Fukushima: the real fallout

Haydn Thorne

In earthquake-prone Japan, it was always a possibility that a quake would have knock-on effects that could endanger public health beyond the initial tremor. But the Japanese are more trusting of their government than the citizens of Western countries – it was assumed that every eventuality had been catered for 

The people of Japan have traditionally invested a great deal of trust in their governments. There is an air of unflappability, no matter how bad things get, in the way Japan’s citizens support those in power and, largely, adhere to their way of life with passive optimism. This relationship between a government and its people is barely recognisable in the West, where questions about transparency and honesty within government have long been raised in times of plight, or quandary, or even slight upset. 

This is not to say that the people of Japan are in a state of repression, nor are they inclined to be pushed around; they are simply a proud and independent people who, until recently, have happily let their government get on with the job – the job being to keep the country safe and prosperous. Even with the struggling economy of the last two decades, the cherry-blossomed outlook remained intact; the daily tremors underfoot and upsets in the halls of power were barely a cause for concern – everything was rather fine. 

At 14:46, Japanese time, on 11 March 2011, things changed dramatically as the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan hit its north-east coast, triggering a devastating tsunami and starting a chain of events that would rock the country, not only geologically, but also socially and politically. The tsunami that blasted inland to the north of the country was far more deadly than the nine-measured earthquake itself. However, it was the damage that both of these events caused to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that would pave the way for the Japanese people to question, en masse, not only their trust in nuclear power, but also their trust in their own government. 

The Japanese attitude to nuclear power has for a long time mirrored their attitude to their government; a relatively benign force for good that works smoothly in the background serving the people’s needs, with enough skill and knowledge on the part of those who run things to avoid any real damage to the country. The several tremors that would vie for attention among the bustle of everyday Tokyo life each and every week would barely register concern. There was never enough alarm to grind things to a halt, cause panic buying or any other such tabloid-worthy soundbite. There were no prophecies of doom and no sense of anything looming so potentially devastating as to earn the badge ‘the big one’, to an outsider at least. However, in the years leading up to 2011, even a cursory enquiry on the streets of Tokyo would leave you in no doubt that ‘the big one’ was not only overdue but also anticipated by the majority of the population. Despite this, worry simply wasn’t on the agenda. 

Miyuki Matsumoto, a 73-year-old lifetime Tokyo resident, told me in December 2010: “They know it is coming and will have taken care of it. Besides, we have the best earthquake response and technology measures in the world. I am sure that every eventuality will have been thought of.” By “they” she, of course, meant her government, and with those few sure words, this well-educated, professional and worldly-wise grandmother had given an as yet unrealised insight into just what was at stake if disaster struck and expectations weren’t met. 

Almost exactly three months later, the initial magnitude of the earthquake was an immediate surprise, even to the most tremor-aware people in the most tremor-savvy of cities. In Tokyo there was a near blanket disregard for the most strenuously taught personal safety procedure for those working in the country’s modern reinforced buildings: to stay put and not venture outside. Within minutes, people poured onto the streets amongst screams, bewilderment and debris. Perhaps this was a microcosm, a prelude to how the disaster would affect the people’s whole attitude to government advice – advice that would come thick and fast as developments unfolded. 

Initial reports that Reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was safe and that those outside the evacuation zone had no need to worry were met with nervous acceptance and the plant shut down among rumours of varying degrees of damage. However, two explosions – alongside confusing government reports, outside expert opinion and a foreign media – were soon fuelling an overwhelming sense that all was not as the Japanese government was letting on. For the first time, the people of Japan began to question the government they had trusted in matters of safety. The potential severity of this change in opinion was not lost on the government, but even a rare and heartfelt television appearance by the Emperor himself was not enough to allay an already aghast population’s increasing anxiety. This is not to say that the government was being evasive, or even deliberately misleading, but how does a governing body minimise the panic of its people after such a terrible tragedy? How is the balance between facts and reassurance, and speculation and hysteria managed at such a time? At what point does a government start acknowledging, to an already emotionally racked population, its list of ‘what ifs’? Mrs Matsumoto’s views have changed starkly. “I don’t know if I completely trust what they are telling us,” she says. “They say one thing and then I talk to scientist friends who say another. I know the government didn’t want to cause panic, but I feel we have been lied to.” 

Mrs Matsumoto’s thoughts are mirrored by others I have spoken to, and it is this feeling of distrust and powerlessness that makes it all the more important that the Japanese government is as transparent as possible about the effects the Fukushima disaster is having on the country. First-hand testimony from fishermen and farmers in the north does not tally with the government’s own information. People all across the country are unsure of what is going to happen next, and they are unsure of what they need to do. And as even more ambitious and seemingly desperate plans to curb the radioactive water leaking from the plant are attempted – including a huge wall of ice buried in the seabed – attitudes to this radioactive disaster, to nuclear power in general, and to an increasingly distrusted government are likely to become even more cynical. Mrs Matsumotos’s parting insight was to say: “I have lived here all my life and never have I felt in danger like this. Even during the war, I knew I could trust my parents to keep me safe.”


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