#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.




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?

Newspapers, Readings




I couldn’t help writing a short article when I read this in Japan Copes With Calamity (p.12): 

(…) on 15 March Prime Minister Kan Naoto paid a dramatic visit to the headquarters of TEPCO at 5.30 am to order the company not to withdraw its workers from the stricken plant, which the company had spoken of doing to protect the workers’ lives. That would have left the crippled reactors unmanned, with fuel rods exposed and cooling water evaporating – pushing Japan towards an unimaginably bigger disaster. On the same day, the government ordered those in the 20 to 30 kilometer ring to stay indoors (shitsunai taihi). Meanwhile the US government urged its citizens to get a least 80 kilometers away from the plant and the French government even advised its nationals in Tokyo, 250 kilometers away, to evacuate. This made the Japanese government’s evacuation plan look very inadequate to many Japanese when they learned of the very different evacuation standards declared by other countries, although of course applying the American or French standards to Japanese nationals would have been a logistical nightmare, because of the incomparably larger numbers of people involved and the fact that, unlike most foreigners, they did not necessarily have anywhere else to go.

So, the FRENCH government asked its citizens to evacuate from Tokyo, 250 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi? Now, I’m curious to know what will happen when an accident happens on its own territory. Will you ask people living as far as 250 kilometers away from Fessenheim to evacuate? Or will you try to minimize the number of evacuees and to control risk perception to avoid having the whole EUROPE freaking out? I really wonder. Of course, I understand that you want to avoid having your nationals risk their health when they’re abroad, but then you should apply the same logic at home instead of being a hypocrite. I want to believe that they are looking at what is happening in Japan to avoid repeating the same mistakes but positive thinking doesn’t really help in here.





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…





Yesterday, I met with an interviewee in Fukushima City. She has 2 sons (one in high school, the other one in middle school) and worries a lot about the consequences of radiation on their health. She has them take numerous tests to make sure they are not too exposed to pollution. When the high school asked the students to clean the school pool that had not been used since the accident, she firmly asked the professors to change their mind and to clean it themselves. Her children might feel ashamed or annoyed that she meddles into their school lives, but she can’t help being worried.

Then, she asked me if I had time and if I was interested in having a look at one of the temporary waste disposal sites. I was shocked to hear that they installed those in the middle of the city. We get on her car and she drives to the site. It’s located in between 2 or 3 schools and even more shocking, there is a temporary housing complex just next to it. So basically what they did is construct a waste disposal facility (where they stock contaminated soils collected from gardens, houses and roads) near the new (temporary) residence of people who were evacuated from the most dangerous zone in Fukushima Prefecture. And according to the interviewee, many residents of the city don’t even know that those sites are erected in the city. This is totally crazy.

Moreover, she took me a little further into the mountain, where they destroyed a children playground to create another of those disposal facilities. The only problem is that if it was to leak, the radioactive materials contained in those bags would just flow down the mountain and contaminate the city. Even people decontaminating the city find this idea odd and not frankly brilliant.

It’s really upsetting to see how little the residents are involved in the decision making process around decontamination and disposal sites’ constructions. They should be the one taking action and asking local governments to listen to their concerns, but nothing seems to be done. Or it’s simply done quietly, to avoid having people complaining too much. This whole situation is seriously driving me crazy, but I feel terribly powerless.





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