Security for Sentient Beings: A Mother Works to Protect Children’s Health and Ensure Food Safety

by Katsuko Arima

Katsuko Arima manages Ginga-no-Hotori, a natural foods restaurant in the city of Sukagawa in Fukushima. The mother of five children, she has been providing a community space “to harmonize mind, body, and earth” since well before the nuclear incident.

Before the earthquake, I was already studying about the environment and working to stop nuclear energy. Some years ago, I happened to go to a public talk with some friends that, besides global warming, talked about how the various chemicals being discharged by factories are poisoning the environment and affecting the well being of us and our children. From this experience, we made a network of 200 such concerned people, about 100 of who have since evacuated to other prefectures. In Japan, money is still the priority in building one’s life, so when I started to study about the environment, I came to feel this has become a really dangerous way to continue to live. I continued to go to many public talks and meetings, but I still didn’t think I could myself become a person like I am today.

So I began fifteen years ago by not starting anything huge but creating a small vegetarian restaurant. It wasn’t just for making money, but rather I had been thinking to start a store that would harmonize mind, body, and earth. With myself, my mother, and a young disabled person, just the three of us, we worked together for ten years. My husband is a farmer, so we ourselves cultivated rice and vegetables and made traditional miso paste. Eventually, we reached our target of becoming basically totally self-sufficient. Without the shipping in of goods from far distances, we could live in a cycle of self-sufficiency.

1 ArimaThe Nuclear Disaster and Life Afterwards

Unexpectedly, there was a construction project planned for the two rivers that run through this region, the Abukuma and Na-me, so we moved here to this new location. It was just on March 11, the morning of the disaster, that we got our permits and insurance to run the new store called Ginga-no-Hotori, meaning “the neighborhood galaxy”. In the earthquake, there was incredible damage in this area with a lot of roofing tiles falling, and stonewalls and levels on houses collapsing. Besides our doors that had to be fixed, this store was fine.

After the earthquake, we quickly lost power so we couldn’t get any information, but a friend shortly informed us of the danger at the nuclear plant. The maps of the spread of nuclear radiation after the incident were published some months afterwards, so no one really knows what the situation was at the time of the incident. This area around Sukugawa is about 65 kms from the nuclear complex. Most people didn’t think it was dangerous, so they thought they would wait for an indication from the government to evacuate. There was no water or gas and the electricity was out, so people waited in line outside for water trucks. At this time, no one understood the danger. Since we had always felt that nuclear power is dangerous and we also have five children, we decided to evacuate to the neighboring prefecture Tochigi.

Soon after, I began receiving e-mails and telephone calls about relief work in Fukushima, like sending water and diapers for children. So after ten days, I decided to come back by myself. We created a small relief center here at our store giving out goods and other things. I would go back to my family and then keep coming back here a number of times to do this. A number of people from outside came as volunteers as well.

One of these people brought a Geiger counter and made some measurements which at that time ranged between 8 and 5 microsieverts/hr (about 10-20 times a level deemed safe). But we had no idea at the time what was or wasn’t a dangerous reading. It was then that I thought many people should start learning about nuclear radiation. So we started to invite various people here to teach us about the issue, such as a man who was involved in health recuperation in Chernobyl.

No one in the government has taken any leadership on this matter, so all the common people are defenseless. Without any new policies, this way of living continues on as usual. On the television and radio every day, there is just the message that there is no influence from the radiation and that all is fine. However, many Americans in this region were told by their government told to evacuate to 80 to 200 kms away. Further, when officials from the Japanese government came, they wore serious gas masks for protection, but for local residents things remained usual. This chaotic situation has just continued on.

Food Security and Detoxification Efforts

1 food check
machine for checking radiation in food at Ginga-no-Hottori

For about four to six months after the tsunami and the nuclear incident, I kept doing this delivery of relief goods. Then, when resources became more easily available, I thought I should next turn to ensuring the health of myself and my children. After the incident, there was various information coming from the government, but as the real truth started to slowly emerge, I felt I couldn’t believe anything coming from the government. So I slowly started to build up a network for protecting children and in doing so, started to receive foodstuffs for radiation monitoring. At the time of the Chernobyl incident, it was the same for the people of France, who began a citizen’s movement to establish monitoring stations for measuring radiation in food. In the city of Fukushima, a Citizens Radioactivity Measurement Station (CRMS) was first established, and then a movement was created that has established ten such centers around the prefecture.

The government has also put in stations all over the place in every town, but some of their data has differed from ours. I think this is probably because the time taken for the measurement process was shorter. Also, in order to sell food products, the government decided it would be better to not divulge the true measurements. This is because farmers here have no guarantee for compensation from TEPCO, and so they have to sell their goods to keep living. In this way, there have been cases of suicide here in Sukagawa, such as a person engaged in organic farming killed himself. There have been many others too, especially among farmers.

One thing we have done which has provided enjoyment and a break from the anxiety for the mothers around here is holding cooking classes on food that helps to protect us against radiation. It has been helpful that people who lived in Europe after the Chernobyl incident have come here to show us how to make medicinal foods. For example, we make here salad dressing from apples, which have pectin that is said to be good in combating the effects of radiation. According to the data we gathered from our CRMS, if you compare an old person who is less susceptible to radiation and lives on natural foods like wild mountain mushrooms to people who eat miso and apple, the latter have lower radiation readings on full body counters. Apple works to absorb and then push toxins out of the body. This is something that was learned from Chernobyl. Charcoaled bamboo also works to absorb and expel radiation. In ancient Japan, ninja were known to eat it as an antioxidant after being poisoned. It is the charcoaled part that cleanses the body.

There is a lot of farming in this region but hardly anyone is a full time farmer, and it seems that farming is on the decrease since 3/11. The elderly have stayed on and continue to farm, but the young have left the prefecture and taken up other kinds of work. It seems construction companies have pulled out of Fukushima Prefecture, and employment has gone down. Various problems have arisen like how people will not buy food or other goods from here thinking they are dangerous. Since this region has high levels of radiation, women and children have evacuated, while the men have stayed to work. After evacuating, these women and children are often ostracized by the locals in their new areas and are told, “You are contaminated.”

Intransigent Political Forces

We have tried to raise our voices to the government for rebuilding these communities. I have participated in the demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Tokyo, presented a list of demands, talked with parliament members, and engaged in other such direct actions. However, even with many of us, we haven’t been able to accomplish anything. The government basically has no concern for people who live 65 kms from the nuclear complex. Though the evacuation area is from 20-30 kms, there are hot spots outside of this where radiation levels are quite high as well as other places where it is lower. The government has also done nothing for the many people who were traumatized by both the tsunami and this nuclear incident. In order to allay fears, they have only gotten scholars to keep saying it’s safe.

Last year I went to a demonstration and made a direct proposal to the Ministry of Education, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). The buildings where the ministry is housed in Tokyo are very old. You can see various things there, like a model with information on old schools and lunch services. In one of the rear rooms, I found a sign written on a wall that said, “Atomic power is safe”. One problem is obviously that a single ministry is in charge of both education and nuclear power.

I think the most depressing problem now is that many Japanese don’t care about this situation. Shortly after the incident, there was a national election but the young people were uninterested and didn’t go to vote. So the lawmakers who promote nuclear energy are still in their seats. Even one of the members of parliament from Fukushima, Koichiro Genba, has gone overseas to sell nuclear technology when he was served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2011-12. I cannot forgive this. He’s from a town about 20 kms from here heading in the direction of the reactors. I’m not sure whether he evacuated his family, but there are rumors that the mayors of Fukushima and Koriyama evacuated their families before the explosions at the reactors even happened.

There are people in Japan who want to promote nuclear energy as well as many people who don’t want nuclear energy and want the plants shut off. Many scientists offer estimates that we won’t have enough electricity without the plants, and they have fooled us into thinking nuclear power is a necessity. The government has built the nuclear reactors far removed from urban areas, so a lot of the electricity is lost in such long distance transmission. In this way, some other learned scientists say it would be better to build smaller, less wasteful power plants than really large ones. Yet Japan continues to build these huge nuclear power plants.

Eisaku Sato was the governor of Fukushima Prefecture from 1988 to 2006. Although he was first a proponent of nuclear energy, he became very much opposed to it after numerous cover ups of problems at the Fukushima #1 complex and eventually stopped the mixed oxide plutonium uranium fuel (MOX) project there in 1998. In this way, trumped up charges were brought against him for corruption in 2006. Even though there was no evidence, he was still found guilty and had to resign in 2008. Then Yuhei Sato became the new governor and quickly restarted the MOX project, which began 3-4 months before the earthquake. It’s been really frightening to watch this ongoing soap opera around nuclear power here.

Everyday I feel anxiety. It’s often about how I don’t know what we are really going to do from here onwards. I have gone to listen to scientists give talks, and I don’t really know if we will fall ill. It’s probable that our own bodies will become guinea pigs for research. When we one goes to the hospital to get an X-ray, they of course ask first, “Are you pregnant now?” This is because the X-ray and the room where it is taken are considered dangerous. However, here in Fukushima, our children are going to school as usual, eating as usual, and going to sleep as usual in such “a dangerous room”. But the government says no one has died from getting an X-ray once or twice a year, so it is safe to live here. They have not provided us with any precautions or methods, like what to eat in order to prevent harm from the radiation. So there’s been nothing left to do but figure it out for ourselves and use traditional knowledge to prevent cancer and leukemia.

Among my five children living here with me, the youngest is 13 years old and has already developed a cyst, which comes from a problem in her thyroid. However, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Medical University, there is no problem; there are no reported illnesses yet. This kind of thing is repeated all over the place at various public briefings on the issue. At the same time, we can see a huge investment in facilities at local hospitals and an increase in beds as well as the installation of equipment. Of course, there are various illnesses that come from radiation exposure that take years to show up, like leukemia. We know this from the areas around Chernobyl. I think they will not show up suddenly, but there are many people in this region who have gotten leukemia and died of heart attacks. However, these are not attributed to the nuclear incident but the normal result of illness. It’s been a short time since the incident so doctors say that any cases of leukemia are unrelated to it. We don’t really know if there has been an increase leukemia and heart failure since 3/11, and we have no data yet.

My anxiety has not really changed by engaging in this kind of work, because I don’t see any change and cannot know if we are getting any results. This is really all I can do for now. The thing I would like most to express now is that the children are leading usual lives amidst radiation levels that are really not known to be safe or not. At least, as in the case of Chernobyl, it would be helpful for the children’s health to go to a different region once a year for 2-3 weeks. I would really like to see this happen soon for just the children. I have taken this issue to the courts to have the children evacuated, but if we lose, then what will happen to our human rights? Even religious groups have helped with this kind of temporary evacuation of women and children, but the government still has done nothing.

Various religious groups have been doing activities around here like providing psycho-spiritual care. One event held here was to dress up in costumes and sing songs, but since the incident I haven’t felt like singing. So many people did not feel like joining in this kind of activity. While we do have worries, I think we also sometimes need to sing and raises our voices for some emotional relief. I haven’t seen these monk cafes that offer counseling around here much at all. Unfortunately, some terrible religious groups have come to this region. Since all the young people have left the prefecture, there are many old people left behind who are lonely and have been tricked into giving money to religious groups that act nice to them. I think this is a problem all over the world, though, and not just in Japan.