Ambiguity of Tokyo

(Original text in Japanese below)

Ambiguity of Tokyo
Yoshihiko Ikegami

I live in a suburb of Tokyo, 200km away from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. Meanwhile the residents living within 20km radius of the plant have been advised to evacuate, and those living within 30km radius to remain indoor; the condition of the reactors has consistently overturned our optimistic assumptions one after another, which now appears to be totally hopeless. Let alone the areas within 30km, 50km and 80km radius, entire Fukushima prefecture could be by now contaminated with high-level radioactive scatterings. There are a number of places even within 40-50km radius, affected as they are by the wind, whose contamination has been confirmed with higher radiation than the villages near Chernobyl shortly after the reactor explosion in 1986.

What is going on in Tokyo? Extremely ambiguous. In Kanto, the main island’s eastern region that includes Tokyo, a planned blackout is now effective under rule to take turns by districts, during assigned time and day. On the day of the quake and for sometime after the blackout started, Tokyo residents without public transit were seen walking back home on foot. Except for these few spectacles in the wake of the disaster, we have seen almost no events or accidents in Tokyo that are spectacular enough on TV screen. While Urayasu City in Chiba that hosts Disneyland has been affected by tsunami and is still under recovery, there were no significant damages reported in Tokyo. Tokyo metropolis has not changed at least ostensibly.

But radiation and radioactive materials are constantly falling over the metropolis. As is known by all by now, the amount of radiation keeps changing hour by hour, depending on the direction of the wind blowing from the reactor. Thanks to a good distance from the plant, we in Tokyo are seeing much less radiation than in the surrounding areas, but radioactive particles certainly accumulate: while iodine has only eight day lifespan, cesium, which takes 30 years to decrease by half, will long remain on the ground. Although each radiation might be very little, it is piling up every hour, and there is no way of knowing how much has been accumulated since the wake of the disaster two weeks ago. There is no doubt that these radioactive particles are and will be captured into our bodies internally or externally, and gradually damage and weaken our health. No one can predict how badly the radioactivity will affect our bodies in long term. But no warnings have been issued to encourage pregnant women and children to evacuate.

The government has issued no evacuation advice, except for those living within 20km radius of the plant. In addition to flying radiation, tap water of Tokyo has been reported to contain radioactive materials since 10 days ago, and so have been vegetables and milk produced in the farms near the plant. What the government took as safety measure was only to raise the safety standard for the maximum intake of radiation per person. I will not detail exact numbers here, but the new measures are now 10 to 30 times as high as those of the World Health Organization (WHO). In other words, as soon as the government heard of water and vegetables contaminated with the amount of radiation much higher than the normal state, it just raised the standard. An exceptional regulation applies for 0-1 year-old infants, but even this outnumbers far beyond the WHO standards. This means that in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, residents are being forced to consume incredible amount of hazardous water and vegetables that would not be allowed in other nations. Many countries have banned products imported from Japan.

In addition to forcing the unilateral standard, the Japanese government and mass media, mobilizing all proxy scholars, are on a huge campaign to promote safety of consuming water and vegetables to the public. The campaign began 10 days ago and still goes on. It is clear that this campaign is nothing but a deception. The government warns the public against drinking water and farmers against shipping out their products. No sooner than the radiation level goes below the standard measure, however, it revokes the order. What are we supposed to do, living in such condition and under such measures of control?

First we need to avoid drinking tap water and eating the vegetables grown near the nuclear plant. Currently the only solution to avoid tap water for cooking is to rely on bottled water; and buying vegetables from markets should be avoided. In other words, we must consume bottled water and must not buy vegetables. This is costly and extremely inconvenient.

That is the typical everyday life in Tokyo, following the accident. Except for avoiding water and vegetables, our daily environment has experienced very little change so far. But again, the radioactive particles continue to accumulate day after day. That accident is invisible to our eyes. We are not directly victimized by the disaster, but we are gradually. This situation is very ambiguous. But being ambiguous is not limited to this reality. There is an element that makes this situation even more ambiguous. That is the presence of an ideology, reflecting as it is the ambiguous situation, which does not seem so serious yet has a clear function. What is this ideology and what does it conceal from us?

Since the day of the accident, the Japanese government and mass media have been constantly addressing the public not to panic and be calm. This seems as if people were forbidden to talk about their worries and inhibited from  fleeing Tokyo. The northeast along the Pacific coast has been critically damaged by tsunami, has had its lifeline destroyed and has been suffering from severe shortage of supplies. But why is that the supplies are not reaching the affected region? The government repeats its judgment that it is due to the residents of unaffected areas buying up supplies; and newspaper and TV broadcasting are following the authoritarian view. The goods suffering shortage include instant noodles and other food products as well as bottled water, which has come to be the focus especially after radiation was detected in Tokyo. Now we often read blames against buying up of water, spread widely. The logic of the blame is that the lack of supplies in the northeast is due to us consumers buying up the goods in the metropolis.

Although the fact of buyout is never presented and proven with concrete data, this discourse gains tremendous power of propaganda. Almost all opinions, comments seen on TV, news papers and internet are followed by a message urging their readers to refrain from buying up. Even those which provide decent analyses of the accident and make critical comments on the government are accompanied by the conclusive slogan: Stop Buyout!

I wonder if I am able to convey the nasty power of this moralist propaganda. I could take up today’s Asahi Newspaper for example; there are as many as five articles accusing buy-up. In readers’ column, several readers voice out to chide buy-up; a known critic and novelist Otohiko Kaga writes: “let’s keep mutual help rather than anxiously buying up food.” Another reader’s letter is by a 10-year-old saying: “what we can do is to buy only what we basically need, in order for supplies to reach people in much need.” In the Op-Ed section a columnist proposes to bring up more messages promoting “No buying-up movement” rather than reporting goods shortage, which only encourages more buying. The most conspicuous one is the interview with a world-famous animator Hayao Miyazaki, who on the one hand proposes that we have to change the way of civilization from now on, but on the other hand, preaches: “we need to take a special consideration for infants, but I see people as old as me on the line to buy water. This is inexcusable.” We see many mentions like these in one day’s paper.

By reading these, many conscience people would think that buy-up should be blamed. I wonder, however, if there really is buy-up as such. Even if there is, I wonder if it is the main cause of the shortage of stocks. On my part I never believe buy-up is going on. Yes! Everyone is buying water, but is that supposed to be called buy-up? A person would buy 3-4 bottles, 10 at the most. For an average family it would take a week to consume them. They are all buying the bottles per necessity. Now that the radiation level has gone beyond the standard measure, buying water is more than a necessary.

Why should this necessary act of buying be relentlessly attacked? I cannot believe the five comments mentioned above are based on actual evidence of buy-up, that the commenters actually witnessed themselves. They are no more than creating an abstract evil in their heads and blaming them just because the master narrative says so. Buying water should by no means be criticized. But still, the rumor: “people are buying up water” spreads and as many as five commentators in a day are manipulated by it. They may believe that the consumers are manipulated by the rumor of radiation, but they are the ones manipulated by the rumor of buy-up. They are merely attacking an imaginative evil.

Theoretically it is quite common to see fabrication of scapegoat and victimization of it at times of crisis. This phenomenon is just one such example out of many. But imagine that a middle aged man holding several bottles of water is the figure of evil now in this city. It is just so miserable as a symbol of evil. Furthermore, since nobody is actually buying up, the question is: who are being blamed for? The No-Buy-Up Choirs do not realize how none-sense it is to make up an evil out of a man holding water bottles in his arms. As you already know it, it is the nuclear accident, TEPCO, the government and the global capitals of nuclear energy that are hiding behind this propaganda. To me, the ugliness of fabricating this evil symbol is the epitome of the current ambiguity of Tokyo. It is not a grand ideology, but it is certainly there, and so hideous it is. That is where Tokyo stands at this moment.

The same can be said of vegetables, but in inversion. Shipping of vegetables produced in the vicinity of the contaminated area is suspended, since no one is buying them. In this case it was producers, not consumers, who expressed anger with this situation; the focus is the financial damage caused by harmful rumors which keep farmers from shipping out their vegetables even if they passed the contamination test. “We producers are suffering an economic damage by the false accusation.” Certainly it is a false accusation from the standpoint of the farmers. It stands for producers’ reason, since their noble products are not selling. This issue too has been persistently reported by the media.

After all, however, the very problem here is radioactive contamination. Why are the financial profit and its damage caused by the rumors reported as priority by the media? In addition, pushed by the producers’ voice, the government announces that it is again seeking to raise the maximum radioactive level allowed for food. Now the so-called public view is made up by the media targeting and questioning consumers as to why they do not buy vegetables that pass the contamination test.

We have no responsibility or obligation to buy such products. It is only just reaction. What makes us consumers accused moralistically by way of the perverted logic that we are tricked by the rumors and not buying products even if they are safe? The word ‘rumor’ is misused here to the extent that it has lost its meaning. The more we care about what we eat, the more we are accused that we are misled by the rumor. But what is at stake here is not rumors but radioactive contamination.

We are living in a double bind, that is, with the accusations of over-consuming water and under-consuming vegetables. This is what is happening in the place where radiation falls down. It is the current state of ambiguity in Tokyo. I just read a newspaper report that a farmer, who was forced to suspend shipping of his products, killed himself today. He was not able to ship his vegetables he cultivated with much care, had financial troubles, and terminated his own life. His last word was reported: “The nuclear power killed me.” This sheds light on where the problem really exists.







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