Submitted to ANT-Hiroshima by Elizabeth Baldwin
It’s wise to be cautious mentioning radiation if you are a visitor to Fukushima Prefecture. Questions asked feel like salt on a wound, smothering the stalwart, brave energy of recovery. Since radiological dangers are mysterious and impossible to calculate, why depress people needlessly? No one needs to tell me that people need cheerful encouragement to deal with job loss, smashed houses, and economic depression.
A year of upheaval and displacement has left deep scars. For all except, perhaps, the young, starting out somewhere new is wrenching. Evacuees can’t impose on relatives forever. People crammed into settlements of temporary prefabs have lost their beloved surroundings, their dignity, even their past. Their strength is waning. Any disability or emotional problem they had before the disaster is likely to be worse a year on. When old people in the evacuation settlements are asked what they want, some say, “To die.”
So, those whose homes lies in an area that is contaminated but outside the evacuation zone are likely trying to get back to them now. Coastal Fukushima is largely farmland that has been in the same family for generations. Rich soil, verdant hills, invigorating salt air. It’s impossible to overstate the pull of the land, the pull of the ancestors who developed it.
Do I need to mention that never giving up is part of the Japanese DNA?
“If you’re not going to give us a place to live and a job, then don’t tell us how to deal with the radiation.”
That message has resounded for a year.
Japan has shut down its reactors, for now. Everyone waits with bated breath for summer. What will people decide about nuclear power when sweltering July and August hit the country, especially energy-short Kansai?
Here we encounter the enormous influence on public opinion exerted by NHK—Japan’s omnipresent, intelligent and persuasive public broadcaster.
Since the radiological disaster, war has raged within NHK between the young datsu genpatsu (no nukes) faction and the managers who opt for staying the course.
Radiation-induced disease may not spike during the coming year, when Japan will decide whether to restart the reactors. Because everything about radiation is mysterious—who is contaminated, when, where, by what and what it means—the public’s decisions about “nuclear” will be influenced by whether the media portrays alternative energies as realistic, the way it reports contamination issues, and the messages it embeds in poignant stories about the affected people.
Here are sketches of two programs that followed people in Minami-Soma over the year following the disaster.
A five-generation dairy farmer refuses to abandon his land or put down his cows. Sending his children to live in a safer town, he spends a year caring for the cows, milking them, and pouring the milk into the ditch. He continually measures radiation levels in the fields, the barn, the harvested hay: too high. Before replanting, he tries turning over the topsoil in the fields to sink the radiation to a deeper level.
Cut to a scene in the barn this spring. Ruddy-faced farmer and spitting-image son watch the birth of a calf by lantern light. Moved by the power of life, the articulate and engaging son vows to return and become the next generation to work the land. Father informs son that the latest readings of the milk showed that Cesium-137 has fallen to permissible levels.
The earthquake and tsunami saddle a geriatric hospital with more patients than it can handle. Because of continuing bad news from the Daiichi Plant, the hospital can’t hire any more people. The overworked staff are near collapse.
Then, the exodus. Nurses with young children move away. The staff who remain—with or without children—understand why the others left, yet feel abandoned. A year later, NHK interviews a nurse who moved away. Still grappling with her decision to choose family over colleagues and patients, she weeps in front of the camera. She has lost her community; she can’t even call her former coworkers to encourage them. Back at the hospital, the beleaguered staff shed tears of weariness, loss, and fear.
Millions of viewers watch and cry for everyone involved.
Cut to the present: now that radiation levels are lower in Minami-Soma, the hospital hires new staff. One of the young women, who are disaster victims themselves, says she wants to contribute to rebirth of the stricken area. “This job will help me grow.”
At face value, these stories seem to promise that love, bravery, and commitment will triumph over radiation. But a warm glow does not erase all fear. And given a continuing NHK blitz of upbeat programs about practical, safe energy, viewers will be constantly reminded that stories of “defeating” radiation wouldn’t have been necessary if the tsunami had hit a windmill.
Elizabeth Baldwin, a peace activist from the United States who lives in Hiroshima.