Life in Japan One Year After Fukushima

Guest Blog | March 15, 2012 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Last August, I shared with you what living in Japan was like for me after those fateful events on March 11, 2011. At the time, I was proud to highlight the bravery and strength of the Japanese people and excited to tell you about some of the generosity I witnessed and participated in during the months afterwards. However, I had to also reveal the anger and frustration that myself and other residents of Japan felt about the entire situation. Every little bit of aid helped those in need, and everyone pitched in where they could. But for us residents living outside of the destroyed areas, there were so few outlets for us to work through…and so much left to contribute. Though a full year has passed since that terrible day, I’m finding that those feelings, both positive and negative, are still held by my friends and loved ones in Japan.

Even if I can no longer call myself a Japanese resident, I am lucky enough to still have those in Japan who are willing to share their stories and perceptions with me, people who are still touched by these disasters everyday. Though viewpoints vary, the general feeling comes down to the same thing: a lot has improved over the last year, but not enough. On the one hand, towns are being rebuilt, families are finding new homes, and some hope has been restored. Things have changed enough that, for much of Japan, they can go on living every day with very little interruption to their normal routines – even if they’re just pretending that life is “business as usual.” Despite this, the situation is not what people had hoped it would be by now; the general sentiment, though tinged with optimism, is still one of wariness, concern and an underlying frustration that things may not get better any time soon.

We’ve all heard encouraging stories of communities bringing hope and life back to their town. I’ve been fortunate to learn about several firsthand accounts. Foreigners and fellow teachers from the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program started a Facebook group to show the rebuilding progress of Kesennuma, a city in Miyagi Prefecture, where the earthquake hit hardest. Over the last year, friends and families have shared amazing stories about selfless generosity, increasing courage, hope in schools, and other blessings that are taking place in local areas.

But for every wonderful tale of people overcoming their circumstances, there are still tales of ruined livelihoods, impoverished families, and a fear for what the nuclear disaster will mean for the younger generation’s future. With 3,305 people still missing and over 340,000 still displaced from their homes, many in the surrounding prefectures still feel as though there’s little they can do but watch.

The sentiments my Japanese grandparents, parents, and friends have shared with me are both touching and heart wrenching. Living in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture where I also resided last year, is almost like living in another country, some say. A lot of families in Japan often stay near their hometown their entire lives and thus, without a personal loved one to worry about in the devastated areas, they feel detached. My neighbor told me that, though she thinks the situation is awful and her family still sends money and charity every month, Hokkaido residents have their own families to tend to nearby. But with radiation fears still very real in both the air and the food, several in Hokkaido still worry that there’s little they can do to protect their families.

The epitome of Japanese familial commitment is reflected here – all of my Japanese “relatives” share the opinion that the older generations should be taking up the rescue and cleaning duties in contaminated areas, in order to protect Japan’s future generations. My Hokkaido grandma and grandpa say that they’ve already lived their lives; dying a little early would be a small price to pay to make sure their son could live his.

However, there is one more side of the coin that I wanted to share, besides their perspectives on the situation in Japan. As much as I enjoy hearing the good stories and dread hearing the bad ones, it’s not the listening part of these conversations with Japanese residents that makes me most anxious: it’s the telling part, and reactions I get when I have to give them updates about how “foreigners are feeling.” Not only am I their ‘American Pen Pal,’ but my job and interests in energy also makes me a unique person for them to ask questions.

Before, I looked forward to their open curiosity; these days, though, I outright dread questions about the impact the Tohoku Earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disasters are having on America and how these tragic events have affected our country’s perspective on nuclear power.

Imagine the smiles and encouragement you might get, sharing with them that the international community still stands beside Japan, that groups held flash mobs and rallies across America and around the world in remembrance of March 11. Imagine the general expressions of understanding and approval you might hear, telling them that over half of America is now aware and weary of nuclear power, and that even more want to invest in safer energy alternatives such as renewable energy, including wind and solar.

Inevitably, though, these answers are followed up with responses of “Oh, that’s interesting, great! So what are they working on now?”

Now, imagine telling them that the first nuclear reactors in three decades have just been licensed in the U.S. by federal regulators with billions of dollars committed to building more nuclear power plants. Imagine telling them that some are calling it the “Nuclear Renaissance,” and that this is just the start of more nuclear investments to come.

Of course, the reactions from my Canadian and European friends in Japan are much stronger than those of the Japanese. Japanese citizens are quite conscious of keeping a public face, and would not generally show negative feelings or reactions. However, the blinks of disbelief, the moments of stunned shock and silence, and the quiet, “What? But you just said…” aren’t responses generally hidden from friends.

In honor of this one year anniversary, and in honor of those that will continue to be impacted by these events for years to come, I believe that America needs to continue to learn from these tragic events. We cannot push them aside as inconsequential, labeling them as accidents that could never occur in here in the U.S.

We owe it to ourselves and to our peers in other countries to learn as much as we can about these disasters, and apply it to our own energy future. And in remembrance of March 11, 2011, we owe it to Japan to take another look at the “lessons learned,” to turn away from nuclear power and to dedicate research towards safer, cleaner energy alternatives.

Guest Blog
My Profile