The Search for Action among Japan’s Ruling Classes

Read this article in Japanese and German.


By Akio Matsumura

On Monday the United Nations announced they will send Special Rapporteur Anand Grover to assess and report on the public health situation in Japan in the context of last year’s earthquake. I returned from a long visit to Japan last week and, after participating in several panel discussions and conversing with political leaders, I have a good idea what Special Rapporteur will find.

The debate right now in Japan centers not on the continuing issues with the Fukushima-Daiichi site, but whether to close down Japan’s nuclear power plants.  While politicians are focusing on national nuclear policy there are growing concerns that the children of Fukushima require greater medical attention and assistance. After the Fukushima accident, concerns grew in the region as to whether higher rates of cancer, especially in the thyroid gland, would be found in children due to exposure to radioactive iodine.

Akio Matsumura speaks at the 20th Meeting of the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima.

The eminent physician Helen Caldicott wrote that the response by Japanese politicians to the Fukushima disaster has been “ludicrously irresponsible,” not just because of their fundamental ignorance but because of their political ties with TEPCO and the nuclear industry, which tends to orchestrate a large part of the Japanese political agenda. Dr. Caldicott’s article was picked up by major media in Japan and began to focus the public’s attention on the medical issue during my time there. Despite this single success, the media has largely underperformed since the earthquake, allowing TEPCO’s influence to prevent the true story from being told.

I viewed my visit to Japan as a chance to build a national consensus that two types of action must be taken. First, repeating myself from my last visit in April, that an independent assessment team must be created, given an ample budget, and allowed to visit inside the Fukushima Daiichi site. Second, that more than one million children are likely to end up with thyroid cancer and so action must be taken quickly to best stem or prevent this medical catastrophe.

Politicians and business leaders alike were shocked to hear that more than one million children are at risk of thyroid cancer in the next five to ten years. These same concerns about radioactivity, modestly extrapolated by experts studying the results of the Chernobyl accident, also apply to food and the environment.

Politicians worried for public safety: can an already aging population handle one million new cases of childhood cancer? How does one start to prevent a nuclear disaster? I agreed that the enormity of the problem is overwhelming; it is difficult to know where to begin. An independent assessment team is the first step. Then, as Senator Kuniko Tanioka, with whom I presented, made clear at the 20th meeting of the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima (Fukushima Genpatsu Kodotai), the problems we face are not rocket science, or in this case, overly complicated nuclear engineering. One of the biggest scares so far came in September, when the cooling system in Reactor 4 shut down due to corroding valves on the pipeline. They immediately switched to the emergency pipeline, but that too failed for corrosion! Outdated systems will only continue to bring complications. I find it hard to be assured that this will not happen again in 40 years.

It was clear to business leaders how much a radioactive environment would disrupt the economy. I repeated over and over that for current crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi site the government, not TEPCO, should be in charge. And for the medical emergency, that we need more original research and policies to build on and reflect the experiences at Chernobyl. The Soviets used their soldiers there; perhaps Japan needs to be prepared to take this step.

Yoshimi Watanabe, President of the Your Party, presents at the Diet Session; Prime Minister Noda listens on.

One especially encouraging meeting was with Mr. Yoshimi Watanabe, a Member of Parliament and president of the Your Party.  He immediately grasped the situation and edited his ten minute speech he was going to give to Prime Minister Noda and his cabinet members at the next day’s Diet (parliament) session.

In his speech he asked the Prime Minister:

1.      To establish an independent assessment team;

2.      To describe the plan to remove the spent fuel assemblies at Reactor 4;

3.      If the government is prepared to use the military to tackle the worst case scenario;

4.      Whether the national government should be responsible for the entire operation concerning the medical emergency, rather than leaving it with the Fukushima municipal government.

There is no doubt that his clear, powerful speech will contribute to a greater public and governmental understanding of the issues.

The party leaders, the businessmen, the general public I met with were all shocked to hear the nature of the crisis and most agreed to take action. (How has the media failed to make this clear?) But the path forward is uncertain. Japan faces a largely invisible crisis. One million cases of childhood cancer will devastate the nation, but how does one begin to contain or prevent it? From where would the money come and to where would it be allocated? How does one convince others to take immense action as a precautionary measure? These questions can and must be answered, but it will take great political will and planning. Unfortunately, politicians are focused on little but the mid-December national election.

Another man who grasped the situation quickly and immediately sprung to action, despite being in the thick of this political race, was former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. After Ambassador Murata and I explained the radiation exposure threat to him, he immediately organized a dinner with several of his faction members, including Tadamasa Kodaira, Minister of the National Commission on Public Safety, and Banri Kaieda, Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry at the time of the disaster. That Ministry oversees TEPCO. Eight other senior members of parliament were also there. Several agreed to write policy and research papers exploring further options. I was impressed with their quick action.

On my last day we met with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President of the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition party. His grandfather was Prime Minister Kishi, who helped launch my career at the United Nations. I do not think Prime Minister Abe took the threat seriously.

For many, the crisis is much more direct: Where will they live? How do you start life anew–where do you find hope—when you cannot return to your home? I spoke at a symposium, “Save the Fukushima Children from Radiation,” during my trip. I wasn’t sure how to tell young people that our Japanese descendants will face the problem of having no place in their country, and how to encourage those living now to strive for a new, positive life. The area around Fukushima is closed. Hokkaido, an island far to the north, is Japan’s largest prefecture. It comprises twenty percent of the country’s land but has only five percent of its people. I met with the Fumio Ueda, the Mayor of Sapporro, the prefecture’s largest city. He agreed to be the leader among municipal governments, to take up the cause of the children who will develop thyroid cancer.

In 1876, the Japanese government hired William Smith Clark, the third president of Massachusetts Agricultural College (which became the University of Massachusetts Amherst), as an agricultural adviser at Sapporo Agricultural College. He had a large impact on the island and its development. His parting words were, “Boys, be ambitious.” Japan – its men, its women, its children–must be ambitious at this moment, in caring for its current and future generations and, for many, finding a new way to live.

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