On March 11, 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that wreaked havoc in Northeastern Japan. The waters obliterated everything in their path, claiming thousands of lives and leaving many more homeless. Video images of vast expanses of land engulfed in an instant captured the world’s attention.

Just as suddenly all eyes quickly turned to another disaster – the critical condition of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The tsunami and earthquake knocked out the plant’s backup power, which halted the cooling system and prompted a melt down of three reactors. Radiation spewed into the atmosphere and ocean and recent discoveries of contaminated fish suggest radiation is still leaking from the plant. Immediate vicinities have been evacuated with 160,000 displaced peoples still struggling. Many more remain in the prefecture in areas with high radiation levels.

Yuko Nishiyama, a Fukushima mother and activist will visit Hawaii to speak about her efforts to support evacuees at the public symposium, Japan After 3.11: Change and Hope from the Center of Triple Disasters. The symposium will be held on Sunday, March 10, 2013, from 2:00 in the Center for Korean Studies Auditorium at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Yuko Nishiyama: Fukushima Mother, Evacuee and Activist

At the time of the accident Nishiyama was living in Fukushima City, situated 60 kilometers from the crippled plant. As children are more susceptible to radiation, she decided to evacuate with her daughter, Mariko. They first relocated temporarily in Tokyo before moving to Kyoto.

In Kyoto, Nishiyama quickly sprung into action. She founded the support group Minna no Te (“Everyone Lends a Hand”) for evacuees. Minna no Te has been actively reuniting families that were split up by the nuclear crisis. In many cases, mothers and children evacuated while fathers stayed behind or took job transfers in different prefectures. Twice a year Minna no Te shuttles family members between Fukushima and Kyoto.

The group also gives children in Fukushima a short respite from radiation. Many children still living in affected areas are trapped indoors. Radiation has limited the amount of outdoor playtime parents can allot them. For one week during the summer Minna no Te invites these children to Kyoto where they can play freely outside.

“I wasn’t an activist before 3.11. Now I know people can make a difference. Maybe people in Hawaii don’t know much about Fukushima. I want to explain our situation and let people know they can make a difference,” says Nishiyama.

Her group will open a café this spring that will be staffed by evacuees and serve as a place where the people of Kyoto can connect more intimately with the ongoing issues created by the nuclear crisis.

Shared Histories and Perilous Futures

In the wake of 3.11 people in Hawaii showed great solidarity with Japan, contributing much to the relief efforts. Yet the 3.11 disasters are fading from the public consciousness in Japan and abroad. The funds of charities and NPOs assisting victims are drying up with no replenishing donations. As the visible signs of wreckage are disappearing it is tempting to conclude that the disaster is over.

Yet the suffering continues in a more invisible way. Farmers cannot sell their produce because of fears of it being contaminated. Many children have thyroid cysts. Several have been diagnosed with cancer with speculation as to whether or not radiation is the cause.

The government has downplayed the dangers of radiation and offers little in the way of transparency. Reporters Without Borders, an NPO that ranks countries according to press freedom, bumped Japan’s standing down from 22nd in 2012 to 53rd in 2013.

The atrocities must sound familiar to other nuclear survivors. Hellish nuclear nightmares haunt the Pacific in the month of March. On March 1st, there will be a gathering at the Center for Hawaiian Studies to commemorate the 59th anniversary of the dropping of the hydrogen bomb codenamed “Bravo” at Bikini Atoll. “Bravo” was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Marshallese and their islands suffered tremendously from the fallout and are engaged in an ongoing political struggle to receive compensation and medical care from the U.S. government.

Many similarities exist between Fukushima and the nuclear testings in the Pacific. Victims of both have been displaced, witnessed environmental destruction of their lands, faced government denials of health risks of radiation, and have received inadequate or no compensation.

Frighteningly this may not be the last time we hear these stories. Standing on top of fault lines, many reactors in Japan are still unsafe. Fearing domestic survival the Japanese nuclear industry is looking to export power plants. Some of the planned locations in Asian countries are susceptible to natural disasters. In the US, there are more than a hundred commercial nuclear reactors and a dozen more in planning.

In this way and many others the Fukushima disasters offer crucial lessons for the global community. The UHM events afford an opportunity to listen, reflect, and discuss how to take action.


About the author: Jason Bartashius is a graduate of UH and now teaches in Japan. Aya H. Kimura is an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at UH-Manoa.


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