Photo/IllutrationRice is harvested in October in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, where an evacuation order is expected to be lifted as early as this spring, eight years after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Eight years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011.

A shadow continues to be cast on the sentiment of the residents of Fukushima Prefecture by a negative public image due to radiation fears and fading public interest in the aftermath of the disaster.

With few inhabitants returning, communities surrounding the crippled nuclear plant are facing tough challenges. In many other areas, radiation readings have dropped to normal levels, and measures to ensure food safety with respect to radiation have been working effectively.

However, misunderstandings and overall anxiety linger, mostly outside Fukushima Prefecture, about contamination by radioactive fallout and its negative impact on health.

People do not know enough about the current state of the northeastern prefecture. On the contrary, they have less and less opportunities for learning about it.

NEGATIVE IMAGE, FADING INTEREST

Distress and discord persist in Fukushima Prefecture.

There is, for example, the question of what to do with the ever-growing volume of low-level radioactive water accumulating on the grounds of the stricken nuclear plant. Another issue concerns how to scale down the ongoing blanket testing of all bags of rice produced in Fukushima Prefecture.

Regarding the contaminated water, the government supports a plan to purify and pour it into the ocean. But fishermen’s groups and residents who are concerned about possible negative publicity effects remain strongly opposed, and no clue is in sight to a solution.

Negative publicity is, in fact, hindering rebuilding efforts. The output value of farm products from the prefecture is only 90 percent of its pre-disaster levels. The tourism industry is also still recovering.

Farm crops and fish from Fukushima Prefecture are allowed to circulate only after their safety has been confirmed through rigorous checks. No rice produced in 2015 or later has been found to contain radioactive substances in excess of safety standards.

But all that has yet to end consumer pullback.

In a survey taken last month by the Consumer Affairs Agency, some 13 percent of respondents said they hesitate to buy products of Fukushima Prefecture because of possible radioactive content. About 45 percent said they did not know that food products are being screened for radiation.

At the root of the problem is the fact that knowledge of, interest in and the sense of assurance about matters of radiation differ greatly from person to person.

“As public interest in Fukushima Prefecture has faded with time, there is probably a considerable broad base of people who have a vaguely negative image getting fixed in their minds,” said Yasumasa Igarashi, an associate professor of sociology with the University of Tsukuba, who is well-versed in the issue of radiation and food.

OVERCOMING DIFFICULTIES

There are many hurdles to clear before overcoming the negative publicity.

Officials of public administrative bodies and relevant industries continue to send out messages about scientific knowledge of radiation, and safety measures being taken against it.

Trying to spread facts is certainly an important approach, but there is a limit to what can be done with that alone.

Fukushima Prefecture products should first be put at store fronts before they are actually bought by a majority of consumers who are not particularly anxious about radiation. Distributors should be positive about setting due value on the products they handle.

It is also essential for suppliers to improve on the taste and other positive qualities of their products to enhance their images.

That said, some are still feeling vaguely anxious, while others are so sensitive to radiation risks that they are consciously shunning products from Fukushima Prefecture. There is a rift and friction between those consumers and the producers in the northeastern prefecture.

Distrust of public administration officials and experts who are handling nuclear power and radiation countermeasures spread across our society following the nuclear disaster. Eight years on, no stage has yet been set for making cool-headed discussions on issues concerning radiation and negative publicity and for seeking solutions that would be acceptable to a broad audience.

But a clue is seen in Fukushima Prefecture to how that deadlock could be overcome.

SURMOUNTING ‘DIVIDES’

Riken Komatsu, a 39-year-old community activist based in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, has been working on a program for five years now.

The participants take a boat and go fishing in the waters off the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Their catch is tested for radioactive concentration, and the figures are released to the public.

About 30 similar measurement sessions have so far taken place. Literally “in the same boat” have been several hundred individuals of differing beliefs and backgrounds, including citizens concerned about radiation, public administration officials, experts, campaigners against nuclear power and those supporting rebuilding efforts.

Komatsu said he realized, through his activity, that people can be moved at heart.

In those who are feeling “vaguely anxious” about radiation, the combination of hands-on experience and data has generated a sense of heartfelt understanding, and they have switched to being “vaguely assured.” While fishing together, everybody laughs a lot, whatever their stances.

Komatsu said he is trying to ensure that he is bringing fun to the fore to draw people’s interest.

“Getting more people involved in the Fukushima issue without limiting the scope of the audience generates power for fighting the negative public image and the fading public interest,” he said. “I believe that having a common experience could offer a clue to surmounting ‘divides.’”

Regarding the consequences of the nuclear disaster, there are many intersecting axes of divides: one separating those who are concerned and not concerned about radiation; another separating evacuees who return and do not return to their home communities; and yet another separating those who believe and do not believe there should be nuclear power generation.

Violent invectives are being exchanged online. Many have come to see the issue as “touchy.” Even in Fukushima Prefecture, it is perceived as embarrassing to raise the subject in daily life.

Such a situation is making it even more difficult to clean up after the disaster, including in the decades-long process of reactor decommissioning, and to rehabilitate regional communities of residents who have gone asunder.

It is, however, a vital responsibility imposed on our entire society to eliminate the pain brought about as a result of a national policy of promoting the use of atomic energy. It will remain a key question for us on how we will face up to the Fukushima issue.

We should first learn about the affected communities as they are now and update any information and images we have of them. We could then reinstate an environment where things that have gone awry are disentangled one by one so that people can make constructive discussions while respecting the ideas of others.

We hope to see society press a restart button so Fukushima Prefecture can tread on a clear path of rebuilding.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 10