Recently, I feel strangled by my own feelings. And apparently, one way to sort them is to write. So…
Coming back from a month of fieldwork, I’m trying to settle at my desk in Berlin, once again. I came back with a few books on my topic. Not really academic ones, but the ones that tell the stories of everyday life. The stories that many of us (unfortunately) never hear. I’ve just started reading 「ここの除染」という虚構ー除染先進都市はなぜ除染をやめたのか (which would translate into “The fiction of ‘Decontaminating souls’ – Why the leading city on decontamination has stopped decontaminating” by Shoko Kurokawa. I have merely read 50 pages and I am already outraged. The introduction deals with the description of Date, a city located some 50km away from the sadly famous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and stories told by women living there at the time and raising children. 50 pages, anger, helplessness and tears.
Date is a city known for having quickly handled decontamination after the accident. I’ve also started reading a book that praises the municipality for taking action right after the unfortunate disaster. But I had read and heard about concerns related to the way it was done. The city was divided into 3 zones (A, B, C) according to the level of contamination, with the most contaminated parts decontaminated first. In the end, the last zone was not touched, because below the newly established 20mSv/year threshold (the threshold before the accident was 1 mSv/year, a limit recommended for laypeople by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, ICRP). One of my interviews had told me that her property being under that threshold, she had to pay a private company to decontaminate her garden, so that her children could play outside. In the end, she was still wary of contamination and I doubt that they were able to play out there. I was shocked to hear her story, but I did not have much time to really look into the case of this municipality. I just kept in mind that the mayor did not seem to worried about the possible future consequences of exposure to low-level contamination. But what I read in this book is horrifying.
The policy can be summarized by the following quote:
Quickly, the mayor of Date city himself has advocated for “decontaminating souls*”. Rather than taking away radioactive material, the decontamination process should focus on the feeling of concern related to radioactive contamination or exposure to radioactivity – “baseless” feelings. (p.11)
This led to incredible situations. Measurements were done at first without communication. In April, as the new academic year started, the municipality explained to the residents that children could resume school without worries. But a few days later, some mothers were facing a disturbing situation:
On April 20, the school transmitted to the parents the “environmental radioactivity measurement results” related to Oguni primary school, published on the website of the municipality.
“Site of the measurements: school yard. 1 meter away from the ground.”
On April 10: 5,58 μSv/h; April 11: 5,77 μSv/h… and the following days to, the report indicated figures exceeding 5 μSv. Even though the children were not playing outside, they were going to school everyday. (p.47)
Why is it disturbing? Because the newly established threshold is 20 mSv/year, meaning approximately 3μSv/h. 3, not 5. Some might say that it’s alright, because children are not staying on the school yard the whole day and that contamination is below that level inside the buildings. Sure. But does that mean that it is okay for children to walk around those grounds? Is it alright to have them breathe contaminated dust, dust that settles into their clothes and hair? I don’t think so. This is not a place they commuted to once every now and then. It was school. A school that, according to the newspaper Fukushima Minpo, was the most contaminated of all schools outside the restriction zone.
I felt anger overflowing reading those lines. And I cannot even think about what those mothers have felt. The policy is that people can live in areas contaminated below the newly set 20 mSv/year threshold, but that the long term goal is to go as close as possible to the former 1 mSv/year limit. Date city simply decided that conforming to 20 mSv/year was enough. The rest will go down on its own (which is true). I felt so uncomfortable that I had a look at the decontamination report uploaded by the municipality on Fukushima Prefecture’s website. It plainly states that decontamination has been conducted, with a marvelous “100%” completion. Comprising forests. I tilted my head, rubbing my eyes, over and over. How could a 100% completion rate be possible? How can you say that you have decontaminated an entire mountain? Are they mad? Delusional? Cynical? A fine brew of the three?
But again, I feel so helpless. What can I do against this situation? Can I really go around telling people “can you believe that your children have been exposed to higher doses of radiation that what they should have”? No, off course. I just sit in living rooms, with a cup of tea, and I look at the children play. I nod at their parents’ narratives, encourage them to let everything out. Sadness, fatigue, anger, disillusion, sometimes hope. I embrace their feelings, feed on them, as an academic vulture I am. But I have digestion issues, it seems. I remember their expressions, their gestures, their intonations; but now I can’t handle the weight on my shoulders. I want to do something, I want to help. But I can’t tell them half of what is on my mind, because I go home to a place where I can eat, drink and breathe without worrying to much, while they have to continue caring for everyday life details. Sometimes, I feel like an impostor, lying by hiding bits of knowledge I’ve gathered- even if sometimes I wonder how valuable those bits are.
I am still trying to make sense of my position as a researcher, but also as a person that they welcomed into their lives: “You know, sometimes I think that even though the accident was a real disaster, I got to make incredible encounters thanks to what happened.” When one of my interviewees told me this a month ago, I was torn between the warmth of her words and guilt. I was terribly happy to have met her and her wonderful family, thankful for all the homemade meals and gifts, but I could not help thinking that their lives would have been much simpler without this horrendous event. They would not have to engage in lawsuits. They would not have to spend so much money to make sure their children were eating the “right” food, sleeping in the “right” house, walking the “right” streets. And, mostly, they would not have to agonize about what that “right” is.
But one thing is for sure: Date city has neglected the health of its inhabitants, and especially the one of young ones. And that should not be forgotten, not forgiven. I will have to find my own way to give space to those stories, so that more and more people hear about what happened at a micro-level. I will have to work on the form and the content, agonizing about telling one story rather than another one. But all those narratives have to be out. They deserve to be out. And they have to be heard.
*「心」(kokoro) is a tricky term to translate. It refers to the mind, the heart, the spirit.