/ |

Nuke fears may spread faster than radiation

by Michael Hoffman

There are the measurable aspects of Tohoku’s ongoing tragedy — so many becquerels or sieverts of radiation, so many million tons of rubble, so many trillion yen worth of damage and losses of various kinds, so many weeks, months, years or decades before cold shutdown, decontamination, reconstruction, resettlement and economic recovery are achieved.

Then there are the immeasurable aspects. Radiation in the air, soil, food, water and sea has psychological as well as physical effects. “Every day I think of radiation accumulating in my child’s body,” a 36-year-old Tokyo housewife tells the monthly magazine Takarajima. Most experts say Tokyo is safe — but most experts said nuclear power was safe. Do experts know? Can experts be trusted?

Many people no doubt suppress their fears and get on with their lives. This woman can’t. She thinks Tokyo is contaminated and wants to move — for the child’s sake more than her own. But it’s not easy to simply pack up and leave on the strength of insubstantial, unsubstantiated anxieties. Her husband has a career and wouldn’t consider moving. She’d take the child and set up a separate household in Osaka or somewhere else, if there was enough money. There isn’t. So she stays, and her forebodings keep her awake nights.

If misery loves company, she at least has that. Her symptoms are if not common, not rare either. Some people actually do flee the capital. June, July and August saw 15,201 Tokyoites moving to Osaka — up 20 percent from the same period last year. 8,082 moved to Nagyoa — up 10 percent. They take this step, Takarajima says, only to find that the solution to one problem can become another problem. It’s hard to start a new life. Friends and careers left behind suddenly seem irreplaceable, and the vague fears that drove you away from them lose their urgency with distance. Regret sets in: “Maybe we should have stayed?” Or the kids don’t like their new schools and want to go home. But “home” isn’t home anymore.

If you’re a parent seeking reassurance, don’t look to Sunday Mainichi magazine, which last week pointedly demanded, “Are children’s school lunches really safe?” Chiba Prefecture in October initiated daily testing, and two weeks later detected radioactive cesium — 350 becquerels — in shiitake mushrooms. Echoing Takarajima’s housewife, the mother of a second-grader says, “How much radiation would my child have consumed? I can’t help wondering, and it sends shivers up my spine.”

Surveying the issue from Tohoku to Tokyo, Sunday Mainichi finds no more than 20 percent of municipalities testing school lunches for radiation. Tokyo’s 23 wards are relatively solid in that regard (42 percent of Tokyo’s municipalities test), but the Tohoku region, the heart of the crisis, seems astonishingly lax (Fukushima 10 percent, Miyagi 8 percent). “It’s like Russian roulette,” said the mother of a Chiba Prefecture first-grader.

“To be honest, we could have done better,” admits a Fukushima City official. “Until summer the city didn’t even know that testing equipment was available.”

If radiation were less spectral — if you could see it, smell it, touch it — its presence might be easier to cope with. As it is, individuals grope in the dark for a happy medium between helpless dread and blind insouciance. Speaking of school lunches, Takarajima finds anxious Tokyo mothers who insist their children take lunch from home. Some go to the trouble of finding out what’s on the school menu and preparing something similar so their children won’t stand out. But kids have a nose for that sort of thing, and the teasing in the worst cases is bad enough to cause victims to refuse to go to school, or mothers to yield and OK the school lunch after all.

Among Takarajima’s interviewees are people afraid to wash vegetables in tap water, afraid to eat fish and vegetables, afraid to eat beef, chicken and eggs because of radioactive feed the animals may have been given, and so on. Some break their household budgets to buy only imported food. One 32-year-old housewife spent ¥65,000 on a Geiger counter which she takes to the supermarket, braving inquisitive or disapproving stares to check every item she selects for radiation. Is this neurotic, or is it, under the circumstances, simple common sense? Either way, it’s spreading. A facility in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, stocks eight becquerel counters and for a fee allows people to bring their provisions and test them. Lineups since it opened in October have been an hour long.

The fear seems to hit mothers hardest. Fathers are more career-focused, and in the corporate jungle, economic crimps aside, it’s business as usual. The perception gap can bring on marital discord. Takarajima mentions a couple quarreling over the mother’s refusal to let their child play outdoors. How do you settle an issue like that? He says it’s safe, she’s convinced it’s not, and what authority can they turn to for a binding judgment? There no longer is any such authority. Doubts will persist as long as the crisis does. Longer, probably.