After Crises, Japanese Lose Faith In Government

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Kayo Watanabe, who works in life insurance, with her two daughters.  They'll soon leave this house, and their father and grandparents, to move farther away from the crisis-stricken nuclear plant. i

Kayo Watanabe, who works in life insurance, with her two daughters. They'll soon leave this house, and their father and grandparents, to move farther away from the crisis-stricken nuclear plant. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Kayo Watanabe, who works in life insurance, with her two daughters.  They'll soon leave this house, and their father and grandparents, to move farther away from the crisis-stricken nuclear plant.

Kayo Watanabe, who works in life insurance, with her two daughters. They'll soon leave this house, and their father and grandparents, to move farther away from the crisis-stricken nuclear plant.

Louisa Lim/NPR

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan faces a no-confidence motion in parliament over his handling of the aftermath of Japan's huge earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Distrust of the government is mounting, especially in areas close to the stricken nuclear plant. Anger has focused on the hot-button issue of children's safety.

As she drives round Fukushima, Kayo Watanabe points out the radiation hot spots. She knows which street used by kids going to school has above-normal radiation levels, which school gutter has radiation levels 60 times higher than what is considered safe.

She has been measuring radiation levels herself for a while. She says she doubted the official line from the beginning, back in March when the very first blast happened at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant almost 40 miles away.

"We haven't believed the government from the start," Watanabe says. "When the explosion happened, they didn't say anything about it being dangerous. We don't trust the media either, since the nuclear plant operator sponsors many newspapers and television stations."

We're speaking at a kind of homework center, where kids gather after school. Watanabe has two children of her own — girls ages 2 and 9. She was alarmed to discover local milk from near the nuclear plant being served at her daughter's school.

For more than two months, she has kept the kids cooped up inside for fear of exposing them to radiation. Now she has decided she's had enough. In two weeks, she'll move with her kids to another town 18 miles farther from the nuclear plant, while her husband will stay behind for his job.

"We did discuss what would be better — to stay together or whether we should live apart from each other," Watanabe says. "But we decided we couldn't live our lives not knowing what the medical dangers were. So we decided to leave."

After a testy school meeting at Hirano Middle School, where locals are asking why the government has taken so long to decontaminate the school playground, residents ask questions about how the government is measuring radiation. Some fear the levels are higher than being reported.

After a testy school meeting at Hirano Middle School, where locals are asking why the government has taken so long to decontaminate the school playground, residents ask questions about how the government is measuring radiation. Some fear the levels are higher than being reported. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR

At Hirano Middle School, one major issue has been how to decontaminate school playgrounds to get rid of any topsoil that could harbor radiation. At a school meeting with parents, the mood is testy.

"Why has Fukushima been the slowest?" one parent asks. "Other towns have already acted -– why are we the last?"

In fact, national policy on this was only announced Friday. But many other cities had acted preemptively.

The education official replies that work will begin straightaway. The plan is to dig up 2 inches of irradiated topsoil, which will then be buried 20 inches below the surface.

The parents want to know why just 2 inches, and the answer seems to be, "Because that's what we're doing."

After the meeting, a few angry locals brandishing their own radiation monitors surround the officials. They fear the radiation levels are higher than what is being reported. The anger is barely suppressed, which is unusual in Japan, where politeness is almost an art form.

Afterward, education official Yoshimasa Kanno admits that he understands their frustration.

"It seems to be the case that parents are angry that two months have passed since the disaster," Kanno says. "It's been pointed out that the response by the city government and the national government for protecting children has been slow."

The next morning, construction equipment finally arrives at the school. Such action has come too late for Kayo Watanabe's family.

She'll also be leaving behind her parents. Like the silent majority here, they are getting on with their lives as normal, growing vegetables and planting flowers in the garden.

Her mother, Takako Watanabe, suffers from kidney disease and says she won't leave.

"My hospital, my medical treatment, they're all here, so I can't leave. But I'll miss the grandchildren," Takako says.

As for Kayo, she seems to have lost faith in Japan's ruling class. She says it's the people's fault — for putting the current DPJ government in power. They thought they'd be different from the last lot, she says, but they no longer know whether any political party out there will protect them.

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