- Posted February 23, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Japan one year later: What’s changed?
March 11th One Year On - Living with Uncertainty
'The way we live now - such as scanning product labels for sources of ingredients and searching farther afield for "safe" items - this is now the new normal. We are basically NEVER going to be able to go back to the way things were. We have to adapt to the way things have to be from now on. I love living here and we have a good life, but we are considering ways we can get away for a while, if only for a few years. I would love to be able to live without the constant worry about food, the environment, aftershocks and new quakes, just for a little while!'
- zdan, CNN iReport producer
The pictures above show me reporting from hospital(!), the Tokyo skyline from the Bay area, and the family taking a radition-break in Kyushu in the far west of Japan last Summer. It was great to get away from it all for just a few days!
19th February 2012, Tokyo, Japan
As the first anniversary of the disaster approaches, many of us are taking a look back at how life has changed for us in the past year. Myself in particular. I am actually writing this from my hospital bed, in a large general medical center in eastern Tokyo! I lost my hearing in one ear a week ago, and the loss was sudden and severe enough to warrant inpatient treatment for about a week (we estimate). My first question of course was “What could have caused this?” Doctor Mori`s answer: “Stress. Actually, we have seen an increasing number of cases of this in the last year….” An ENT surgeon here at St Luke`s International Hospital, she has also seen an increased number of vertigo and balance-related symptoms that she attributes to a kind of “seasickness”, caused by the frequent aftershocks and related small quakes that, lest we could even briefly forget, are sometimes gently sometimes more firmly jolting us into awareness of the geological instability of this region on an almost daily basis. Every time it happens we sit, find a point of reference (a swaying curtain cord, a swinging lamp cable) and wait. Will this one fade away? Or is this The Big One they have been promising is coming?
This is everyday life in the city now. On the surface, it is business as usual. We wake up, we go to work, we shop for dinner. We drink, we laugh, we care for our children. But running underneath the veneer of normality is the constant reminder that life has changed. It is in the incessant small tremors (we had 3 just yesterday). In the origin labels on the supermarket products (is it safe?). In the strange, seemingly more common than previously, physical afflictions that seem to be affecting us. Frequent nose bleeds in children. Coughing and allergy-type symptoms. Strange viruses floating around. Hearing loss in my case. Is it all in our imagination? It is in the sometimes credible and sometimes a little more incredible information released by officials. There are surface appearances and then there is what lies beneath, and this current daily routine feels fragile, easily broken.
Foreigners flock to Tokyo for all sorts of reasons, and bonds develop that can make it harder to just pick up and escape. For the ones who were free to leave, many did in the early days, earning themselves the perhaps slightly harsh label of “flyjin” – a play on “gaijin”, the Japanese word for foreigner. Many have since returned, but many too have not. On the Japan-related chatrooms and web forums there is a constant discussion and argument over who has made the right decision. To stay? Or to go? That was the question. Every new piece of information released, every item of news is picked over, analyzed and used to justify personal agendas. The debate gets quite heated. It is one of my frustrations. I wish we could respect each other for the decisions we have personally made, instead of constantly bickering among ourselves over what is the “right” thing for any one of us to do.
After months of argument, marital strain, hurled accusations of “living in denial” batted back with recriminations of “over-reacting and being too emotional”, we finally landed on the same page and decided to stay. The situation seems under control now, we hope, both at Fukushima and in our marriage! We felt reasonably confident here in south eastern Tokyo that our environment was relatively safe (it has been thoroughly checked both by the local government and local people with their own Geiger counters whose results all concurred despite the media leaking “propaganda” (source unknown but suspected) that the Geiger counters on the general market are “notoriously unreliable” and testing should be left to the authorities. Food contamination testing shops have sprung up in a few places alongside the internet cafes and amusement arcades. “Bring your sample and we will test it for you for only x yen a kilo!” We have searched for alternate ways to source our food, both from local supermarkets and the big Costco branches we have nearby, or from the internet. It is inconvenient, and even more expensive in a city not known for its bargain shopping. But it is necessary. And we felt that separating our 3 young children from their much-loved Japanese father for an extended period of time and uprooting them back to the UK could well in the long-term cause just as much harm to them as staying and working hard to keep them as little-exposed as possible. I am convinced we have made the right decision for our family for now. But this is neither a situation where one solution fits all, nor where a decision may be considered final, and everyone has to do what they believe is best for them with the information they have available at that time.
It is not an easy option though. I am lucky enough to be able to read Japanese, and I can work out easily enough the source of products in the supermarket. On occasions when I do struggle with an obscure Chinese character, people are generally understanding and kind. The biggest problem has been a lack of reliable and credible information. Radiation doesn`t spread in a conveniently neat circle, so whilst the whole of Fukushima is considered contaminated and people are avoiding products from that region, there are in fact parts of Fukushima that are perfectly safe, whilst neighbouring prefectures such as Tochigi, Iberaki, and Gunma, even Chiba, have “hot spots” of high contamination. But many products from these areas are still on the shelves, and we have no way of knowing if they are safe or not.
From time to time it hits the news that beef, or tea from as far south as Shizuoka, or mushrooms, or some other such item have managed to find their way onto supermarket shelves and then been tested and found to be unsafe. The product is removed, but for some consumers it is already too late. The standard government line is “There is no immediate risk to health”. This generates a somewhat bitter laughing response. “Immediate”? No, maybe not. But what about in the long term? It is hard to trust a government who respond to evidence of contamination by simply raising the safety limit, especially when no-one can really say what “safe” is. In recent months, certain areas of Japan unaffected by radiation have hiked up prices of their produce. In my local supermarket a small box of strawberries from Tochigi near Fukushima struggles to sell for 400 yen (about $5). The same box from the west of Japan will sell even at double the price. This makes me angry to be honest. While farmers at one end of the country have lost everything, farmers at the other end are cashing in on their misfortune at the consumers expense.
The government has said that they will buy up produce from Fukushima to help the farmers. There are rumors that this food is going to find its` way into school lunches. Here, the Mothers of Japan are sharply divided. Some have formed action groups to demand testing of food products and publication of the origin of school lunch ingredients. Other Mothers look at them with disdain and embarrassment, claiming they are causing trouble, being irrational, and should trust that the government will have their best interests at heart. This is a nation schooled from birth to respect authority and hierarchy. Even in these circumstances, old habits die hard.
Foreigners here are generally far more skeptical than the Japanese about the government`s official lines. Eminent professors making statements such as “You can`t catch radiation if you smile” add to the general distrust in authority, and YouTube video clips of Nuclear Safety Agency officials walking out on public meetings when the questions get too “uncomfortable” for them are rife. In one such clip you can see them walking down the corridor deaf to the cries of the locals chasing them waving vials of urine samples from their children begging them to take them away for testing as they had promised. One mutters “That`s not our department”. As the elevator doors shut on the last official, a tearful local resident pounds the wall and cries out “Please!!! PLEASE!!! Don`t you have children? Please don`t run away from us! Don`t you care??!”
The initial disaster relief effort has now given way to longer-term reconstruction and rebuilding projects. But even here, controversy reigns. The same construction companies tasked with building the reactors in the first place are now being tasked with the cleaning up and decontamination efforts. And these contracts involve big money. It seems that the worse a job you can do the first time around, the more money there is to be made in the clean-up phase. The companies themselves admit they don`t really know what they are doing, that this kind of work is unprecedented. Mayors of some local towns evacuated during the crisis are calling for people to return, claiming it is now safe. But people are skeptical. Yes, the town may or may not be clean, but what about the mountains? The rivers? Will the first flash of rainfall wash all the contamination back into the town again? People are still staying well away. It is not uncommon to see Fukushima license plates on cars all over Tokyo now, as people try to make a new life for themselves elsewhere. A new friend of mine came down to our area with her two boys, but had to leave her husband, a firefighter, up on the border of the evacuation zone.
In Japanese society at large a spike in marriages and introduction agency registrations is being seen, as people react to the disaster and decide to make lasting personal changes to their circumstances. Sadly, there has also been a separation and divorce spike, as the disaster remains also a catalyst for those who have been contemplating escape. In particular it becomes a problem when parents just can`t agree or support each other on the decision to stay or leave. The character “ 絆 ” or “Kizuna” has been chosen as the Kanji of the Year for 2011. It means “bonding”, but I guess this has different significance for different people. For me, it has meant appreciating the people around me, and humbling myself to accept help when I need it, instead of always trying to be so strong and independent. When you make a new life in another country, your friends become your family. I make a more conscious effort to nurture my relationships with friends and family here, and enjoy every day. My friends tell me they have had similar reactions to the events of the past year. I have had a constant stream of visitors since coming into hospital and I appreciate them all the more right now!
And so life goes on. We were recently told that a study has suggested there is a 70% chance that “The Big One” will hit us in Tokyo within the next 4 years. I just heard yesterday that has now been revised to 50%. The information is fluid, constantly changing. Thinking positively, many Tokyoites are seeing 3/11 as a kind of dry-run for what might be coming. We know now what works (stockpiling food and water) and what doesn`t (communication channels). We wonder how the “pockets” of contamination that are regularly found as far away as Chiba and Yokohama managed to get there. A few scares in Tokyo so far have mostly revealed contamination unrelated to the disaster. We are confused and sometimes angered by the information put out by the authorities. The Prime Minister announced late last year that the reactor was in a state of “cold and stable shutdown”, only to then find a week or so ago that temperatures were rising inside reactor number 3, almost to boiling point, with no knowledge as to why. It was later reported to be a faulty thermometer. Probably this was the case, but every announcement is met with skepticism. The data changes on a weekly basis. Slowly, opinions and truths are leaking out. Former Prime Minster Kan just announced today that the nuclear disaster was caused by human error, not the tsunami. Well, for most of us it was something we already knew.
For the Japanese themselves, their faith in government has been severely shaken. Some are choosing denial as a way of coping. Others shrug with the “shou ga nai” (c`est la vie) attitude that frustrates foreigners here, many coming from cultures more used to making waves against perceived injustice. A small minority are choosing to take action, but have little support within the country as a whole. It begs the question what it really will take for the country to start demanding more of its elected officials.
And as for us? Well, once I am released from hospital, if we are going to remain in Tokyo, I need to find a way to manage the underlying stress that has driven me to this point. Coinciding with the March 11th anniversary will be my daughters 8th birthday, on the 15th. We were able to source a cake for her last year, but not much more, given that most of the stores were shut to assess structural damage. We will make a little more of it for her this year. A year on she is still not sleeping in her own room, preferring to share with her brother. But she is not scared of the water anymore. There was a time when she thought the Tokyo Bay we could see from our balcony was going to flood in and engulf us. It used to wake her up crying in the night. The broken glass has been swept away, the building cracks have been filled and repaired, the pavements have been evened out and to all appearances here in Tokyo, on the surface, everything continues as normal. The “wa” – harmony – has been restored. But scratch away just underneath and this is a city that has figuratively and literally been rocked to its core. There is an edginess now. We have no idea how much stress and pressure is building under our feet at this very moment, but we are certainly feeling it within ourselves. We can`t escape it unless we choose to leave everything behind and start again. It is a question of simply finding a way to manage this tension, and get on with our daily lives as best we can.