Our family has feasted on two Gambaru Pakku (“Hang in there!” packs) — boxes of fruit, vegetables and miso from Fukushima Prefecture — and my wife has just ordered a third. We have bought several cartons of crisp Fukushima apples, too, and almost all of the rice we have consumed since the earthquake last March has also come from the part of Japan known worldwide for its cripple d nuclear reactors.
Since we are convinced it’s safe, shifting our consumption to Fukushima food is our small way of helping people from a devastated area, whose products suffer from an unjust taint.
Lately, though, this sort of gesture is starting to feel futile. After an initial groundswell of sympathy and support for the stricken northeast coast, a vocal segment of the public obsessed with avoiding even insignificant levels of radioactivity seems to be turning its back on the region.
A few weeks ago, for instance, residents of Kanagawa Prefecture on Tokyo’s southwest border belligerently confronted the governor over his proposal to allow burial of some of the debris left by the tsunami for fear that radiation might be lurking within. Among the opponents shown on television news was one woman who huffed that the governor couldn’t offer 100 percent assurance about the safety of the garbage — as if a smidgen less would be unacceptable.
Similar scenes have played out around the country; as a result of such citizen pressure, few local governments — Tokyo is a big exception — have agreed to take a share of the 22 million tons of smashed buildings, vehicles and other refuse that must be cleared before reconstruction can begin. Even though the junk comes from Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which are well to the north of the nuclear facilities, and even though officials have vowed to test it and incinerate it using special radiation-capturing filters, compassion has lost out to a Japanese version of “not in my backyard.”
The news has also been full of stories about people (mostly mothers of young children in the Tokyo area) searching for food produced far from the northeast. As for tourism, even Nikko, a city whose historic shrines and spectacular scenery rank among the most popular destinations in Japan, is coming under bombardment from parents fearful about school outings there — because Fukushima Dai-ichi is about 90 miles away.
So a mea culpa is in order. In an article last March, I contrasted the “relative calm” of the Japanese with the “hysterical” behavior of foreigners, who were fleeing the country and canceling visits. My chief explanation for the Japanese reaction was the way in which public television was carrying almost nightly interviews with nuclear and medical experts — the general message being that, for people living some distance from the plants, the threat was minuscule. That jibed with what I was finding on the Internet in articles by science writers and information posted by reputable scientists.
Well, I was wrong — about the Japanese, that is. A people who had impressed me as literate, sensible and above all public- spirited are proving that a substantial number of them can act just like “fly-jin,” the term derisively applied to the foreigners, or gaijin, who abandoned jobs and other responsibilities in their rush to the airports.
Let me explain why my wife and I have no reservations about eating Fukushima food and feeding it to our sons, who are 8 and 10. (We’re hardly reckless parents, by the way; we won’t even let our boys ride their bikes around our town, although their friends do, because the streets are narrow and clogged with traffic and pedestrians.)
The amounts of radiation that would endanger one’s health, we’ve come to realize, are way above the levels that anyone living a normal life in the Tokyo area could plausibly encounter from Fukushima-related causes. About a third of Japanese die of some form of cancer — roughly the same as in other advanced countries — and the chances increase by 0.5 percent for people exposed to an annual cumulative total of 100 millisieverts, according to widely accepted calculations by scientists.
That calculation is based on studies of groups such as nuclear-plant workers and the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — whose cancer rates, we were surprised to learn, haven’t been that much higher than those of the general population. (Small exposures occur in all kinds of unexpected ways; a round-trip flight between Tokyo and New York typically exposes you to 0.2 millisievert.)
A half-percentage point of extra risk isn’t terrifying; nor is it trivial. The main point is, to get anywhere close to 100 millisieverts of exposure, a person would have to eat ridiculously large amounts of food contaminated with radiation above government standards over a prolonged period, or stay for months in one of the hot spots that have been detected in gutters and other isolated p atches around Tokyo. At exposures below 100 millisieverts, some increased cancer risk may occur, but it is so small that scientists can’t detect it amid the welter of other possible causes, such as smoking or poor diet.
It’s distressing that visceral fear is trumping rational thought, especially since such attitudes could dash hopes for recovery among the hundreds of thousands of disaster victims. Saddest of all are signs that people in the northeast may be cracking under the strain.
An education official in Fukushima recently told my wife that teachers there are swamped with demands from parents to keep their kids away from playgrounds, or allow their kids to forgo school lunches in favor of home-prepared meals with no local ingredients. That sounds like the kind of behavior that, after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, generated an increase in depression, stress, alcoholism and other mental-health problems among people living in that part of Ukraine; studies showed that the greatest damage to public health was in the psychological realm rather than the physiological.
Some see Japan’s growing anti-nuclear sentiment as a heartening sign that a quiescent public is starting to take power back from political and corporate elites. Maybe that is a silver lining in the Fukushima cloud. No doubt, the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. deserve much of the opprobrium that has been heaped on them.
I just wish the most effective civic activism here wasn’t a classic manifestation of Know-nothingism. I wish, too, that the millions of Japanese who see the radiation issue more or less as my wife and I do — the majority here, I suspect — would begin organizing themselves. They could start by beseeching their local governments to take some of that debris. That would be a healthy step toward rekindling the spirit of concerted action for which the Japanese are justly famous.
Paul Blustein, a former Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post, is an author and researcher affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Centre for International Governance Innovation.