Food contamination fears after 3/11 make the invisible visible


Special To The Japan Times

“Radiation brain” was a pun that made the social media circuit after March 11, 2011, deriding people whose brains () had become unduly contaminated with fears about radiation after the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. They had, people claimed, “radiation brains” (hoshanō), a kind of soft-minded hysteria that made them figures of fun but also figures of potential danger to society and the economy. Their lack of confidence in government regulation of foodstuffs, people argued, became the source of harmful rumors that hurt farmers and dairy producers in disaster-affected areas. Such citizens, usually mothers in charge of providing meals for their children, were reckless in their caution.

Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists, by Aya Hirata Kimura.
224 pages

Aya Hirata Kimura, a sociologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, presents case studies of mothers with such anxieties and examines citizens grappling with post-Fukushima food safety concerns in “Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination After Fukushima.” Kimura does not make claims about the extent of actual dangers to the food supply, but she does argue that the reality of the post-disaster threat is far from certain. The government, in other words, may be right about the limited health risks posed by irradiated produce, dairy, and meat; but skepticism on the part of citizens is a rational, rather than a hysterical, response. She also examines the various constraints that made many citizens — mothers, in particular — turn to scientific activities such as running citizen radiation-measuring organizations rather than engaging in out-and-out criticism of government and industry responses to safety concerns.

Immediately after the disaster, many expected a surge of specifically anti-nuclear political activism in Japan, and indeed protests and demonstrations flourished in the spring and summer of 2011. However, just five years on from the worst nuclear disaster in decades, political activism remains a fringe activity. Part of what interested Kimura was why citizens seemed to be “more concerned than outraged.” As she noted recently, “so many seem to be perplexed why Japan, after the major nuclear accident, has not seen transformative politics.” Her book offers some answers to that question.

Kimura makes the point that avoiding confrontational politics and direct dissent is not, as is often claimed, a characteristic particular to Japanese culture. It’s a characteristic particular to neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is one of the key concepts that guides Kimura’s analysis, and she traces how the neoliberal shift to limited government, rule of the free market, and individualism has determined what kinds of demands citizens in post-Fukushima Japan can make of their government. In a neoliberal society, the government is no longer responsible for ensuring citizens’ rights to safety, economic factors rule in cost-benefit analyses and the good neoliberal citizen is willing to take on individual risk and make individual choices, while they are less willing to act collectively.

Alongside neoliberalism, Kimura introduces us to the concepts of scientism and post-feminism. Scientism indicates a tendency in which science holds authority in society to determine the “reality” of controversial and uncertain situations, although culture and society influence the creation and application of science itself. Post-feminism is the idea that systematic oppression of women has been eliminated and collective feminist activism is no longer necessary, since motivated individual women can empower themselves.

An example of how these three larger forces of neoliberalism, scientism and post-feminism play out in post-3/11 society and constrain citizen activism is the case of fūryōhigai, or harmful rumors. The term “fūryōhigai” apparently originated in the 1980s, and indicated a decline in seafood sales because of nuclear reactor accidents. After agricultural producers in areas near the distressed Fukushima No. 1 plant suffered economic losses, the term gained new currency and shifted blame onto concerned consumers, particularly “radiation brain” moms, and away from government and business interests. The prioritization of economic recovery and the individual consumer’s responsibility to participate in this effort reflected neoliberal priorities. The view of scientism insisted on the scientific authority of nuclear experts, although many of those experts had an interest in promoting nuclear power, and the science of post-Fukushima health impacts remains contested. Contradictory demands placed women at the center of controversies about food safety as mothers responsible for the health of their families but also as targets of gendered stereotypes of women as particularly unscientific and irrational, while the post-feminist social context deterred them from making collective political demands of the powers that be.

The role these three ideologies play in Kimura’s analysis might put off a nonacademic reader, but Kimura employs them to make the power dynamics to which we are all subject visible, much as her citizen scientists labor to make the invisible threat of radiation visible. Speaking about her book, Kimura noted that “all these ‘-isms’ tend to be normalized and taken for granted.” So scientism, for example, makes science’s objective authority something that is taken for granted in spite of the fact that science is shaped by social forces. Kimura works to make the ideologies of neoliberalism, scientism and post-feminism visible, because “invisibility is at the crux of their power. The more they are named, the less they can masquerade as apolitical.” Just because we cannot see these forces does not mean that they do not impact our world, and they are very real in their consequences for potential political activism.