Research, Thoughts

#074 When Google search gives you a reality check

I haven’t written in a long time. I am now back in the field, writing my first ever book chapter. The whole process is quite overwhelming and I am trying to produce a piece that would bring new knowledge to potential readers. I want it to be nicely written, to tell a story, and convey feelings.

As I am entering the last stage of my first draft, I started checking a few facts and adding footnotes. This afternoon, I wanted to make sure that I did not miss anything about public support provided for  self-evacuees. I typed “self-evacuation” (自主避難) on my browser and was shocked by the words that appeared. It started really normally by “self-evacuee” (自主避難者) but quickly moved onto “self-evacuees whining” (自主避難者 わがまま) and “self-evacuation dependence” (自主避難 甘え).

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In my mind, I had never connected those words together, simply because I have talked to many self-evacuees and I know that they receive only limited support and work hard to make ends meet. They have evacuated because they are worried about potential health repercussions on their children’s health. From my interviews, I also knew that many people were afraid of being stigmatized as “from Fukushima” or as “receiving loads of money”, because it was a reality: hateful comments were made out of pure jealousy, all over the country. In her heartbreaking book “Report: boshi-hinan (ルポ 母子避難), Yoshida Chia wrote about the stories of women who had evacuated with their children, leaving their husbands back in Fukushima prefecture. It was actually a very common form of evacuation, men staying behind because, as breadwinners, they had to resume working shortly after the accident. I cannot forget the story of one self-evacuee who had a really hard time and who felt extremely depressed. She had decided to buy new curtains to lighten up the mood in her old and tiny flat, where she was living with her two children. She bought flowery curtains, thinking that it might help her feel a little better. She later ran into one of her neighbors, who shamelessly told her: “You have changed your curtains? It’s nice to receive so much money from the state.” The mother was terribly hurt by this comment and fell a little deeper into depression.

The compensation and reparation system has created a lot of jealousy within the population. In a way, I understand the tensions between people who receive and people who do not receive compensation within the same municipality, also because radioactive contamination did not stop at the end of the evacuation zone. But when I hear stories about people making such horrible comments further away, I cannot help but feel angry. People who evacuated are not gold digger. They fled from a risk they perceived as real, for the sake of their children. I do not see why they should be criticized for that, especially when they receive so little support. They are basically bearing the burden of evacuation on their own shoulders, financially, socially, emotionally. Isn’t that enough suffering?


#073 Human rights & children’s thyroid cancer

I am currently writing a few summaries of my last fieldwork, and I just read a memo on a middle-aged man making an odd point on the link between thyroid cancer monitoring and human rights in post-Fukushima Japan. It all started when I asked him what he thought about the sudden increase in thyroid cancers among children in Fukushima prefecture (185 cases in February 2017). He tells me that it’s basically not relevant because it’s a result of the screening effect (you find cancers because you actively look for them). And in any way, the results are not helpful because there is no monitoring in other prefectures to offer a comparison. Well, yes, that is very true. And that is a huge issue that should be tackled, for sure. I nod, inviting him to tell me more (or, as professionals would say, probing with some more body language).

“Well, you see, the problem is that it infringes children’s human rights.” I stop taking notes, frowning. I turn to him and he looks at me, very seriously. If you force children to take the test and a benign tumor is detected, the child has to live with this horrible fact for the rest of his/her life. Maybe the child will need surgery for a tumor that no one would have found otherwise and that would not have required surgery. And then the child has to take medicine for the rest of his/her life. That goes against the child’s human rights.

At that point, I had stopped taking notes, stubbornly. I simply could not. I could not even look at his face. I was happy to have found a foundation with good coverage, because my face was on fire underneath. I was boiling with rage. I ended up writing a few words, to make him believe that I was taking notes on his diatribe. Instead, I wrote “So, the human rights of the children in Fukushima prefecture do not matter? I don’t understand his viewpoint, at all. There are a sharp increase of cancers on one side, but we should sacrifice their rights to let others alone?” Thinking about it, that also sounds selfish. But I’ve met children impacted directly by the accident, talked with them, played with them. I’ve talked with their parents and listened to their concerns. I’ve heard them whispering words about the increase of cancers, letting their fear fall into silence. Shutting down.

Without a comparison with other prefectures, there will be no way to prove the link. Sure, I get the point. Even though, I somehow feel that it is the only disease that has been recognized as being a consequence of the Chernobyl accident, and I would love to simply use that fact to make sure that at least children with thyroid cancer will be taken care of in Japan. Because it will be even more difficult to prove any other type of disease, for reasons that I unfortunately understand way too well now. Victims will be forgotten; they are forgotten already. No one will take responsibility and they will have to deal with the sanitary (and social) consequences of a disastrous energy policy. National policy.

The whole situation is against their human rights. Responsibility issues, socially destructive policies, disgusting silences, crumbling memories. So when I am told that “Well… there is nothing that can be done”, I can’t help but want to scream. Please think about something that can be done, instead of giving up so easily. Please.

Research, Thoughts



Two days after my horrible encounter at a conference concerning food education in Berlin, I decided to write a second article. I talked to one of my professors in university, who was also pretty much shocked by the discourse heard at the conference, and we agreed that part of research is to take the time to write down how we feel (hello anthropology). So, why was I so angry?

  • Positivist science:

This relates directly to my previous article. Science IS NOT unbiased. It is embedded in a social, cultural, economic and political context and it would be foolish to think differently. Let’s look at the bomb A. After the bombs were dropped on Japan, scientists started screaming, saying that science should not be used in such manners. Why? Because of moral concerns. A second example would be cloning: there are still many debates concerning the use and application of cloning, even for medical purposes. Moral concerns. If we look at the question of nuclear power in France, its development was linked to the will of De Gaulle (and cie.) to give France a form of energy resource that would allow the country to get rid of its dependence on imported fossil fuels. Politically embedded. HELLO!

Science is part of everyday life politics. It is a part of our economic, but also emotional life. It makes us wonder about future discoveries and possible applications. It brings people to wonder if in 10 years they will be able to choose the color of their children’s eyes and hair. Will we be able to make the Down syndrome disappear? Should we? Or should we let nature proceed as it has until now? Saying that science is objective is stupid. Simply.

  • Official government discourse:

The presenter told us she was not hired by the government to “calm down” the population in Fukushima prefecture. I thought: “well… how did you end up there, then?” While I was talking to my professor, I learnt that YES, she had been hired by the local government. That makes her a liar. And then she was saying how she had to convince people that she has not been sent by the government in order to make them listen to her. So… you’re a double liar? You told them you were not sent by the government? And you tell us that openly? I find it very surprising to be so shameless. She has been receiving money (as a consultant) to spread this positivist idea of science, telling residents that it is fine to live in a contaminated area, as long as you’re paying attention to a few elements.

She is basically reproducing the discourse produced by ETHOS in Belarus. ETHOS was a European program headed by an economist, Lochard. From this point, you can see that there is a choice made: they did not send a physician, nor a physicist, but an economist. He then applied complex calculations, embedded in “rational economics”, in order to see how to reach an economic efficient situation. As evacuation and managing evacuees (and paying compensations) was becoming expensive, too expensive, they called economists to try to find a way to deal with Chernobyl in more cost-effective ways. ETHOS was born. “Yes, you can live there as long as you do not eat the fruits and vegetables you grow on contaminated lands, burn the wood you collect in contaminated forests, walk near rivers which are highly contaminated, etc.” Is this “living”? I am not sure. But it is less expensive then evacuating. So let’s do it that way.

The Japanese government is implementing the same type of policy today. It does not want to pay tremendous amount of money on evacuation and wish people would stay quiet in Fukushima prefecture. Having people evacuating is also a reminder that the situation is NOT under control and that’s bad for the state and TEPCO. It is also hitting local economy hard. So why not bringing the population to think that it’s fine!?

  • Taking people for passive objects:

I think the point that infuriated me the most was the following: “Science is objective; people lack literacy and are emotional.” It was an easy way to say: “those people do not understand radioactivity, we have to teach them the right knowledge”. But this is entirely wrong. If you go onto the field, you will find NPOs gathering data (air, soil and food contamination), individuals reading books about exposure to radioactivity and walking around with Geiger counters, mothers checking food contamination tables in order to buy food in supermarkets, worrying about the relations between external and internal exposure (which is largely ignored by the official discourse). People DO know about what science is about. They have learnt and especially now, 5 years after the accident, they master the numbers and the scales. Becquerel and sievert, cesium and strontium, gamma, beta and alpha, micro and milli, etc. They give you papers filled with numbers, going from one data to another, dancing through the tables. “I had the dirt in front of our house measured, and can you believe that we still have 13 000 becquerels/kg there?” “The government measures radioactivity at 1m above the ground, but kids are shorter so you need to measure it at 10 and 50cm. Look how the contamination level changes!”

As I was meeting people in and out of Fukushima prefecture, I progressively learnt about all of this. Actually, I felt stupid the first time I went on the field, because I thought I knew about this and I realized I didn’t. They took the time to go through papers and data, to discuss the question of the threshold that has been decided by the government, to explain their views on low-level contamination exposure. They are knowledgeable. Maybe thanks to the lack of transparency from public institutions and TEPCO. And I cannot accept this truth to be step upon by a lady who certainly did not even take the time to listen to people’s worries properly.

  • Ignoring plurality:

And this is linked to the next point: ignoring plurality. She was stating vague generalities about how laypeople are not knowledgeable when it comes to science. As I said, this fact in itself is stupid. But it also does not address the existence of diversity on the field, linked to different personal stories, economic background, level of education, possibility to evacuate, etc. People who stayed in Fukushima Prefecture are diverse: some of them could not evacuate for financial reasons. Some did not evacuate because it meant putting aside their whole lives (social, professional, etc.). Some had to take care of old parents. Some could not leave their business. And so on. It means that, even if people do not express their concerns out loud and all seem to be ok with contamination, it is not the case. Some people ignore the issue, in order to avoid going insane. Some do not believe that low-level radiations are dangerous. Some people worry, silently.

This is not directly related, but I am pretty sure that there must be psychological studies done on the field. There should be, at least, because there is so much stress, distress and anxiety buried there. I read somewhere that PTSD in Fukushima (non-tsunami related) could possibly become worse than PTSD linked to the tsunami, because fear does not have a proper physical representation. Fear is provoked by an invisible enemy (radioactivity), supported by a powerful knight (the state). How do individuals protect themselves against those influential opponents? How do they reconstruct trust relationships in this kind of context?

  • Symbolic violence:

I was discussing the concept of “symbolic violence” with a colleague the other day. We were trying to put a color on this obscure notion. Well, this is, to me, an example of symbolic violence. It is invisible, sneaking in your back and telling you what to think. It is a normative discourse, contaminating minds in order to shape people’s beliefs and decision-making mechanisms. Domination wears velvet gloves, covering up individual narratives, muffling public discussions. I am personally interested in the way women are subjects to this discourse, and how they challenge it in order to protect their children. But I am sure that many men suffer from the impossibility to talk about radioactivity and their worries, a reason why I spend a lot of time discussing with men when I am on the field. All participants carry a heavy burden, untold doubts and hidden uncertainties. There is a real need to acknowledge pain, anger and hope, whatever the shape it takes, whatever the discourse it underpins.

I have a strong stance when it comes to nuclear power and contamination in post-Fukushima Japan. I do stand for the self-evacuees and concerned people. But I also hear the voices of the ones who decide to stay in Fukushima prefecture, those who make the choice (willingly or not) to live a “normal” life, without thinking about contamination and radioactivity continuously. I am sometimes speechless, trying to make sense of the discourses I hear. But I always try to open my eyes and my ears, in order to give space to all positions, all experiences, all narratives. It is an attempt, and sometimes I fail. But I wish more people, on the field, would try to adopt the same attitude.

Stop crushing personal stories under a heavy, noisy, toxic official, de-legitimizing personal trajectories. Please.

Research, Thoughts



Yesterday, I went to a conference on food education, co-organized by my graduate school. I was mainly interested by a professor who came all the way from Hawaii and who wrote one of my seminal books (dealing with scientific knowledge, postfeminism, neoliberalism in the aftermath of 3.11). I was excited to listen to what she had to say about food education in Japan and its implication on gender roles within the family, class, and race. The conference was interesting, even though I thought that it went somehow too smoothly, as very little people addressed frontally the system as it is.

And then, in the afternoon, the horror. A consultant in risk communication started talking about risk/hazard and how people were not able to make the difference. Her job was to explain people that hazard is qualitative, while risk is quantitative: an increasing amount of hazard makes risk. And to go on with the situation in Fukushima. She had been a contamination advisor in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, explaining the population what radioactivity is, how it interacts with the human body and what are the hazards linked to it. She had this very infuriating way of saying that lay-person knowledge is biased, irrational and non-scientific, while well… science is science.

I am sure she is a very smart lady. But it does not require to be particularly educated in radioactivity related matters to see that NO, science is not neutral. The government and TEPCO did not communicate transparently after the accident, creating a trust crisis and a knowledge void the population had to deal with. Currently, there is no study that says that long-term exposure to low-level radiations causes cancer. But there is no study that proves the contrary: that it does NOT cause cancer. However, the government decided to put the now famous “precaution principle” aside, asking people to live in areas  more than 20 times more contaminated than where they used to live. Children were supposed to go to schools with contamination going up to 20 mSv/year, a threshold that applies to workers of the nuclear industry (mainly men in their 40s, weighting 70kg, not 10 year-old 30kg kids). Psychologists were sent to the region to advise the residents: “Do you know that worrying causes more harm to your body than radioactivity?”

The presenter was talking about risk communication. I went to an event at the UNU in Tokyo in November 2015, focusing on this topic. It was dry, dehumanized, uninteresting. Researchers talk about this top-down relationship between the administration and the population, without understand what communication really means. I guess it comes from this “positivist idea of science” (science as a neutral, universal truth) that science is something that “normal” people cannot understand and that has to be explained to them. Layperson knowledge is discarded, disregarded, looked down upon. But communication means “to put in common” in latin. Communication is not a one-way relationship, it’s about exchange, discussion, debate. Why calling risk communication something that is simply produced and distributed by one side? Why should that type of communication be legitimized, and lay-person knowledge thrown away?

If you go to Fukushima Prefecture, and more generally talk to evacuees from the region, you will be surprised as how much knowledge they have gathered. I am not saying that all people have the same level of knowledge and care the same way. After all, if you cannot evacuate (for 1000 different reasons), you might prefer burying your worries if you want to stay sane… But the people I met through my two fieldworks taught me a lot about radioactivity, its effects, how to measure it and how to counter it. I received pamphlets, was advised to read certain books and newspaper articles, was invited to accompany them to make measurements on the streets and to see how certain NPOs measure contamination in food. It was striking to see how layperson knowledge was developing, spreading, evolving, in parallel to official knowledge. The reality is really far from “objective science & irrational, emotional people”. It takes a few hours to realize that. You just need to push a few doors, walk down a few streets and open your eyes and ears. I am a baby researcher, at the beginning of my study. I only have been on the field for a total of two months. But it was enough to show me that science is not a unified, unbiased entity. It is always situated in political, social, economical and cultural settings, which shape the way it is interpreted, but also done. It would be good if advisors and professionals going to “reassure” people in Fukushima knew about this, instead of shaming people who think differently through the use of words such as fūhyōhigai or shinkeishitsu.

Research, Thoughts




Recently, I met one of my friends and colleges, who works with me on a research project. We were supposed to have lunch together and ended up with the members of the seminar she attended in the morning. I got to meet one of the researchers working on a very interesting projects conducted in Paris, looking at the trust crisis in Fukushima. We did not get to speak much about that project, as I was basically bombing my friends with comments and questions concerning the fieldwork I had just done, but we slightly talked about it after lunch.

The researcher then said something that strongly struck me. “I don’t understand why people evacuated from Tokyo. I mean, now, they have no reason to continue living like evacuees anymore. The radiation levels are totally fine, they’re lower than in Paris!” And then I realized that all people do not share my viewpoint on the issue. Well, of course, Tokyo was far less contaminated than places like Fukushima city or even Iwaki. The levels are low, 5 years after the accident, and people there live in total ignorance of the contamination they were facing in 2011. But some people still think that the levels being higher than before 2011, they should stay away from it. If you have very young children and the economic/social means to stay away, why would you come back?

I realized that as my friend and I have been doing interviews for the past 2 to 3 years, we are pretty aware of what can be found on the field. We’re still far from having a correct overview, but I do believe we have interesting data and correct intuitions about a few topics. But that researcher had less idea of what could be found on the field and as she is mainly dealing with people from the evacuation zone (compared to us, working with self-evacuees), she has very different ways of seeing the same data. For her, Tokyo is a safe place. That’s all. As if there was no room for discussion. But is that ok, when you haven’t been on the field yet?

I think the main lesson those 2 fieldworks taught me is simple: keep an open mind. You never know what you will find once you’re in front of your interviewees. And you should not judge them for having a different opinion than you, even if sometimes they say shocking things. Because this is simply a proof that humanity is diverse and that your research is rich.

Research, Thoughts




Yesterday, I went for dinner with a friend I haven’t seen for 2 years. She asked me what I was doing these days and I told her about my research concerning Fukushima nuclear accident and evacuees. She then had a very common but very annoying reaction:

Well, you know, those people received a lot of money from TEPCO before the accident, because they were hosting the plant.

That is true. People living in the vicinity of the nuclear plants received money personally (something around 100$/year per person) and their municipalities had important subsidies from the company (and maybe the state?). But there is one thing that is for sure: you never receive money because a company is generous. That never happens. Why did all those people receive special treatment? Because they agreed (or had to) to host a nuclear plant (= a HUGE risk) producing electricity for Tokyo. Yes, it is important to say that people in Fukushima did NOT use the electricity produced by TEPCO, since, as the name of the company indicates (Tokyo Electric Power Company), all the energy was sent straight to the capital city. People in Tokyo believe that Fukushima residents were using the same plants and therefore had to share the risks. Nothing out of this is true.

There is a very simple truth about nuclear power plants, and risky industries in general. They are always constructed in poor areas, where people have little to fight back and are attracted by the possibility of receiving more subsidies and of creating new jobs. In Fukushima Prefecture, agriculture was a big deal. But as Japanese agriculture is suffering from a so-called lack of productivity (from a big business point of view) and farmers struggle to make a living, those farmers needed to find extra jobs to pay the bills. A great number of them went to Tokyo half of the year, as seasonal workers, in order to earn enough to survive.

When TEPCO arrived in Fukushima, some people tried to resist. They were convinced that the risks were too high, since nuclear plants are not 100% sure. As farmers, they knew that if something was to happen at the plant, their environment would be contaminated and they would have to leave the lands their inherited from their ancestors. But the big business was stronger than rationality. Economy is first. There was so much that could be built, renovated or maintained thanks to subsidies. I am not condemning them from accepting the nuclear plant. I think it is pretty understandable, even if I do believe that those plants should disappear from the surface of this planet.

But I cannot help be angry at Tokyo residents pointing their fingers at those victims, saying “well, they should have known better”. Well, you guys knew better and had your power plant constructed in a remote, vulnerable, poor area. And then you forgot about it. “Where do you think the electricity consumed in Tokyo is produced?” Who does know the answer to this question? And is this situation morally acceptable? There is a real need to communicate about this, because it shows how dirty the whole system is. Victims of the accident (even though most people use the same word as “victims of a natural disaster” – 被災者 – in Japan) are condemned for draining money from taxes, as they try to survive away from home. They are “gamblers, drunkards, jobless, useless people”. After 5 years, sympathy and empathy are gone. Are left bitterness and a clear lack of knowledge.


Listening to: Kelly Clarkson – Because of You

Research, Thoughts



I am currently in the Netherlands to meet with children coming from Fukushima, my quasi eternal obsession, and my host gave me a very interesting book to read: リンゴが腐るまで (Until the apples rot), by 笹子美奈子 (Sasako Minako), a journalist at the Yomiuri Journal. It is pretty surprising that a journalist of a right-wing, conservative newspaper writes about what happened in Fukushima, with a critical viewpoint, but il faut de tout pour faire un monde, as we say in French.
I am only at the 54th page (I read so slowly in Japanese that it’s crazily frustrating, even for me), but some pieces of information have already caught my eyes. In this article, I’ll be talking about the issue of financial compensations that were implemented after 3.11 and how it created huge disparities and social conflicts in Fukushima.

The issue of financial compensation in the aftermath of 3.11 is a real issue. First, there is a need to explain on what compensations are based and how they differ from one person to another. What you have to remember first is that 3.11 is basically 3 events combined in one: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear accident. The earthquake did not kill many people (for some people, it is actually difficult to say if they were killed by the earthquake or if they were killed in the tsunami), but it provoked huge infrastructure damages, also in inner lands of Tōhoku. Then the tsunami submerged the coast, killing close to 20.000 people. At last, explosions happened at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, projecting radioactive particles in the air and contaminating the prefecture partially. Therefore, people get different types of compensations, depending on the part of the catastrophe that affects them.
The second level of differentiation is related to “how much” you were touched by the disaster. In the case of people struck by the earthquake or the tsunami, someone (experts? insurance companies? municipalities?) will come to see how damaged your house is and then put you in one of these cases: totally destroyed, partially destroyed, damaged. Of course, the amount of money you will be receiving will depend on this expertise. In Fukushima, the level of compensation depends on where you come from and what status your hometown has. Again, you have 3 types of evacuation zones: the zone where resettlement will be difficult (帰還困難区域, <50 mSv/year), the zone where you can spend a limited amount of time – meaning you cannot spend the night there – (居住制限区域, between 20 and 50 mSv/year) and the zone where resettlement will be possible after decontamination (避難指示解除準備区域, <20 mSv/year). To give an example presented in the book, concerning buildings you own, you will get the following compensations, according to your status:
– Zone where resettlement will be difficult: 9.370.000 yen (approximately 73.000€)
– Zone where you can spend a limited amount of time: 7.810.000 yen (approximately 61.000€)
– Zone where resettlement will be possible after decontamination: 4.690.000 yen (approximately 37.000€)
Well, people could say it’s normal to mark differences between people because they did not suffer from the same damages. That might be true. But here is an example of what I heard while conducting a fieldwork:

“Well, some people have their houses categorized as ‘partially destroyed’ or even ‘damaged’, but sometimes it means that they cannot live there anymore. I mean, if your house was strongly shaken up by the earthquake, it might not be as stable as before. Some of those houses are dangerous, with walls falling apart. But the houses are still standing, so they are ‘damaged’ or ‘partially destroyed’. Their owners cannot live in them anymore, but they won’t get full compensations either, so they might not have the means to have them repaired or to reconstruct a house. Some people just live in dilapidated houses and do not dare try to get a temporary housing, because they would get criticized by other people.”

In Fukushima prefecture, you have the same issue. Some municipalities, such as Minamisōma (南相馬市) were divided in 3 zones. Therefore, inhabitants from the same city receive different amounts of money. How do you explain to a person that his/her direct neighbor receives more money than him/her because he simply lives on the other side of the street, side that is comprised in the no-resettlement zone? The movie “Land of Hope“, the arbitrary line put in place by the government shows the absurdity of the situation: “Sorry, the limit is at 20km, and you’re outside of that circle.” Are you supposed to believe that you will be able to live free from radioactivity just because your house is after the barricade? I don’t think so. And in the case of Minamisōma, I think it’s even worse, since part of the city must not even be considered an evacuation zone, meaning that some people are living “normally” there, without receiving any compensation, while residents from other districts are being evacuated (sometimes to the Northern part of the same city!) and compensated. Here is a map of evacuation zones in Fukushima prefecture. You can clearly see Minamisōma city (North-East) and how it’s divided in different zones:


The very simple consequence of those differences of treatment is that inhabitants start criticizing each other: “Did you know that blabla got full compensation for his/her house? I can’t believe he/she has it and I don’t!!” This horrible administrative puzzle is destroying communities and social networks. Families are driven apart, while old friends stop gathering. Rumors start spreading, accusing evacuees from living off compensation, buying expensive cars, gambling and drinking, all of this without working a single hour. There is no cohesion possible. People fight each other, instead of attacking TEPCO and the state. And those conflicts are poisoning a possible social reconstruction, outside the evacuation zones, preventing solidarity from arising.

I think it’s an issue we should think about before anything terrible happens in Europe. I don’t want to be too pessimistic, nor too optimistic, but I don’t trust French nuclear plants that much, especially looking at recently released information. If something were to happen, we need to think about evacuation issues in advance, instead of breaking up communities like it happened (and happens) in Japan.