Kiroku Project

Musings on the Dialogue

by Ryoko Ando

The first Dialogue I attended was the “Second Dialogue on the Rehabilitation of Living Conditions after the Fukushima Accident,” held in February 2012. I was invited to make a presentation and also one of the roundtable discussants. I had no idea what a dialogue meeting was nor what I should expect, and just sat in the corner wide-eyed. I remember there were some heated exchanges. The atmosphere was not always enthusiastic and positive. It was fraught with controversy and frustration at times. In those days, our society was shaken with emotional accusation and confrontation, not just in Fukushima but all over Japan. It is hard to describe the charged atmosphere with the simple word confusion. And I believe that the experience still leaves a long shadow today on Fukushima and Japan itself. 

I have always wanted to write up a summary of the Dialogue meetings. But I could not find a starting point, and it just remained an idea. Thanks to Fukushima Prefecture’s financial assistance, this summary was compiled as part of the project to shed light on rehabilitation efforts in Fukushima. However, it remains partial. The Dialogue meetings created a huge amount of text, audio, and video data. Given the time constraint, I had to limit the scope and chose to focus on the divisions created by the accident, as it had the largest impact on society which still exist and continue to widen. As others have written extensively about the efforts to mitigate radiation and its harmful effects, I decided to highlight something different. The term division was conveniently used to label many different phenomena, and the term was often too simplistic to describe what happened or how people felt. Hence, I tried to describe the division with more granularity, using quotes from the Dialogue meetings, as an effort to draw a more detailed picture of a complex story of a human tragedy. 

The summary mainly looks back on the Dialogue meetings from 2011 to 2015,. These are from the days when the Dialogue was an initiative of ICRP. The organizers of the Dialogue changed in 2016, and so has its character. The program was restructured to include an on-site visitation. The theme of the Dialogue became more focused on the issues of the evacuation zone and the returnees after the evacuation order was lifted. I hope to write about these Fukushima Dialogue meetings in future. 

I went back to the records of the Dialogue meetings, re-read the transcripts, added stickies to points that stuck in my mind and reviewed the photos and videos. It became a precious time to reflect on the time that passed. And I realized that there were many points that left strong impressions. But they remained untouched and unreflected because I was simply too busy with my life. 

Experiences become forgotten and lost over time unless they are cemented into retrievable records. However, we should not forget that something that was put in writing is not necessarily the whole truth. I am sure there are alternative views and interpretations on the Dialogue. This summary is a story of the Dialogue told by Ryoko Ando, who started out as a participant\ and then became one of the organizers―other participants and audiences have their own stories of the Dialogue. [which I long to read or hear one day.]

In the early days of the Dialogue meetings, I never thought that I may become one of the organizers. Just like Ms. Satsuki Katsumi, who has kindly granted an interview for this project, I got involved through Dr. Ohtsura Niwa who used to arrange the Dialogue for ICRP in Fukushima side. Then I started helping in ways I could, such as uploading information about the Dialogue on the internet, etc., as ICRP was not acquainted with Japanese internet/social media culture. When Dr. Niwa left Fukushima upon his appointment as Chairman of Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima, the role of organizing the Dialogue on Fukushima side gradually (or suddenly) fell to me. In the end, I established NPO Fukushima Dialogue to continue the Dialogue meetings in Fukushima. 

The biggest reason why I kept working for the Dialogue meetings since 2012 is because I had, and continue to have, special feelings for the domain it created. I realized this as I reviewed the records. I was moved by the words of the participants (and sometimes from the audience) who spoke from their heart. These were testimonies of people who struggled with an unprecedented crisis, a nuclear power disaster following a huge earthquake and tsunami. At the same time, I cherished the sphere created by the Dialogue, a stage where anyone could share their stories. 

The first time I attended the Dialogue meeting, I was surprised by its distinct format which was completely different from the meetings or the discussions that I knew. Quite frankly, I was impressed. It was not a stage for a verbal battle or an elegant discourse. (This is not to say that they never happened.)

What I found remarkable was that the format allowed people some leeway to express themselves; they could falter, hesitate, take pause to control of themselves, think carefully before uttering words, change their opinion upon listening to others―sometimes even taking back what they initially said―as they spoke. This almost introspective process did not lead to a clear-cut conclusion. But people  somehow found out that they had a better grip of where they were and which direction to go. I was moved by seeing the whole venue sharing a participant’s hesitation and not his/her conclusion and wondered how it was possible. The Dialogue’s capability to do this has been my question for a long time. So, I went back to the Dialogue’s roots in Belarus to write this summary to address this point. I feel as if I finished part of my homework.

The Dialogue can be discussed a wider context of decision-making process for dispute settlement through stakeholder involvement. However, it is beyond the scope of this article. 

The Dialogue meetings were lively events where people laughed, vented anger and lamented. Looking at the records from 2011, I wonder if the Dialogue built a field that is rare in Japanese society where people from all walks of life could just come and] verbalize their inner thoughts and sentiments. Needleless to say, the Dialogue is not a silver bullet. The limitations posed by the participants, the theme or the course of discussion left many issues unspoken or resolved. As I re-examined the proceedings, I feel it addressed as many issues as possible in the limited timeframe. Most Japanese are not trained to verbalize their mind before the public, and there is pressure against speaking openly. I believe that the Dialogue’s format made it easier for people to open up. But more important was that so many people felt an atypical urge to “speak out,” being thrown into an unprecedented crisis. 

Meanwhile, the Japanese society underwent a process where it gradually lost the vibrant and varied testimonies that we saw in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. This happened alongside the Dialogue meetings between 2011 and 2015. When the huge disaster broke the status quo, many if not most people realized that something must be done―even reticent people found voices to speak or felt moved to speak out. It may have been the eye of the storm, a temporary space that the extraordinary atmosphere after the disaster. This was pointed out in the 8th Dialogue. 

In Japan, traditional group discipline and communication style value restraint, that is, it is always better to keep your mouth shut. People who speak out or air dirty linen in public are labeled as irresponsible and unreliable and will be excluded from the group. In my view, the modus operandi in Japan has been to preserve something old and authorized and this has also been its secret to success. Now we face the challenge to change this tendency. To this end, opening up, speaking out and recognizing conflict as it is necessary. [If more people act this way] I believe much of Japan will change. (May 2014)

Somehow, people did not shut their mouths in the Dialogue meetings. And as time passed, they became even more eloquent. At the same time, “what should/could not be spoken” continued to grow under the surface. It is as if with the passage of time, the traditional communication pattern referred above regained power and the gap between what could be spoken and what was taboo became clearer and wider. 

From 2016, the program of the Dialogue meeting was changed to include an on-site visit of the affected community, although this text does not include these years. There were two reasons for this change. First, the affected areas, especially the evacuation zones, underwent such a huge change since the accident that words alone could not describe. A field-trip that allowed participants to experience the atmosphere and to converse ‘on the spot’ and became necessary to understand the current issues of the area/community. Second, as time passed by, the traditional communication style became powerful once again. Even in the Dialogue meetings, we started to see more tatemae (public façade) and boilerplate statements. To keep the discussions in the Dialogue tangible and relevant to what was actually happening in the affected areas, visiting those places and sharing the often-unspeakable problems were considered essential. s

Even so, I believe more than ever that we should not give up on communicating with each other using words. Once, I was chatting with Ms. Astrid Liland of NRPA (currently DSA) whom I got to know through the Dialogue and who has been instrumental in the exchange program between Fukushima and Norway. I told her that ‘fuhyo higai’ and discrimination against the communities/residents affected by the accident were becoming social problems in Japan. She asked me “Why don’t you discuss those issues publicly in Japan? “Her question made me realize for the first time that most people in Japan did not have access to an opportunity to address those issues in public. In turn, I was surprised that I had never considered speaking about discrimination in public. I then asked Astrid if Norwegians would debate those issues if they found themselves in a similar situation. Her answer was, “There will be a public debate, made widely available by television, etc. This does not guarantee a solution, or even understanding. However, I am quite sure Norwegians will thoroughly discuss the issue.”

This exchange left a lasting impression on me. I tried to adopt the method in a Dialogue meeting when the issue of marriage came up. In the 8th Dialogue, the participants discussed why/how someone would hesitate marrying men and women from Fukushima. I could not obtain approval from the person who commented on the issue, and the quotes from the exchange could not be included in this summary. However, I felt that the exchange allowed them to clarify each other’s viewpoint and where they differed. 

It takes practice to verbalize what is inside you and communicate them so others can understand. You need time to learn the technique, and it is not something you can do immediately. This is especially true if the education system, both in families and at schools, emphasizes children should listen and obey the words of their seniors/teachers, and learn how to read social cues and blend in. Hence, in Japan, children have few opportunities to acquire the skill, speaking out is difficult for many grownups. It is important to remember that there are many issues in our society that can only be perceived and shared only through mutual dialogue. And the need for a dialogue is becoming ever more important as the Japanese society experiences a period of great change. It is crucial to remember that the Dialogue meeting, an attempt for conversation held in post-accident Fukushima, was made possible through the participants’ aspiration to build a better society. There is no greater joy if this record of the Dialogue meeting can remind the readers of the heartfelt wish of these people in the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident. 

I would like to end by thanking everyone who helped and enabled the Dialogue meetings from 2011 until today. Jacques Lochard said, “The Dialogue is a suitcase without a handle.” No one can claim ownership, but it belongs to everyone who is interested in the Dialogue. I look forward to the day when I can add more treasures to the suitcase with you. 

February 20, 2021

 Ryoko Ando
President of NPO Fukushima Dialogue