The first thing that people asked me when in the States in early June was, “How bad is it in Japan?”
I gave the only possible answer, “Bad. Very, very bad.”
Radiation is here to stay and it won’t abate anytime soon.
But what exactly does that mean?
Tepco is nowhere close to getting the situation under control and in their efforts to keep cooling the melted down reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, they are creating massive amounts of highly radioactive water with no place to store it. Efforts to filter, then recycle the water have not been highly successful. So far.
Radiation is slowly seeping into the air and leaching into the ground supply. The dismal prognosis is that we could be living with these low-grade radioactive releases for perhaps a decade or more.
For us, 215 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi, it’s hard to gauge the long-term effects. Now four and a half months after the Tohoku Earthquake, life in outer Saitama meanders along as if it all never happened. No one really talks about the radiation or the fact that tens of thousands of people from Miyagi prefecture are still living in shelters all over Japan. We continue to eat local produce, and as it stands now, there is no immediate threat. I love how we are told there is no “immediate” danger from the radiation.
But then, what else can we do? Where could we possibly go? And do we really need to? Recently, my 16-year-old son Andrew somehow convinced me that riding a scooter to work would be safer than riding a bike. Having just read an article on the high risk of cyclists being hit by passing motorists, he caught me at a good moment. I weighed the risks, and gave in to letting him buy a scooter. Does he have a better chance of getting killed on the scooter than getting cancer at 46? Definitely.
Risk is all around us. And if any of you are parents, you will know the agony of letting our child go out on the street on his or her bike for the first time alone. Or of letting our teenagers drive, or even go out with friends. What are they doing? Are they drinking…smoking…or, god forbid, drugging?
So perhaps we are all playing Russian roulette with the future health of our children, but one thing I am certain, every other part of our life is pristinely “clean.” We live in an 80-year-old traditional sod and wood farmhouse that breathes real air (and dust) from the outdoors. We do not use air conditioning (even in the sweltering summer), or forced air heat. We eat simple foods with no additives or chemicals. We do not buy prepared foods.
In the last 23 years, I have seen Japan embrace convenience stores and readymade foods with a vengeance. While this food certainly (on the surface) appears more healthy than the typical fast food available in the United States, make no mistake that the so-called well-balanced bento box meals available at convenience stores on almost every corner in Japan are laden with chemicals and preservatives. It’s cheap food made cheaply.
Maybe now is the time to take back the heart of Japan. Maybe now is the time to go back to a simple farm diet. Miso, soy sauce, salt, and vinegar. Those are the true preserving agents of Japan. People can’t do much about the increase of radiation in their lives, but they can do something about what they put in their bodies or in the bodies of their children. Now is the time to embrace clean food.
So where can people find this clean food? Farmers.
Sadly, farming in the Kanto region (eastern Japan) has taken a huge hit because many Tokyoites are boycotting food from the whole region. Kind of mind-boggling when you think about the fact that parts of Kanto are certainly further away from Tokyo than parts of Kansai. You can’t just boycott a whole region. It makes no logical sense. Also it is effectively destroying lives of farmers who have no problem with radiation on their crops. But Tokyoites as urban dwellers have little connection to, or understanding of, the land or of the people who have been growing the food that has been consumed in their city for generations.
I find it ironic that Fukushima Daiichi was built to supply energy to Tokyo, and not used by the local inhabitants. Ironic that some people in Tokyo can turn away from the people and area that kept them supplied with food and energy. Ironic and sad.
But I suppose it’s all about ignorance and lack of transparency. The truth is, there have been many lies told about the situation at Fukushima Daiichi. A source in the Chinese embassy reports that the Japanese foreign office gathered heads of foreign embassies together a few days after the earthquake and advised them to evacuate their citizens. This news comes as no surprise to me as on March 17, I had reported via Facebook,
“The American government took a sharp right turn on its stance early today, deviating from the Japanese party line, by urging American citizens in a 80 km radius of the nuclear reactor to evacuate or stay inside (as opposed to the 20 km-30 km advised by the Japanese government). But realistically, there is nowhere for the Japanese to go, even if they did start advising more drastic evacuation.
Late this afternoon, the American government took an even stronger position and has initiated "authorized evacuations" for American citizens who want to leave Japan.
More rumors circulate that Tepco families at Fukushima Daiichi left right after the earthquake. And the head of Tepco was MIA for a couple weeks post-earthquake. The Japanese press (which relies heavily on ad revenue from nuclear power related sources) was mild in it’s reporting of the nuclear disaster. The foreign press was vilified for being sensationalist, and foreigners despised for “escaping,” were called “flyjins” (a take off on “gaijin” or “foreigner” in Japanese).
But most unconscionable is that the Japanese government did not tell its citizens about the huge release of radiation following a hydrogen blast on March 12 in Reactor No. 1, until two months after the release. So in the end, were those foreigners so wrong to leave? No. In fact, they should have left sooner. WE should have left sooner. On Tuesday, March 15, I got an email from my older sister Pam telling me to send the boys to the U.S. When I mentioned it to my husband Tadaaki, he looked at me and walked away without a word, having given no credence to Pam’s (apparent) over reaction. Thursday night, he started to think otherwise, and by Friday, Tadaaki’s position was that I should leave with the boys and he’d “hold down the fort” with his 83-year-old mom, and our cat and dog. Oh, and the 3000 chickens.
Tadaaki tried to pack Baachan (granny) off onto the bullet train to Kansai to stay with his brother, as he had some wild idea of grabbing the cat and dog and jumping into his van to outrun the imminent nuclear blast. Once his gas ran out, he was prepared to run. Oh yes, another point was that, mysteriously, gasoline was hard to come by, so no one could get very far even if they wanted to. Mysterious.
But, all that doesn’t matter any more, because obsessing about what happened in the past is pointless. Life is now and we should not let the presence of radiation consume us. Who really knows, or who can really understand, how much radiation is around us, or what that means in the long run. I certainly don’t.
I check in periodically to NHK World: Society & Others and I get updates from the New York Times on the nuclear disaster. Otherwise, I read the Japan Times twitter feed and sometimes click to the links. If I’m feeling like it.
Right now I have the field calling my name as the weeds are already starting to engulf. The hot, hot unusually dry spell that lasted for most of June and July segued into a cool typhoon. Bringing what I hear was “black rain.” Oh dear.
No time to worry about the black rain since there’s nothing I can do about it, so I carry on with our lives. My Japanese Farm Food manuscript and photos are due September 1st, and I’m thinking in a more positive vein. I’m thinking about how simply (and naturally) we live and about how clean the air is in our house and this little agricultural area in which we live. And I’d not trade this way of life (radiation and all) for life in the Bay Area where I grew up, because even there I feel far removed from the farm and this “real” way of life.
And as for the Tokyo people who are shunning Kanto produce…well Tokyo can be a fickle town. But then the sense of community has been long lost in urban areas. And that sense of community is really what created the collective energy that enabled Japan to rise up from the ashes of World War II. I wonder if now there will be a renewed interest in recapturing the rural customs of cooperation and mutual support.
I hope so.