UN Finally Urges Japan to Do More for Health

Read this article in German.


by Akio Matsumura and Chris Cote


Days after the World Health Organization downplayed the health crisis in Fukushima, UN Special Rapporteur for the right to health Anand Grover strongly recommended that the Japanese government be accountable for the health of its population and take more appropriate action. Finishing an 11-day tour of Fukushima prefecture and other affected areas, he urged that the government take a more cautious and active position on health issues related to the 2011 nuclear accident.

UN Special Rapporteur Anand Grover (YouTube.)

He concluded:

“Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, during the visit I have also heard from the affected residents, and particularly heard from persons with disabilities, young mothers and pregnant women, children and older persons, that they’ve had no say in the decisions that affect them. The right to health framework requires the state to ensure the participation of all communities in decisions that affect them. This means that the affected people need to be part of the decision making process as well as of the implementation, monitoring and accountability processes. Participation would not only inform decisions holistically, but also build the confidence of the affected community in the government. This is also necessary in restoring normalcy after the disaster in an effective manner.

I urge the government to ensure that the affected people, particularly the vulnerable groups, are fully involved in all decision making processes. This should include their participation, among others, in the formulation of health management service, designing of evacuation shelters, and implementation of decontamination. In this respect I welcome the enactment of the act on the protection and the support for the children and other victims of the TEPCO disaster in June 2012, which provides for a framework for the support and care for the people who were affected by the nuclear accident. The act has not been implemented yet. I urge the government to take urgent measures to implement the act. It is a good opportunity for the government to frame the basic policy and subordinate regulations with the full participation of all the affected communities, including vulnerable groups. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.”

His suggestion for the government is noble. Experts, he says elsewhere in his report, likely do not have as broad grasp of the subject as needed, and the most helpful knowledge will come from the local communities. They must be involved in the decision making and reform process, he adds.

However, days before this report was given I received a comment from Kaoru Takano, a promising young leader on the mayor’s staff in Sapporo.

As Grover and Dr. Caldicott have both mentioned, cases of thyroid cancer are not expected to appear for three to five years after the exposure, so the cancers have not yet shocked the populations into action. Takano is not confident the public’s attention to these health risks will rise on its own:

Dear Mr. Matsumura,

Dr. William S. Clark of the Sapporo Agricultural College (now University of Hokkaido) once said, “Boys, be ambitious!” Accordingly, I hope that Hokkaido will ardently take part in saving Japan from this crisis. Unfortunately, I have observed the current conditions of Japan first-hand, and I do not perceive a sense of impending crisis from the populace regarding nuclear radiation or radiation exposure. Under such circumstances, I simply cannot expect anyone to take any sort of initiative. (bold added – ed.)

TPP and the consumption tax are currently the main issues in the general election campaigns for the House of Representatives. Candidates have avoided discussions regarding Japan’s radiation problem; it appears that the children of Fukushima are not within the scope of their concern.

The debris accumulated after the explosions of Units 1 through 4 at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Power Plant, and the units themselves, have largely been left neglected. No one has attempted an effort to implement substantial containment methods such as the stone coffin used at the Chernobyl site.

Post-meltdown, containments holding radioactive material have simply been submerged in water and the nuclear material within them continues to leak. Occasionally, the public hears news that radioactive water has been discharged and is draining into the ocean, but the nation’s interest in the subject appears to be waning.

Because Japan is an island country, and, therefore, unlike many European countries with shared borders, I fear that foreign countries have taken somewhat of a third-person stance in this situation; I worry Japan’s isolation lessens its perceived impact on other countries, allowing its stagnation to proceed unchecked. Perhaps once the oceans become gravely contaminated, foreign countries will be compelled to pressure Japan into action. My concern is that Japan and other countries will fail to recognize the severity of the situation until it becomes critical.

We, the City of Sapporo, do not, nor will we, expect anything from the central Japanese government. As a local government, we will continue to do our best to save the children in and around Fukushima. We will not rely on the Japanese Government, the nation’s people, the mass-media, or the members of our diet. We will proceed to conduct ourselves with the urgency of impending crisis. (Read comment in Japanese and German.)

Takano’s energy is inspiring. Communities do need to take action, but they must be equipped with honest, independent assessments, and these are the responsibility of the press. Thanks to Mr. Grover’s excellent reporting and the stature of his position at the United Nations, the Washington Post can say how children’s health issues are being under-reported and under-investigated. But it should be the media’s burden to unearth these stories right away, not after a UN envoy does the groundwork.

Why has the Japanese media not played its integral role in Japan’s democracy? Where is the substantive investigative and independent reporting?

There is a tendency in Japan toward groupthink. Many blame the poor handling of the accident on TEPCO’s privileged relationship with the government.  The political and social culture that allows this is described by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Accident Independent Investigation Commission:  “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

The media does not escape this tendency. In his book Credibility Lost: The Crisis in Japanese Newspaper Journalism after Fukushima, Martin Fackler, New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief since 2009, says that the same issues that allow collusion between TEPCO and the government affect the Japanese press corps. The press corps operates as an exclusive club and reliance on government sources is strong. Both lead to epistemic closure and a lack of strong investigative reporting.

Sadly, it will take myriad children with thyroid cancer to eventually generate a public outcry. Only another crisis will push the politicians and media from their silence. Deference to business interests has put the public at large health risks. And despite some good intentions, bureaucratic inertia – the Washington Post noted that Grover’s final report will not be ready until June 2012 – has delayed action.

The voices of the younger generations and the vulnerable continue to push for a solution, but those who hold power in Japan remain obdurate.

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