Research

#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.

Advertisements
Standard
Thoughts

#071 Constitutional Law & Civil Society

Going to a summer school in Korea, I heard a lot about the social movement in Korea that brought to the impeachment of former president Park Geun-Hye. After news outlets reported on the particular relationship the president had with one of her close friends, Choi Soon-Sil, people started protesting on the streets, calling for the president to step down. A few months later, the National Assembly send a motion of impeachment to the Constitutional Court, which, in the end, agreed on one issue and impeached the president. 60 days later, Korea had a new president.

There were many issues behind Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment: sharing classified information with a non-official, not reacting to a ferry sinking, etc. I would like to say that what is going in Japan right now might be far worse. I only know part of the stories because I did not take the time to look at everything. Here are 2 important cases:

  • Obstruction of justice: a young female reporter was raped by a senior journalist. She mustered courage, went to the police station, filed a complaint, even though the police officer told her “Are you sure you want to do that? It could ruin your life” (hello sexist society). In the end, the Police gathered evidence. There were medical evidence, surveillance camera recordings, the taxi driver’s deposition, etc. Police officers finally got a mandate to arrest the journalist. They decided to arrest him at the airport, as he was coming back to Japan. But at the last minute, the officers got a call: stop everything. The call came from above. Interests were at stake. They had to step down. The victim ended up organizing a press conference, showing her face to the nation, and explaining what happened. For the moment, nothing has happened. Why? Because the incriminated journalist has direct links with powerful people, among whom very possibly the Prime Minister, our beloved Abe.
  • Corruption, conflict of interests: there are now 2 schools under scrutiny in Japan. One is a primary school (Moritomo Gakuen) and a university (Kake Gakuen). Both of them are under suspicion of having benefited from special treatment from the current government. Telling the whole story would be long. In three words: money, power and friendships. The two stories brought many things to the surface. One of them is the implication of the Ministry of Education and its bureaucrats in the process, with pressure coming from the Cabinet. One bureaucrat has stepped down and is now talking freely in media outlets. I hope he won’t “commit suicide” in the upcoming months. Things happen, right?

And all of this is without talking about the influence of a far-right (cultish) group called Nippon Kaigi, the former Defense Minister saying that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were supporting the majority, eroding freedom of press, expression and association, remilitarization (even though the majority of the population is against it), etc. There must be some articles in English out there, I will try to find a few links. But those stories, which are just the emerged part of the iceberg (as we say in French), show that the Prime Minister and its party are using personal power, money and networks to govern. It is simply not acceptable.

Nevertheless, Japan (as Korea, from what I understood) has powerful conservative mass media. The national broadcasting station NHK is informing citizens about what the government deem important or right. You have a sensitive discussion at the Parliament and don’t want your constituents to know about it? Broadcast sumo instead, should be fine. You have a former official who spills important information showing the government is shady? Ask a conservative newspaper to discredit him. You have massive demonstration against your policies? Let media outlet know that they should cover the issue in a favorable manner. If they don’t want to: call them, pressure them, threaten them. It simple and efficient.

If you look at what is happening in front of the Parliament and on social media, you would be able to see how civil society is trying to organize itself to criticize and counter the government. Lawyers, professors, experts, students are active. Normal citizens are going out and protest with creative signs. But they are simply ignored, also because mass media let them be ignored. Many of my Japanese friends don’t have an opinion about those issues because they don’t even know. It was shocking to me, but it seems to be a pretty normal pattern. Politics is not something that people talk about casually. If you talk about it, you look like a political fanatic or a scary “leftist”. There is no space for debate, somehow. And the government is smartly using this social situation to advance its agenda without being hindered. How nice is that, right? Recent polls have shown that Japanese people’s understanding of democracy is about output (social welfare, fairness…) more than input (freedom of speech, elections, etc.). Most people are certainly concerned about their everyday lives and how to improve it. Political freedom and agency? Not that important. It is really reminding me of Freedom for Sale, a terrifying book written by Kampfner, showing that economic growth and material comfort is often more important than freedom and democracy. This case is sadly illustrating his thesis.

Now that I look at how Korean people were able to take down the president in a strong presidential system, I wonder even more about why Japanese people don’t seem to be able to get rid of their Prime Minister. PMs can be replaced and should be replaced when their support rate declines. Abe doesn’t even have 50% of support in the polls held by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper. But he’s not stepping down. People are on the street. But he’s not stepping down. And these days I am really curious to know why it’s not happening, when it should be much easier than in the Korean context. If anyone has a good explanation, please let me know. Until then, I will try to avoid falling in despair and attempt to find some hope, somewhere, somehow.

Standard
Thoughts

#068

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ‘BIASED’?

Recently, I have strongly felt that many people will think that the research I do is “biased”: I am a left-wing, well-educated (almost) white girl from Europe, with a fair amount of social, cultural and economic capital. I write about a group of stigmatized people in Japan, coming from a region I did not even know before 3.11. I have a comfortable life, so it’s easy for me to go against the nuclear lobby, saying that their facilities are crap and that we should, as quickly as possible, shift for renewable energies. Yes, if electricity bills get a little more expensive, I will not suffer from it. Yes, I have enough spare time to think about what intensive agriculture does to our planet and the effects. Yes, I can take the time to think about why our societies are producing so many inequalities, spending hours the nose in books such as The Capital from Piketty. Yes, it’s easy to be critical when you have everything you need in life, when you do not need to worry about your next meal, and when you’re basically paid 3 years to write a thesis which will have no monetary value.

Since 3.11, I took a stronger stance against nuclear power. There is no accountability, no responsibility. In France, nuclear power plants are not entirely insured because they are not insurance-material. We have old facilities that, in case of an accident, could cause the contamination of a large part of the European continent (and of course, our neighbors can’t do a thing about it). There is no public debate, because it is too controversial. The companies invest tons of money in order to market their energy as green (at least since the 90s), as they surf on the “low-carbon” wave. Local communities? Well, they are profiting from those facilities, no? They accepted to have those facilities built there and they get money from it. So… Fukushima people are kinda responsible for what happened to them… right?

I read a lot about nuclear policies and nuclear facilities these days and I realize that what I read is mainly in accordance with my opinion, meaning that those papers and books are very critical of nuclear power in general. They generally incorporate concepts of governmentality and criticize market economy. In short, they fit very well with my worldview. So… does it mean that I am biased? Surely. And therefore it becomes difficult to have a calm, constructive discussion with people who tell me that “Fukushima people kinda deserve this, since they got money from TEPCO”.

I really have difficulties understanding this “rational-choice” vision of the world. “Fukushima people were poor. They accepted the nuclear power plants (F1 and F2) because they needed the money, and therefore they accepted the risks coming with those plants.” Is it this simple?

  1. When operators decide to construct a nuclear power plant, they first look for a very poor, countryside place, because it’s easier to make the population say yes if they are desperately in need of money. I am pretty sure that they minimize talks about risks.
  2. Operators are smart; when there is resistance, they know how to break it down. If you look at the French example, you see how operators started investing a lot of money into advertisement, communication, education, etc., in order to promote a proper understanding of radiations and nuclear power in general. This is also happening in Fukushima right now, with the publications of pamphlets and books, but also the construction of “information centers” and “radiation education” (by the State) explaining to ignorant, irrational citizens why radiation is great (again). That’s how EDF and the French state succeeded in marginalizing anti-nuclear activists in the late 70s, early 80s.
  3. Operators are rich (or at least they pretend to be); they know how to handle the media. Especially in the Japanese case, you see how TEPCO has invested an enormous amount of money in advertising in newspapers. The Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, they all heavily rely on money coming from the energy industry. And then you expect a “fair” coverage of what is happening?

I am fascinated by inequalities in our societies. Someone told me: “I don’t understand the argument that inequalities are the reason why nuclear plants were built there. Those people accepted the plants!” You don’t see inequalities when you have a powerful actor constructing a (very dangerous) industrial facility in a poor region which lacks resources and state support? Really? Am I really so left-wing that I start seeing exploitation and power-relations everywhere? It seems so obvious to me that having nuclear power plants in very poor and peripheral regions is a sign that we use people’s misery to our own sake. You will never see a nuclear power plant in the middle of Paris or Tokyo. And even if they tried to build one of those, you would have intellectuals, manipulating their social, economic and cultural capital, standing in the way and, most certainly, winning. Because they have the power to do so. In Tohoku, one of the poorest region of Japan, with high levels of unemployment and suicide, people are on the other side of the power-relation. “Do you prefer staying out of employment, with basically very little money and no prospect for your children, or do you prefer that we build this (kinda risky) plant in your backyard in exchange of better local facilities, better schools and giving you pocket money on top of it?” Right now, in Aomori prefecture, they are building a very high-standard school near the very controversial Rokkasho facility. It’s trade: we give your children a great education and you shut up. This is NOT a fair exchange. And I don’t even know how people can think that this can be fair.

But again, I guess I must be terribly biased. Does this make my message less legitimate?

Standard
Research, Thoughts

#067

DECONSTRUCTING ANGER

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.

Standard
Thoughts

#057

BACK TO FUKUSHIMA

*

Yesterday evening, I arrived in Fukushima City, 9 months after my last interviews. It is strange how all the research I’ve been doing about the issue has made me feel more at ease somehow. The first time I came, I was very anxious about radioactivity and contamination levels, especially since I had met people who evacuated from the city. I remember fleeing to Tokyo on days I didn’t have interviews, trying to stay as little outdoor as possible.

I’m not saying that I’m not anxious at all this year, but I’ve seen so many contamination maps that I start understanding which part of the city should be avoided. I also have a broader knowledge of what kind of places and materials are more contaminated, where I should not walk, what I shouldn’t eat. I’m able to manage risks at a certain point and it definitely shapes and transforms my experience of “being-in-a-contaminated-area”.

I am still very critical of the way the municipality runs the decontamination process. I can’t believe they still have contaminated soil and dirt stored/buried in people’s yards. This “temporary” situation has been lasting for the last 3 to 4 years and we still don’t know when the transitional storage facility will be ready (who knows when and at what costs…). We had this very interesting discussion with my clients about “temporary” being a way of making people accept the situation as it is. The administration asks local residents to be patient and understanding while it tries to find a definitive solution. People have to accept, somehow, to store wastes on their land (or there is no decontamination), waiting for it to be removed. All is temporary. It’s a 仮・生活, a peculiar place in space and time, a place that keeps stretching its wings, invading people’s lives. I think I need to have a more constructive reflection about this issue and I’ll write again later. I really believe there is something interesting in the use of the word temporary in post-nuclear accident Japan, and especially in Fukushima prefecture…

***

Listening to: Lee Hi & (AKMU) Suhyun – I’m Different Feat. (iKON) Bobby

Standard
Thoughts

#055

SEXISM IN JAPAN

*

I seriously do not know how many times I got shock at very, VERY sexist actions in Japan. As a fairly feminist French woman, I feel really annoyed, and sometimes angry, at what guys AND girls are able to say or do in here. Yesterday was an excellent example of that. I was at a friend’s place, with other friends. Then this guy (a friend of our host) comes, accompanied by a cute girl. Soon, everyone is drunk, blabla, the same old story. I was talking to a guy friend when the cute girl stands up and bends over to get something on the other side of the low table. My friend starts to stare at her butt and of course, I can’t help reprimand him: “What the hell are you doing??” The guy friend of the cute girl must have heard me and basically grabs her skirt and pull it up!! WTF?! And she had very minimal underwear, so her butt was basically fully apparent. I guess the worst part of this story is that the girl did NOT react, as if it was normal to have some guy showing your butt to the rest of the world. I felt so angry at the guy, but also at the girl. I know we were not raised in the same kind of environment (my dad is also fairly feminist and my mom is a highly educated working woman + I come from France, which is not the best place ever when it comes to sex equality, but not the worst either), but STILL!!! I just can’t look at girls being treated like that. I can’t stand them letting themselves touched in public, as if it was normal. No, girls, your bodies are YOURS, no one is entitled to touch it without your consent! Please, please, please, WAKE UP! Don’t let this “phallocratie“, as we say in French, affect you. Start walking in a different direction. Stop being afraid of “what are people going to say” and “but there are no way they will accept me this way“.

It’s time for this mentality to change. It’s time to break that rule that you need to wear a skirt to go to job interviews. It’s time to stop being a secretary because you’re a woman, instead of becoming an executive, even though you have the skills. It is time to change this idea that women have to be cute, fragile and docile. Girls, it’s time to live your lives!

***

Listening to:

Standard
Research

#035

TRAVELLING THROUGH CONTAMINATED LANDS (1)

I’m currently in Iwaki (いわき市), prefecture of Fukushima. It is one of the closest big cities to the late nuclear plant. Before arriving here, I went to Hokkaido where I met with people who actually fled this city. They barely go home, saying it’s too contaminated, especially for their children. They always wear masks when going out and forbid their children from playing outside. But when I arrived, the people around me were just living as normal citizens. Children were walking around without masks, with their parents looking pretty carefree. I was a little surprised but then I realized that if you are to live worrying about everything, you’ll either end up with depression or will have to move out. I would be very curious to read some literature about the relationship between risks and the human mind. How do human cope with risks? How do they adapt to it? And if they don’t, what happens to them.

For the past 24 something hours, I’ve been worrying about weird things. To start with, I just realized that the water I was given in restaurants is certainly contaminated, at some point. Also, the beautiful “honey lemon hot lemonade” I just ordered is definitely made with tap water: contaminated. I’ve been wearing a mask while walking outside, but contamination does exist inside buildings. Also, I cannot know for sure where the food I’m eating is coming from, may it be in Iwaki, in Tokyo or Hokkaido, especially food sold in convenient stores. Therefore, I might have ben continuously contaminated for the 2 years I spent in Japan. Who knows what will happen to me.

At least, I’m lucky I wasn’t in Japan on March 11 2011, when the explosions took place. People who were exposed to the radioactive cloud, as they call it, are the most likely to develop diseases, comprising cancers. Among the people I met, a certain number of them are already sick. It might seem light and not very important, but they develop skin diseases and are definitely less resistant then before. For example, one of the participants got a cold, which transformed into pneumonia. That might happen with older people, but people around their 50s shouldn’t be this weak.

Coming to Iwaki makes me realize a lot of things. I guess I’ll be writing many articles for the next few days, regarding the situation in here, what people are sharing and what I think about it.

***

Listening to: Hyorin – 너 밖에 몰라

Standard