EDITORIAL: The voices from Tohoku must be heard 5 years after the disaster
Exactly five years have passed since March 11, 2011, when Japan was struck by what has been described as the biggest postwar national crisis.
On that day, the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami ravaged wide areas in the northeastern Tohoku region and triggered the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Reconstruction work is continuing in coastal areas of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. Many residents are still struggling to rebuild their shattered livelihoods.
Around 170,000 people, mainly residents in Fukushima Prefecture, are living away from their homes as evacuees.
People in the affected areas are still reeling from the aftermath and fallout of the devastating natural disasters and the harrowing nuclear accident.
But how many people in other parts of the nation far from the stricken areas truly understand the harsh realities in communities battered by the disasters?
GAP WIDENS BETWEEN AFFECTED AREAS, OUTSIDE WORLD
Immediately after the disasters occurred, everybody’s heart went out to people in the affected areas. Many Japanese talked about “mutual support” and the “ties” that bound them with the victims. The kanji for “kizuna,” meaning “human bonds,” was chosen as the Chinese character that most powerfully symbolized the year.
But we now wonder if all of the sympathetic feelings expressed back then were genuine. In the disaster-stricken areas, many people are lamenting the growing psychological distance with the rest of Japan.
Various emotionally charged issues have divided communities in the affected areas.
They include forcing residents to leave the places where they have lived for a long time, and constructing levees that separate the land from the sea, which has supported their livelihoods.
Debates over whether to preserve or remove remnants of buildings destroyed by the disasters have raised complicated feelings: a desire to forget what happened mixed with a determination to never forget.
Such divisions threaten to destroy harmony among community members. The problem is most acutely felt in Fukushima Prefecture.
Disputes over the effects of radiation have shaken residents’ values and judgments. The problem has been compounded by the fact that Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, paid different amounts of compensation to victims based on radiation levels in their areas.
Families and communities have been split into opposing groups.
Some residents are working hard to repair the severed ties, and a variety of efforts are under way to heal wounded communities. They include a program to guide visitors to deserted towns and a project to provide information about Fukushima to people who voluntarily fled their communities in the prefecture.
Sachiko Bamba, a resident of Minami-Soma city, has worked with doctors to organize more than 80 study sessions to help citizens learn about radiation.
Her project is driven by the belief that acquiring accurate knowledge about radiation helps people make educated decisions about their futures and assume a positive attitude toward life.
Bamba and other like-minded people are concerned that residents’ struggles to overcome the huge challenges over the past five years remain largely unknown to people in other parts of the nation, creating widening perception gaps.
They still receive questions from people outside Fukushima Prefecture on whether local residents must wear masks when they go out or whether rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture is safe for eating.
The safety of various farm products from Fukushima Prefecture has been confirmed through constant measurements of airborne radiation and human exposure doses as well as continuous efforts to decontaminate polluted areas and check radiation in all foodstuffs.
But people outside the prefecture are not receiving much information about such improvements and progress.
Last year, a man outside Fukushima Prefecture who called himself an anti-nuclear activist criticized a mother for remaining in Koriyama and supposedly exposing her child to health risks. She was deeply disheartened by the simple, inconsiderate and ill-founded argument against living in Fukushima that was based on his opposition to nuclear power.
“How long will this kind of nonsense continue?” she uttered to herself.
STUDENTS SEEKING WORDS FOR COMMUNICATION
It is probably inevitable that differences in perceptions will appear over time between people in the disaster areas and those in the rest of the nation.
To make our society less vulnerable to disasters, however, it is vital to constantly narrow such perception gaps. The positions of people currently struggling with hardships and those who are not may be reversed at any time.
People in Fukushima Prefecture want to share their experiences over the past five years with the outside world. They believe the facts about the divisions caused by the nuclear disaster and their efforts to overcome them should be part of the lessons learned by the entire nation.
People in the prefecture are continuing their quest to find ways to achieve this goal.
At Futaba Future School, a prefectural high school that opened last spring in the town of Hirono, Fukushima Prefecture, theater is a required course.
The course is taught by reputed playwright Oriza Hirata, who has instructed his students to “express as they are the discrepancies in feelings due to different positions and unsolvable issues.”
At the outset of the course, Hirata told the students: “Let me tell you something. Nobody in the world understands things about Fukushima and you.”
The challenge facing the students is how to communicate their feelings to indifferent people. Tackling this challenge requires them to ask themselves whether they can really imagine the feelings of others.
Bamba of Minami-Soma has also set up a study group to learn from TEPCO executives. She decided to stay in contact with the operator of the crippled nuclear plant to learn more about the company, which is responsible for rebuilding the devastated communities in the prefecture.
In this world, people’s hearts are not one. History is littered with many examples of painful divisions among people, including the cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only cities to suffer a nuclear attack, communities afflicted by pollution-caused diseases like Minamata disease, and Okinawa Prefecture, which has been forced to bear an excessive burden of hosting U.S. military bases.
Various areas around this nation have been suffering on their own and fighting the pain caused by misunderstandings and perception gaps. Exchanges are growing between Fukushima Prefecture and other areas grappling with these problems.
START WITH THINGS THAT CANNOT BE EASILY SHARED
If people living in different places and thinking about different issues want to connect with each other, they need to start talking about things that they both do not understand and continue their dialogue.
“A desire to communicate is only born out of an experience of being unable to communicate,” Hirata says. “From this point of view, children in the stricken areas who have experienced the disaster, the mutual help and the divisions have the potential to play leading roles in reconstruction efforts and open up a new future for our society.”
Every Japanese should pay fresh and serious attention--and respond--to the messages people in the affected areas are sending out.