Bread and becquerels: a year of living dangerously

Nuclear disaster has turned family routine on its head

by Gianni Simone

My New Year’s resolution back in January was to survive this year, and many more to come, which means keeping myself and my family as far from harm’s way as possible.

Unfortunately, staying healthy in the atomic age is far from easy, particularly after the nuclear accident in Fukushima. 2012 is already showing the telltale signs of radiation exposure — a weird one-day excrescence at the end of February certainly doesn’t bode well for the future.

My overall impression is that without decisive intervention from the central government, the do-it-yourself approach to survival is the only one that really works. God helps those who help themselves, after all. You don’t need to be a believer to agree, but who knows, perhaps a touch of faith might help.

One year has passed since the nuclear accident at Fukushima, and very few things seem to have improved — or even changed, for that matter — since last March. I am among those who initially believed the reassuring words of those people who, sometimes in good faith, downplayed the risks of possible radioactive contamination. Also, as my family lives in Yokohama, I rather naively felt that we were a safe enough distance away from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

I began to suspect something was wrong when I heard about groups of parents who were organizing in the Kanto region to put pressure on the government and local authorities to come clean about the true extent of radioactive contamination from the accident.

My wife, who had never been interested in politics or grassroots activism, went as far as to join the Yokohama no Kodomotachi wo Hoshano Kara Mamoru Kai (Group to Protect Yokohama Children from Radiation), an organization founded last May by Toshiko Yasuda, a 41-year-old housewife who was worried about the food her daughter was being served at her elementary school. Considering how uncooperative both the PTA and the Yokohama City Council were on this matter (the headmaster at my children’s school candidly admitted to astonished parents that he was risking his neck (“kubi ga kakatteiru“) on the matter and had no intention of sacrificing his career), many people decided to take matters into their hands — at least those who had not been hypnotized by the relentless “don’t worry, be happy” mantra.

Looking back at the life my family used to lead before that fateful Friday afternoon — when the earthquake ruined the pizza party I was enjoying with friends — it’s frightening how much it has changed.

For one thing, there’s my daily diet. All of a sudden spinach and other risky foods are out, while apples are in. We have also added apple pectin to our diet because it helps sweep out radioactive dust particles from the intestines (apparently it was used extensively after the Chernobyl disaster).

We now know stuff we did not really care about before. We feel like last year we took a crash course in science (e.g. cesium, strontium and plutonium’s half-lives, and their effects of the human body), technology (how to use and read a Geiger counter) and history (how the triad of national government, bureaucracy and industry ruthlessly imposed nuclear energy as the fuel source of choice, and later launched a wide-ranging construction program that over the years has turned Japan into the world’s third nuclear power).

Indeed, keeping out of reach of the long arms of nuclear death, or even trying to limit the damage, is a 24/7 job. Wearing masks and brushing our clothes after coming home have become as natural as washing our hands or taking a shower. My wife even tried to make my sons wear a pair of protective glasses, but they were deemed too ugly by our fashion-conscious kids, and were unceremoniously relegated to the bottom drawer.

Living in the nuclear age also means avoiding little pleasures that until now we had taken for granted. My children (and some of their classmates), for instance, will not join their school trip to Nikko because of the worrying news we have heard about contamination in that area.

The person whose daily routine has changed the most, though, is my wife. In the morning she has to prepare our sons’ lunch boxes (because their school has proven to be completely unreliable on food control matters). Then she sits in front of the computer and reads the many mails that other members of her group send daily with radiation-related news, data and links. She does the same after dinner. In the afternoon, she may take part in group studies, listen to an expert comparing the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, or meet her friends to plot another guerrilla action — like when they smuggled food out of school and got it checked for contamination (something the principal had refused to do).

Obviously one of the aspects of daily life we are most concerned about is food, considering that more than once contaminated goods have found their way into supermarkets and school lunches nationwide.

Once upon a time the Japanese used to be proud of their local food’s supposed superior quality (mislabeling and other assorted scandals be damned), and would aggressively check foreign products for safety. Sadly that golden age is over.

Since agricultural and food standards were revised in 2000, all products must be labeled with the name of the producer and place of origin, as well as other useful information. A new tracking system allows people to trace the place of origin of most fresh produce, beef and eggs, to name a few. Lot numbers on packages allow you to track down farm names and their addresses, among other things.

Milk is a little trickier because most companies buy it from different places. So often what you are actually drinking is a blend of different varieties. The best thing to do in such cases is to avoid the stuff altogether. At our local supermarket they have Dai Aso milk from Kumamoto. In other places you can find milk from other southern prefectures (e.g. Shiro Bara from Hyogo — even though for my wife Kansai is already too close to home). As for yogurt, we were lucky enough to get some milk enzymes from a neighbor, so now we make it ourselves. It actually tastes more like cheese than yogurt proper — which makes it even better, if you ask me.

Thankfully, such slogans as “support the Tohoku farmers” have long ago disappeared from store shelves. Hopefully people now understand that if there is someone who should support them, that would be the government, which caused the problem in the first place.

In the meantime, my wife spends countless hours calling the companies’ toll-free numbers, requesting all manner of information on food origin and composition — stuff they are required to give by law — and lecturing the poor operators on what and how things should be done.

Then comes shopping itself. We used to buy everything at a couple of supermarkets nearby, but now we’ve had to diversify.

Of course, each area in Japan has different supermarket chains, so it is difficult to generalize. As for us, our store of choice (OK Mart) is still cheap and reliable enough that we do most of our grocery shopping there. I have also heard of people who have set up regular accounts with department stores in distant regions, or ask friends or relatives to send goods that are difficult to find here. The takkyūbin delivery service is so cheap and fast that is actually worthwhile.

To be honest, if you want to limit the risk of contamination as much as possible, you should avoid almost anything coming not only from Tohoku but the Greater Tokyo area too. That’s why online shopping is an excellent, albeit time-consuming solution.

Toto Seikatsu Club (www.tohto-coop.or.jp/), for instance, checks each and every product for cesium-134 and 137, as well as radioactive iodine. They will not sell anything that exceeds 2 becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram. Here you can buy such “risky” food as green tea, spinach, renkon (lotus root) and mushrooms, if you really can’t resist the temptation.

Tamachan Shop (www.rakuten.ne.jp/gold/kyunan/) is based in Miyazaki, Kyushu, and is another reliable source of groceries. As for rice, we now use Kome Shonen (www.rakuten.co.jp/kome-syounen/)

On the other hand, Radish Boya (www.radishbo-ya.co.jp/index.html), which is very popular because it offers organic vegetables and other additive-free foods, has recently been blacklisted by my wife and her more hard-core friends because there seems to be a discrepancy between what they say and what they actually do.

Now my house looks like a warehouse, with cartons of bottled water piled up high and other stuff stashed under the bed. The house, though, currently feels emptier that ever because my wife has decided to take our sons to Italy and spend the “radioactive pollen” season with my mother.

Actually, this is hardly uncommon these days: Okayama and several other prefectures in southern Japan now offer temporary lodgings to “nuclear refugees” from the risky areas, and more than a few people have made the most of this opportunity. Mothers and kids (the father typically has to stay home to work) can spend months in nice apartments, and the rent is only about ¥30,000.

So for the last month I have regressed to single status, and spend my quiet evenings watching movies. The other night, for example, I watched “On the Beach,” the 1959 post-apocalyptic film about the last days of life on Earth following a nuclear war . . .

To many people all the above may sound a little paranoid. I assure you, it is not. It is just common sense, and everybody living in Japan should be taking precautions if they want to limit the risk of contamination.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with all the information in this article (useful websites, online shopping sites, toll-free numbers, etc.) is that it is all in Japanese. If you don’t understand the local lingo, my advice is to get help from friends, or invest in a Japanese partner, like I did.

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