Norma Field, professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Chicago. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Thursday, July 7, 2016Peggy McInerny

Norma Field explored the anguish and anxiety of Japanese living with the consequences of the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

“I think it's one of the evil words of our day — fukko (reconstruction) — because it excuses everything that is going on: the forced returns, the use of workers in very questionable circumstances and work environments, what is done to children.”

By Peggy McInerny

UCLA International Institute, July 7, 2016 — In a lecture as notable for its gentle delivery as for its cutting criticism of the Japanese government, Norma Field spoke about Japanese citizens living with the terrible consequences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster at the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies in late spring 2016. Field is Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor in Japanese Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at University of Chicago and a longtime antinuclear activist.

Located in Fukushima Prefecture of the northern Tōhoku region of Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was gravely damaged by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake on of March 11, 2011, causing a catastrophic leak of radioactivity. The nuclear plant is run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which Field noted had yet to be held criminally responsible for the accident, even though the possibility of such an accident had long been known to the company.

Field’s remarks ranged from the dangers of nuclear power to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the pollution created by U.S. atomic weapons production facilities. However, she primarily focused on the psychological “split” that has come to characterize Japanese who continue to live in Fukushima Prefecture.

“What I am trying to wrap my mind around,” explained the speaker, “is the social impact, the human impact — what it does to individuals and society to live with a nuclear catastrophe.” She emphasized the torment of shame, guilt and anxiety experienced by people who remain in the region. These residents, she explained, fear that they are exposing themselves and their families to more radiation, but are reluctant to express these fears (whether about local food, hanging wash out to dry or radioactivity in the air) because they run counter to the narratives of the local and national governments and call into question the everyday practices of their neighbors.

Field recounted that even at a press conference given by the newly formed Fukushima Thyroid Cancer Family Association, the two fathers who agreed to be interviewed on television spoke in electronically altered voices and showed solely their torsos on screen. Only in this way, she said, were they willing to share the experience of being with their children when they were abruptly informed that they had pediatric thyroid cancer.

Severity of disaster deliberately underestimated by Japanese government

The Japanese government initially designated concentric circles around Fukushima city that were safe and non-safe to live, respectively. Yet as Field ironically observed, “We know radiation doesn’t consent to travel in concentric circles.”

The national government has since redefined evacuation and safe habitation areas. And because it cannot clean up the local environment to the standards originally promised, Field contended that the government had raised the standards for radiation exposure. The Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) of Japan has set maximum annual radiation exposure by the general public to 20 millisieverts (mSv), which she explained was 19 mSv greater than the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) limit of 1 mSv. For workers in the nuclear industry, the NRA has raised the exposure level to 100–150 mSv per year, while the ICRP limit is an average of 20 mSv per year over a five-year period, with no one year to exceed 50 mSv.

The Fukushima Prefecture, moreover, began to pressure the governments of neighboring prefectures as early as 2012 to cut off the rental assistance they had offered Fukushima residents who relocated to those regions. “Why would you ask other prefectures who are being generous [to cease assistance]?” asked Field. “I suppose because you can’t go on without a tax base. It’s really important to get these people back, and that is also driving a great deal of what goes on.”

Recounting the words of a father whom she heard speak in November 2015, she quoted: “We as parents are now faced with this choice: exposing our children to higher levels of radiation or consigning them to poverty.” Meanwhile, the Fukushima Medical University has been officially charged with investigating thyroid cancer in the prefecture, but neither its methodology nor findings are transparent.

The national government continues to speak only in terms of “reconstruction” of the areas polluted by radiation, never of permanent exclusion zones, said the speaker. “I think it's one of the evil words of our day — fukkō (reconstruction) — because it excuses everything that is going on: the forced returns, the use of workers in very questionable circumstances and work environments, what is done to children,” she asserted.

“It’s [reconstruction is] something that everybody wants,” she explained, “And yet it's being presented and enacted in a way that will only harm so many people. In other words, that there have to be many, many more lives, hours of nightmares and anxiety sacrificed to this notion of reconstruction — carelessly, haphazardly done, unfeelingly done, unjustly executed.”

She noted, for example, that the new expression and practice in Fukushima Prefecture was “removal of impurities,” which refers to removing layers of earth and greens from residents’ yards. “As people rightly point out,” noted Field, “it isn’t removing, it’s transporting impurities because you can’t remove radionuclides.” (Burning the refuse has the same effect.) After debris and garden pickings are removed, they are placed in plastic garbage bags alongside the road. “In many parts of Fukushima, they line the roads that schoolchildren pass so that, ironically, the ‘removal of impurities’ means the possibility of exposing children yet again,” she remarked.

To make matters worse, the “Happy Road Network” recently identified National Road 6 — which runs alongside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — as a target for cleanup. Middle and high school children involved in “beautification” clubs were subsequently mobilized to clean up parts of the road in Fukushima Prefecture. Field noted that none of the students wore masks and only some used gloves.

Voices of anguish, anxiety and fear

Field read several excerpts from an e-book that that she had compiled and translated with a graduate student: Fukushima Radiation: Will You Still Say No Crime Was Committed? (2015). The book is a selection of statements made by Fukushima Complainants for the Criminal Prosecution of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. The complainants, Japanese citizens aged 7 to 87 living in Fukushima and elsewhere in Japan, submitted their statements to the Fukushima Public Prosecutor’s office on June 11, 2012. The drive behind the complaints was led by longtime anti-nuclear activist Muto Ruiko, herself from the region, who created the complainants association.

After the Prosecutor’s Office refused twice to initiate a criminal court case based on the statements, the complainants then submitted their statements to two sequential Citizens’ Inquest Committees, an unusual legal body in Japan. The second Committee decided in favor of a criminal procedure and the court then appointed five prosecutors to undertake the case.

These statements, she explained, reflect “the enormous frustration and anger of some residents that time passed and no one, absolutely no one, has been required to take responsibility for this disaster.” Among the voices she shared were:

“Both those who have evacuated and those who stayed on are suffering and living in anguish.” —Man, 38 years old

“Our son is currently working inside the nuclear power plant that exploded. We beg him to quit but he won't listen. He continues to report to work, saying he will probably be able to live at least until his 10-year-old daughter becomes an adult.” —Woman, 62 years old

“In the event of an automobile accident, isn't the perpetrator's crime more serious if he fails to aid the victim? Do we let a hit-and-run driver get away with it?” —51-year-old (gender not identified)

Field later observed, “A number of older people who joined the complainants association really tie this failure to take responsibility to the failure of the Japanese government and, correspondingly, the failure of the Japanese people, to take responsibility for their acts of aggression and atrocities committed on the Asian continent in the Pacific War, as well as for the abandonment of the citizens by the government.”

Radioactivity poisoning as grounds for discrimination?

At one public meeting in Tokyo dealing with the Fukushima disaster, a woman who had survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki encouraged people from Fukushima to lobby for a health booklet that would guarantee their health care throughout their lives. Yet Field pointed out that many survivors of the atomic bombings (hibakusha) declined to apply for such booklets because they feared that, if it became known, their children would be discriminated against in both employment and marriage.

“And watching what’s happening in Fukushima now, I'm beginning to wonder if the most enduring effect of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hasn't been to lay a very finely honed readiness to discriminate against survivors of the nuclear episode,” she remarked. “I'm putting it rather ironically, but the readiness with which the people in Fukushima have been discriminated against, and the readiness with which many of them have adopted secrecy as their own mode to survive, makes me wonder about that.”

In closing, she cited the group statement written by Motu Ruiko to submit the complaints to the Prosecutor’s Office for the first time:

“This [the submission of statements for consideration of criminal charges], we feel, is profoundly meaningful. It is an occasion for questioning the society that we have in this country in which each person is not valued, which imposes sacrifice on some but not others. It is an opportunity for those of us who have been divided and torn apart by the disaster to come together once again and expand our circle. It is an opportunity for those of us who are wounded and in despair because of the disaster to recover our strength and dignity.”