May 9, 2014

This past week, relatively little Fukushima news has been posted by the Japanese Press. No new contaminated wastewater tank leaks. No cooling system failures. No mishaps with the relocation of spent fuel bundles from unit #4 pool. In fact, nothing negative to report on from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station. For many news outlets, however, this does not mean there will be no adverse Fukushima news reports. Rather, there is an always-in-place, ready-for exploitation human-interest story that can be tapped during the slow periods of negative Fukushima news; a “fall back” if you will.

Most of the 85,000 people forced to leave their homes due to government dictum remain estranged from their homes; the remaining Fukushima accident evacuees. With a population that large, there are unquestionably a large number who are continually upset and suffering from radiophobic angst. It takes little effort for reporters to find them, get a few “juicy” quotes, and create an article expressing their grievances. This is what I call a “fall back” report, guaranteed to get the kind of attention that is good for the news business. One such article was posted by the unabashedly antinuclear Japan Times on May 7th, entitled “No-go ‘zone’ a state of mind”. (1)

The subtitle reads, “State’s rush to reopen irradiated areas in Fukushima puts ex-residents in bind”. Obviously, this is intended to mean that three years is too soon for repopulation. Further, the subtitle implies that the subsequent article will provide examples of those who are reluctant to repopulate, plus those who are ready to go home. Unfortunately, the report posts only the opinions of the disgruntled and fearful.

The story focuses on the community of Tomioka, divided into three repopulation zones. One zone is ready for the residents to return and Tokyo currently allows the people around-the-clock access in “preparation” for fully lifting all remaining restrictions on-or-about July 1st. The other zones are (1) “in preparation to lift evacuation orders”, which will begin the three month pre-repopulation period of round-the-clock access, with radiation levels below the 20 millisievert per year limit for residential return, and (2) a “restricted” zone where residents are allowed visits for only a few hours at a time, where radiation exposures range between 20 and 50 mSv/yr. There is a fourth zone designated “difficult to return” where access is summarily denied, with estimated exposure levels above 50 mSv/yr.

The article also mentions that each evacuee gets $1,000 per month for mental anguish. However, it fails to report that this stipend is above and beyond the $7,500 every man, woman and child receives each month for evacuation compensation, and the additional hundreds of millions in monthly pay-outs to property owners and businesses. Regardless, the article is presaged with the ominous fear-intended statement, “Above all, radiation is everywhere”, soon followed by an appeal to uncertainty and doubt, “But distrust about the decontamination program runs deep. Is it really safe?”

The majority of the report focuses on a few highly disgruntled persons and their emotionally-appealing stories. One, a former librarian, returns occasionally to his former home, clothed in full anti-contamination coveralls, wearing a face mask and a dosimeter hung around his neck. His property is described thusly, “Grass grows wild in the backyard. The ceiling leaks. Thieves have ransacked the shelves, leaving papers and clothing all over the floor so there is barely room to walk. Mouse dung is scattered like raisins. There is no running water or electricity.” He and his wife recently viewed the nearby cherry blossoms, which were in full bloom. “They flower as though nothing has happened,” he said. “They are weeping because all the people have left.” Will he return full time when restrictions are lifted? The Times article does not say.

Another former resident, Shigetoshi Suzuki is outraged anyone would even ask “Do you want to go back?” He says it is a preposterous query, “It is a ridiculous question. We could have led normal lives. What we have lost can’t be measured in money.” Suzuki has refused to sign the form giving Tokyo permission to decontaminate his Tomioka home. Why would he do this? Is it because he would lose his generous compensation income a year after restrictions are lifted? Does he think that refusing free decontamination will keep the money flowing into his pockets indefinitely? It seems that loss of income is at the root of the issue, doesn’t it?

Michiko Onuki, who ran a ceramic and craft shop out of their Tomioka home, has a different objection to returning permanently, “The prime minister says the accident is ‘under control,’ but we feel the thing could explode the next minute. We would have to live in fear of radiation. This town is dead.” He is not going back because he feels there is no hope for the future of the town.

Another problem is the differing zone designations in Tomioka, which assemblyman Seijun Ando says is pitting groups of residents against each other. He wants to rebuild Tomioka in a less-radioactive part of the prefecture, a place he envisions as “for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”Tears welling up in his eyes, Ando added, “I can survive anywhere, although I had a plan for my life that was destroyed from its very roots. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suffering. I’m just worried for Tomioka.”

However, their feelings of anguish and anger are not balanced with interviews with those who feel less negative…who eagerly seek going home…those few who are taking advantage of the opportunity for unlimited stay in the one zone soon to be released from its political shackles. The Times only tells the stories of those who best exemplify the pains of constant fear, uncertainty and doubt.

It’s been a relatively slow week for negative Fukushima news reporting. But, the Press can always fall back on the exploitation of the angry…the frightened…the uncertain…the doubtful. The Japan Times has done just that.