Fukushima Families

Forgotten Summerhouse by Philip Edmondson

Forgotten Summerhouse by Philip Edmondson

“Fukushima is Japan’s most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago.” (Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan on March 11, 2011).

“It’s hard to be an individual in Japan.” (Haruki Murakami, novelist)

During a recent trip to Japan, investigative reporter Abilgail Haworth found that in the aftermath of the March,11, 2011 tsunami and the unprecedented, triple nuclear reactor meltdown disaster, stress on family life, for all two million families across Fukushima prefecture has been immense. Marital discord has become widespread and the break-up of couples so common that this phenomenon now has a name: genpatsu rikon or “atomic divorce”. In one of the many households that she visited, the couple was keeping marriage and family together, but just barely. Her hosts were graciously willing to relate one of many incidents that had led to ongoing tensions. On the day of his wife’s birthday, the well- meaning husband stopped by a local bakery and bought the largest cake he could find as a special surprise. When she saw this beautiful confection created from layers of whipped cream decorated with delicate pink roses, her startled reaction was only “Oh, oh, is this cream safe?” The husband, had in fact, failed to check the origin of the cream, and still hastened to assured his wife that it was fine… “eat some”, he implored, “just this once”. She immediately and adamantly refused and would not let their children have any either, not even a taste. And so, the disappointed and irate husband sat right down, picked up a fork and ate the entire cream cake alone, down to every last crumb. This couple then went two days without speaking. (“After Fukushima: Families on the Edge of Meltdowns”, The Observer: UK Guardian, February 23, 2013).

Conflicting information about safety issues has generated countless, ongoing and unresolved arguments. Many citizens no longer trust their government and the state censored media outlets since Shinzo Abe’s authoritarian, militaristic, government has passed draconian legislation in which publishing “unauthorized” information about TEPCO and their Fukushima disaster is punishable by a prison sentence of up to ten years.
With no reliable information as to the levels and dangers from local and country wide radiation, locals report that there are observable gender differences in how husbands and wives respond to their new situation. Men tend to minimize any and all dangers and want to remain and continue on with their jobs and argue that leaving their colleagues would feel like a desertion. In contrast, wives and women with children tend to be concerned enough for their health and welfare as to be willing to leave in search of a more secure location. And, there are ongoing disagreements as to whether or not it is safe to become pregnant. Nearly half of the families that fled the area when the nuclear crisis began, either voluntarily or by forced evacuation, have been separated by housing problems, work requirements and educational needs for their children.

A recent survey revealed that three years after the disaster nearly 49% of previously intact households were no longer under the same roof. According to another survey in Fukushima Prefecture, over 67% of households report family members complaining of “physical and psychological problems”. Clinical Psychology Professor Noriko Kubota at Iwaki Meisei University confirms that many residents are now living with unrelenting, low level anxiety; and couples often do not have sufficient emotional strength to mend their relationship when fault lines appear. He is seeing more cases of suicide, depression, alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence across the area.

In late 2012, Fukushima’s children topped Japan’s obesity rate, apparently due to over- eating comfort foods and remaining indoors to avoid contamination. (“Fukushima evacuations split 50% of families: survey”, japantimes.co.jp, May 4, 2014).

In the finely calibrated realm of Japanese social interaction, which is also a culture of consensus, it is taboo to admit to having radiation fears or buying fish or produce from outside the region. Leaving contaminated areas also brings the difficulties of social pressures, in a society where the mind- set is that running away is “un-Japanese”; and “if we are going to die, we need to stay and all die together”. Consequently, those that leave may never be welcomed back. Moreover, refugees from Fukushima Prefecture are often not welcome in other parts of Japan due to fears of contamination. These fears of the hibakusha, a Japanese term for those exposed to radiation, date from atomic events during and immediately after World War II; when survivors of the nuclear explosions found that their status as human beings had changed. As a result of their exposure to radiation, they were subsequently seen as both biologically inferior and dangerous to the unaffected population. The shame and marginalization of the hibakusha was partially rooted in an ancient Shinto obsession with purification and fear of contamination. There was and still is a very real fear of genetic damage in marriage negotiations wherein hibakusha are often forced to marry into a lower social class and agree to conditions that would be otherwise unacceptable. Stigmatized Hibakusha also experience discrimination in health care and employment opportunities. (R.J. Lifton: Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, 1967)

Last year, prominent anti-nuclear activist Hobun Ikeya, head of the Ecosystem Conservation Society of Japan, declared at a public meeting that, “People from Fukushima should not marry because the deformity rate of their offspring will skyrocket”. Such fears of pregnancy and genetic damage to the unborn are not without basis and we now know that radiation-induced genetic mutations, can and do continue to show up, even in second and third generations. In “A Letter From Fukushima: Severely Malformed Babies Have Been Killed”, August 28, 2011, Keiko Ichikawa wrote that various Japanese medical workers told her that hospitals both abort abnormal fetuses and record them as miscarriages and kill deformed babies at birth and record these as still births. This routine practice, she says, helps authorities cover-up the true impact of ongoing radiation. Given this reality, the insanely pro-nuclear, U.S. supported, Japanese government, desperate to deny these radiation dangers, has also put forth a mind boggling, cruel and morally irresponsible offer of a free, “newer, previously evacuated house”, to any pregnant woman willing to live in Fukushima Prefecture. (Hiroko Goto, enenews.com, June 29, 2013).

In a broader sense, this entire country is suffering a population crisis and their birthrate is plummeting, along with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Marriage rates are also plummeting. Out of wedlock births are rare in Japan. It has been suggested that there are both economic and cultural barriers to family life and in Japanese tradition marriage is still more about duty than romantic love. For Japanese men, working hours are long, wages have stagnated, and housing prices have risen. This situation is complicated by the reality, that women and even well educated women find it difficult to combine marriage and children with their careers. Many employers are reluctant to hire married women, or offer a promotion, since it is assumed that they will become pregnant and leave. Child care options are limited and expensive. Moreover, it seems that the current generation of Japanese women are enjoying their independence and careers and do not look forward to a life defined by domestic servitude. Many quote an old Japanese proverb “Marriage is the grave of women”. As of 2014, the number of single people has reached a record high.

Duly alarmed by this procreation-shy, demographic death spiral, Japan’s current administration is taking steps to avert what they consider to be a looming national catastrophe, where seniors are purchasing more diaper products than new parents. Their solution is to provide generous funding for match-making and dating services. Local officials are now authorized to arrange konkatsu, parties where singles can meet and mingle. Such programs are likely to achieve only limited success since the Japan Family Planning Association reports that some 45% of Japanese women, age 16-24 are not all that interested in sexual contact and more than a quarter of the men feel the same way. Japan’s media have labeled this phenomenon, sekkusu shinai shokogun or “celibacy syndrome” or even mendokusai: “I can’t be bothered”. This latter sentiment appears to be becoming pervasive among those who shun romantic commitment as a kind of drudge, as well as a burden of unwelcome responsibility. (Haworth, February 23, 2013)

While all of these various sociological and other reasons put forth to explain the decline in Japanese birth rates, and young people’s reluctance to date, mate and assume a family oriented life style; there may well be another unseen and unacknowledged factor at work here. Taboo, as it is, I am here suggesting that since it is well known and extensively documented that ongoing radiation exposure, even at low levels, can and does depress and even impair the human immune system; therefore is it not also possible, that wide spread and increasing levels of radiation throughout the Japanese archipelago could also depress the libido, as well as raise conscious or unconscious doubts as to the wisdom of biologically and emotionally investing in a future that is so uncertain.

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