima prefecture, and the town experienced an increase in the radiation level after the accident. However, in most areas of Miyagi prefecture, the effect of the accident was not considered serious partly overshadowed by the huge tsunami damages, and the government was slow to react. Public projects to install radiation monitoring devices in Fukushima were not implemented in Miyagi, because it was a different prefecture. Also, the effects from radiation, both real and perceived, were not as pronounced in Miyagi compared to Fukushima. Because most of Miyagi prefecture did not suffer from radiation effects, it became difficult for people in Miyagi to recognize that some areas in Miyagi suffered from the problem. This issue was pointed out in the 5th Dialogue.

In Miyagi prefecture, it is difficult to openly discuss about radiation, such as whether we should evacuate or not. Some people in Miyagi do not understand the situation and ask questions like “Why in the world do you have to evacuate from Miyagi?” or, “The nuclear power accident is a Fukushima problem, why do people from Miyagi evacuate?” (March 2013)

Authorities that experience a wide-scale multiple disaster cannot cope with all the problems with limited resources. When a certain area within a municipality gets a different type of damage, authorities tend to prioritize the problem that affected a higher number of residents. And in many instances, the authorities tend to provide a uniform response to the bigger problem so they can provide relief to more residents. This is partly due to the fairness principle. When a smaller number of residents experienced a more serious damage, it was likely to take a back sheet in the authorities’ response, especially when they were massively overpowered by the complex disaster. As a result, a smaller community with more damage often suffered from late response. In some case, residents who could not wait for the authorities started to take action and began measuring radiation and various countermeasures with help from non-governmental sources. But the lack or delay of the authorities’ response created an impression that these damages were not official, and it became more difficult to raise awareness of the problem. The following words of a participant from Marumori-cho in the 4th Dialogue describe how the authorities’ attitude made it difficult to discuss radiation in Miyagi. 

I have to say that [in Miyagi] the community is not ready to talk openly about radiation. Take radiation monitoring, for example. Some criticized the plan fearing that it may make the children anxious. There is a strong tendency to silence concerns, saying that voicing the problem may lead to ‘fuhyo higai (harmful rumors)’. (November 2012)

This fear of ‘fuhyo higai’ was one reason why the authorities were slow to act. Any response by the prefectural government meant that they acknowledged effects from radiation existed, even though most areas in the prefecture did not face the problem. Then, prefectural residents outside the directly-affected area would be upset and start saying that area is “risky.” In turn, those outside the prefecture will start viewing the area as a place of high risk, which could start ‘fuhyo higai.’ Such worry caused the authorities to be overly cautious about taking any action in many cases. This attitude was sometimes explained by the logic that all residents of the municipality should receive equal treatment. But such attitude had the opposite effect, as the resident of the area that suffered developed a sense of unfairness. 

‘Fuhyo higai’ has been a problem since the early days of the accident. Most people heard about evacuees from Fukushima who were harassed, or people whose marriage engagement was broken [by the side not from Fukushima]. 

There were some famous cases that garnered interest across Japan. In August 2011, there was a huge uproar about Kyoto’s annual “Gozan no Okuribi” festival. The organizers first announced and later retracted their plan to use the logs from trees knocked down by the tsunami after a row about residual radiation. One month later, in September 2011, organizers of a fireworks display in Aichi removed the fireworks manufactured in Fukushima after receiving complaints from some citizens who feared radiation. Around the same period, protests against accepting tsunami debris from Tohoku region―although those were not from Fukushima―spread to many municipalities in Japan. These incidents came as a shock to the residents of Fukushima. To them, Fukushima was a victim of East Great Japan Earthquake and Tsunami itself as well as the nuclear power plant accident. Being treated like a pariah was like rubbing salt in their wounds. Concern for discrimination against Fukushima was discussed again and again in the Dialogue, as shown by this comment from the 4th Dialogue.

I hope for an education that will build a society where children from Fukushima, including my own, will not be subject to unjust discrimination. Discrimination is my top concern as a guardian. Radiation should be taught not just in Fukushima but all over Japan, otherwise we cannot eradicate this problem.  (November 2012)

Information gap between Fukushima and other areas, especially the greater Tokyo region, was always pointed out in the discussion about discrimination. Radiation and radioactivity were not part of science curriculum in the compulsory education in Japan. Hence most Japanese did not have even basic knowledge of radiation until the accident occurred. A participant pointed out the public’s lack of knowledge on radiation in the 4th Dialogue. 

I heard that a resident of Tokyo was shocked by the [natural] air dose rate of 0.06 μSv/h and worried, “Is it really safe?” The level is not much different from the natural radiation before the accident. I was shocked. (November 2012)   

In Fukushima prefecture, many lectures were held after the accident. Many people decided to study about radiation by attending these lectures and other means. Radiation levels of various locations in Fukushima were reported daily in newspapers, news programs, government announcements and daily conversations. Hence the residents of Fukushima became more informed about radiation compared to those outside. Conversely, people living outside Fukushima prefecture could not get actual data on information unless they made conscious efforts to obtain and follow up the developments. They often became passive consumers of information from the national media, such as television and newspapers, that were often sensational and attention-mongering. A participant stressed the need to address the information gap in the 9th Dialogue. 

I believe there is a strong need to educate people in the greater Tokyo region.Their attention is being rapidly diverted to the Olympics. When there is a rumor [about Fukushima or radiation] they just accept it at face value and move on to the next topic. I doubt how much of the efforts paid by the residents of Fukushima is being shared. I wish for long-term initiative, so people in the greater Tokyo region will eventually have the level of knowledge on par with those in Fukushima. (August 2014)

In areas outside of Fukushima, especially in the greater Tokyo region, information on Fukushima and radiation were superseded by other, more exciting news. Only the sensational news from immediately after the accident remained in many people’s minds. It is a common feature of disaster reports that articles written in a calmer tone are forgotten and only articles that evoked powerful emotion are remembered. This is not limited to a nuclear accident. 

Fukushima also suffered from a gap in the power to “get the word out,” or, who gets to make decisions on what is reported. In Japan, media conglomerates in Tokyo have this power. Around thirty percent of the population is concentrated in the greater Tokyo area, and the media naturally select information that are attract attention from these consumers. Participants working for the local media in Fukushima pointed out that it was hard to attract interest to a content made from the viewpoint of Fukushima. Once, an affiliate in the broadcast network in Tokyo asked him for “more attention-grabbing picture,” like the Fukushima residents cringing in fear of radiation. This likely caused a lingering hesitation to visit Fukushima even three years after the accident. This comment from the 8th Dialogue describes this phenomenon.

Employees of major corporations with national office network are troubled when they get a new assignment in Fukushima. It is especially difficult for families with young children. They wonder why they must move to Fukushima. (August 2014)

What caused such situation? One cause may be the public’s lack of understanding on radiation. This was a popular idea. This is why the Dialogue participants stressed the importance of radiation education from the early days. Many people felt that the education had to be provided not just in Fukushima but also outside the prefecture. A participant in the 4th Dialogue stressed this point.

Discrimination is not a matter solved by Fukushima alone. Unless the general public across Japan has achieved a certain level of knowledge of radiation, discrimination and new ‘fuhyo higai’ will crop up. (November 2012)

Most participants in the Dialogue seemed to support this idea. However, an educator from Tokyo pointed out in the 4th Dialogue that teaching about radiation after the Fukushima Daiichi accident posed a special challenge. 

Some teachers are worried of being criticized by guardians for teaching radiation in a school class. When this topic is brought up, guardians ask the teacher, “Are you for or against nuclear power plants?” (November 2012)

After the accident, there was a national debate on whether nuclear power should be abolished or not, and opinions were deeply divided. Because the Fukushima Daiichi accident was so shocking, disagreements became emotionally charged, and a calm exchange became impossible. It was not just about the accident. When you wanted to talk about radiation, you first had to announce if you were for or against nuclear power and which camp you were in―this was the atmosphere at the time. It was not limited to Tokyo, but likely so all over Japan including Fukushima. 

If you had to announce your standpoint before you start talking, and if you would be accused as an enemy for having a different view, it is natural that people would hesitate from bringing up the topic in their everyday life. This gave birth to an atmosphere where it is awkward to talk about radiation or nuclear power plant, which in turn caused the ‘fuhyo higai’ to remain unresolved. A participant in the 8th Dialogue cried out in exasperation:

How long will this never-ending ‘fuhyo higai’ last? (May 2014)

After a report that a student who evacuated from Fukushima became a victim of school bullying, ‘fuhyo higai’ towards Fukushima and its residents/evacuees was recognized as a national problem. But inside Fukushima, it has been a constant affliction since immediately after the accident. 

The problem of negative image towards the area affected by a nuclear disaster is not limited to Fukushima; it happened after the Chernobyl accident, too. Ms. Zoia Trafimchik, the director of an information center in Belarus, participated in the 2nd Dialogue meeting. Her presentation addressed how the affected areas in Belarus struggled with the problem. The Belarusian government established the information center with an aim to educate the younger generation and to preserve the memories of the accident. She stressed that the Center focused on changing the negative image to a positive one.

Belarus fell into huge confusion after the Chernobyl accident. After the aughts (since the year 2000 A.D.), the situation started to calm down. By this time, methods to control the radiation level in foodstuff and lifestyle management in households were established and carried on as daily routine. Despite these efforts, the areas neighboring the defunct power plant still suffered from negative image, and the price of food produced in the area was still depressed. 

Jacques Lochard spoke about an encounter that happened during his visit to support the Chernobyl-affected areas in the 3rd Dialogue.  

I experienced this in Ukraine in 1990s, while traveling on a train from a Chernobyl-affected area to the capital city, Kiev. I sat in a compartment with my fellow workers and an interpreter. We were in the middle of a very enthusiastic but technical discussion in French regarding radiation in those areas. A young man who happened to ride in the same compartment was watching us with curiosity. He asked our interpreter what we were talking about from time to time. When there was a pause in our conversation, he inquired if he could ask some questions via the interpreter. Although he was from Ukraine, he had never visited the areas affected by the accident. He seemed keen to know about the situation. After a round of questions, he muttered something in Ukrainian, as if talking to himself. I asked the interpreter what he was saying. He was saying that he did not want to marry a girl from the areas affected by the Chernobyl accident. I was shocked to hear these words, for I had never imagined a nuclear disaster will cause such a problem. As I started to visit the affected areas in Belarus frequently, I learned that this was a common story. A nuclear disaster has an effect to create huge divides between people. (July 2012) 

The problem Fukushima faced happened after the Chernobyl accident, too. On the other hand, Chernobyl was not the first disaster that caused discrimination or harmful rumors. After the above comment by Jacques Lochard, Mayor Nishida of Date City (at the time) took over the microphone. 

I was attending a seminar held in Fukushima immediately after the accident, when an audience in his 70s commented, “I feel sorry for the people of Fukushima. In western Japan, victims of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima faced discrimination. I personally know how they used to say, you shouldn’t marry the children of the atomic bomb survivors, especially their daughters. I fear for the residents of Fukushima.”

I was shocked by this comment. People sitting around me also disagreed, saying, “I don’t think it’s possible.” But in reality, we witnessed cases such as the rejection of fireworks manufactured in Fukushima. This shows that, discrimination is not something new, rather it has deep roots in Japan. People from north east Japan just didn’t know about it. And discrimination is not limited to the atomic bomb victims. It’s historical. In Japan, we always had discrimination rooted in our belief that impurity must be avoided. We must acknowledge this fact. Any measure to grapple with radiation must take this into account. At the root of all the problems radiation caused is the need to combat discrimination in Japanese society. (July 2012)

Discrimination and harmful rumors did not just occur in Fukushima. Like the structural vulnerability mentioned earlier, these existed in Japan from before the accident. It was not limited to Japan, as the areas affected by the Chernobyl accident were also subject to discrimination. Sadly, it is part of human nature to exclude and ostracize someone who is different, and if possible, place burdens on those who are weaker and try to ignore that the problem even existed. This problem may have intensified and erupted by the nuclear disaster.

A physician who runs a mental health clinic in Fukushima made an unforgettable remark in the 8th Dialogue. 

I am aware of the deep pain such discrimination caused among the Fukushima residents. On the other hand, I would like to point out how some patients with mental health illness are subject to discrimination for the rest of their lives. From before the disaster, people with mental illness were excluded from and abandoned by society, not just in Japan, but all over the world. When it comes to discrimination, what is at stake is whether the whole society is willing to accept [the discriminated] or going to continue excluding all or part of them. (May 2014)

Discrimination is not limited to Fukushima or radiation. As a society, how are we going to address the tendency to abandon and exclude the less fortunate and exclude? This is a question that all of us in Japan must address. 

When the above comment was made in the 8th Dialogue, an uncomfortable silence spread in the venue. It was as if people were caught off guard, or, they were stunned by a sharp blow. The doctor’s comment touched a nerve that though they were sensitive about Fukushima’s victimization after the accident, they may be discriminating someone in a different setting or have looked away from such problem. Discrimination exists in our society; sadly, it is so common that no one is immune from it. The victims and perpetrators are not always fixed, they may change their roles in a difference setting or condition. The accident revealed the discriminations that have always existed in the Japanese society. The doctor’s comment point out that the issue should not be limited to Fukushima or nuclear disaster; it should be addressed in a wider context.

Going back to the discrimination caused by the accident, the participants shared the same concern for the children growing up in Fukushima in the 9th Dialogue. 

[I just hope] Children who grew up in Fukushima won’t be disadvantaged by the fact in the future. (August 2014)

To do so meant not just protecting them today but empowering them so they could acquire the strength to stand on his/her own feet as grownups. When someone throws cruel words at you, what wounds your pride is not the word per se. There is no denying that the words hurt your pride, but it becomes more hurtful if you couldn’t retort in your own words, even if you disagreed with those harsh words. Even if you were verbally abused, you can start walking the path to recovery if you had a strong sense of self-worth and had knowledge and words to take a stand against the bully. The parents in the 4th and 8th Dialogue meetings described their resolve. 

In preparation for the future, I tell my children, ‘You must be able to explain about Fukushima accurately if you are going to live somewhere else one day.’” (November 2012) 

One day, our children will leave home when they enter junior high school or a high school. As a mother, I am aware that they may be subjected to discrimination for being from Fukushima. You can’t help there are some people like that. My hope is that, when people hurl ignorant words and abuses, my children are mature and possess knowledge. I wish they are confident and can provide explanation that those from outside Fukushima can understand. (August 2014) 

Knowledge, wisdom, and words can be your best defense. This topic frequently came up during the Dialogue. However, it is worth examining today, whether we have been able to hand the children the weapons they need to defend themselves.

When discussing about how to fight discrimination and ‘fuhyo higai’, the locals pointed out that reputation was not the only problem. This comment from the 9th Dialogue pointed out that many people still hesitated from visiting Fukushima. 

‘Fuhyo higai’ is an image problem we need to address. But we must face the fact that Fukushima lacks attraction to make people want to come and live here. (August 2014)

This may sound harsh, but a similar point was raised in a discussion on ‘fuhyo higai’, too. A participant suggested in the 8th Dialogue that, beyond ensuring the safety of Fukushima produce, it is necessary to improve its quality. 

Of course, foodstuff must be safe. But what is important is to make sure the consumers find it delicious. (May 2014)

Another point raised was that it was important to ensure that visitors enjoy Fukushima and have good experience. This is a comment from the 10th Dialogue.

A college student from Tokyo wanted to visit Fukushima, but the parents did not give permission. Because the student had a strong desire to do so, we explained the current situation including the radiation level. However, the parents did not give consent. As this story shows, there are still difficulties even three and a half years after the accident. On the other hand, some students became repeat visitors. There is a long road ahead. I would like to continue steady efforts so that visitors to Fukushima enjoy the experience and have a good word-of-mouth. (December 2014)

Sometimes, reports on the disaster moved the hearts of the younger generation and created a genuine interest, probably because they had greater sensitivity. Their attitude stood as contrast with that of the older generation who tend to apply the sharp dichotomy regarding nuclear power on everything that happened in Fukushima after the accident. This comment from the 8th Dialogue is an example. 

I experienced surprising level of interest from students in western Japan. (May 2014)

Even as of March 2021, many youths from outside Fukushima continue to visit the affected areas as part of their school trip or extracurricular study program. Although the accident created many divisions across society, it is important not to pass down the division to the next generation. Another challenge is to avoid creating a new division between the older generation who experienced the accident and the rehabilitation process and those who do not. Hence, those who have already reached adulthood at the time of the accident must take on the challenge to define the legacy,that is,what can and should be passed on to the next generation. And, re-examining the negative legacy such as discrimination would be part of such effort. A participant in the 12th Dialogue gave this comment. 

I had the impression that the accident brought to light the underlying problems already in the economic and political system of Japan. Hence, it is not only a Fukushima problem, but a problem for the whole society. No one knows how to overcome the problem. (September 2015) 

So far, we have looked at the words spoken at the Dialogue regarding the division that manifested after the accident. Let us examine what has become of the division today. Did it go away with time? A participant spoke about it in the 7th Dialogue. 

As more time has passed since the accident, the more complex the situation has become. The accident threw all of us into the problem and everyone had to scramble at once, like runners in a race. In this sense, everyone started from the same situation. Over time, people faced different circumstances in their individual lives whether inside Fukushima or where they evacuated. As arrangements that were once temporary become permanent, the distance between each individual widened, and it becomes harder to share perspectives. It results in increasing the difficulty to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. I feel anxious that, unless we make a conscious effort to reach out and connect, we will be even more marginalized. (November 2013)

The current situation makes us wonder if division can only be created but not dissolved. And this feeling is getting more powerful. When a huge accident occurs, creating a new division in society, the new conflict and friction it causes stand out. As many people’s lives are affected by the changes caused, they are talked about. Hence, society recognizes it as a challenge to be overcome. Ironically, once the divide is established and becomes an everyday fixture, it becomes easy to ignore the problem and not worry about it. 

Looking back on the records of the Dialogue, we realize that the many divisions pointed out have not been dissolved today. Many if not most people seem to have given up solving the problem, as if you cannot do anything about it. 

On the other hand, if you look carefully at the situation in Fukushima today, you will notice that change is ongoing and evolving, although it may not be as dramatic or apparent as then. And such change inevitably creates new divisions. These are harder to observe because they are not as significant as those created immediately after the accident. But these new divisions seem to be at the root of the suffocating atmosphere as well as the difficulty in understanding each other in everyday life. 

So far, we have revisited the words from the Dialogue meetings to examine the divisions after the accident. These are too raw, like a bone stuck in one’s throat, which refuses to be a past event, something that was in the spotlight only for a short time after the accident. In fact, they are more like an ongoing event that are likely to throw shadows on our future. As the divisions caused by the accident became a problem for the society in Japan, the ever-widening divide has become a huge global issue. Hence, it is even more important to reexamine the divisions today, as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the accident.