Chris Johnson in Japan: Controversial articles from 2011

Nuclear winter looms for lone resident of forbidden zone

MIHARU VILLAGE, Fukushima Prefecture — As bitter winds blow around cesium and other radioactive particles spewed from the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant’s reactors, Naoto Matsumura lights a cigarette, which he considers relatively good for his health. “I would get sick if I stopped smoking; I have a lot to worry about,” says Matsumura, 52, who reckons he is the only person still living within a 20-km radius of the world’s worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.

According to reports from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency published in August, the plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) has released 168 times more radiation than the atomic bombs that razed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Living without electricity or enough money to fill his generators with gas, even as the mercury is already dipping below zero, Matsumura wonders if his neighbor’s supply of charcoal will be enough to keep him warm through the frigid winter in his corner of the once-thriving town of Tomioka that used to be home to 16,000 people. He’s worried, too, that the hundreds of animals he’s been feeding since the area’s other residents were evacuated in haste on March 12 — some 400 cows, 60 pigs, 30 fowl, 10 dogs, more than 100 cats, and an ostrich — won’t survive to see another spring. “They need help from humans,” he says while lighting another of the 20-odd cigarettes he admits to smoking a day. “My supplies to feed them will be gone by the end of December. They need food, and buildings for shelter from the winter. I’m the only one taking care of everything. The government should do it, but I’m doing it.”…

Japan Tobacco dooms Olympic bid

–TOKYO —Japan risks losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games because of growing local and international opposition to the national tobacco corporation’s sponsorship of World Cup volleyball, which attracts millions of women and schoolgirls. A United Nations agency, an international group of nongovernmental organizations and hundreds of antismoking activists and doctors in Japan are calling on Japan Tobacco, the world’s third-largest cigarette maker, to halt its sponsorship of World Cup matches, which includes players from the United States and other nations that forbid tobacco advertising at sporting events. A group of 2,500 doctors here also says tobacco sponsorship could hurt Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games.…

Tsunami survivors question official death toll  

OTSUCHI, JAPAN | Survivors across northern Japan say they suspect the death toll from the March 11 tsunami is much higher than the official figure of more than 15,000 dead and nearly 8,000 missing nationwide. Residents count nearly 9,000 missing from this fishing village alone. Exhausted government officials say their first priority has been to care for the living, rather than count the dead. Only a nationwide census can determine the final death toll, they say.

But local officials in Otsuchi would like to know exactly who is alive or dead. They need to prepare a voter-registration list in order to conduct an election, perhaps as early as August, to replace the mayor and 31 other officials killed in the town hall, which was swamped by 50-foot-high waves. “I think the government should tell us more quickly the real story of what happened here,” said city council member Takaaki Goto, a 74-year-old former geography teacher and soccer coach. His complaint reflects growing anger and impatience among the Japanese for national leaders and electric-company owners suspected of hiding the extent of the nuclear crisis caused by the tsunami.

In Otsuchi, the numbers they do have don’t add up. According to the last national census in October, Otsuchi had 15,277 residents. Now local officials can only verify that 6,466 people are living: 1,969 people in shelters and 4,497 in homes on higher ground. That head count of survivors suggests that nearly 9,000 people, more than half the town, perished in the tsunami, but officials are not sure. “We don’t know anything about where these people are,” said Manabu Kikuchi, a local administrator from nearby Kamaishi city, who came to Otsuchi to work temporarily in the place of the 32 officials who died March 11.

Following policy, not instinct, school principle led students to their death in tsunami  

 Nobiru village, Japan— In Japan’s rigid education system, principals, teachers and students are supposed to follow official policy without question. So when a huge earthquake shook Nobiru elementary school for three minutes on March 11, Michiko Kishima, the school’s principal, didn’t march everyone up the road to the hills behind her school. Instead, sticking to official instructions, she herded about 350 people into the government-designated evacuation site — the school’s gymnasium — where many would drown or freeze to death on a night of terror which continues to challenge educators set to restart classes this Thursday.

In a village of 800, where officials say police have identified at least 260 bodies, many are questioning not only official preparations and decisions, but Japan’s education system as a whole, which teaches people to obey orders without the type of independent thinking that could have saved many lives across northeastern Japan. Yet others are praising the perseverance of Mrs. Kishima, 22 teachers, and about 70 heroic students whose quick thinking saved themselves and others during a 9-hour ordeal on March 11.


Another disposable leader for Japan — With six prime ministers in five years, it’s becoming increasingly clear who is the most popular name in Japanese politics: a person called “nobody.” In a poll published on Monday in the Yomiuri newspaper, 46 percent of the public said they supported “nobody”, while only 21 percent favoured the Ruling Democratic Party, and 23 percent supported the opposition Liberal Democrats.

Battle of Badmouthing at Olympus, Yomiuri

TOKYO – In Japan’s good old days (ie last year), badmouthing the boss was something done behind the scenes, or not done at all. In the past few weeks, mudslinging has gone public, with some of Japan’s biggest names smearing the reputations of even tycoons and prime ministers. It’s not only gaijin (foreigners) such as ousted Olympus president Michael Woodford who are spilling the beans about the sumo wrestling behind the scenes in corporate Japan. Hidetoshi Kiyotake, ousted general manager of the Yomiuri Giants, the most famous sports team in Japan, has been lambasting his former boss, Tsuneo Watanabe, a media tycoon described by foreign writers as a “shogun” or “a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Richard Nixon.” 

Watanabe, 85, has mounted a public counter-attack, launching a million-dollar defamation suit against Kiyotake, and saying a few choice words of his own about former prime ministers including Junichiro Koizumi and Yukio Hatoyama.  Many cynics are questioning whether this release of pent-up frustration will actually change anything in Japanese culture, which has long been touchy about criticism. Much will depend on how courts in Japan deal with the Yomiuri libel suit, and whether police investigators in Japan and abroad will expose any criminal wrong doings about Olympus in coming weeks.


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. 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.

Suicidal or depressed tsunami survivors struggle to find hope — RIKUZEN-TAKATA, Japan — With schoolchildren playing in front of her house every day, a tsunami survivor who identifies herself only as “Mrs. Sugawara,” says she often thinks about suicide. Her daughter and two sons survived the March 11 disaster, but her husband and three grandchildren did not. “They were my future, and now they are gone and not coming back,” says Mrs. Sugawara, 69. “The tsunami took my sense of hope away with them.”

Her lonely struggle mirrors that of thousands of tsunami survivors, especially seniors now isolated in temporary houses after spending months in crowded but more sociable gymnasiums. Since her children have gone to work elsewhere, Mrs. Sugawara lives alone, in a prefab unit in the parking lot of a junior high school overlooking the obliterated northeastern city of Rikuzen-Takata. “Immediately after the tsunami, we were all fighting to stay alive, and it brought us closer to together,” she says. “But ever since we all moved into temporary houses, people stay to themselves. We have lost our ties.”…

Youth of Fukushima wonder whether to stay or go

— FUKUSHIMA, Japan — Ko Saito is in his final year of high school in Fukushima and sees a bleak future for his native province. “I am very scared of the radiation,” the 18-year-old said while waiting with friends near the city’s train station. They discussed whether to stay or leave a region devastated by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant that was crippled by a killer tsunami six months ago. “I want to be tested [for radiation levels] to know more about my true physical condition, but they are not doing that yet,” he said. “I want to go to Sendai, because I fear radiation levels in Fukushima are higher than they are saying.”

Mr. Saito reflects the fears of teenagers throughout Fukushima. They want to know more about the real risks of radiation in their home province and don’t always believe official statements about the situation at the reactors. Given the shadow hanging over her native region, Natsumi Hirano, 17, wants to go to Italy to study Italian cooking and to get away from radiation fears that likely will concern her generation for years to come. “Maybe the future is better there,” she said of Italy. “I don’t want to think about radiation my whole life.”…

Japan killing the fun at rock festivals

— When Japan was emerging from its lost decade of the 1990s, many music fans hoped that Japan’s adoption of Western-style outdoor rock festivals would lead to more freedom and openness in society. The idea was that Japanese people, who have a tradition of exuberant local festivals, would naturally follow the path of Europeans and North Americans, who created their own alternative culture at liberating festivals such as Woodstock, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury. As U.S. funk godfather George Clinton told his audience at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2002, “Free the butt, and the mind will follow.”

More than a decade later, a plethora of successful Japanese rock festivals, which continue to attract enormous crowds despite a shrinking population and sluggish economy, are indeed developing a culture of their own. That subculture, however, is too often defined by many fans saying they have to endure harsh conditions, excessive commercialism and a crowd-control mentality that continues to dominate mainstream Japanese society. This year’s Summer Sonic, a festival that sold out despite a nuclear meltdown just 250 kilometers away, is perhaps the most obvious example of how many Japanese festivals—renowned for their organization—are possibly too efficient for their own good.…

Japan needs more volunteers in disaster zone

  ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN— When Masaru Tanaka joined a rush of volunteers during holidays in May, he planned to stay in the tsunami disaster zone for only a week. Three months later, long after many volunteers have gone home, Mr. Tanaka is still helping feed survivors in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi province. More than five months after the March 11 tsunami, thousands of disaster victims still need someone to help them eat, find medicine or dig out their homes and shops.

Government fumbling lets cesium into the food chain

 TOKYO – Somehow, when much of the world was worried about nuclear fallout from Japan, it never occurred to thousands of farmers and government officials that radioactive particles spewing into eastern Japan since March might end up in the food chain via rice straw left outside to dry. Either that, or after the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant farmers and officials knowingly ignored public safety concerns to profit from the sale of straw, cows and other perishable food items before they would have to be thrown out, slaughtered or burned. 

That straw, eaten by at least 2,900 cows that were possibly consumed by thousands of humans, is causing perhaps the biggest food scare ever in Japan, a country that prides itself on its healthy, homegrown diet. Yet so far, more than four months after cesium, iodine, and other radioactive subatomic particles began showing up in food across Japan, not a single farmer, trucker, wholesaler, retailer or government official has been charged – or even investigated – for potential criminal negligence.  Japanese media, while exposing the food scandal, have yet to determine how many thousands of people in Japan may have eaten food laced with cancer-causing toxins such as cesium. 


The Ministry of Agriculture said on Tuesday that at least 116 farms in 16 prefectures, from Hokkaido in the far north to Shimane in western Japan, used contaminated rice straw as feed. At least 2,906 cows ate this straw before being shipped around Japan, the ministry said. Only 274 samples have been tested, about a tenth of the total, and 23 of them contained cesium surpassing government safety standards. “Beef containing cesium has already entered into the market,” Hideo Harada, the director for livestock policy planning at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told reporters in Tokyo. “We have to prevent it from reaching consumers by checking meat and recalling tainted products from the market.” Many taxpayers are outraged that the government let the cesium enter the food chain, and is now planning to use taxpayers’ money to compensate the farmers and others in the meat industry about 2 billion yen (US$25 million) to purchase, store or incinerate the meat.–pets-starving-scavenging-in…

Pets starving, scavenging in nuclear danger zone

TOKYO—They are family members, with names and birthdates, and they are often adorned with cute ribbons, sweaters or socks. But thousands of these pets are scavenging or starving to death as they wait for their owners to come to homes within a 20-km radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which have been spewing radiation since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

When about 80,000 people were forced to flee explosions at the reactors in March, many couldn’t get fuel for their cars, and they weren’t allowed to bring their pets on buses. Thousands left their dogs and cats at home, thinking they could soon return for them.

More than 70 days later, while they sleep in crowded, noisy evacuation shelters, their pets are still far away, alone or roaming in packs. “I called health officials at the Fukushima prefectural office a few days ago, and they still won’t allow us to rescue the pets,” says Akiko Fujimura, leader of Japan’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA is one of about 70 groups of animal welfare activists who have been protesting in Tokyo. “Many people want to save these animals, but the government won’t give them permission. It’s really horrible,” says Fujimura. “If the pets have radioactive elements on their skin, it’s no problem to wash it off. I think the government basically doesn’t care about animals.”

Japan slow to build housing for tsunami survivors

— MINAMI-SANRIKU, Japan — For more than 45 days, the Watanabe family, all eight of them, have tried to make a tiny part of a school gym floor into their home.

Having lost their 200-year-old farmhouse in the March 11 tsunami, they try to keep their new “property” tidy, using cardboard boxes for “walls,” blankets for cushions and window sills to hang donated clothing. Serving tea on a table found in piles of debris, they smiled to keep up appearances. But they said they can barely stand all the coughing and snoring around them. “It’s hysteria,” said the grandmother, Yoshie Watanabe, tired of kids running around. “We can never rest and think clearly here. The noise and the commotion never seem to stop.”

Many U.S. soldiers, relief workers, volunteers and journalists who have seen the obliterated cities and towns of the northeastern disaster zone say privately that they are surprised at Japan’s slow pace of reconstruction. While international organizations quickly built temporary housing in Thailand and Indonesia only weeks after the 2004 tsunami, Japan is mainly trying to rebuild on its own.

IMF should help Japan, not praise it

 — KESENNUMA, Japan – The government of Japan is so incredibly well-organized, and its workforce so amazingly inspired these days, that Japan’s economy will actually perform better than it did last year, despite the country’s suffering its worst disasters since the World War II. That’s the underlying logic of an International Monetary Fund report that says Japan’s economy should grow – yes, grow – by 1.4% this year. That is down only slightly from the 1.6% forecast three months ago, before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan.

Kudos to the IMF for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Japan in its darkest hours, and for trying to rally investors behind a noble cause. But a cold look around the zone obliterated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami strongly suggests that consumer demand, manufacturing output, farming production and exports will likely see dramatic declines this year, at the very least. The Japanese Cabinet Office, continuing the government’s banal downplaying of the disasters, says the Japanese economy “has shown weakness”. 




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