Tohoku has been truly rent asunder for untold generations yet to be born

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

There are now three Tohokus … and there have been since the afternoon of March 11, 2011.

One part of that region of northeastern Honshu comprises districts not directly affected by that day’s Great East Japan Earthquake or the huge tsunami it triggered. A second is the coastal areas that were inundated or destroyed. The third is the towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture affected by radioactive contamination from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Despite these demarcations, however, the entire Tohoku region and, in a sense, all Japan has been contaminated by radioactivity or the fear of contamination now and in the future.

I have just returned from a visit to the lovely seaport town of Miyako in Iwate Prefecture, which I first visited in 1970. Whenever I’ve been to the disaster zone in the past two years, the first thing I always seem to notice is the birds. This time I saw buzzards and hawks, white herons and crows … and what looked like a family of swans in an empty lot, likely having come down from Siberia to overwinter in Japan.

Empty nests were all about, some in trees and others under the eaves of abandoned buildings. The birds seem oblivious to the calamity that changed the lives of all animals on the ground after March 11, 2011.

Miyako has incorporated several villages into its city limits, giving it a population of almost 60,000. One of those villages is Taro, a location hit particularly hard by the tsunami. Taro had built two 10-meter-high sea walls, completing them in 1958 and reinforcing them in 1966. But at Taro the tsunami reached 12 meters in height. It struck land there at 3:25 p.m., about 40 minutes after the earthquake. People there say that they put too much store in their sea walls, and that caused many to delay their escape. Two hundred people, nearly 5 percent of Taro’s population, perished in the tsunami.

The walled embankments at Miyako were similarly useless. The frequently shown scene of black water flowing over an embankment was shot at Miyako.

Today, large sections of the city are a wasteland. Enormous piles of rubbish have been collected at the wharf and at the baseball stadium. The train line has been shut down, and I was told it is not to be reopened. Traveling by road is now the only way to and from this part of the once famously scenic Sanriku Coast.

But the thing that distinguishes this district of Tohoku from those contaminated by radioactivity is the heroic attempt to bring life back to normal.

I visited the Akamae Kindergarten. It was opened in 1948 and is still owned and operated by the Koseki family that set it up. The building is bright and new; and the children run around and jump about with screams of joy. They performed a play and recited Kenji Miyazawa’s poem, “Strong in the Rain.” And the teachers, all holding a flower, sang the NHK recovery song, “Flowers Will Bloom,” the lyrics of which I have translated.

Later I went to the home of a couple with five children aged 8 and under. My wife and I brought up four children with a 6-year span in age … but five! The home was tiny, and yet the children read picture books with their mother and felt the love coming from her and the entire community. As the lyrics of “Flowers Will Bloom” go: “Flowers will bloom … for you who are yet to be born.”

Contrast this with the situation in the contaminated zones. Rather than tell you of my experiences there, I will turn to biologist Timothy Mousseau, who, together with colleague Anders Moller, published data online last month on “The Effects of Low-dose Radiation.” Mousseau and Moller have been visiting Chernobyl for more than two decades, as well as spending much time in Fukushima since March 2011.

“Radiation is everywhere, but it cannot be seen, smelt or felt,” they write. But in the affected zones, the visitor notices “gnarly distortions of tree growth and numerous abnormalities in insects, birds and other animals. These are caused by genetic mutations induced by exposure to the radiation.”

The two biologists assert that there has been “a suppression of information on Chernobyl and Fukushima by governments and government agencies in countries as diverse as the Soviet Union, France and Japan.”

As for Japan, they note, “nowhere else than in the nuclear industry are scientists so partial with respect to research questions regarding public health or ecological effects of low-dose radiation.” They go on, in their online study, to compare nuclear scientists in Japan with medical doctors employed by the tobacco industry in the 1950s.

Recently, the World Health Organisation has claimed that the effects on health of radiation from the Fukushima accident are not significant. But the study by Mousseau and Moller puts these claims into a clear perspective. A human generation is of the order of 30 years; so studies, even of the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, are essentially still in the first generation.

“We may only be seeing the first stage of the negative consequences,” they write. “The next accident may expose as many as 30 million people to radioactive contamination. … Birds, rodents and insects (near Chernobyl) are now in their 25th or greater generation (and) the negative effects of low-dose radiation from Chernobyl documented for these organisms are much worse than what is reported for humans.”

When I read these findings, I cannot forget the radiant faces of the children of Akamae Kindergarten or the keen glare in the eyes of the little children listening to their mother read them stories. The people of Miyako have suffered unthinkable loss and hardship since the day two years ago that changed their lives and the lives of everyone in Japan. But at least they can embrace the hope that “flowers will bloom … for you who are yet to be born.”

The people who made their livelihoods in the contaminated regions of Tohoku, however, have no hope of return. They were abducted by a government and an energy industry that deceived them and continue to deceive them.

The very fact that the present government of Japan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is intent on reconstituting the nuclear power industry is not only an insult to those victims of radioactive contamination in Fukushima Prefecture, but an attack of monumental proportions on all people living in this country.

Mr. Abe, you say that you wish for a “strong Japan.” But the same strong arm that purports to defend the country is the one that will crush it and divest its inhabitants of all hope.

Not all enemies come from the outside. A nuclearized Japan is the greatest terror facing the people of this country. If this terror persists, then the only flowers that will bloom will be those on the graves of children living now and in generations to come.

  • nowipes

    Beautifully written article. Please know that Japan has a lot of support from people in the U.S. who pray for Japan and pray the leaders will have the strength and wisdom to say NO to nuclear energy. Blogs like enenews, enformable, enviroreporter, nuclearhotseat, etc., have devoted their precious time to keeping the world up-to-date on the struggles in Japan.

    • Masa Chekov

      The people of Japan would be much better served if you and others pointed people to proper scientific, peer-reviewed sites instead of unscientific activist blogs.

      Let’s not compound the misery suffered by the people in Tohoku by causing undue stress from unproven pseudoscience. These bloggers have their cause in mind, not accuracy, and certainly not the people of Japan.

      Scientific rigor should not be an afterthought when dealing with something so serious as people’s health.

    • Sam Gilman

      I have to disagree with you flatly and strongly. What people need is reliable science-based information from disinterested sources. Those blogs you mention are avowedly anti-nuclear and have been responsible (ENEnews in particular) for the most astonishing scaremongering.

      I don’t know if you live in Japan, but when the crisis at Fukushima started, many people struggled to get the best scientific information because extreme anti-nuclear activists immediately took the airwaves and Internet to spread the most apocalyptic stories. They made the crisis WORSE, affecting people very far from Fukushima by scaring the hell out of them for no reason whatsoever. According to some of the stories they spread, half of Japan should be dead by now. They continue to torment people living nearer Fukushima by spreading the false idea that lots of people are going to die. Please do not support this by spreading nonsense. It has a real, physical impact on the health of people here.

      It would be really nice if the anti-nuclear movement could be anti-nuclear based upon reliable information, rather than invented and manufactured scare stories. Then they could make a contribution to Japan’s (and the world’s) energy debate.

      (By the way, for the moderators – I had put up a previous post which got through moderation. I edited it to correct a couple of bad links, and it’s now disappeared. Any chance of putting it back up again?)

  • Sam Gilman

    Who are Anders Pape Moller and Timothy Mousseau, the researchers whose work provides the scientific basis for this article? I fear the author here has done the same thing so many other non-science journalists do: they choose their “experts” based on their personal prejudices without checking their credibility or what the vast majority of scientists in their area think of them. He’s choosing his “experts” based on what he wants to hear, not on how sound they are.

    Anders Pape Moller is a bird researcher from Denmark. In the first part of his career he was a star, charismatic and assertive, with an amazing ability to get great results in his research on inherited asymmetry in barn swallows. Guess which country he was banned from doing bird research in? In 2003 the Danish committee on Scientific Dishonesty revoked his license: basically, he had been fabricating data. He didn’t help the inquiry, claiming that a lot of his data could not be made available because it had been lost or stolen.Scientific American reports on a widely held belief among researchers in the field that he had been cheating his figures in even his most famous studies.

    Timothy Mousseau’s own past in relation to radiation study is also suspect. A staunch defender of Moller as being “beyond reproach” even after Moller’s conviction, he was responsible for persuading the New York Academy of Science to publish an infamous book they later distanced themselves from on the health effects of the Chernobyl accident. The book claimed nearly a million deaths already from the accident, but did this by pretty much ignoring all internationally published scientific research (including from the former Soviet Union), counting pretty much any increase in deaths from all sorts of conditions including cirrhosis of the liver (while the alcohol-soaked Soviet Union was undergoing collapse!), and most famously explicitly rejecting the “scientific method” which underpins modern science, all in the pursuit of the highest number possible. It was savaged by professional reviewers, who only paid it attention because of the noise it was generating amongst anti-nuclear campaigners. Any scientist attached to this project has to have their professional integrity at least questioned.

    Of course, that’s all just background, and maybe their research on the radiation effects on wildlife is utterly sound? Alas… Their work on Chernobyl in itself is an outlier in terms of the severity of negative effects of radiation. It has been severely criticized by scientists also working in the area, specifically that Moller and Mousseau manage to find serious effects of radiation on animals at exposure levels found naturally in the UK (where such effects are not found). In one case, a Ukrainian researcher Sergey Gaschak, who had been working with them, asked to have his name removed from their research after he questioned their analysis. He directly accused them pushing an ideological agenda at the expense of scientific integrity.

    Their research on Fukushima – which also finds surprisingly (ie implausibly) serious effects is equally problematic, and has been criticised for a whole series of problems, such as lacking baseline comparisons, making unwarranted statistical conclusions, poor sample sizes and so on. The critics have asked for the data to be made publicly available for analysis, but as far as I know, to no avail.

    Of course, Roger Pulvers is not a scientist, and can’t be expected to know all about this. Except that neither am I a scientist. I’m just another foreigner living in Japan who, like him, had to learn about radiation from a standing start on March 12. Given that it was clear from the outset that all kinds of people were making all kinds of extreme claims, surely it is the responsibility of a journalist to check sources on this topic. Moller and Mousseau do not represent the mainstream, and they certainly should not be used to trump organizations like the WHO, which firmly are.

    There are not three Tohokus. There are two. There’s the real one that suffered immensely from the earthquake, tsunami, evacuation and stoked-up radiation fears, and then there’s the imagined one that too many journalists write about in order to earn money. The WHO warns of the real health cost of exaggerated fear. If the author cares so much about the area, shouldn’t he be taking a bit more care in who he uses as sources?

    • Masa Chekov

      Sam, that is simply a fantastic comment. Thank you, and I really appreciate the work that went into making such a thorough refutation of this article.

    • johnny cassidy

      A 2007 article in The Scientist quotes former Evolution editor, Dolph Schluter, saying Moller is “under the microscope,” suggesting his research may be more scrutinized and held to a higher standard than ever. Sure, some may find him easy to dismiss since his star crashed to the ground back in 2003. But maybe that fall just makes his findings easier to overlook for those who have their heads in the clouds.

      • Sam Gilman

        Your reaction to what I wrote is a classic example of cognitive dissonance.

        Cognitive dissonance occurs when one “cognition”, such as a deeply held belief (religious, political etc.) is contradicted by another cognition – such as a real-life event or scientific evidence. This dissonance needs to be resolved either by holding onto the belief and dismissing the evidence, or altering the belief to accommodate the evidence. It’s unfortunate that human nature leads people a lot of the time to defend their beliefs and deny evidence. It’s why many Christians of a certain type become creationists, denying the evidence for evolution; it’s why many free-market ideologues become climate-change evidence deniers because they detest state intervention; it’s why certain parents, unable to process that no one or nothing is to blame for their child’s autism, join the anti-vaccine movement.

        I’m not name-calling. Here’s what just happened. I provided evidence, references, links, to show not only that Moller has a history of fraudulent scientific practice, but also (directly contrary to what you imply) that his current research has been criticized not because of that history but because the research in itself is “under the microscope” suspect and also contradicted by many other studies. Yet you see no reason at all to call Moller/Mousseau into doubt, and based on nothing at all, accuse their critics (quite a number of senior professional scientists) of having their “head in the clouds”.

        Yet on another Japan Times’ thread (your Disqus comments make it clear you are passionately anti-nuclear), you are happy to dismiss on far flimsier grounds the work of a radiation scientist whose work contradicts your beliefs. Your reason is worth reproducing here: you dismiss his opinion on how radiation can cause cancer because he is an expert in how radiation causes cancer, rather than how cancer may be cured. Not a word about the quality of his research and its reception by other scientists. And ultimately, you end up endorsing a surreal conspiracy theory about the WHO and global medical research into radiation that has unfortunately caught on in the fringier parts of the anti-nuclear movement.

        It’s obvious. You prefer Moller and Mousseau’s research because it supports your beliefs, and you will continue to do so regardless of all evidence that it’s suspect. You dismiss all research on radiation and health that contradicts your set beliefs, regardless of the quality of the research or the standing of the researcher. This is all the wrong way round. You should base your scientific beliefs on what the best science says. Otherwise, you make yourself only as credible as creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaccinists and all the others like them. Ask yourself honestly: if a scientist who claimed the radiation levels were not a big threat to human health had Moller’s profile of fraud and critical savaging, would you ignore that? Honestly?

        And ask yourself another question. Since the beginning of this crisis, when the extent of the releases was clear, mainstream, independent, properly accredited and respected scientific opinion has consistently been that the health and environmental effects from Fukushima radiation are going to be minimal. This is not a conspiracy: it’s entirely in line with mainstream research on radiation and health from before Fukushima. In the long run, how much influence is the anti-nuclear movement going to have on governments around the world if it continues to cite fringe and junk scientists, conspiracy theories and paranoiacs, right at the time when these governments are looking at the difficult problem of post-carbon energy? Years from now, people will look back at Fukushima, see the very, very low death toll and say “the anti-nuclear movement was wildly wrong.” Do you want that to happen?

        How are you going to resolve this dissonance? By hoping for more deaths?

      • johnny cassidy

        Long form journalism is long from dead at the JT. It’s alive and kicking in the comments section – only it’s a little short on truth. I love the WHO man (got all their records) and have a very healthy trust in the World Health Organization too! It sounds to me like you’re talking through your hat here Sigmund and I ought to know since you’re talking about me, a subject I happen to be an expert on.

        Believe me I’m not hoping for anyone’s death but I wish you would quit tracking my digital footprint on the Japan Times, etc. and get a life.

      • Sam Gilman

        Johnny, you’ve just confirmed what I wrote. When I confront you with what seem to be contradictions and illogicalities in what you say, you don’t address this, but try to distract attention with the bizarre idea that by clicking on your Disqus username, I’m “tracking your digital footprint”.

        But I’m sorry you felt that what i wrote was too long. I was taking you seriously.

  • Earlier today there was a brilliant post exposing Mousseau and Moller as the frauds they are – I see it has now disappeared. Apparently if one is looking for “a suppression of information on Chernobyl and Fukushima” one need look no farther than the editorial policy of the Japan Times.