October 8, 2014

It wasn’t long after the nuclear accident before Tokyo stopped the production and sale of foods from Fukushima Prefecture.  Strict limits on radioactive content were mandated, and nothing would reach the marketplace that didn’t meet these standards. The rigidity of Tokyo’s rules was quite extreme. For example, if one bag of rice was found to exceed the limit, the entire harvest would barred from shipment and sale. Over the next two years, the safety of Fukushima foods found in Japan’s markets became beyond scientific question.

However, public rumors, as well as misinformation circulated through the internet, persuaded a significant fraction of the nation’s consumers to shun any and all foods produced in Fukushima Prefecture. The negative impact became so severe that in February, 2013, Tokyo’s Consumer Affairs Agency began surveying consumers and issuing biannual reports on what they found. In February of 2013, the Agency said 19.4% were cautious about Fukushima-produced foods. The dissidence dropped to 17.9% by August, and was down to 15.3% in February of this year. It seemed the government’s effort to counter the impact of public gossip in the marketplace was working.

However, the Agency’s report for August shows that radiophobic concerns have swelled to new heights. Fully 19.6% of Japan’s consumers are concerned about the safety of Fukushima’s foods. Further, 70% now say they “do care” or “tend to care” where their food is produced, a 4-point increase from February…the same percentage increase as with those shunning Fukushima foods. What’s more, nearly 25% of those who “care” say it is because they want to buy foods that do not contain radioactive substances, which is (again) a four point upsurge from February. In addition, 22.5% said the government limits are too high and the limits on the radioactive content of Fukushima foods should be lowered. Finally, many said they would avoid foods that have detectible radioactive isotopic levels below the existing standards. Meanwhile, only 21% of the total number of respondents knew that Japan’s safety standards were stricter than those in Europe or the United States.

Why has this sudden shift in opinion occurred? The Agency says there is no single reason, but point to two possibilities. The first is the increase in media reports of health effects being associated with low-level radiation, and the repeated broadcasting that even the tiniest level of exposure can cause cancer. The second reason concerns a specific graphic novel. Kumiko Bando, the agency’s secretary-general, said, “We haven’t been able to sufficiently analyze the results, but there were debates and media coverage on an incident involving the manga ‘Oishinbo’ just a few months ago. This may have affected the results.” In the April 28 and May 12 installments of the comic, the main characters were shown developing nosebleeds after visiting the Fukushima plant.

But, I would suggest a deeper, more significant source of the problem. Historical records show that the subject of radiation has been shunned by Japan’s educational system for more than 40 years. For three decades after WWII, the bombings, and aftermath, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taught in schools, spawning the Hiroshima Syndrome and skewing more than a generation’s understanding of radiation. But, even this ended about 40 years ago. It has been estimated that only 1-2% of the public has visited nuclear power plant information centers and learned some facts about radiation. In addition, some basic education on radiation has been generated since 3/11/11 with elementary school pamphlets. But the vast majority of the public in Japan only knows about radiation by word of mouth, based on the stories passed along concerning Hiroshima/Nagasaki. As with most persistent gossip-chains, exaggerations of health effects continually increased. Most Japanese do not know the important differences between Beta, Gamma and Alpha radiation. They are virtually unaware that we exist in a naturally radioactive universe, and all foods and water contain natural radioactive isotopes.

The Consumer Affairs Agency’s intent is admirable. But, statistics show their efforts have been in vain. The issue can only be resolved through science-based education. Teach the teachers so that they can teach the students. Anything less will do nothing more than maintain an unacceptable status quo.

References –

1 – http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2014/10/02/one-in-five-japanese-cautious-about-fukushima-food/

2 – http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201410020033