By Toshio Nishi, PhD
Is our Japanese government lying to us? Yes.
Is “lying” too strong a word to depict the government’s spectacular public show of its bungling? Would, then being “mendacious” be more accurate and kinder?
Semantics is not even an issue here. Good manners should no longer be expected from ordinary Japanese men and women who have been inhaling highly radioactive dust and vapor since March 11, 2011. But we continue to behave. I assume it is a matter of pride that each of us refuses to become selfish in a crisis.
Don’t Drink Green Tea
Cesium has shown up dangerously condensed in our national beverage, green tea. Green tea is supposed to be good for our health. Must be, because the Japanese live the longest in the world.
Japan’s largest tea farm is in Shizuoka, about 320km (200 miles) south from Fukushima. Tea farmers cannot harvest the rich green leaves any more, for they cannot sell them. Now, cesium and other radioactive elements have invaded our milk, chickens, pigs, beef cows, vegetables and fruits.
It is disheartening to realize that the sea off Fukushima is one of the world’s three richest fishing zones. Some desperate fishermen, perhaps being defiant against their misfortune, go out to sea, but who would dare eat their catches? We ordinary citizens fail to comprehend the apparent and hidden magnitude of radioactive contamination that threatens to never end.
From the beginning of the disaster at Fukushima and for the first two months, one nuclear scientist after another from famous universities and government agencies appeared on nightly TV news programs, and intoned with a special atmosphere of possessing superior knowledge that radioactive dust and vapor or fish caught off the shores did not pose “an immediate health risk.” We, unschooled in the field of radioactivity or medicine, wondered if not immediately then years later, will we have cancer?
We watched night after night the same group of nuclear experts lecturing that our intense anxiety and aversion about all things radioactive was absolutely groundless. They even implied, not subtlety, that our deepening fear nationwide resembled a “herd panic attack. Okay, give young mothers with infants another insult before they go to bed.
Who, by the way, paid them to say that the lethal leak was actually a small amount when it is the largest in the world, and that the accident could be controlled with available safety procedures when nobody can yet repair anything or stop the massive leaking of deadly water?
We watched, as did the whole world, the fiery explosions expose through toxic white smoke the black skeletal bones of the reactor buildings. Those scholars and experts do not appear on national TV any more. We do not wonder why.
When the experts disappeared, Tokyo Electric Power Company appeared on television and announced that the meltdown had indeed occurred within the first hour of the quake and tsunami. What, come again?
This admission popped up two months after the accident, during which Tokyo Electric had been masterfully evasive and obstinately refused to admit the meltdown did happen. The Company’s confession came too late for those people who stayed a little distance away from the meltdown and were unknowingly rained upon by radioactive dust and vapor. Didn’t the Company feel guilt-ridden to fully know there were tens of thousands of babies and children nearby?
Behold, the Company got away with it. The Prime Minister’s top aide said on the nightly television news that the Japanese Cabinet was not informed by Tokyo Electric during the first two months, and it was shocked, very shocked. Who is running a public show of incompetence and arrogance? Have all of us fallen into the Twilight Zone?
Let me present our national sentiment as accurately and politely as possible. We are outraged. Disgusted. We feel constantly looked down upon. We realize now that the government and Tokyo Electric think we are not intelligent enough to understand the highly technical jargon about nuclear power. Of course, we never heard the esoteric jargon before. But we do understand we are facing a nuclear winter on this beautiful archipelago on the Ring of Fire and may not live long enough to see such a winter.
Historically, and to this day, we have respected authority (the government) and faithfully observed our laws and regulations to the point of overdoing it. We are taught in our schools and families that the central government in Tokyo, composed of our best and brightest, strives hard everyday to guide our nation to safety, prosperity, and fulfillment in our daily lives.
Are the best and brightest betraying us now? Is Japan’s postwar democracy failing us at the moment when we most need its collective wisdom? Our government does not seem willing or able to reciprocate our unwavering loyalty. Worse, we fear our government wants from us a leap of faith in the face of its incompetence.
Bickering Among The Elite
We witness our political parties positioning themselves for power and a money grab by exploiting the worst postwar disaster. The office of Prime Minister must ooze an intoxicating scent that no politician can resist. Many powerful men and women in our barely functioning parliament bicker and squabble among themselves and openly insult their competitors with an admirable concentration of combative energy. Have they forgotten the catastrophe continues degenerating beyond our abilities to rectify it?
Nearly 30,000 people in Japan’s northern region have died. Many lucky enough to survive lost their loved ones, who remain missing. They saw their livelihoods disappear and have been living with a radioactive nightmare, but still manage to be hopeful for the day when they will return to their homes and work harder to rebuild their lives. Most of them do not know and have not been informed by the government or the Company that they can never return to their hometowns where contamination, so thorough, will stay lethal far beyond their life spans.
Lying is a perfect mirror reflection of our government’s coping machination with the horrific calamity. When our leaders look at themselves in the mirror each morning, what I wonder is what do they see on the mirror of their conscience? Shame is not the first thought on their mind, perhaps. And, that is a shame.
Is monopolistic Tokyo Electric, still a rich giant group of nuclear scientists and other bright business professionals, lying to their unsuspecting customers? Yes, continuously, since the biggest earthquake and the biggest tsunami in our national memory, since the irreparable meltdowns, and since an unseasonably cold March 11, 2011.
I do not want to abbreviate Tokyo Electric Power Company to TEPCO, because its abbreviation dehumanizes a very human Company that is facing its own Frankenstein.
Tokyo Electric and the government, perhaps joined at the hips, tell us that we have received the benefit of nuclear power generation and, because of such power, we enjoyed postwar prosperity. Hence, don’t complain. Nonsense. Did we the people have any choice in deciding that Japan would go to nuclear power? No.
Their coordinated excuses for the man-made disaster fail to disclose that the government and Tokyo Electric had together constructed a most seductive mythology that nuclear power is safe, cheap and forever clean. To maintain the façade of this myth, the government and the Company hid numerous nuclear accidents or underplayed their serious health hazards.
Nuclear power is obviously not safe. It is not clean. It is also not cheap.
The nuclear industry receives an enormous amount of government subsidy (our tax money). The industry is a virtual monopoly, hence has no incentive to improve itself. The only motivation the industry has shown is to maintain the status quo.
That is why electricity in Japan is the most expensive in the world. The South Koreans, our closest neighbor and an industrial inspiration of Asia, pays 2.5 times less for electricity than Japanese. No wonder their economy is booming.
Talking about money, why hasn’t our government distributed the donations from the Japanese and foreign contributors, which amounts to $1.5 billion dollars, to the disaster refugees? I heard the excuses of our government as to why the money is still sitting in Tokyo. I am too embarrassed and angry to list them here. Only 20% of the donations have been handed out. Is this another example of incompetence and heartlessness?
When government bureaucrats in the agencies that regulate the nuclear industry retire, they move into the nuclear industry with huge pay increases. It is nepotism. We citizens hope that the mass media would relish muckraking the whole unsightly scene. The mass media reply on advertising money from the nuclear industry. Hence they hesitate to bite the generous hand feeding them. Reportedly the electric power industry is one of the biggest spenders on advertising. The industry must also be a large contributor to all political parties who sedate any opposition. Since March 11 we have learned all about these building blocks of the safe-cheap-clean nuclear mythology. What a sham.
Just consider, if nuclear power is safe, why would all of the 54 reactors be located in Japan’s remote corners where there are few people? If indeed safe, then build several reactors on the shores of Tokyo Bay where demand for supply is constant and very high.
What is “dirty” is the industry’s play on the poverty of the people living in those remote villages and towns.
I’d like to explain.
Tokyo Electric with tacit government consent chooses a remote location on the seashore, like Fukushima, which has a small population with a barely sustainable tax base. The industry pays a huge residence tax and corporate tax, and offers new infrastructure such as bridges, roads, swimming pools, an auditorium and gymnasium (which are disproportionately large and luxurious for the number of townspeople), and proposes to hire local people for the nuclear reactor. The people of the small seaside village get to vote to decide whether they want the nuclear power station. They don’t have a choice but to accept if they want to live happily ever after. They vote yes nearly every time and everywhere. They bargain at the threshold of heaven and hell. If there is no accident, the village people live in heaven. If they lose the gamble, they are in Fukushima.
This way, Tokyo Electric and other power companies have made a huge profit, enough to make all electric power companies one of the most desirable stocks to park our money in. Then, March 11, 2011.
All villages with nuclear reactors throughout Japan are holding their breath, dreading that their own might suddenly enact the same nightmare. Should the Japanese people bail out the endangered nuclear power stations?
Fukushima alone will cost us tens of billion dollars until someone in the near future succeeds at entombing five Fukushima reactors.
The government and Tokyo Electric do not have enough money to cover the disaster and its collateral damage. So, prominent politicians have begun floating the same old idea of raising income tax, corporate tax, consumption tax, toll fees, and an endless list of more taxes. Are they going to suffocate the Japanese economy that has suffered twenty years of emaciation? Aren’t they the same elite group who mismanaged an economic recovery by suddenly increasing taxes?
I hear the people (including taxi drivers) say the government and Tokyo Electric are using the people caught in the quake and tsunami to collect sympathy money from us just to save Tokyo Electric. Is this another government bailout engineered by none other than former bureaucrats and their accommodating politicians? Do I sound too distrusting of the government and the nuclear industry? I have become very wary of them.
Would we be asking too much if we insist Tokyo Electric first sell their enormous assets to pay for the damage?
When Tokyo Electric makes a huge profit, it keeps it. When the Company loses money in a man-made accident, must ordinary citizens of Japan pay for their loss? Haven’t we heard this bizarre way of doing business happens only in Wall Street of our favorite nation across the Pacific?
We the citizens of Japan had no choice in deciding if we wanted nuclear power stations in the first place. Who brought it to us from America? Are we not the only ones to receive the world’s first baptism by nuclear bombs? Aren’t we scared of everything nuclear? Yes, we are very scared of it, apoplectic, in fact.
For the past 65 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan has cultivated a fundamental religion of anti-nuclear bombs. But along the way Japan has metamorphosed into a strange creature of its own making.
A new strand of immunity against things nuclear has invaded our national psyche. While all foreigners left Japan within the first two weeks of the Fukushima accident, no Japanese ran. Why? Because Fukushima is not a nuclear bomb. Having been immunized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are not frightened enough to launch into a mass exodus. Hence, we can remain calm and collected in the midst of a horrible reality.
Regarding the Fukushima fiasco let me say that we do not need more scientific assessment of the situation. We already know no science can repair the disaster.
We need courage and resilience. We must find within ourselves the courage to face the aftermath of our own folly and hubris. It is the courage to rebuild our nation with a revolutionary vision of man and nature, with Japan’s legendary way of embracing nature without deforming it.
Japan stands at the threshold of the rise or fall of a great nation. I am not exaggerating here. Japan’s old formula of success has continued beyond its usefulness. The Japanese have an unshakable faith in their ability to overcome insurmountable hardship and rise like a phoenix from the ashes. After all, we have lived and prospered on the Ring of Fire from time immemorial.
Born in Osaka, Japan, Toshio Nishi graduated from Kwansei Gakuin University near Kobe and received an MA and PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is a professor at Nihon University in Tokyo and concurrently a research fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His interest is on Modern Japan and Asia-Pacific, US-Japan relations, and the US Occupation of Japan. He lives in Palo Alto, California, and in Chiba, Japan, which is sandwiched perfectly between Fukushima and Tokyo, on the cesium road.