Today’s article is a guest post by Elicia Mayuri Cousins.
Elicia has spent her summer working with the summer camp in Iriomote (and another one in Chiba) that helps families in Fukushima attend summer camp in areas free of radiation contamination.
“It’s not contaminated!” exclaimed ten-year old Hisano, marveling at a leaf she held up to the
sunlight. It was as though she was holding a rare butterfly. We had finally reached Iriomote
island of Okinawa, 1330 miles away from Hisano’s home in Koriyama City, Fukushima, where
she can hardly play outdoors anymore because of radiation contamination. Around us were 40
others—a mix of mothers and their children— also from the cities of Koriyama, Fukushima and
Iwaki, exploring the backyard of the lodge and nearby beach with uncontained excitement.
While it may appear that the worst of the Fukushima crisis of March 11, 2011 has passed,
thousands across eastern Japan continue to struggle with a range of problems in the wake of
the disaster. Only areas in which cumulative radiation exposure is projected to reach 20mSv/
year have been evacuated by the government, leaving residents of other areas to decide whether
to evacuate “voluntarily” without government compensation. As a result, many who wish to
evacuate cannot afford to. In response, countless individuals, local citizen groups and NGOs
across the country have been organizing short- and long-term “evacuation camps” for children, and often their parents, to spend time away from contaminated areas. This past July, I had
the opportunity to volunteer as a staff member for one such camp, held in Iriomote island of Okinawa.
Such camps have focused on children because of the inherently greater risks they face from radiation exposure. Potential health effects include thyroid cancer, digestive and blood disorders,
birth defects, fertility problems, immune deficiencies and psychological problems. Of the 38,114 children tested in a government survey in Fukushima so far, 36.1% had some form of detectible
nodule or cyst on their thyroid. Surveys conducted by citizen groups further detected cesium (a radioactive contaminant) in the urine of children not only in Fukushima but also in Miyagi,
Iwate and Chiba, confirming their internal exposure to radiation. Residents have further begun to experience an array of heart problems.
The camp I joined was organized by Masao Yamashita (widely known as Ma-chan), an Iriomote island native who is a traditional Okinawa-style singer based in Osaka. He also runs a small
non-profit organization (NPO), and since 3/11, most of this NPO’s sparse resources have gone to Fukushima relief efforts. Determined to offer support in as many ways as possible, Ma-chan
frequently holds concerts and public lectures in Fukushima to encourage residents as well as to raise awareness on the risks of radiation exposure.
The days of the camp passed rapidly, with one adventure following another in the lush green and vivid blue of Iriomote—swimming, snorkeling, fishing, canoeing, and even helping out at the
local summer festival. The mothers brimmed with joy and gratitude for the chance to let their children play freely outside again. For their part, the children hardly ever wanted to rest. At night
I slept in a big tatami room with two other staff members and five girls ranging from 6 to 10 years old. Until bedtime the room was typically bursting with laughter and shrieks of delight as
the girls ran around playing tag or hide and seek.
Insisting that the evening was the best time to swim, Ma-chan always made a point to lead everyone outside after dinner to watch the sunset and enjoy one last dip. One evening, though, it
began to rain heavily while we finished dinner, and most children and their mothers retreated to their rooms, assuming they’d have to wait till the rain let up. Yet there was no stopping Ma-chan.
As he led some children outside, I ran back to my room and yanked open the door yelling, “Let’s go to the ocean!” The girls looked at me, bewildered. “It’s okay that it’s raining—that’ll make it
all the more fun!” Moments later, we were sprinting across the lawn and over the stone walkway to the beach. The salty, gray water was warm and soft beneath the pelting rain. Some mothers
appeared with their toddlers and joined in the splashing, screaming, and bubbling laughter. A fleeting moment of complete release—release from the deep-rooted fears inherent to their new
lives; from the incessant need to approach everything with caution; from the frustration of not being able to embrace something as simple as the rain for fear of its contamination.
The Japanese government’s official stance continues to be that areas of contamination that expose residents to less than 20mSv/year are safe, even though the Nuclear Reactor Regulaton
Law defines 1mSv/year as the permissible limit of exposure for the general public. Many in Fukushima choose to believe the government, while others have come to distrust all sources
of information that may be influenced by the government, including mainstream media. These residents do their research mainly through the Internet, where numerous sources claim that
areas up to 80km away from the Fukushima plant are contaminated enough to justify immediate evacuation. Nevertheless, as revealed in a 2011 survey conducted by the NGO Friends of
Earth Japan, many who wish to evacuate find themselves largely constrained by financial and employment uncertainty, the difficulty of finding a place to move, and a lack of agreement
among family members.
One evening I sat with a fellow staff member from Koriyama City, and Tanaka-san, the mother of one of the girls in our room, as the girls sprawled on a futon in front of us giggling at a TV
show and munching on some late-night snacks. Tanaka-san was explaining in a pained but good- natured tone that she still lives in Fukushima City even though she knows it’s not safe, mainly
because of financial concerns and because her husband insists that it’s fine to keep living there.
“To continue paying loans for our current house, and to pay for a new house on top of that…we wouldn’t be able to afford it,” she explained. She thus continues to do what she can to minimize
her family’s exposure to radiation—like removing the top two centimeters of soil from her yard, buying food produced in uncontaminated prefectures, and sending her kids outside of
Fukushima during their school vacations. Her husband, on the other hand, questions why she orders bottled water for the family (to avoid contaminated tap water). “But then,” she added
with a laugh, “sometimes he comes home from work with his own bottled water. And I say, ‘so, you’re worried too!’”
By hosting these camps and traveling to Fukushima, Ma-chan has learned that many young mothers in Fukushima lack the opportunity to talk with others about their everyday stresses. To
create such an opportunity, he invited all the mothers to the lodge’s dining area at 10:30 each night after the children had gone to bed. Amid the clinking of glasses and cheerful recounting of
the day’s adventures, I listened as the mothers revealed some of their deepest concerns.
Among such concerns was the fear of being discriminated against. Having studied the history of victims of radiation exposure in Japan, I knew that such worries were not unfounded.
Despite receiving extended medical services from the Japanese government, atomic bomb victims, termed hibakusha, have suffered discrimination and stigmatization on the basis of
being “polluted” by radiation. For example, women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki faced many difficulties finding marriage partners because of the belief that their children would be born
with health defects. Also termed hibakusha, those from Fukushima are already beginning to experience a new wave of discrimination.
“My heart starts beating faster when I drive with my Fukushima license plate outside of Fukushima prefecture,” one mother said. “I get really anxious, and I’m hesitant to park anywhere
for fear of being told off.” She explained that though she has personally never been confronted, she has heard many stories. “They think your car is ‘polluted’ if it’s from Fukushima, so they
don’t want your car in their parking space,” another mother chimed in. Some people choose to change their license plate to avoid the trouble.
In June 2012, the Nuclear Accident Child Victim’s Law was finally passed in the Diet, promising more widespread financial and medical assistance to victims of the disaster. Skeptical
of the government’s ability to carry through, citizen groups and NGOs are poised to keep a close eye on the progress of the law’s implementation. However, because the number and range of
people in need of assistance is so vast, there is no doubt that Ma-chan’s camp, and others like it, will be in high demand for years to come.
On the last day, we all sat in a circle in the backyard under a light afternoon drizzle. The adults desperately bit back their tears as they shared final reflections as well as their thoughts about
the future. A mother from Iwaki City, who participated in the camp with her three young sons, explained: “My middle son’s Christmas wish-list usually consists of ‘I want this, I want that.’
When I peeked at it this year, I saw that he’d written, ‘I wish for radiation to be gone.’ That’s when I realized what things had really come to…” She went on to express her desire to surmount
the difficulties she faces as a result of the disaster. “When people ask me where I’m from these days, I find myself hesitating before I answer ‘Fukushima’…I wish to move forward and be able
to easily and proudly answer that question again.”
This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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