Iitate farmer’s cautionary tale translated

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Kenichi Hasegawa is a man of conviction.

Unlike most of his fellow Fukushima farmers, Hasegawa never believed a word uttered by the “experts” who repeatedly came to visit his village 40 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant after the nuclear catastrophe began and assured residents it would pose little risk to their health.

He stuck to his skepticism and refused to succumb to the complacency that briefly engulfed his hometown of Iitate before it quickly descended into the deserted ghost town that it is today.

Appalled to hear the experts repeating “daijobu” (everything is fine), Hasegawa said he felt nothing but intense distrust from their reassuring tone. His fellow farmers, however, readily swallowed every word, as if desperate to believe everything was indeed fine.

This is how he recalled the immediate days after the unprecedented disaster started in his book “Genpatsu ni Furusato wo Ubawarete” (“Fukushima’s Stolen Lives”), which he published in March 2012. And now a project is under way to translate his witness account into English, in the hopes that his story will be heard worldwide.

“From the very beginning, I had a hunch that there was something shady and dishonest about the way local and central government officials responded” to the disaster, Hasegawa recently told The Japan Times.

Hasegawa’s book depicts the tragedies and social injustices he witnessed after the disaster started, including the suicide of his depressed friend, his village’s organized attempt to cover up the gravity of the radiation, and his emotional farewell to the cattle he had raised his entire life after receiving the belated evacuation order.

Driven by an urge to find the truth, Hasegawa would often confront town officials, willingly give interviews to journalists to exchange information and carry around a video camera to document everything.

The plan is to publish the English version as an e-book by this fall via donated funds. His target is about ¥1.8 million. If all goes well, anyone who donates ¥1,000 or more will receive a complimentary copy.

Project leader Shojiro Akashi, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist who helped Hasegawa publish the Japanese version, said: “The book illustrates how an ordinary dairy farmer saw his life suddenly decimated by the nuclear calamity. We believe his tale shouldn’t be limited to a domestic audience.”

Hasegawa said his biggest motivation for writing the book had to do with his desire to unveil “the culture of deception” he sensed from Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno, who he alleges sought to instill a false sense of security among the villagers.

Kanno, Hasegawa wrote, instructed his underlings not to breathe a word about the shocking radiation levels detected near Iitate’s offices in the days after the meltdowns. The reading of 40 microsieverts per hour was far higher than the government-designated threshold of 0.23 microsievert that triggers decontamination.

A reading of 0.23 microsievert per hour, which includes radiation emitted from the natural environment, translates into 1 millisievert per year — the upper limit recommended for the general public by the International Commission on Radiological Protection — and is used worldwide.

Two weeks after the core meltdowns, Tetsuji Imanaka, an assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute was visiting Iitatte. He detected a maximum hourly radiation level of 30 microsieverts in one area, but Kanno desperately tried to keep this figure secret by asking the professor not to disclose it, Hasegawa wrote.

“I want him to realize the gravity of the sins that he committed,” Hasegawa said.

It took nearly three months for Iitate to officially complete the evacuation process, which the government didn’t order until April 22. Today the village is considered virtually uninhabitable, with most of its residents unable to return to their homes.

As of Thursday morning, a level of 0.56 microsievert per hour was recorded near the village offices, according to the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

“We suffered grave exposure to radiation as a result of attempts by (the village officials in charge) to downplay the shocking consequences of the accident,” Hasegawa said. “And I want an English-language audience to know about it.”

More than two years after publishing the book, Hasegawa, who is living in a temporary shelter in the city of Date, 20 km northwest of Iitate, said the radiation woes in Iitate haven’t changed. If anything, they have worsened.

The decontamination work is slow-paced and being carried out with makeshift methods and dubious safety standards, he said. He heard the original plan was to use high-pressure washing equipment, but now the workers are allegedly wiping off the radioactive contaminants using paper towels, he said with frustration.

But it is precisely this kind of incompetence and inability to respond to nuclear disasters that not only Hasegawa, but U.S.-based translator Amy Franks believe make the book worth translating, even after it hit the shelves in 2012.

“I think Hasegawa-san’s story has as much relevance now as it did in 2012 when it was first published, because nuclear situations are ongoing everywhere,” said Franks.

Having lived in the Tohoku region for two years, Franks recalled feeling compelled to translate the book the moment she read it.

But she also has faith in the universal worth of Hasegawa’s anecdotes, which urge people to learn how be a “community advocate and activist” in the midst of chaos, conflicting information and corrupt officialdom.

Citing his fearless acceptance of the most unsettling realities and his foresight to record everything, Franks describes him as a paragon of “tenacious citizen leadership.”

“I think Hasegawa-san shows us that in a time of crisis, you don’t have to be an expert, but you can still search for and arrive at the truth, or enough of the truth, to do the right things.”

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  • Jamie Bakeridge

    The trouble with “citizen activists” is that for every one that raises legitimate questions about the conduct and statements of government authorities, there are 10 who simply squeal conspiracy theories that rely on the impossibility of disproving negatives and whose irrational hysteria creates just as many, if not more problems, than intransigent and dishonest government officials, the latter of whom at least are trying to prevent panic.

  • gokyo

    This is a book that needs to be read globally so that people can realize that the safe operation of nuclear power plants can never be 100%. I lived in Yokohama during the earthquake and information was lacking from the government and its mouthpiece (NHK). While the SPEEDI system was supposed to provide radiation levels on a regular basis it was later revealed that the system provided readings that were less than the actual levels, that is when it worked. Strangely enough the levels in the Kanagawa prefecture were actually higher than those in Tokyo and after living in a house with the windows, doors, and ventilation fans sealed, along with carrying Potassium Iodide tablets, I can certainly empathize with Hasegawa-san.
    His distrust for government officials is not unfounded. I myself can personally testify that I witnessed government officials purposely conceal facts from the public to ensure that they would not be “troubled” by the media. We still haven’t realized full “transparency” in the Fukushima situation and now with the new Secrecy Law the government has a nice tool to manipulate the issue.
    His story needs to be told so that others can adequately question and assess their governments ability to handle catastrophes. Japan sure missed the boat on this one. Many may not know or have quickly forgotten that a plan was prepared for the evacuation of Tokyo due to Fukushima.