YOKOHAMA – While frustrated Americans rally to the largely stationary “Occupy Wall Street” movement, frustrated Japanese are ready to join up and actually "move," en masse, under the banner, “Abandon Fukushima.”
Since I returned to Japan on Nov. 9th, two days before the eight-months anniversary of the 3/11 Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake/tsunami, I’ve been struggling to understand what lies beneath the eerily calm of the Japanese people. The Japanese government, mainstream media, big and small businesses and man-on-the-street in Japan are carrying on life as business-as-usual.
Their stoicism is admirable. But it pains me to see the nation and its people clearly more intent on demonstrating normalcy than facing up conscientiously to the fear and frustration that lies beneath the surface. It’s almost as though they’ve decided that denial is the only way to restore confidence in people, in the ravaged areas around Fukushima, and in Japan.
But is it?
Last weekend, several villages, towns and cities in Tohoku held local elections for mayor and council members. A small town in Fukushima prefecture, which had been almost totally evacuated, nonetheless printed and mailed absentee ballots to former local residents scattered all over Japan. They essentially elected phantom officials to govern a ghost town – in a pretense of faith and hope that their “home town” was normal.
Last weekend, NHK, Japan’s public broadcast network, profiled a young local hero from Namie-cho, a town close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Together with a team of former Namie-cho residents, he won fourth place in Japan’s national noodle cooking contest. He then looked squarely at the camera and said, “All of us from Namie-cho are pleading to the government: let us return to Namie-cho as soon as possible.”
Trouble is, neither the noodle-eater nor the government has any idea whether Namie-cho is safe. Or, if someone does know, no one's saying.
The Japanese media, often emotionally charged, is treating the locals of Fukushima with kid gloves. Nobody dares to tell them — as they hold elections and demand the right to go back home, that there will be no “tomorrow.” In fact, it’s highly unlikely that most of those from highly irradiated areas will be allowed to go home in the next 20 to 30 years. There seems to exist a national consensus to neither spell out nor discuss this eventuality. The prevailing explanation is that no scientific data exists to prove that the long-term impact of a very low dosage of radiation on human bodies is “unsafe.”
Last weekend, Fukushima also held the 2011 East Japan Women’s “Ekiden,” a long-distance relay race. The event is sponsored by a Japanese newspaper, local business interests and the government. This group of boosters sent female runners as young as 13 through a radiation "hot zone" in Fukushima city where the radiation often exceeds levels observed at J-Village – a staging area for nuclear plant workers just inside the 20-kilometer no man's land around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
While tweets on Japan's "atomic Ekiden" were rampant on the Internet, no mainstream media in Japan questioned this well-choreographed “Fukushima recovery” story.
On the 3/11 anniversary day, Tokyo Electric Power Co. finally allowed mainstream media to visit J-Village, a “no entry” zone for ordinary citizens. Journalists and photographers suited up in protective gear were also “bussed in” to the vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to take photos -- but only from the bus.
Taken on Nov. 12 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the photo shows the upper part of No. 3 reactor building
After the media day, the Asahi Newspaper ran a page-one story with a headline that read: 'I thought several times that I would die.' This was a quote from Masao Yoshida, director of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Yoshida was reflecting on his experience during the week of March 11th and that’s what he said during the press interview, eight months later.
Nobody in Japanese government or nuclear experts in Japanese academia, eight months ago, dared to share such a sentiment. Hence, the power plant director’s “public” acknowledgement of what he perceived as life-threatening danger at that time still seems like shocking news – at least in the minds of the sheltered Japanese.
After a week here, I was beginning to wonder what’s wrong with this picture. I was getting antsy, desperately looking for more sensible Japanese people who could talk straight about what's to become of Fukushima. Finally, in Yokohama this week to cover Embedded Technology conference
, I stumbled into the unexpected.
While attending the Android session at the conference, I learned about an actual groundswell among ordinary citizens to “crowd-source” radiation data through Twitter, by connecting an Android smartphone with a home-made Geiger counter
. Michihiro Imaoka, one of the speakers, has invented a small hand-made Geiger counter. He connects it to an Android-based smartphone via audio interface. Leveraging GPS and connectivity featured on the smartphone, he said, “You can tweet the data on a radiation level, its detected time and longitude/latitude to the ‘cloud.’” Another piece of software can turn tweeted data into a visual map.
Imaoka told EE Times, “Everyone is worried about radiation in Japan. But there aren’t enough Geiger counters to go around. More important, we all need a way to share data among ourselves.”
The Japanese government’s lack of transparency has been the biggest driver of this grassroots movement. “I think we need a counter-weight to the sparse information trickling down from the government,” said Imaoka.
The Japanese government has been accused of withholding forecasts on the dispersal of radioactive substances from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, although Japan’s Meteorological Agency has been churning out maps and data hourly since the earthquake and tsunami's first tremor.
Although Japan’s Meteorological Agency has been reporting radiation forecasts to IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Association), it was withholding them from the public at home, claiming that the data was “incomplete.”
While it isn't my purpose in this blog to incite an “Abandon Fukushima” movement, I couldn’t agree more with Imaoka's insistence that “radiation literacy” and “visualization of radiation” are critical tools that ought to be available to everyone in Japan. Accurate data and sound knowledge can only help us make reasonable decisions.
As a citizen, and as an engineer, Imaoka said, “We owe it to ourselves and to the world not to waste the biggest nuclear catastrophe ever. It presents us an unprecedented opportunity to collect and accumulate data for future generations.”
Indeed, Imaoka isn’t alone in his crusade. PBS recently reported the activities of Safecast
, “a global sensor network for collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments” in Japan. You can watch that video clip here