In Japan, Radiation Fears Reshape Lives

Japanese shoppers remain concerned about radiation levels in food following the country's nuclear accident in March. Shoppers are shown here in a Tokyo supermarket. i i

hide captionJapanese shoppers remain concerned about radiation levels in food following the country's nuclear accident in March. Shoppers are shown here in a Tokyo supermarket.

Lucy Craft/NPR
Japanese shoppers remain concerned about radiation levels in food following the country's nuclear accident in March. Shoppers are shown here in a Tokyo supermarket.

Japanese shoppers remain concerned about radiation levels in food following the country's nuclear accident in March. Shoppers are shown here in a Tokyo supermarket.

Lucy Craft/NPR

Nine months after Japan's nuclear accident, life in Tokyo seems to have snapped back to normal, with a vengeance. The talk shows are back to their usual mindless trivia about pop stars and baseball contracts. The date of the tsunami and nuclear accident, March 11 — known here as just 3/11 — has faded into the background.

But while the horror has receded, for many of us, particularly women with families, things will never be the same.

There's no getting past the fact that the nuclear accident dumped radioactive particles into the atmosphere, soil and sea.

While Fukushima Prefecture in the northeast was hardest hit, radiation "hot spots" keep turning up in neighborhoods far from the accident. The latest was at a school, minutes from where I live in Tokyo.

What's more, figuring out what's "safe" to consume has become all but impossible.

At my local supermarket, the familiar ritual of shopping has changed drastically. Instead of just tapping fruit or checking for spots, now I scrutinize the place of origin.

"Made in Japan" used to be the gold standard. But now domestic foods are suspect, as is anything on sale. I obsessively search for produce grown as far from Fukushima as possible.

There's a never-ending series of warnings about radioactive cesium in beef, tea, rice, even baby formula. There simply aren't enough radiation-detection machines to check every cargo of fish, every rice harvest, the contents of every school lunch.

Government Has Lost Credibility

By next spring, the government is supposed to tighten standards for radiation in food. But any credibility the Japanese government once had has been obliterated by its handling of 3/11.

And who in good conscience would feed babies and young children food with even trace amounts of contamination?

Some terrified moms now cook only with bottled water and ingredients sourced from distant regions of Japan or overseas.

While many are scared, some are downright paranoid. Kaori Umezu is a young white-collar worker. Since 3/11, she has become a virtual recluse, leaving her house only for work.

"Most of my friends or co-workers see me [as] kind of [a] strange person," Umezu said. "Some people apparently look down on me. Some said I'm [an] idiot, or I'm too sensitive."

Son's Reaction

As for my children, distracted by school, job and social lives, they don't talk about radiation much. But in their own ways, they are just as uneasy as I am.

My 18-year-old son has an especially stark perspective, shaped by his front-row seat on the disaster. When the biggest earthquake in Japanese history struck, Kohei was a mere 80 miles away, in his school gym. He and his classmates narrowly escaped as the walls began to collapse on them.

An official from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (right), wearing a protective suit and mask, rides on a bus taking journalists by the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station in northeast Japan in November. Japanese officials say the plant is stable, but concerns about radioactivity remain a constant worry in many parts of Japan. i i

hide captionAn official from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (right), wearing a protective suit and mask, rides on a bus taking journalists by the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station in northeast Japan in November. Japanese officials say the plant is stable, but concerns about radioactivity remain a constant worry in many parts of Japan.

David Guttenfelder/AP
An official from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (right), wearing a protective suit and mask, rides on a bus taking journalists by the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station in northeast Japan in November. Japanese officials say the plant is stable, but concerns about radioactivity remain a constant worry in many parts of Japan.

An official from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (right), wearing a protective suit and mask, rides on a bus taking journalists by the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station in northeast Japan in November. Japanese officials say the plant is stable, but concerns about radioactivity remain a constant worry in many parts of Japan.

David Guttenfelder/AP

My son says that when he confronted his own mortality that day, something in him changed, forever. He's become more fatalistic, more resigned. What would you suggest, he asks rhetorically — that the Japanese just pack up and leave their country?

My friend Yoko Okazaki, a translator in her 50s, has the same attitude.

"For us, those people who have been living here for many, many years, we already have a job here, and then we establish our life here, in Tokyo or Japan — what can we do?" Okazaki says. "We cannot really leave here, unless something really bad happens. Until then, we just have to lead a regular life."

The bottom line is that no one really knows how much this ongoing exposure is going to raise our risk of cancer. The true impact is still unknown, yet to be learned as the world watches. The legacy of 3/11 is to turn us all into a nation of guinea pigs.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: