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Disaster in Japan: Special Report “Thoughts taking shape”



(Translation of article from NI Japan No. 129, April 2011)

"Thoughts taking shape"

Usually this section reports on Japanese movements and activities related to this month’s NI theme but this time NI Japan brings you a special report on organizations and events related to the disasters triggered by the earthquake that occurred in Northeastern Japan on March 11.  We have selected just three of the many different NGOs that have been active: Peaceboat, an NGO that decided to send volunteers to the disaster area very soon after the earthquake and tsunami. Japan Association for Refugees, assisting the most vulnerable amongst the vulnerable community of foreign residents. Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), challenging the pro-nuclear lobby propaganda and cover-ups and providing information to the public so that proper debates can take place on the issues brought up by the still unfolding Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster. Also, a brief report on an anti-nuke demo where thousands expressed their view that the whole nuclear energy industry must be reviewed. Lots of diverse ideas, thoughts and feelings taking form, becoming actions that will shape a new Japan. 

What volunteers are thinking (Peaceboat)

On April 16, NGO Peaceboat held a meeting in Tokyo for people who wanted to do volunteer work in the disaster area. Over 300 participated. Most were young people in their teens through 30s but there were also people who appeared to be in their 50s and 60s. There were many women and about one tenth of the people at this meeting were foreigners. One university student, a first-time volunteer, said that he had never been interested in volunteering before but he decided to come to this meeting because he ‘wanted to do something to help.’ Indeed the meeting hall was overflowing with this feeling of ‘wanting to do something’ ‘we have to do something’ which is so strong, right now, not just in Japan, but all over the world.

(Volunteer meeting held by Peaceboat on April 16.)

Straight after the earthquake, the Japanese media reported that it was too early to send non-specialist volunteers into a disaster zone of such intensity. But Peaceboat knew from previous experience of emergency support activities in both Japan and overseas that it was necessary to check out the situation for themselves and also that they could put themselves to some use in terms of helping people who needed them. An advance team was sent to the disaster area on March 17, just 6 days after the earthquake, to report on the situation and what was needed. As a result of this team’s research, it was decided to set up a volunteer centre in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. The first group of 50 volunteers arrived on March 26. As this article was being written, the 4th group of 250 volunteers is now working in Ishinomaki.

Volunteers work in teams of five for one week on one of the following jobs: transportation, distribution and preparation of food, cleaning tsunami sludge or organising the storeroom. The job that is most in demand at present is cleaning the mud brought in by the tsunami from people’s houses. Fighting against mud and sludge is something that no one has ever experienced before and it is hard work. But volunteers, who of course have come with a strong sense of responsibility, work without complaint, no matter how hard or dirty the work is. In fact, many volunteers say that they feel happy to have been useful and want to come back to help more.

Of course, it’s not just the work that is such a positive experience - volunteers also have the chance to communicate with the local people. Matsumura Masumi, a Peaceboat staff member, says that the volunteers feel very encouraged when the people they meet thank them warmly for helping out. “The volunteers feel as though they have achieved something when the local people smile and cheer up. I often hear them saying that the warm words of the locals are what keeps them going no matter how cold or dirty they get.”

(Volunteers cleaning tsunami sludge in cooperation. Photo: Ueno Yoshinori)

But there is a big gap in realities and positions between the people who have lost everything and are trying to rebuild their lives despite ongoing hardships, and volunteers who are just there temporarily. So it’s important that volunteers think before they talk to the local people. For example, one volunteer who was playing with a child asked him, just in conversation, “where do you live?”…obviously the wrong question for someone who no longer has a home. This difference in realities is something the volunteers must think about carefully.

  Regarding future activities, Matsumura-san had this to say: “I think this will be a long-term commitment but the local people are much stronger than we thought. We would like to continue to support them to the stage where they no longer need us.”

This wish came true on April 13 when Moriya Fruits, a shop that has an 80 year history, reopened in one of Ishinomaki’s main streets. While most people are saying that “recovery is a long way off,” this shop owner decided that re-opening even one shop would lift local spirits and he found a volunteer who felt the same way and who helped him clean up as if his life depended on it. As a result, the shop could be reopened in just over a month after the disaster occurred. On the day it re-opened, there was a lively line of local people, happily waiting to buy their fruit and veggies. Matsumura-san comments: “One ray of light can become a model which attracts more rays of light…I hope that a new town can take shape in this way.”

Thinking Beyond Nationality (Japan Association for Refugees)

The 3.11 earthquake shook a large area of eastern Japan, causing breakdown of transport systems, nuclear disaster and rolling blackouts. Many people realized the importance of correct information in an emergency. For foreign residents who don’t understand Japanese and especially refugees who don’t have a lot of contact with Japanese society, the lack of information was a big problem.

After the earthquake the first thing that the Japan Association for Refugees (JAR) did was to try to confirm the safety of refugees via telephone. According to Public Relations Unit Director, Kashima Miho, the biggest worries were the strength of the quake and the continuing aftershocks and the effects of the radiation that was spilling from the stricken nuclear power plant. Refugees reacted in various ways - one devout Christian began praying everyday, one, who had just arrived in Japan had an asthma attack, some were so scared of radiation contamination in the food that they stopped cooking. In order to resolve some of this anxiety, the JAR posted multi-lingual information on their website, answered phone enquiries and visited refugees at their homes. When they visited homes, they were able to explain the situation regarding the earthquake and the nuclear disaster, bring food or other necessary items and listen to worries and concerns.   

Refugees have left their home countries because, for political reasons, it is not safe for them there, so they can’t simply ‘go home’ in an emergency situation, neither can they ask for assistance from their country’s embassy in Japan. Also, for those who do not have legal residence status in Japan (for example, those who have applied for refugee status but are waiting for approval, if they do not have legal residence status, the immigration department may deport them), they cannot depend on the police to help them in an emergency either. For those who have work or friends and neighbours, or are part of refugee communities, there is some comfort, psychologically and in terms of daily life, but many refugees are not in this situation. Even before the earthquake, many faced severe economic circumstances and when the power blackouts prevented schools from providing lunch for students, some could not afford to give their children packed lunches. There were also some people who did not know where to buy food when the supermarket shelves were bare due to food shortages and panic buying.

(Explaining earthquake caution and living information to a Ethiopian refugee. Photo: Japan Association for Refugees)

On the other hand, foreign residents including the refugee community are actively participating in fund-raising activities and food aid for people affected by the disaster. Kurdish and Burmese refugees have been involved in collecting donations and Burmese, Sri Lankan and Pakistani groups have cooked food for disaster victims. According to Provisional Release Association in Japan (a group that works on human rights protection for refugees and migrants) foreigners who are being detained in the West Japan Immigration Control Centre and those being held by the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, despite not having enough money themselves to buy everyday items such as soap, have also been donating what little money they have to help disaster victims.

Kashima-san comments: “The Japan Association for Refugees has been receiving lots of calls from refugees of all nationalities asking if they can do something to help. They themselves are facing lots of difficulties in their own lives but, well, they can’t go back to their home countries, and they really want to be a part of Japan, so they are thinking of ways to help in whatever way they can. Because there were so many requests, we decided to send a team of refugee and Japanese volunteers to the disaster area in May to carry out support activities.”

JAR plans to continue activities to support refugees in the Kanto region, checking they are safe, providing necessary items, visiting homes and locating people who may easily become isolated and making contact with them. Also, as part of lessons learned, JAR has started a mail-magazine for refugees which is sent to mobile phones, and preparations are underway to create a system that will provide information to refugees in an emergency. In the disaster area, there are no reports of refugees living in the area that was devastated by the tsunami, so in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture and Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, JAR is involved in supporting other foreign residents and women who are less likely to be included in relief measures, in cooperation with a lawyer and a nurse. JAR also plans to continue providing legal consultation services for disaster victims in general.

(A lawyer gave legal consultation at an evacuation center in Rikuzentakata. Photo: Japan Association for Refugees)

Thinking about the next generation (Citizens' Nuclear Information Center)

In the wake of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) has been playing a crucial role of providing information as citizen reporters. This group, which has been demanding an end to nuclear power for over 30 years, decided to use U-stream (an internet live broadcasting system) and Twitter for the first time to provide information on topics from the mechanisms of generating nuclear power to explanations of the Fukushima accident, from the effects of radiation to how things might unfold into the future. By actively using the internet to broadcast press conferences and post CNIC NEWS bulletins, they were able to provide valuable information, the contents of which was completely different from the information and standpoint of the mainstream media. Up until now it has been very hard to find journalism that investigates issues associated with nuclear power and tries to report the facts, in newspapers, television and regular magazines. Media networks receive huge sums in advertising fees from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO-the company in charge of Fukushima Daiichi) and so reporters would never adopt a critical attitude. Neither would they dare to provoke the government or big business, so reporting on nuclear power has tended to emphasize how safe it is, without providing any hard facts to back this up. CNIC’s decision to secure an independent method of disseminating their information and ideas was also related to this ‘contamination’ of the mainstream media.

Following the nuclear accident, the three joint representatives of CNIC were constantly appearing on television, but the TV stations did not want them to freely express their opinions, they just wanted nuclear experts to answer questions, which were prepared in line with the TV station’s stance. Under these controlled conditions, it was of course impossible to talk about the danger of nuclear power, and even to mention things which the people should know and the possible scenarios they might face. The moderator of CNIC NEWS who also dealt with the media, Sawai Masako (CNIC’s person in charge of nuclear fuel cycle issues) made the following comment: “We are a minority movement, so we have always had to think about how to get our information and message out to the public. We have responded to many requests from mainstream media for interviews and so on, but what happens is they just take part of what we say and make it suit their own stories. That’s why we decided to use U-stream, as a way of accurately conveying to people what we think is important even if mainstream media refuses to touch it.”

(Dr. Goto Masashi, right, explained the facts, which the Japanese government and mainstream media tried to hide, of Fukushima nuclear power plant at  the press conference of The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. A series of CNIC press conference at FCCJ was began by some requests from FCCJ's members.)

In the internet broadcasts, CNIC explained information which was based on science and verified by experts, in an easy-to-understand way and did not flinch from reporting on situations which were potentially seriously dangerous, if there was a real possibility that they may happen, along with the reasons why. This had a big impact, with about 20,000 people watching each internet broadcast. The most-watched broadcast was on April 3. 150,000 people saw Tanaka Mitsuhiko, who used to design pressure vessels for nuclear reactors, and Goto Masashi, also an engineer who designed nuclear containment vessels, have discussions with the President of Softbank, Son Masayoshi, and social critic Tahara Soichiro.

According to Sawaguchi Kayo, CNIC supporter who was involved in setting up the U-stream system for CNIC: “The most common comment from viewers of the U-stream broadcasts, was that they felt they could get information about possible dangers which the TV didn’t tell them about, and this information was being explained in a way they could understand, so even though it was scary for them, it was information they felt they could trust. People who were watching the live broadcasts would let others know via Twitter and so on, so the number of people watching grew steadily, and even people who had never heard of CNIC before were accessing our broadcasts.”

At first, Sawaguchi-san was doing all the work for the broadcasts alone, but after she tweeted that she needed help, a company called JUNS Ltd, which specializes in live internet broadcasting, offered to help and every day for three weeks, three of their staff worked with CNIC as volunteers. This way of connecting with people couldn’t happen without the internet.

The Fukushima nuclear accident brought into sharp focus the limitations on the mainstream media in terms of reporting the facts, as well as a society dependent on nuclear power and all those connected to the industry. It would seem that media reporting which questions the logic of the pro-nuclear camp has increased, but the grip of the pro-nuclear lobby is extremely strong and reaches deep into society. Sawai-san recalls the warning of CNIC’s founder, the late Takagi Jinzaburo: “Once a society has fallen into the trap of nuclear power, because the nuclear industry tries to regulate that society, freedoms are lost— democracy, freedom of information, indeed society itself becomes subject to this control. The danger of nuclear power is not just accidents or radiation.”

How should we meet our energy needs in the future? Should we be looking at the way we use energy? How should the people of Tokyo respond to those in Fukushima who have lost their houses and even been subject to discrimination and gossip because of this nuclear accident, caused by a power plant that was built to maintain Tokyo’s electricity supply? Do those of us in Tokyo have any right to complain about the radiation, which is now raining down on us, when it is in fact a by-product of generating the electricity which we claimed was necessary to maintain our lives? Did we not just stop thinking in the face of threats by the pro-nuclear camp that nuclear power was the only viable means to maintain our present lifestyles?

Sawai-san brings up lots of questions like these, stressing the need to have a thorough debate on ending nuclear power and seriously exploring alternative energy sources, including the short-comings, fully realizing that we are standing on top of the worst disaster human beings have ever wreaked. “The contamination in Fukushima Daiichi is so intense that it will be 10 years at least until people can really investigate this accident. About the time when the children of the present become adults…it’s young people who have the right to choose whether to increase nuclear power capacity or not.”

*You can view archived broadcasts from the U-Stream website or CNIC archive.

April 10th ‘Stop Nuclear Power Plants! Global Action Day’

This demonstration was organised by the owner of a ‘recycle shop’ in Koenji, western Tokyo. Information spread quickly through Twitter and the turn-out was greater than expected. People who were participating in their first street march, families with children, etc. all marched together, each expressing themselves in their own style. See this page.

>NI Japan

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