Before the earthquake of March 11, 2011, the male idol group Tokio had rehabilitated a derelict farm in the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, where the members grew vegetables and rice with the help of local farmers. The project, called Dash Village, provided them with a regular segment for their weekly Nippon TV variety show, “The Tetsuwan Dash,” which sparked a back-to-the-land movement among their fans.

It all ended with the catastrophic tsunami-triggered meltdown of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was close enough to Dash Village to place the farm in the restricted radioactive zone. Nevertheless, Tokio had forged a strong relationship with the people of Fukushima and subsequently became public relations ambassadors, especially for the prefecture’s produce and seafood, which took a considerable hit due to fears of contamination.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, three of Tokio’s members have set up a limited corporation under the umbrella of their management company, Johnny & Associates, that will run a “virtual division” of the Fukushima prefectural government called Tokio-ka. The division will have no actual staff, and the article doesn’t explain what it specifically does. Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori told the newspaper that he would like to come up with exciting projects that Tokio can work on, and mentions they would act as a “bridge” between the prefecture and, presumably, the media. Professor Ryota Koyama of the Faculty of Food and Agricultural Sciences of Fukushima University said that Tokio’s mission will probably be to “strengthen the brand image” of Fukushima products, which, as the article points out briefly near the end, could be a challenge once the processed ground water from around the damaged nuclear power plant starts getting released into the sea.

This discharge, which will start in two years and continue for 30, has revived worries about fūhyō higai, or “damaging rumors” that affected the area’s economy and social cohesion following the original disaster. The government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco) say that the release poses no danger to the environment since the most harmful radioactive substances will have been removed and the International Atomic Energy Agency has approved the plan. The main concern is tritium, a by-product of nuclear fission that will remain in the discharged water but, according to the government, at concentrations too low to have an impact.

In its May 5 Shasetsu Kensho column, the Sankei Shimbun analyzed differences in editorials among the national dailies regarding the discharge plan. The Sankei Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun fully support the plan, while the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun have voiced caution. The Sankei and Yomiuri mentioned that damaging rumors about the discharge must be prevented from spreading, while Asahi and Mainichi stressed that the local fishing industry, which suffered greatly after the disaster, has protested the discharge, fearing consumers will once again not buy their seafood. Some Asian countries still restrict imports of fish from the region, and China and South Korea have condemned the discharge plan, which Sankei, in turn, criticized as being hypocritical, since those countries’ own nuclear power plants release tritium into the sea as a matter of course.

“Damaging rumors” implies that the information being spread is false or misleading, and thus the Sankei Shimbun accused China and South Korea of dealing in bad faith. But what about the Fukushima fishermen? They are afraid the discharge will lead to harmful rumors about tainted fish, but by opposing the discharge, even for that reason, they may be reinforcing such beliefs.

If the national newspapers agree on anything, it’s that the government and Tepco need to do more to make the public understand the plan. According to the Sankei column, Yomiuri wants a fuller explanation of the “character of tritium,” while the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which calls the plan “appropriate,” demands more dialogue between Fukushima residents and proponents of the plan, the implication being that it’s on the government to nip damaging rumors in the bud. The Asahi Shimbun says it is natural for consumers to be anxious, a point elaborated on by the Mainichi Shimbun, which points out that the public has good reason not to trust the government and, especially, Tepco given its poor handling of the meltdown and “one-sided” reasoning that there is no more storage space left for tainted ground water.

All five newspapers want to avoid the appearance of sparking rumors, which is why any criticism of the plan is limited to its lack of transparency. Opposition to the plan itself can only be found at smaller media outlets, such as journalist Fumikazu Nishitani’s syndicated “Radio on the Street” program. During the April 30 installment, he talked with nuclear reactor expert and former Kyoto University assistant professor Hiroaki Koide, a longtime opponent of nuclear energy, who maintains there is no safe level of tritium and, in any case, the amount produced by a meltdown is many magnitudes greater than that produced by a functioning nuclear reactor.

Consequently, it’s wrong to compare the Fukushima discharge with that of a power plant, and he dismisses the IAEA’s assurances since the organization was established for the purpose of promoting nuclear energy. He says the only solution to the contaminated ground water problem is erecting a concrete enclosure around the crippled reactor, but Tepco figured its shareholders would balk at the cost so they put off any solution until there was no more room to store contaminated water. The discharge plan has always been about money first.

It can be difficult to convince those who have to live in close proximity to nuclear power plants that they have nothing to fear, because they’re the ones who will suffer if it turns out to be unsafe. Tepco, the government and much of the Japanese media see their task as mitigating the fear that ignites rumors, and so far they’ve done a poor job. It’s hard to imagine that a J-pop act, well past its prime, is going to make much of a difference.

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