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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: À Fukushima, la vie reste un combat au quotidien

by Lina Sankari

In Fukushima, Life Remains a Daily Combat

Translated Tuesday 12 April 2016, by Henry Crapo, Isabelle Métral

From Fukushima, Nihonmatsu, and Tomioka, Japan, by special envoy [1].

Five years after the tsunami and the nuclear catastrophe, at the heart of the devastated area, we find a landscape dominated by death. Despite the social relegation and feeling of banishment, the inhabitants of the district intend to make use of their dramatic conditions in order to rethink their choice of society.

On 12 February, in the evacuated region the rice fields have been replaced by a vast plain of desolation. For as far as one can see, a ballet of tractor back-hoes and fields of sacks of nuclear-contaminated debris. Photo by Toru Yamanaka, for Agence France Presse

With his imposing stature, Tetsurô could be a character from the Noh theater. This former butcher, with slow and solemn gesture, his expressions straight from a Japanese lyric drama. His words resemble a long poem sung. Slowly, his hands move in space. Until he mimics the tear. Since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear accident that occurred on 11 March 2011, Tetsurô lives in uncertainty. "We are all faced with a contradictory feeling. While we must not forget the experience of the disaster and 19,000 deaths, what we experienced that day and those that followed still generates a huge stress. The people of Fukushima must constantly make choices: to stay or to leave, to eat or not to eat local products. My wife became pregnant the following year, and I decided to stay, but nobody knows the real effects of the radioactivity. Before letting our daughter play in the park, we look at the Geiger counter to measure radiation levels. We must put an end to this ongoing anxiety." At the heart of the evacuated area, rice paddies have given way to a vast plain of desolation, to a ballet of tractor back-hoes with fields of sacks of nuclear-contaminated debris — as far as one can see.

We are not back to normal, trauma remains

Everywhere, the same empty landscapes, the cemeteries, the barriers preventing one from approaching the Fukushima 1, the ghost towns and dismanteled houses, as in Tomioka or Minamisoma. Decontamination and reconstruction seem a titanic task, and no one can, for the moment, imagine that life can resume in this area, nor that rice seedlings can once again germinate here [2]. At Nahara, where the evacuation order was lifted in September, only 420 inhabitants out of 7400 returned home. Akiko Saito also uses his body to make himself understood. She imitates the movement of the earthquake. An oscillation, then the waves. Like many, she had never heard of "millisieverts" prior to the moment when the plant began to release significant amounts of radioactive effluents. This member of the Zenzoren union now has an almost intimate knowledge of this unit of measurement of radioactivity. "The radio began to talk about a dose of 25 millisieverts, without our knowing what it meant or what were its potential effects. So I then left Fukushima with my children for a month." Not everyone could take to the road. Without an evacuation order, without fuel, without a train, without knowing where to find lodging. Hiromi Murakami, of the Association of New Women of Japan, speaks of the contradictory advice given by doctors and decided to stay to distribute reconstruction materials to the victims. "The confusion was total. But it is still so, in some way. I do not understand the intent of the reconstruction led by the government. We can not say we’re back to normal. There remain many traumatisms. "

The country lives to the rhythm of earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis

Five years after the worst crisis Japan has experienced since the end of the Pacific War, the north of the archipelago revives a vocabulary that seemed to be part of history. Japan "stutters". Here we talk of "genpatsu arerugi" of a "nuclear allergy", a term born of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, and of the irradiation of Japanese fishermen after the American thermonuclear test on Bikini atoll on March 1, 1954. After the communists took power in China and after the outbreak of the Korean war, the US occupation decided to keep Japan in its political and economic tutelage. The choice of nuclear power and of plants provided by Washington, is part of that logic but, at the time, only the Communists opposed it. Opponents of the industry today raise the question of national sovereignty in energy policy, while Japan, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, lives to the rhythm of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and floods .

"There is a high mortality rate among people separated.

The citizens of Fukushima prefecture feel they have been forgotten. Some of the refugees continue to live in prefabricated housing. Eyes are turned toward the preparation of the 2020 Olympic Games, and the government has abandoned the reconstruction and decontamination work in the North-East. Subsidies and compensation also melt like snow. "The people of Fukushima have worked hard to overcome the difficulties, but they can not do everything. We need the government and Tepco to take responsibility in helping the evacuees and more precarious. The region has lived with the myth of security at the nuclear power sites, but since 2011 the situation has changed throughout Japan, and hostility to nuclear power is general," says Hitoshi Kubota, President of the Federal Committee of the Japanese Communist Party.

"The government and Tepco must assume their responsibility and aid those evacuated, and those most precarious". Hitoshi Kubota, president of the federal committee of the Japanese Communist Party.

By withdrawing, the government leaves the regional government to bear the brunt of the disaster. Even to the point of creating a generation of discriminated and outcast, as there were in their time the hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The people who did not belong to the evacuation areas were denounced as responsible for their possible contamination and of that of their children. "There are concrete examples of discrimination in hiring. Some companies ask candidates who come from Fukushima to produce a certificate of examination of the thyroid. Others had their marriage annulled because they came from here," says Akiko Sato, of the Zenzoren union. Dr. Osamu Saito served for thirty years in Hiroshima before asking to be transferred to Fukushima in 2009. Without knowing that his experience with hibakusha would be of service. Just so. "There are differences between the 1945 bombings and the 2011 disaster, but there are also many similarities. In both cases, we observe a stress related to the separation of families, and a high mortality rate among those separated. Stress related to discrimination and to the regular medical checkups is another common point," says the professor.

"The remedy is primarily social and political"

Studies show that 70% of households have a member who suffers from diabetes or from other metabolic diseases. These syndromes, associated with immobility and from being ordered to stay confined, are added to the 11% of adults suffering from depression, while the average is 1% in the rest of Japan. Faced with an invisible evil, the radiation, some live in a fear anchored in the body, as much as from the withholding of information during the disaster, which broke the relationship of trust with the authorities. "The state has never assumed its responsibility, and no antidepressant can cope with such a situation. The remedy is social and political. Nobody will get better until there is a clear vision of the future in terms of employment, family reunification, and the effects of radioactivity," says Osamu Saito. There are also 80 suicides directly related to the evacuation, the living conditions in prefabricated and separation from the rest of the family. In five years, 2,028 people have died from stress-related illnesses. "There have been no deaths directly related to ionizing radiation", notes Professor Saito, "and in regard to thyroid cancer, out of 360 000 children examined, 115 cases were detected, but until now, without conclusive evidence of connection with the accident. It is too early to draw conclusions. "

"Farmers have no confidence in their own production"

Farmers also suffer from the whip-lash of social relegation and abandonment. In the old days, the granary of Japan, Fukushima Prefecture provided 400,000 tons of rice per year and also maintained its place in the production of fruits and vegetables. After the disaster, the number of farmers has dropped from 70 000 to 50 000. "Our sales in Tokyo have fallen by 30-40%. Many farmers gave up their activity for lack of income and perspective. Others committed suicide. Each bag of rice must undergo testing before being placed on the market. Tepco speaks of "reputational risk" but, since the soils are contaminated, the reputation is indeed justified. Therefore, prices have fallen 20 to 30%", insists Satoshi Nemoto, president of the Federation of Peasant Movements of Fukushima Prefecture. In the rural district of Nihonmatsu, 50 kilometers from the stricken plant, Honta Yoshiji, rice farmer, exclaims, "Even our children will not eat the fruit of our cultures! In reality, neither do the farmers have trust in their own production; they are afraid of the consequences for consumers." In Japan, Ubu has replaced the emperor: the authorities base their decisions on an imprecise mapping of soil pollution, conducted from the air, and earth collected in the framework of the partial decontamination operations has been stored for two years already in garbage bags in the heart of the surrounding forested mountains, too complex to be cleared. Sometimes only a few meters from where farmers have installed solar panels to sell energy and to diversify their activity.

In this landscape of social desolation, Satoshi Nemoto revives his faith in the future, a faith that was common after the departure of the Americans, with the rising power of the country: "Despite the magnitude of our present difficulties, I am confident that the Fukushima disaster is an opportunity to rethink our society, economic policy and the production model. Let us not be content only to be victims!" In the energy portfolio, Japan was able in 2013 to extract offshore methane hydrate, a gas present in sufficient quantities to meet domestic demand. Politically, the disaster revealed the evils of contemporary Japan: collusion between public and private interests, injustice, impoverishment of the middle class, and poverty. Mistrust of power has led to protests of an unprecedented scale, not seen since the 1970s. The society is in motion, and will no longer permit its choices to be dictated.

[1Translators’ note: We regret the delay in publishing this translation of Lina Sankari’s remarkable reports on site from Fukushima, published in the newspaper l’Humanité on 12 March.

[2Translators’ note: From personal experience, in 2009, we know that Japan’s best rice came from this area, north of Mito, south of Sendai.

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