Mothers grapple with radiation fears in Fukushima

FUKUSHIMA CITY, Japan — Unlike many mothers who have moved away, Ayako Okada, 40, is staying with her 5-year-old daughter in Fukushima city, about 40 miles from nuclear reactors leaking radioactive particles since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

She drives her daughter to school every day, then goes to work as a receptionist at a private school. Her grandfather picks up her daughter after school and looks after her. Like other kids who remain in Fukushima city, population 290,000, the daughter is not allowed to play outside, at home or a school.

“Many mothers who stay at home are worried sick about radiation levels, because they have time to research online and think about what might really be happening,” Ms. Okada tells the Washington Times in an interview. “I am a working mother, so I do not have time to think about radiation levels too much. And I do not want to transfer unnecessary fears to my child, even though she has been taught at school not to go outside too long, and to wash her hands and wear masks to avoid getting sick.”

She says many parents have taken kids out of elementary schools in Fukushima city and sent them to stay with relatives in other provinces, such as Yamagata or Niigata. “The younger the kids are, the more likely are the parents to take them away from Fukushima,” she says.

In many cases, only the mother and children move to other cities, while fathers stay behind in Fukushima city to work. At night, the city’s karaoke clubs are full of lonely men temporarily separated from their wives and children, she says. Many workers are staying in Fukushima because they figure they won’t find work elsewhere during a bad economy. Since she has little choice but to stay in Fukushima, she at least wants to know the truth about radiation levels.

She’s upset that Fukushima city has been slow to test radiation levels in children compared with other cities in the province. “In Fukushima city, they said they will start testing kids next February. That is too long to wait. Everybody is complaining that it’s taking too much time.” She said other cities already have given mothers portable Geiger counters, called “garasu badges,” for children. “But I had to buy one for my daughter because our city didn’t provide us one. I want to know the truth.”

Education Ministry and Fukushima provincial government officials have told reporters that they are installing dosimeters in about 500 elementary schools and 100 sites, including public meeting halls, fields and gyms where children gather. Starting this month, they plan to measure radiation levels constantly at all elementary schools in the province and update the results every ten minutes on the Internet. They hope to measure levels at all kindergartens and junior and senior high schools in the province by the end of the year, the Asahi newspaper reported.

Mrs. Okada says many mothers might not trust this information: “Sometimes, mothers get into arguments because they have different opinions. As for myself, I am quite relaxed about all this. But there is misinformation and different news coverage in other countries. My sister who lives in South Korea with her husband is really concerned about my mother and I because we are still here in Fukushima.”

Stressed out since March 11, her best friend took her family on a two-month summer holiday to Hokkaido in the far north of Japan, she says. They hoped that Hokkaido’s mountain air and food would rinse any radioactive toxins out of their systems. While there, they discovered high cesium levels in one of the adults, but surprisingly, not in the children. They have moved back to Fukushima city, and they are not sure how long they will stay, she says.

Stressed out about radiation concerns, Ms. Okada took her daughter and her own mother on a brief vacation to Austria. “In Austria, I said to my daughte, ‘We don’t need to care about radiation here.'” But they couldn’t stay in Austria forever. She had to get back to work in Fukushima in order to pay the bills. “For the future of my child, I wish she can stay at least three more years where she is, because I do not want her to be separated from her friends. But maybe after she graduates from elementary school, I should move her to another environment.”

Many professionals already have left Fukushima city for work elsewhere. At least 41 doctors and 68 nurses have left the city’s hospitals, while 400 doctors and 1896 nurses remain, according to a Fukushima provincial government survey conducted in July. About 23 percent of doctors have left Iwaki city south of the reactors, and nearly half have fled Minami-Soma, closer to the damaged atomic reactors. The actual totals could be higher, since only half the province’s hospitals responded to the survey, the Asahi newspaper reported.

Though many foreigners have left Fukushima, Samantha Reeves, 21, from Melbourne, Australia, decided to take a job teaching English in a private company near the main train station. “I feel OK in Japan. I wasn’t scared to come here, because we can get cancer anywhere. Some members of my family who live in Australia have cancer, so why should I run away from Fukushima back to Australia,” she says. “I think there is a lot of disinformation about radiation in Japan and in the world. Being on an airplane can also expose you to radiation.”

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