Thoughts

#072 Letting go of anger?

Recently, I feel strangled by my own feelings. And apparently, one way to sort them is to write. So…

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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.

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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.

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Research, Thoughts

#062

STAYING CALM, WHATEVER WHAT HAPPENS

*

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.

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Newspapers, Thoughts

#059

DANS LA “GUERRE CONTRE LE CRIME” DES PHILIPPINES
(AFP, 5 August 2016)

Cette supplique nous fait à tous l’effet d’un coup de poing dans l’estomac. Certains obtempèrent, s’arrêtent de photographier. Nous sommes nombreux à nous demander tout à coup pourquoi nous sommes là, pourquoi nous faisons ça. Nous nous sentons comme des vautours. Aucun d’entre nous ne sera capable de dîner plus tard ce soir-là. Dans la voiture qui nous ramène en ville, pour une fois, personne ne parle. Nous nous sentons tous coupables, nous nous en voulons d’avoir été incapables d’aider cette femme et son conjoint. Quelques jours plus tard, j’apprends qu’un photographes d’un journal local qui a assisté à la scène avec moi a décidé d’arrêter définitivement de couvrir les affaires criminelles la nuit.

I just read this article and realized it’s basically the same for me: am I doing the right thing by asking people to remember one of the most painful moments in their lives, in order to use it as data and have it published? I feel like a crow, a vulture looking for a small, trembling prey in the middle of Japan. My goal is to have evacuees’ stories delivered to as many people as possible, but in order to achieve that, I have to dig into their lives, take out the pain and the anger, feeding my research with human emotions.

Sometimes, in the middle of an interview, I would wonder: why am I doing this? When I feel my interviewee pause, emotions coming out on her or his face, I can’t help asking myself if it is okay for me to make them think about their difficult and complicated last 5 years. I know it is necessary, from a scientific point of view, and from a more social point of view, but they are somehow sacrificed on the way. Where does duty stop, when does morality fight back?

***

Listening to: Sade – Kingdom of Sorrow

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Newspapers, Thoughts

#053

Journalism and sources.

This morning, I was reading a newspaper article about the Sendai nuclear plant, near Kagoshima. It was written by a French scholar who specializes in issues related to housing in general, and post-catastrophe housing in particular. It basically underlined the fact that Japan is facing important seismic activity (meaning volcanic activity, too) and that nuclear plants are more than ever dangerous. Then, she wrote “Japanese people express their concern about…” and I thought: “who are those Japanese people?” Maybe it starts to become a sort of weird hobby, looking at who says what in a certain context. Déformation professionnelle, as we say.

But I am very curious about this: do journalists have to cite their sources? I know that they also have the duty to protect their sources, but in this case, isn’t it a little dangerous? If you say that your source told you something and you cannot disclose who that is, then people have to believe what you say, without any proof. And sometimes you definitely see low quality articles being released and you wonder how that can still be called journalism. Sometimes, the fact that they do not have to cite their sources becomes frustrating, because you would need those sources. At least, when you read an academic piece, you’re sure that you should be able to trace back the sources. If you can’t, then you can be sure that the researchers could get into trouble. And it is certainly for the best.

“Japanese people”, “people say”, “we hear that”, etc. as we read newspapers on a daily basis, we are soaked in this kind of expressions and phrases. But we should actually try to avoid them. I remember being very disappointed at a seminar, when a professor (migration studies) started saying random things about how Japanese people are, to him, without bringing any academic proof of what he was saying. We could not help looking at each other, with Japanese researchers present that day, wondering how a 50 year-old researcher could babble about things he didn’t know well as if they were obvious, even though they are not. This just reminds me that I ought to be very careful, at all time, while writing articles and papers. Sources, sources, sources!

 

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