How 3/11 Changed the People of Japan – Part 1: Fear, Trust, and Death

The March 11 tsunami left a scar on Japan last year. The confusion was widespread, and depression and suicides were imminent. But not enough people talked about how the tsunami has changed regular Japanese people since the tragedy. A while back, I looked at how Japan kept such strong national unity in the weeks and months after the crisis. However, I didn’t talk about the changes to the everyday Japanese lifestyle, or to the opinions and psychology of the people who were affected. Some of it is certainly surprising.

Fear Rises and Trust Falls

It seems obvious now that Japanese officials were lying about various aspects about the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, but Japan’s younger generations especially seem to distrust the authorities. The younger generations have in fact become more engaged in and aware of governmental matters, and frequent websites for their news rather than TV programs. In general, the older generations tend to watch the news broadcasted on TV rather than the internet, but this may change in a few generations. According to one article published in August of last year, TV is becoming irrelevant in this web-oriented nation:

NHK research released in 2010 and cited by Shukan Post shows that 11% of the general population watched no TV at all in 2005, up from 8% 10 years earlier. That’s a significant, though not a precipitous drop. But the same research shows young people increasingly uninterested in TV fare, with males in their teens and 20s watching on average less than two hours of TV a day as against an overall average of three hours, 28 minutes. TV’s enduring popularity resides with people aged 70 and up. They watch on average more than five hours a day.

The highly skeptical youth generations use the internet, while the slightly-skeptical older generations use the TV. But it’s entire families that are feeling too scared or hopeless to stay in the devastated areas of Japan’s East coast (i.e., Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima). Either they want to distance themselves from the destructed areas, or they can’t find work or decent enough living arrangements where they were. As the Daily Yomiuri reports:

Among the three prefectures, Fukushima suffered the largest exodus of 31,381 people. It was the first time since 1963 that the prefecture had seen population outflow exceeding inflow by over 30,000. Miyagi saw 6,402 more people moving out than moving in, while Iwate saw a net departure of 3,443, the survey found.

The Tokyo metropolitan area also saw a notable decrease. For example, in 2011 the “excess of population inflow over outflow decreased by about 30,000″ in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures, compared to saw almost 30,000 less people coming in than out in 2011, compared to 2010.

Learning about Radiation, Life, and Death

Since there was so much confusion after the Fukushima crisis, there was a clear demand for education on nuclear energy and radiation. Ever since the 1970′s, when Japan introduced “Yutori education” (“educating with leeway” or “relaxed education”) – a policy that relaxed the hours of primary school education – radiation was taken out of the curriculum. The textbooks of 2012 will be the first since then to include information on radiation. According to the Daily Yomiuri:

Middle school textbooks once included “the nature of radiation” as a subject until the early 1980s. It was then dropped from middle school curriculums, and not much importance was attached to the subject in high schools. The effects of radiation on the human body did not get much of an airing at schools or in society at large.

The lack of education about the subject is believed to be behind the public’s frantic purchases of mineral water after radioactive substances were detected in tap water and the decline in sales of agricultural and livestock products due to radiation fears.

The education ministry recently decided to compile supplementary reading materials for primary, middle and high school students to give students a basic knowledge about radiation. [. . . ] The reinstatement of radiation as a teaching subject under the revised curriculum guidelines was actually decided in 2008, but the subject was to have been treated only briefly in class. However, the ministry’s decision to compile new supplementary readers indicates the government believes it is necessary for people to have a deeper knowledge of radiation so they can make level-headed judgments and act calmly.

In fact, 700 primary and middle schools in Fukushima Prefecture will teach all students about radiation from next month (note: the school year begins in April in Japan). This is the first time such lessons will take place in almost three decades. Two to three hours a year will be delegated to radiation education, particularly regarding health effects of exposure and protection. However, as one article from the Japan Times put it yesterday:

A group of elementary school students in Koriyama, about 60 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, may only be 10 years old, but they possibly know more about radiation than fourth-graders anywhere in the world.

Tomoyuki Bannai, a teacher at Akagi Elementary School in Fukushima, had his 28 students start learning about radiation education 30 to 40 hours after the disaster, not just two or three. The results? For example, a month ago his students were able to talk about the differences between alpha-, beta-, and gamma-rays, and were discussing the biological half-life of cesium-137 for each age group. Most children have never even heard of those, and most adults have no idea what any of those even mean. Yet all of his 10-year-old students were able to grasp the concepts, and they all expressed that they liked learning more about radiation. Mr. Bannai emphasized that even young children can understand these difficult concepts if taught the right way. One of the children even said:

I had a kind of scary image of radiation because it’s invisible. But after I’ve learned about it, I now know what to avoid and where not to go. Also, I now understand the news about the nuclear crisis. I understand [radioactive materials] better than my mother. When we go to a supermarket together, I tell her which produce to avoid.

The children have clearly learned a lot about radiation, health, life and death.

Thanks to decontamination efforts that started last May, the school’s hourly radiation reading had fallen to 0.18 microsievert in late February, below the government’s target of 0.23 microsievert. But the daily lives of children in Koriyama have changed profoundly. For example, they no longer play at local parks and they all carry glass dosimeters provided by the city to measure their external exposure.

“I spend more time playing at my friends’ houses,” [one student] said. “So I exercise by pedaling my bike on the way to my friends’ houses.”

The students stressed they are not seeking anyone’s pity. ”I don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We are not poor kids,” said fourth-grader Rina Ishii.

While some adults have called for all children to be evacuated from Fukushima, the students said that after learning about the health risks of radiation exposure, living in Koriyama is not that bad. ”There may be a risk of developing cancer, but the risk is small. As long as we take care in selecting food, I think it’s OK,” said student Wataru Sugeno.

The fourth-graders said they generally try to avoid eating produce grown in Fukushima. And shiitake and “yuzu” (citrons) from the prefecture are definitely off the menu, as contamination levels above the government limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram were recorded in some produce during sampling tests.

“As children have said, the situation (in Koriyama) is not that miserable,” Bannai said. “They have learned about internal exposure and contamination levels in produce. And they are beginning to tackle that and are trying to create a brighter future. I want people to know that.”

It is likely that in one generation, Japan will become the most educated country in the world in terms of earthquakes, tsunamis, and radiation. However, one unintended effect of all the media exposure made Japanese people actually more ignorant of the potential destructive power of tsunamis.

The Tokyo Times discusses a survey that asked people “what height of a tsunami would you consider dangerous?” Before the tsunami on March 11, 70% answered “less than 3 meters,” which is the correct answer. The same question was asked in April, a month after the disaster, but only 45% were correct. “A 2-meter-high tsunami can completely destroy your house,” said Satoko Oki, an assistant professor at the Earthquake Research Institute, University of Tokyo. ”So the damage lowered the risk assessment, it did not teach a lesson, but instead, it made the Japanese people more vulnerable than before.”

Many people also believe that the lesson was wasted on the international community, since so many countries have decided to go nuclear despite what happened in Fukushima; but let’s focus on Japan. Since the Japanese media kept repeating the massive height of the waves, the risks began to be associated with such high numbers. As LiveScience says:

To prevent this from happening in the future, [Professor] Oki recommended that information available to the public should make clear the risk associated with relatively small tsunamis, including it in reports describing tsunamis like the one in March.

Japanese officials are considering not including projected tsunami heights with future evacuation orders, she said.

Death should not be a concern for children, but we have had so many unpredictable tragedies around the world in the last few years that death is a reality of life – we can’t ignore it, even if we tried. Those along the West coast of North America are going to have just one reminder of that when the debris and bodies from the tsunami finally reach the shores. All though according to the BBC, the main mass of debris is expected to hit in March 2014.

Another change since the disaster is that Japanese people are preparing for death quite early. Activities like preparing wills, taking photos to leave behind or to be used at funerals, and recording finals thoughts and wishes have seen what AsiaOne calls a “quiet boom.” In fact, workshops on making “final notebooks” and writing wills are gaining popularity, and even some in their thirties are registering.

It was a sad year, but not all of it was tragic. Part 2 will look at the positive changes since the disaster.

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