Wednesday, May 9, 2012

After The Media Has Gone: Fukushima, Suicide and the Legacy of 3.11

© Asia-Pacific Journal
Map showing 20 kilometer evacuation
zone and neighboring towns
After The Media Has Gone: Fukushima, Suicide and the Legacy of 3.11 by Makiko Segawa

 For the media, time is of the essence in a news story. The March 11, 2011 disaster attracted thousands of reporters and photographers from around the world. There was a brief deluge of Japanese and international media coverage on the first anniversary, this spring. Now the journalists have packed up and gone and by accident or design Japan's government seems to be mobilizing its agenda, aware that it is under less scrutiny.

The press pack has disappeared like a ghost since this April. The influx of foreign media has suddenly stopped, as I can attest since I worked as a translator and aid to many foreign journalists in the year up to the 3.11 anniversary in 2012. Using the keywords 'Fukushima' and 'nuclear plant' in Japanese to scour the Nikkei TELECOM 21 search engine shows 9,981 domestic news items in April 2012, just over half the 17,272 stories the previous month.

As if to take advantage of the precise timing of the media evacuation, the municipal government of Minami-soma city, Fukushima Prefecture began implementing a blueprint planned some time earlier. In the dead of night on Monday April 16th, the city lifted the no-entry regulations and changed evacuation zone designations that had stood since March 12, 2011. The decision allowed people to return to the district of Odaka and some parts of the Haramachi district.

Watanabe Ichie, a volunteer from Tokyo who witnessed the scene near the roadblock into the zone observed that: "several police vehicles with flashing red lights arrived after 23:00 on April 15th. By 0:15, all the vehicles had gone". "After that, all that remained was the light from the traffic signals." The following morning, cars moved freely inside the once-prohibited area.

Mayor Sakurai's Drive to Reopen Minami-Soma

The home of Minami-soma's mayor, Sakurai Katsunobu, is located in the newly reopened part of Haramachi. He has often complained about what he calls the irrational policy of the government, calculating the exclusion zone by distance rather than the spread of radiation. A former dairy farmer and a passionate booster of the region, he is attached to his land and desperate to quicken the reconstruction of his devastated city, despite the risks.

The 56-year-old mayor has been single all his life and has no children. In interviews, he tends to downplay the risk of radiation. In the first week of May 2011, he even joked: "Fukushima is not the same as Hiroshima or Nagasaki. No one even knows for sure how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Regardless of radiation, the cancer rate in our world is quite high. Yet people appear to be afraid of radiation, which is like a ghost that never appears."

 The city reopened the no-entry zone in May, insisting that radiation levels in Odaka and some parts of Haramachi had fallen enough to be safe. However, some residents are unhappy with this decision. Shibaguchi Takashi (42), a former acupuncturist and the father of a 6-year-old daughter Nana, refuses to return to his home inside the former exclusion zone, preferring his temporary accommodation. "The city says that the radiation level is completely safe, but when my neighbors checked the radiation level under the eaves of my house, it was over two microsieverts." (henceforth, μSv) He added: "I am sure that radioactive materials released immediately after the explosion are unchanged on the leaking roof. I believe it is too dangerous to go back there."

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