• Kahoku Shimpo

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When Matsuki Kamoshita, 18, moved to Tokyo from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, at the age of 9 right after the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011, he endured repeated bullying at his new elementary school.

He was called a “germ.” Some students stabbed his legs with pencils. He was pushed down the stairs. All because he had evacuated from Fukushima in the wake of the nuclear disaster.

Back then, he wrote on a wish list: “I want to go to heaven.”

During his junior high school years, he kept his past to himself. He was no longer bullied, but the experience left him with deep emotional scars that wouldn’t heal.

“Will I have to hide (my past) forever? If I come forward with my past, will I go though the trauma all over again?” he wondered.

At the suggestion of an acquaintance, Kamoshita sent a letter to Pope Francis in 2018 in which he spoke of his experience and trauma.

In March 2019, he was granted an audience with the pope at the Vatican during which he asked the pontiff to pray for all nuclear disaster survivors who, like himself, face discrimination and stigma. The pope took his hand and nodded.

Eight months later, when Pope Francis visited Japan, the two met again in Tokyo. During his four-day tour in what was the first papal visit to Japan in 38 years, the pontiff listened to survivors of the 2011 disasters, including Kamoshita.

In a speech in Tokyo before the pope, Kamoshita said; “I was lucky because I was able to evacuate.”

But not everyone in the audience was pleased. Soon after the speech, Kamoshita was approached by a man who presumably stayed in Fukushima after the nuclear incident.

“What are you implying?” the man asked.

The encounter left him stunned, causing stress that triggered a stomach ulcer.

Fast forward to today, as a newly enrolled college freshman, Kamoshita wonders why disaster survivors bicker with each other when, in fact, the actual perpetrator of discrimination is someone else.

“That’s what’s causing division (in society),” he said.

The 2011 nuclear disaster may have created a rift in society, but a similar divide has been seen in the coronavirus pandemic, raising the question of whether a similar mindset is at play, with people trying to impose their own views and values on others, whether it is over nuclear energy or the COVID-19 pandemic.

When a female faculty member at Koriyama Women’s University in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, was found to have been infected with the coronavirus in March 2020, students from a local high school affiliated with the college also became a target of slander.

Students wearing their uniforms were teased about having contracted the coronavirus.

The university was flooded with phone calls from people criticizing the university. One of the university’s staff members was told by a day care center that it could not take care of their child. Another worker’s wife was banned from going to work.

At two news conferences, Osamu Sekiguchi, 80, the university’s president, apologized for causing trouble and called for people to stop discriminatory acts against students and workers.

But a similar incident happened in January.

People avoided students at the high school after a cluster of infections emerged among volleyball team members who had participated in a national tournament. The school faced harsh criticism after its principal asked people to root for the students.

Sekiguchi was hoping that Fukushima residents, who were subjected to unwarranted discrimination and prejudice due to the nuclear disaster, would be the first ones to feel empathy towards those facing discrimination over the pandemic. He has to stifle his anger.

“Maybe people feeling uneasy are looking for a target on which they can unload their rage,” he said.

Just as how opinions are divided over the government’s nuclear energy policy or the assessment of low radiation in the prefecture, there appears to be a chasm between those seeking to prioritize public health and others supporting economic recovery when it comes to the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“People adopt radical views and gradually lose their tolerance for each other, creating the divide. That is at the root of discrimination and prejudice,” said Masaharu Maeda, a professor of disaster psychiatry at Fukushima Medical University.

Maeda, who has been conducting research on the mental health of evacuees from areas surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, cites “prejudice, guilt and self-stigma” as serious issues that are also common in the coronavirus pandemic.

Maeda’s advice is to think twice before passing judgment on others, as he warns of the impact of discriminatory acts.

”People are unable to talk about their experiences because they worry about what others will think of them, and they feel isolated,” he said. “Even if acts of discrimination aren’t intentional, the wounds inflicted by such a behavior will still be deep.”

This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published April 6.

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