Fukushima activist fights fear and discrimination based on radiation

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Sachiko Banba aches for children in Fukushima Prefecture, who worry whether they can lead a normal life.

“Three frequently asked questions from children are whether they are OK to live in Fukushima after they get married, whether they can give birth to a baby, and whether their baby will be healthy,” said Banba, 52, who runs a cram school in Minamisoma, Fukushima, less than 30 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Although tens of thousands of people fled their homes in Fukushima Prefecture following the March 2011 reactor meltdowns, many, including children, still remain. Most heartbreaking to Banba is the discrimination they face based on ignorance, and the likelihood it will follow them the rest of their lives.

Children catch snatches of the adult debates over the health risks of radiation exposure, and sense something bad might happen.

“It’s due to people’s ignorance. There are still people who think radiation is something contagious,” Banba said. “By gaining correct knowledge, I hope children in Fukushima will be able to talk about radiation (exposure) when they are asked about it.”

Since last year, Banba and Dr. Masaharu Tsubokura have hosted more than 40 radiation study sessions for 1,500 children and adults, supplying people with the necessary information to counter the arguments of those who would discriminate against them.

Many locals have tales to tell, such as the Fukushima woman whose engagement was broken off due to the strong opposition of her fiance’s family.

Banba herself has felt the sting of intolerance many times outside the prefecture.

At a hospital in Tokyo she was eyeballed from head to toe when she handed over her insurance card, which revealed her address.

Some people sent her pictures of babies with birth defects and urged her to leave town and share the photos with the people back home.

Many parents with young children have left Fukushima not only to keep them safe from radiation exposure but also the corrosive effects of discrimination.

According to the Fukushima Prefectural Government, there were 18,000 fewer students in the prefecture’s 708 elementary and junior high schools in May 2012 than there were two years before.

Protecting the thousands of children who remain and easing their anxiety are pressing issues, experts say. One way is through education, while continuing to give checkups to catch any abnormalities as quickly as possible.

“People need to gain radiation literacy through school, social and lifelong education. They need to gain basic knowledge of radiation and radioactive materials,” Ikuro Anzai, a professor emeritus at Ritsumeikan University who specializes in radiation protection, told The Japan Times.

In 2008, the government revised guidelines to make radiation a mandatory subject of study in science classes for third-year junior high school students starting in fiscal 2012. However, the subject isn’t compulsory in elementary schools or for first- and second-year junior high students.

In the absence of a nationwide directive from the central government to make radiation studies mandatory, Fukushima’s board of education has created its own textbook since the 3/11 disasters that contains information about contamination due to the nuclear accident.

As of March, all of the prefecture’s elementary and junior high schools were teaching about radiation exposure, according to the board.

Meanwhile, citizens and medical experts like Tsubokura, who has been checking Minamisoma residents’ internal radiation exposure levels at Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital for nearly two years, are also holding study sessions in Fukushima and other prefectures to pass on basic knowledge as well as the latest findings.

Tsubokura said people outside Fukushima know little about radioactive materials. About half his audience at a lecture in Nagoya didn’t know that radioactive substances from Fukushima No. 1 fell to Earth in rain.

“Many thought a beam was emitted directly from the power plant,” Tsubokura said.

Similar discrimination was seen after the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people believed survivors were contagious and that marrying hibakusha or their descendants would produce babies with birth defects.

According to a 2008 survey of about 27,000 A-bomb survivors conducted by the city of Hiroshima, the main source of their emotional suffering after their exposure to radioactive “black rain” was discrimination, prejudice and anxiety over long-term health effects.

Even more than 60 years later, they are still haunted by discrimination, said Terumi Tanaka, secretary general of Nihon Hidankyo, an atomic bomb victims’ organization. Speaking at the Japan National Press Club in August 2011, he said the issue of radiation exposure is raised even today when their grandchildren try to marry.

Anzai of Ritsumeikan said that studies show no statistical increase in health risks among the second generation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.

“Academically speaking, (Fukushima residents’) exposure levels are something that won’t likely have a significant genetic impact. (Their) exposure level is low,” said Anzai, who has been criticizing the government’s promotion of nuclear power plants since the 1960s. “But the difficulty with radiation is that it’s not only about physical health but the mental and social impact.”

Having visited Minamisoma over the past two years, Tsubokura worries about low self-esteem among the residents.

“If your hometown is dismissed, if produce you’ve grown is rejected, and if you are spurned when you grow up, what’s left?” Tsubokura said, adding that regaining self-esteem is one of the biggest problems now facing Fukushima residents.

Some argue that if the anxiety that comes from living in Fukushima is too great, the people should move. But each person has many factors to consider, such as job and family, before reaching a decision, and each decision should be respected, Anzai said.

“Life is not only about radiation protection. It’s fine to evacuate due to fears of radiation. (Each decision) should be made by evaluating many different aspects,” Anzai said.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    Japan’s new burakumin…

  • Max Erimo

    When palying with young children’s lives you can never bee too careful.
    Remember Chernobyl. To say that Fukushima is safe is at least 20 years too early. I feel very sorry for the people who lived there and those who wish to continue to live there, but I am very wary when buying vegetables, meat ad fish, ad will buy nothing that has been produced in the area.
    When talking about my child’s health and future I would rather err on the side of safety and be wrong.