Friday, December 21, 2012
On my last evening in Fukushima, the children and I decorated gingerbread houses for Christmas.
For many of the children in Fukushima, the only safe places they will ever have will be the ones in their imagination.
Later, some of the mothers and children who shared their very important and personal stories with me gathered for a meal.
As our time together came to a close, I watched them sharing their pain and joy, and I felt a hurting in my heart.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
My day began at the Fukushima Collaborative Clinic (website), an independently-run private hospital that provides services such as screening children's thyroids for cysts and nodules. I interviewed Mrs. Shina, one of the founding members and spokesperson for the hospital.
Mrs. Shina explained that one of the most sought after services that they provide are "thyroid screening second opinions" since so many Fukushima parents do not trust the results of the health survey overseen by the government. The appointments for such screenings are fully booked until May of next year (!).
Parents have shared with me stories about doctors who vehemently deny ANY possibility of a connection between thyroid cysts and the nuclear meltdown; about being denied access to second opinions at university hospitals; about getting second opinions at hospitals outside of Fukushima and finding out their children have more and bigger thyroid cysts than were revealed in the official exam.
Next, I visited "Smile Park in Fukushima", a traveling event created by the Japanese Red Cross Society (event website HERE, Japanese Red Cross Society website HERE). The event is brought to cities around Fukshima and provides a safe place indoors for children to play since outdoor activities are limited due to concerns about radiation. I have been struck by how every time I meet a child in Fukushima, he or she seems to have their head in a portable game (which I wrote about HERE in "Trapped Inside"). I quickly learned the reason is because they aren't allowed to play outside.
I was shown around "Smile Park" by Ms. Tomita, a Red Cross staff member.
Even though many schools and playgrounds have been "decontaminated", the surrounding mountains and land have not. Parents are worried about their children playing outside as it has already been documented that because of wind, rain and other factors, the radiation levels in areas that had been previously deemed "decontaminated" are already beginning to rise again.
Ms. Tomita allowed me to run, jump and play on the equipment with the children and it was a beautiful, fun and rare time when I was able to forget, just for a moment, why I was there and why this event had been created.
I stepped back to take a long shot of the entire event, the sound of hundreds of children laughing echoing through the hall. Suddenly, I was overcome with emotion and began to sob. At first I couldn't understand why I was crying and had to excuse myself to go outside and recover.
I almost never cry during interviews; during interviews I am usually too much in shock (is that the right word?) to allow myself to "feel" what is happening. It is when I am editing that the emotions come flooding out; it is when I am editing and I must watch over and over painful, sad, scary moments that the tears tend to flow.
When I returned to the hall, I apologized to Ms. Tomita for my emotion. I explained to her that it had just suddenly hit me why the event existed: these children cannot play outside, cannot live their lives as children normally do, and with that realization I had been unable to stop my tears (just thinking about it now as I write this I am crying). Ms. Tomita leaned in close to me and whispered, "it happens to a lot of people who come here".
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Today, many mothers and their children gathered at Mrs. Shima's home to share with me their very personal stories. Mrs. Shima, along with Mrs. Sugano, have been instrumental in getting the word out about my filming Fukushima and introducing me to so many of the families I am documenting. (Mrs. Shima also organized a meeting like this during my last trip to Fukushima, which resulted in this story HERE).
Mrs. Shima welcomed the mothers and their children into her home which was so beautifully decorated for Christmas. While they took turns sharing with me their stories, I noticed that in the other room they were talking amongst themselves. I was so honoured that the mothers were willing to come here to speak with me and also glad that Mrs. Shima's inviting them here was providing them with an opportunity to be together and to share information with each other as well.
Mrs. Yasuda is concerned about the decontamination of the schools her son Haruto, 8, and daughter Yuri, 11, attend. She does believe that the radiation levels at the school are "lower" than what they were last year directly after the nuclear meltdown, but worries that the levels still may be dangerous. She also is concerned that the areas surrounding the schools have not been decontaminated.
Mrs. Sato brought with her the ultrasounds for her son Kaishin, 10, that show the multiple cysts on both sides of his thyroid. She desperately wants to believe what the doctor administering the official government health exam told her: that it is possible that the cysts are naturally occuring, were there before the nuclear meltdown and have nothing to do with the radiation, and that they will not develop into anything more serious.
I met Mrs. Tsuda the last time I was in Fuksuhima, but this was the first time for me to meet her children. Mrs. Tsuda's son Naoki has multiple thyroid cysts. Her daughter Yuika has so many cysts the doctor couldn't count them. Yuika's blood work also shows that her thyroglobulin levels are elevated.
|つださんの息子は数個の 嚢胞があり、娘は数えきれないほどの 嚢胞が見つかった。|
Mrs. Suzuki is concerned for her daughter Rin, 2. Her daughter Airi, 8, has multiple thyroid cysts.
Mrs. Ooyama's daughter Nozomi, 17, is in her second year of high school and speaks perfect English. She wants to be an entertainer AND an engineer. She also has thyroid cysts. Nozomi told me that she and her friends are worried about getting married and having children.
I am so honoured that these families came together to share with me their very important and personal stories. Despite all that has happened and is continuing to happen to them, the people of Fukushima remain warm and welcoming.
What does the future hold for these children of Fukushima? I am again left with more questions than answers.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Last year, the home in Date City, Fukushima Prefecture where Mr. and Mrs. Sugano lived with their three children, son Koutarou, 9, daughter Kae, 6, and son Shinjirou 5, was discovered to be located in a radioactive hotspot. The home was classified as an area for evacuation and the family was relocated to temporary housing through government support.
In September of this year, the Sugano family home underwent the government-sponsored decontamination process, which I documented HERE, HERE and HERE.
|The Sugano Family home undergoes "decontamination" in September 2012.|
On December 15, the Sugano's received a letter from the government stating that the decontamination of their home was complete and that the classification of their home as an "area for evacuation" was being rescinded.
|The letter stating the Sugano's house is no longer classified as "an area for evacuation".|
Mrs. Sugano wanted to test the radiation levels herself, so she returned to the family home today.
|Mrs. Sugano measuring the radiation level at their home on December 19, 2012.|
She took photos to prove the radiation levels are still high even after “decontamination”.
|Radiation levels outside the Sugano Family home remain high even after "decontamination".|
Right outside the “decontaminated” house the radiation is still 2.18 µSv/.
|Right outside the “decontaminated” house the radiation is still 2.18 µSv/h.|
Although the house itself has been “decontaminated”, the immediately surrounding street, mountains and land has not.
|The areas surrounding the Sugano Family home have not been "decontaminated".|
Directly across the street the radiation remains at 3.54 µSv/h. If the children returned here to live, they would walk by this area on their way to school.
家の敷地外では放射線量はまだ3.54 µSv/h もし子どもたちが戻され生活をすればここは学校へ行く通り道。
|Directly across the street from the Sugano Family home the radiation level remains at 3.54 µSv/h.|
Since the government has lifted evacuation orders on the Sugano Family home, their evacuation support will not be renewed, effectively forcing them to return to home. The Sugano’s son Koutarou, 9, daughter Kae, 6, and son Shinjirou 5, will be forced to live in a contaminated house surrounded by areas of high radiation.
|The Sugano’s son Koutarou, 9, daughter Kae, 6, and son Shinjirou 5, at their temporary accommodation on December 18, 2012.|
Monday, December 17, 2012
Mr. Shibuya and I went to Fukushima City Hall today for the City Council meeting at which the issue of using locally-grown rice in the mandatory school lunches was on the agenda.
Last week, Mr. Shibuya called the City Hall to confirm the room in which the meeting would be held, where in the agenda the discussion of the use of local rice in school lunches was scheduled, and the process for which members of the public would be allowed to attend the meeting. He was told that members of the public could attend the meeting after registering their name and address and that anyone, including people from out of town (like me), could attend. He was told that the school lunch issue would be discussed in the afternoon session and so we should come after lunch.
Meanwhile, several citizen's groups who oppose the use of local rice in school lunches were sending out mass e-mailings to their members to encourage members of the public to attend the meeting. Among the city council members there are few who oppose the use of locally grown rice in school lunches, but one is a young City Councilman* named Mr. Oouchi (also spelled "Ouchi"). Mr. Shibuya hoped that we would be able to talk with him after the meeting.
When we arrived at City Hall, the meeting room was dark and no one was around. We were still a bit early for the afternoon session, so we were about to head back downstairs when a sign on the door of the meeting room caught my eye. It was about the use of cameras during the session, and Mr. Shibuya and I headed back toward the room to read it. As we did, a young man stopped us and asked if we were there for the meeting. He then told us the agenda had been changed suddenly and that the issue of using local rice in mandatory school lunches had been discussed in the morning and that the meeting had already been adjourned for the day.
The man was Councilman Oochi.
I asked him if he would give me his comments on record about the meeting, why he felt the agenda had been changed, and more importantly, why the city was pushing so hard to use locally grown rice in the children's schools lunches.
Mr. Oouchi immediately escorted us to a private meeting room and granted us a interview which lasted for 25 minutes!
*Due to a translating error, I referred to Councilman Oouchi as "Assemblyman Oouchi" in some of my tweets during the day.
Mr. Oouchi asserts that the City Council intentionally changed the order of the agenda, discussed the issue in the morning and adjourned the meeting in an attempt to curb public attendance.
Mr. Shibuya's presence at the interview gave it a kind of depth that otherwise would not have been there. Rather than just having me as an "outsider" asking Councilman Oouchi questions, Mr. Shibuya was asking him questions as a resident of the city and a parent of two children attending city schools. In the morning I never could have predicted that I would have been able to film such an important interaction.
When I asked him why the city was so keen on using local rice in the children's school lunches, Councilman Oouchi's answer was simple: the contract represents 250 tonnes of rice per year. It all comes down to money.
Mr. Shibuya and I headed for his home. I think we were both filled with a kind of melancholy mixed with some small satisfaction. We felt like we had been tricked, duped into believing that we could witness the local government at work by attending the public meeting, and were feeling weak for having been so easily defeated. And yet it was the move by the assembly to change the agenda and effectively shut out the public which provided us with the opportunity to film a private meeting with Councilman Oouchi.
When we arrived at Mr. Shibuya's house, his son Ayumi, 12, and daughter Mutsuki, 9, were just arriving home from school. We had cake with the children, joined by Mr. Shibuya's wife and the children's grandparents. The children did their homework and the adults talked, everyone sitting on the floor with their legs under the same low heated table, called a "kotatsu". Family.
The Shibuya's home is decorated for Christmas, and it is warm and welcoming and filled with joy. Family.
On their Christmas tree is an origami paper crane, a symbol of happiness. It serves to remind me of why I am in Fukushima doing this work. This is about families, like the Shibuya's, who have hopes and dreams for the future happiness of their children. Family.
Sunday, December 16, 2012
I am back in Fukushima this week.
I have been contacted by more parents who have discovered that their children have thyroid cysts and nodules; I have been sent more results of the Fukushima Health Management Survey, that while public, don't seem to make the news; and I am more than ever filled with many questions and few answers.
Every time I think I am beginning to understand one part of this complicated problem, I realize just how much I still do not know; it seems that for each piece of the puzzle that is revealed to me, I realize that there are a hundred more gathered in the shadows.
A few days ago Mr. and Mrs. Shibuya called me and asked if I could meet them out of a drink. I have met the Shibuya's several times since I first met them a couple of months ago, but I had always seen them at their home with their children. This time they were going to leave their two children, son Ayumu, 12, and daughter Mutsuki, 12, with their grandparents and come out to meet me. It seemed that they had some news that they couldn't talk about in front of the children.
When I met the Shibuya family two months ago (here and here), they shared with me that both their son Ayumu, 12, and daughter Mutsuki, 9, have thyroid cysts.
The Shibuya children's results of the official Health Survey revealed only that their cysts are class A2, that is "less than 20mm in size". However, the results do state how big the cysts are within that range, nor how many cysts there are. If there is one cyst that is 1mm, that is a very different problem than having multiple cysts that are 19mm.
I met the Shibuya's tonight as soon as I arrived in Fukushima. They took me to a local restaurant where a feast of local delicacies had been prepared. It was good to be together in a casual setting rather than in a formal interview. We had great food and delicious beer... it was almost "normal", save for the conservation which centered around the radioactive contamination of the local area and the discovery of more and more children with thyroid cysts and nodules.
One of the most pressing issues that the Shibuya's wanted to talk about is the move by the city of Fukushima to return to using locally grown rice in the school lunches. The issue affects most elementary and middle school children since taking school lunch is mandatory in most schools in Japan. It is highly unusual for students to be permitted to "opt-out" of eating the school lunch and those that are are often ostrozized for eating something different, and therefore "being different", one of the worst things you can be in this island nation. As they say, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Even Mr. and Mrs. Shibuya have felt ostrocized by some parents of their children's classmates for being "too vocal" with their concerns about the effects of radiation on their children.
The issue of using locally grown rice in the mandatory school lunches is ostensibly quite simple. The government is saying that they will test the rice and will only use rice that is contaminated with "LESS THAN 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium". Concerned parents, including the Shibuyas, are protesting saying that they want to know the EXACT amount of radioactive cesium contained in the rice, not simply that it is below 100 becquerels, since the range of 1 to 99 becquerels of radioactive cesium is simply too large. They also argue that the threshold of 100 becquerels of radioactive cesium for rice is far too high since rice is a staple food that many families consume three times a day.
But Mr. Shibuya's concern lies in something far more sinister: he believes that the government is trying to use the issue of putting locally-grown rice in the children's school lunches as a way to gain the public's trust. He believes that if the government succeeds in its push to use local rice in the school lunches that it will open the door to using more banned products, to the re-instating of banned outdoor activities and to the opening up of more land that has been, until now, been deemed off limits due to radioactive contamination.
What could the government possibly gain from doing this? Each product the government deems safe for consumption represents less compensation they must provide and increased tax revenue through sales. Each piece of land deemed "de-dontaminated" represents more people that can be effectively forced to return to their homes by withdrawing compensation.
I will be attending a debate tomorrow at City Hall about the issue of using locally-grown rice in the mandatory school lunches. The parents are worried about their children's future health. The government is worried about the economy. Is the government effectively trying to put a price on the children's health?
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
When I was 11, I first met the Adachi's, the couple who I would later call my Japanese parents, "haha" (mom) and "otousan" (father). They had come to the US as part of our sister church program with a parish in Tokyo and had stayed in our home.
Although I didn't live in Tokyo when I first moved to Japan years later, I met my Japanese parents often for diner and church when I would travel to Tokyo for the weekends. Then I lived with them for a couple of years while I was learning to stand on my own two feet after I returned to Japan from the UK after completing my MA in filmmaking.
In 2008, "otousan", my Japanese father, died. Each year, "haha", my Japanese mom, and sister gather together for dinner on otousan's birthday, December 12.
Otousan loved wine. And cake. And roses. We had them all, along with his picture.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
I am, as they say, "back at the desk"; after spending time with my family during a hard time, I am back home in Japan, at my desk and ready to get back to work.
Despite the circumstances, it was good to be with my dad. I think this photo sums it all up:
After weeks of being at home during this difficult time, my dad wanted to get out and do something together. We attended a football game (my first!) with friends, family, and a Japanese sock monkey named Ono-kun (more on him later).
In retrospect, it wasn't even about football or who won the game. It was about spending time together as a family. Does this mean that we all are now fine? No, it doesn't. It means that we have hope that we someday will be.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
My dad and the five of us kids lost the matriarch of our family yesterday.
After the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, so many people said to me, "Your mother must be so worried. Doesn't she want you to come home?"
But my parents never asked me to "come home". They knew I was home, here in Japan. They loved and supported me, and encouraged me to do what I was being called to do, even when that was putting me in potential danger.
I am who I am today, not only because this is how my parents raised me, but also because they gave me the freedom to make my own choices. And for that, I am forever grateful.
|Cecie and Gerald Ash|
I will be taking some time off to spend with my family in the US, but I will be back home in Japan soon to continue the work in Fukushima that I am being called to do, the work I have been able to do through the love and support of my parents.
Friday, November 09, 2012
I first met Mrs. Sugano (mother to son Koutatou, 9, daughter Kae, 5, and son Shinjirou, 4) when I came to Fuksushima a couple of weeks ago. Mrs. Sugano told me that the grounds and surrounding area of Oguni Elementary School in Date City, Fukushima, where her son Koutaro is attending, had been found to contain radioactive hotspots.
Mrs. Sugano brought me to Oguni Elementary school to show me. Just beyond the fence separating the school's property from the neighboring field, the air level at one meter off the ground was 4 microsieverts per hour! But when Mrs. Sugano measured the radiation at ground level, it was a staggering 38.54 microsieverts per hour!
Mrs. Sugano spoke with the Vice Principal of Oguni Elementary School about the radiation level, but he insisted that the school had been "decontaminated" and that any hotspots were "outside of school property". She insisted that the hotspots do pose a threat to the children, since they must walk by them on their way to school. Despite her objections, the school subsequently decided to reinstate outdoor athletic classes. Mrs. Sugano expressed her concern that when the wind blows, contaminated dirt from neighboring properties is blown onto the school's field, a field which the administration claims has been "decontaminated". The vice principal agreed only to "limit outdoor activities on days when the wind is strong".
Meanwhile, Mrs. Sugano contacted her local assemblyman, Mr. Kanno, for help. He agreed that although the school classrooms had been "decontaminated", the children do not spend their entire day inside the classrooms, and that the whole school AND the surrounding area needed to be decontaminated.
This morning, Assemblyman Kanno and some of his colleagues gathered to measure the radiation levels at and around Oguni Elementary School, and with his permission, Mrs. Sugano and I went along to document their confirmation of the radioactive hotspots. The weather was nice, but it was cool and quite windy.
We arrived at the appointed time and were told by the monitoring team that Assemblyman Kanno was inside the school meeting with the Principal, so I began filming outside. Just as I was interviewing Mrs. Kanno about why we were there, the children filed outside onto the field, without face masks, and began physical education class. Mrs. Sugano was shocked: despite the Vice Principal's promise to limit such activities on days when it is windy, the children were playing outside (and ironically in front of radiation monitoring posts).
The Vice Principal suddenly appeared and demanded to know what I was doing. I explained that Assemblyman Kanno was inside speaking with the Principal, but he kept demanding to know who I was and who I was working for. I calmly gave him my name, said that I am a freelance filmmaker from Tokyo and repeated that Assemblyman Kanno was inside explaining why we were there to the Principal. When the Vice Principal accused me of trespassing and that this was "a big problem", a switch in me flipped, and I screamed "which is the bigger problem, me trespassing in order to document radioactive hotspots threatening the children, or the radioactive hotspots themselves?!"
He had the gall to say, "You trespassing."
I don't remember everything that happened next (but it's all on film). Apparently Assemblyman Kanno came running out when he heard the screaming match between me and the Vice Principal. Mrs. Sugano and I were escorted off of school property, and Assemblyman Kanno became cross with me for showing emotion and losing my temper (a huge transgression in Japan) and forbade me to continue filming.
By the time Mrs. Sugano and I got to the car, I was convinced the school was calling the police and that I would be arrested for trespassing. I switched the memory cards in my camera and kept them where I could pass them to Mrs. Sugano quickly if the police came.
I apologized to Mrs. Sugano for causing trouble, but she thanked me for caring so much that I had showed emotion. Later, Assemblyman Kanno called to say that he and his team had confirmed the existence of the radioactive hotspots around the school and said that although it may take a little time, he is going to take action. And without me even asking, Assemblyman Kanno gave me permission to use all of the footage I had taken.
But it's not a happy ending. The children continue to attend Oguni Elementary School surrounded by radioactive hotspots.
|Mrs. Kanno's son, Koutaro, 9, who attends Oguni Elementary, wears a mask and radiation monitor.|
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Today I met Mrs. Mutoh, mother of son Shougo, 11, and daughter Rimi, 8. After the nuclear meltdown last year, she kept her children inside and tried to make them understand that they couldn't play outside or do any of their favorite things like going to the mountains in the spring to forage for edible wild plants.
Shougo suffers from severe eczema and his hands and fingers are covered in open sores. Mrs. Mutoh warned Shougo about the dangers of playing outside, but in June of last year, three months after the meltdown, on his way home from school he wandered into a rice paddy in search of frogs. When Mrs. Mutoh went looking for him, she found him playing in the contaminated water and holding several frogs.
Within a month, Shougo was having severe nose bleeds. The first time it happened there was so much blood that Mrs. Mutoh was sure Shougo had cut his head open. Shougo also started having fainting spells, and a red rash broke out over his entire body.
Mrs. Mutoh brought Shougo to a university hospital in Fukushima City. A blood test was conducted, and Shougo was found to have a low white blood cell count. Without asking, the doctor immediately told Mrs. Mutoh that Shougo's condition was NOT related to radiation exposure and that no treatment was neccesary.
|Mrs. Mutoh holds her son Shougo's blood test results showing his low white blood cell count.|
After school, Shougo, Rimi and some of their friends came home. After finishing their homework, Rimi and her friends played Old Maid and a spirited game of hide-and-seek. Despite the beautiful weather, the children are not allowed to play outside. Mrs. Mutoh told me a story about how Rimi had found a four-leaf-clover over the summer and had brought it home in hopes of her wish coming true. Thinking of the radioactive contamination of grasses, it broke Mrs. Mutoh's heart to have to take away something so seemingly innocent from her little girl. When I asked Rimi about her life post 3-11, she said, "We aren't allowed to go out and play and we can't touch anything outside."
|Rumi, left, and a friend stay indoors and draw pictures.|
When I first came to Fukushima, I couldn't understand why the kids were constantly playing video games. I was finding it difficult to pry them away from their games to talk, and then it occurred to me: these children would normally be playing outside, but now they are trapped inside.
Although Shougo's friends had come over to play together, they each had their heads buried in a video game. I was slightly relieved, though, to learn through their conversations that somehow they were all playing the same game and were interacting as a group within the game and not just playing individually.
|Shougo (fourth from left) and friends play video games together.|
Mrs. Mutoh expressed to me her concern that in the government tests of water, food and internal radiation exposure, they are ONLY testing for cesium. She points out that there are many different radioactive elements that were released after the nuclear explosion, of which cesium is just one. With the help of an NPO in Southern Japan, Mrs. Mutou has sent a baby tooth that Rimi lost six months after the meltdown to a lab in Switzerland to be tested for strontium. She is still waiting for the results.
Both Shougo and Rimi have had the official thyroid test and were both found to have thyroid cysts, but Mrs. Shougo was given no additional information, was not given a copy of her children's thyroid sonogram, and was told no further examination was required. Although the results do reveal the thyroid cysts in her children, she is worried that the government ordered tests may be intentionally inaccurate in an effort to downplay the situation and that the cysts could be bigger or more numerous than she was led to believe. Mrs. Mutoh intends to bring her children to a private hospital in a neighboring prefecture for a second opinion.
In the meantime Mrs. Mutoh is left knowing only that Shougo and Rimi have thyroid cysts but not knowing what that means for their futures.
|Shougo, age 11, Mrs. Mutoh, and Rimi, age 8|
Tuesday, November 06, 2012
This morning I accompanied Mrs. Oyama and Mrs. Shima to the lab that the City of Date in Fukushima has set up for people to bring their homegrown foods to be tested for radioactive cesium. Mrs. Oyama brought some Japanese radishes that she and her husband grew in a greenhouse, and Mrs. Shima brought some homegrown Asian pears. Both mothers are concerned about the cesium content of the food and water that their children consume and make great effort to try to imit their children's internal radiation exposure.
Mrs. Oyama's greenhouse-grown radishes were found to be within the government's limitations for cesium, and therefore deemed suitable for consumption. The Asian pears Mrs. Shima brought, however, were found to contain a significant amount of cesium. Having to think about each and every food their children consume is the "new normal" for the people of Fukushima.
Yesterday afternoon, I accompanied Mrs. Sugano to the Citizen's Radioactivity Measuring Station in Fukushima City, where she brought her son, Koutaro, 9, to be tested for internal radiation exposure. First, Koutarou's clothes, hands and feet were scanned. As they waved the wand around his head and face, he didn't even flinch and seemed quite used to the process and even seemed to know the order of the test.
Koutarou then changed into a hospital gown.
During the test to measure Koutarou's internal radiation exposure, he was required to sit in a special chair for five minutes without moving. It was hard enough for me to be still and film Koutarou for five minutes without moving, but to a little nine-year-old boy, full of energy and life, five minutes without moving must seem like an eternity.
I will be interviewing Koutarou's mother later in the week to find out his test results.