Promoting Health Rehabilitation, Ensuring the Rights of Refugees, and Overcoming a Confused Understanding of the Separation between Church and State

Continuing on from last year’s program in August, 2012, the Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF) held a second public symposium on Life and Atomic Energy on March 8, 2013 in Tokyo on the theme, “Reflecting on the Victims of Nuclear Fallout from the Fukushima #1 Reactor Incidents”. With about 200 people in attendance, three panelists expressed the ongoing anxiety of the present conditions in Fukushima and appealed to the Buddhist world to promote a program for health rehabilitation so that children can play outdoors without worrying about radiation.

photo credit: The Bukkyo Times
photo credit: The Bukkyo Times

The first panelist was Hitomi Kamanaka who has made three films on the victims of nuclear fallout in Japan even before the Fukushima incident, including the award winning Rokkasho Rapsody on the vast site of nuclear reprocessing stations, reactors, and military bases in northern Japan. She raised a number of wide ranging problems under the key term “radiation exposure”, such as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima, the structure of health checks and the outbreak of illnesses after the Chernobyl nuclear incident, and the underestimation of radiation exposure. She noted, “It has been 26 years since the Chernobyl incident took place, yet there are no further health check ups being provided free of charge. You can see that there are still quite a number of problems going on there.” In the case of Fukushima, long-term free medical examinations and diagnosis are necessary. Appealing to the health of children, Kamanaka introduced the words of Dr. Minoru Kamata, “If you want to rehabilitate health from radioactive fallout, you have to start with the body”.

The next speaker was Rev. Toku-un Tanaka, a Soto Zen priest and abbot of Dokei-ji temple located inside the 20 km restricted zone from the nuclear reactors. He talked about his thoughts as a victim of the incident and the lifestyle of evacuees who are dealing with children. The victims have been given a uniform compensation, but there are cases of it being used for drinking and amusement. Rev. Tanaka noted, “Our community is 80-90% agricultural. In the future we might be able to farm and sell our products, but at present there is nothing we can do for work.” In this way, people have increasingly begun to drink and waste their time. Alluding to the responsibility of adults, he said that, “I tell my parishioners that children are looking at your backside to see how you are overcoming these difficulties.” He then emphasized that, “There is no use but to deal with the situation, so what we have to do from now on is to adapt and change. We cannot leave a lingering debt to our children.”

The third panelist was Dr. Eisuke Matsui, the Director of the Gifu Environmental Medicine Research Institute and author of the Japanese book The Unseen Fear: Radioactive Contamination Inside the Body (Mienai-kyofu: hoshasen naibu hibaku, 2011). Dr. Matsui provided some basic knowledge concerning radioactivity, pointing out, “One can evade radioactivity by retreating to some distance away from it, but there is still the problem of radioactive fallout which has already lodged in the body.” He noted that while people who often fly are also exposed to radioactivity, this is a short-term exposure to gamma rays. On the other hand, radioactive fallout lodged within the body that comes from long-term exposure to alpha and beta rays leads to a number of problems. Dr. Matsui thus warned that we have to consider the differences between these two types of situations, noting, “If you compare the influence on the body of alpha rays versus gamma rays, there is an enormous difference.”

Dr. Matsui reported an example of people in the Ukraine and Belarus having the right under law to move to places where there was no nuclear fallout after the Chernobyl incident. In the case of Japan, “We can talk about having an anti-nuclear stance, but there’s more to it than that. We need to talk about an anti-radiation exposure stance. The victims of radiation exposure can escape, but the government should provide a place to live where families are not broken up and children can grow up in an unhindered way.” In this way, he made a proposal for an “Anti-Radiation Exposure Migration Law” and appealed to the Japan Buddhist Federation to cooperate in this matter.

In the question and answer period, emphasis was made again on the implementation of a health rejuvenation program to protect children from radiation. The moderator for the symposium, former Secretary General of JBF, Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu, noted that JBF has already been supporting Buddhist NGOs and other local Buddhist groups for helping with these kinds of projects.

An evacuee from the town of Namie, within 10 kms of the nuclear reactors, brought up one problem, asking, “We are unable to visit the graves of our ancestors who have carried on our family lineages for around 800 years. How am I going to consider the feelings of my parents who are filled with anxiety over not being able to fulfill their ancestral customs and duties?” In response, Rev. Tanaka, who is also the abbot of a temple in the town of Futaba next to Namie, expressed his own experiences. He noted that in order to enter the 20 km restricted area, one needs to make an application for permission. “There is an official limit to the kinds of things you can go in and take out of the area. Going in for visiting gravesites or for carrying out ashes is not recognized. They always cite the constitutional separation between church and state in Japan to prevent people from engaging in any kind of religious activity under official permission. The visiting of graves during the spring and autumn solstices are customs that are needed to maintain Japanese Buddhism itself. In the end, the officials advised us that many people made applications for going back to their homes to get things they needed for the spring weather. Some of these people just went ahead and also got their family ashes. It is ironic that collecting one’s family ashes is not officially an acceptable reason. This is just the trampling upon the maintenance of family ties and the recollection of the deceased.”

As a postscript, Rev. Tomatsu later reported that many local priests from Fukushima, along with the President of the Fukushima Buddhist Association Rev. Shinjo Mimura, attended this symposium and began confronting this matter in earnest afterwards. As a result, the Fukushima Prefectural Government for the first time allowed locals from inside the 20 km zone to return to their homes on official religious business to visit their ancestral graves and stay for up to a week during the summer Obon holiday for ancestral spirits in August 2013.

Translated by Jonathan S. Watts with Rev. Yosharu Tomatsu; from The Bukkyo Times, March 21, 2013