Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Back at the desk...

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

In memory of Cecilia Russell Ash (1944 - 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
 (obituary here)

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

Tempers flare (part 6 of 6)

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

Trapped inside (part 5 of 6)

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

Testing, testing (part 4 of 6)

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.

Safe but separated (part 3 of 6)

Much of the time I spend in Fukushima is focused on documenting the potential danger to the children from radiation, but there are fun and relaxing times as well.  Everyday I meet amazing and beautiful people, and it is such a pleasure to get to know them and an honour that they choose to share their stories with me.

Although I do film a lot,  the majority of my time here is spent getting to know the people whose lives I am documenting.  We often have meals together, relax and chat, and I have even been invited to stay with families so that I could film what their home life is like.

I often think that a documentary about how I make these films, that is, what happens when I turn my camera off, would make an interesting (and funny!) film.

Having lunch today with some of the mothers I have been filming was really relaxing and we had time to just chat and get to know each other.

Taking a break from filming, I read a book with Koutarou, 9, (as he turns the table on me and takes my picture!) his sister, Kae, 5, and his brother, Shinjiro, 4.  We often play games, joke around, have cake, fold origami and laugh a lot.

But when I met Mr. Akiha tonight, I was reminded that these happy times with the children are not to be taken for granted.

Although Date City is outside of the official evacuation zone, it has areas where the radiation levels are equal to or even greater than some places inside the zone.  Like many parents, Mr. Akiha feared for the health and safety of his two children and chose to voluntarily evacuate them along with his wife.

But unlike families who are officially evacuated, Mr. Akiha's family receives no compensation or official help in relocating his family.  In addition, his land and home are located 50 km from the damaged nuclear power plant and contaminated with radiation and so are worth nothing.

Mr. Akiha, like countless other Fuksuhima fathers, has evacuated his wife and children to safety but he himself has had to remain in Fukushima to work in order to pay to keep his family evacuated.  His wife and children are now living in Aichi Prefecture, more than 600 km away.

These children may be safe, but their families are now separated.

Mr. Akiha showed me a picture of his wife, his son, Renon, 13, and his daughter, Mahiro, 10.  Looking down at it he said, "I can't hold their hands or touch their faces."

Monday, November 05, 2012

The mothers and their children (part 2 of 6)

This morning I met Mrs. Shima.  She had invited several other mothers over to her home to share with me their situations and the thyroid test results for their children.  Mrs. Shima showed me the thyroid ultrasound for her daughter Shuri, 11.  The government-sponsored test revealed her daughter had NO thyroid cysts, but she went to a private hospital to seek a second opinion.  She was told her daughter in fact DOES have thyroid cysts.  In both tests, it was discovered that her son Kaito, 13, also has thyroid cysts.

The mothers showed me the results of the "glass badge" radiation monitors that their children wear around their necks.  The results are supposed to show the TOTAL monthly radiation exposure for each child.   However, the government  has SUBTRACTED from the total exposure rate the natural environment radiation levels.  In addition, Mrs. Kanno told me that when her daughter Mifuyu had an X-ray for an unrelated problem, she was told to REMOVE the "glass badge" radiation monitor.  Mrs. Kanno argued that the monitor should remain on her daughter so it could accurately reflect her TOTAL radiation exposure, but the hospital staff removed the monitor from around Mifuyu's neck.

Koutarou Sugano, 9, wears a mask and a "glass badge" radiation monitor last month.
After school ended, their children joined us.  It was a pleasure to meet and talk with the kids.  Like children in every country around the world, they have hopes and dreams and ambitions.  

"I want to be a train conductor!"
"I want to own a flower shop."
"I just want to be able to play outside again."

Mrs. Oyama worries for her son Yoshihiki, 11.  Her daughter Nozomi, 17, has been found to have thyroid cysts.

Mrs. Kanno's two children, daughter Yuika, 10, and son Naoki, 11, were both found to have no thyroid cysts in the government-sponsored test.  When she went to the private hospital Mrs. Shima recommended for a second opinion, she was told that the hospital had received a directive from the national government to stop providing tests for children it had deemed had no thyroid cysts.  Mrs. Kanno was refused a second thyroid test for her children.

Mrs. Shima's daughter Shuri, 11, has thyroid cysts.  Her son, Kaito, 13, was also found to have thyroid cysts.

Mrs. Tsuda's son Naoki, 11, has thyroid cysts.  Her daughter Yuika, 10, has so many thyroid cysts the doctor could not count them all (!).

We didn't only talk about thyroid cysts.  We laughed and joked around, had coffee and cake, told stories and the kids asked me lots of questions about America.  It was such a pleasure to meet these wonderful people!  And although it may sound strange under the circumstances, we actually had fun... which makes this all the more heart-breaking.

The Shibuya Family (part 1 of 6)

I am back in Fukushima Prefecture this week, splitting my time between the capital Fukushima City and Date City.  These cities are outside the official evacuation zone, but they both lie directly in the North-West path that the radiation plume took last year after the nuclear meltdown.

Last night, I had dinner with the Shibuya family, whom I had met last month.  After dinner, Ayumu, 12, and his sister Mutsuki, 9, showed me their skills with the traditional Japanese toy "kendama".

Their grandfather then proudly showed me a photo of the many vegetables he used to grow for the family to enjoy.  His land is now contaminated with radiation.

When we met last month, Mr. and Mrs. Shibuya had just received the test results showing that both Ayumu and Mutsuki have thyroid cysts.