Anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto stated his intention to continue as a politician on Tuesday, despite facing censure in the Diet for handing a letter, out-lining the situation in the Fukushima clean-up, to Emperor Akihito at a royal garden party last Thursday. This taboo breaking action has since caused a storm of protest from commentators in the media and politics who found the action arrogant and disrespectful.
By personally giving the 79 year old Emperor such a letter, Yamamoto San ignored several strict protocols against drawing any member of the apolitical monarchy into what is by default a political debate. Calls for harsh punishments from other politicians, especially in the pro-nuclear, ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and members of the far-right, might now cause problems for the career of this independent lawmaker who was only elected to the House of Councillors in July. Indeed some politicians, that might have been considered natural allies such as Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party and a noted anti-nuclear campaigner himself, have also questioned the thinking behind Yamamoto’s action with Kazuo San saying that “[Yamamoto] did not understand the constitution.”
The former actor has said, he regrets causing the Emperor any trouble and that he was not sufficiently aware what the consequences of his action would be. For example he says he did not expect the delivery of the letter to be so widely reported and has accused the media of allowing his actions to be used for political purposes that attack him and the anti-nuclear movement. He strongly denied intending to use the Emperor to further his own political purposes however saying he only wished to inform him of the situation affecting Fukushima residents and the health issues of those that are tasked with the clean-up there. Criticising some of the politicians now calling for him to resign he pointed out that many of them saw nothing wrong in using other members of the Japanese Royal Family to help Tokyo secure the 2020 Olympic bid. A fact, he argues, that was much more overtly political and thus unconstitutional.
The letter apparently remains unread as it was passed quickly onto to Grand Chamberlain, who was accompanying the Emperor and Empress as they met some of the 2,140 guests in attendance at the biannual event. If it was a pointless act that crossed boundaries of taste and legality and could effectively end his political career, why, you have to ask, did he do it?
Taro Yamamoto moved into politics when his acting career ended after he made his support for the anti-nuclear movement that grew in Japan after the March 11th nuclear accident in Fukushima public. It was not your usual celebrity band-wagon jumping: in fact, in a industry where famous people do not usually have opinions and certainly not ones that might be considered damaging to companies, like TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the operators of the Fukushima plant) that fund the media with their huge advertising budgets, it was a spectacularly reckless move.
Though the first opinions he expressed on Twitter, were perhaps understandable in the aftermath of the events that shocked the whole country; his subsequent treatment by the media seems to have galvanised a more determined and combative approach to the unique issues of nuclear energy and safety faced by an earthquake-prone Japan.
Taro Yamamoto seems always to have followed his own, sometimes reckless, sense of personal morality and appropriateness. An article in the Japan Times earlier this year, profiling his burgeoning political ambitions, showed how his belief in social responsibly was instilled in him at a young age by a strong mother who would force him to donate a percentage of his New Year Money (Otoshidama) to good causes and regularly take him and his sisters away to The Philippines or elsewhere to work with the poor. In the same article he is aware that his celebrity also gives incredible weight to the message and is something he can use to embolden the anti-nuclear agenda, saying: “I really need to do acting work as well, so I can stay in the public eye and continue drawing attention to nuclear issues.”
After failing to win a seat in the Lower House election in late 2012 Yamamoto and an army of 1,200, mostly young volunteers, steeled themselves for a run at a seat in the Upper House elections this summer. The hard work of campaigning in the summer heat and on the internet finally paid off however and he was elected as a Tokyo Councillor on July 21st. Running as an independent he succeeded in securing a seat without having to make any deals or compromises with larger or more established parties and politicians; putting him in a position to take his anti-nuclear message to the heart of government and hopefully have it listened to.
Obviously the realities of politics have proved more exacerbating for Yamamoto than he imagined. The ruling LDP are determined to control the debate on the nuclear energy. The idea is being propagated that the nuclear crisis is under control; the areas affected by contamination are being cleaned and thus Fukushima is ready for re-population and the people to get on with their lives. With a compliant media parroting the party line and the diversions of a successful Olympic bid, where the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe promised a global audience the crisis was “under control”, the stories of the the 150,000 people that had to evacuate the countryside around the the Daichi plant and the corruption and ineptitude of the operators before the accident and, now, in the clean-up process is slowly disappearing from people’s consciousness.
Taro Yamamoto did not enter politics to get rich or carve out a career in industries that lobby the power people like him gain after election. He would have been more admired and richer if he had remained an actor. He seems to care passionately and genuinely about the situation in Fukushima and appears determined to keep the debate current. But though he declared that he was “no longer alone” when he won the election it is possible that he found his voice much smaller than he had predicted.
There was a moment after the tragedy in March 2011 when the anti-nuclear message resonated widely. But the voices have grown weaker now, the touristing rebellion of many of the older protesters has moved to a grudging acceptance of the inevitable return to routine or even a full embrace of the new, comforting propaganda. Those that still passionately hold the hope they can make a difference can be found outside the diet building almost every Friday; but their numbers are shrinking and their motives and characters are being mercilessly othered in the press.
Questioning the official line is going to become more difficult as the voices against it grow weaker. Soon, new laws, being rushed through by the LDP will limit an already anaemic journalism’s legality in uncovering political secrets and this will further remove the options of arguing against the government’s agenda: that Fukushima will lose its notoriety nationally and ultimately internationally also.
Yet many know the Fukushima clean-up is cosmetic at best and a down-right lie at worst. Many know that the money and motivations to find alternative energies and rebuild the Tohoku coast is instead being diverted to building more nuclear power-stations or into nationalist projects such as Antarctic whaling.
Taro Yamamoto recklessness in breaking a taboo and trying to inform the Emperor of the plight of his people could be judged ill thought-out and punishably impolite; yet it is more likely a brave, calculated risk designed to change the narrative. He has worked too hard to throw away the advantage he has by actually being in power. Of course the demands on his resignation may grow too vociferous to ignore. The notoriety he now has may yet backfire and put an end to a new and promising political movement. But he has at least kept the subject of the problems in Fukushima in the public’s mind a little longer and though the path to this kind of influence over the electorate has been an unconventional one we may be seeing a new kind of politics emerging here, one that needs to challenge and change the normal, acceptable, appropriate and traditional ways of wielding and deferring to power. One can only hope that Emperor Akahito might rattle his own bars a little too someday.
As I wrote before; the ability of kids to make the best of these less than ideal living conditions still never fails to impress me: both the strength of the Tohoku people and the underestimated determination and sensitivity of the children themselves.
It is sometimes harder for the adults: the houses are small and noisy;privacy is minimal and they have the memories and the greater sense of loss. But the kids adapt quickly it seems and their happiness must be something that keeps the people who look after them going through bad times that were promised to have been over by now.
Busy on other Fukushima stories that I can’t show you until the client has used them.
Been a great couple of weeks of some quite amazing encounters.
Cars can no longer cross the bridge in Tomoioka Bay. The earthquake dropped it about 30 centimetres and on the other side the radiation readings climb rapidly to levels that are getting unsafe. We walked it across on our last day in Fukushima. It was a windy day and the sound of the wind howling through the arches and railing of the bridge was unsettling. Indeed it would have been hard to find a scarier soundtrack for the foolish steps we took into this empty, overgrown place. We were about 7 kilometres from the Daichi nuclear power station and had we been stupid enough to leave the road and wander the paths through the highly radioactive undergrowth to a nearby hilltop, we could probably have seen it.
Hillside, forest and craggy coastlines, this part of Tomioka must have been a nice place to live before the events of March 11th 2011 which made the encounter I had above even more poignant. I saw this couple dressed in makeshift radiation suits photographing the area as I crossed the bridge.
“is this your house?” I asked the man when I got closer and he had started to leave.
“Yes it is.” he said.
Then he turned and looked at the house and in the saddest tone I’ve ever heard said “Bye Bye”
He said no more, he didn’t need to.
He crossed back over the bridge, pausing one last time to look at his house, perhaps for the last time ever. Then he went down and we carried on into a place where there have been many similar, sad good-byes.
More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone at my archive here:
One of the things we have seen in Fukushima a lot, both inside and outside the exclusion zone, is the decontaminated earth and undergrowth piled up in vinyl bags. The government has decided to reduce the radioactivity of the soil around the Fukushima Daichi plant exclusion zone by removing the top two or three centimetres of soil. The aim is to reduce the contamination levels in affected areas to under one millisievert a year.
Farmland and residential areas are all to be scraped clean and many of Fukushima’s mountain areas (which accounts for around 60-70% of the contaminated land) will have 20 metres either side of every road cleared. This is what is happening in the image above near the village of Katsurao.
Some estimates put the total clean up area at 13% of the Prefecture: over 100 million cubic metres of soil and brush that so far is being stored in growing mountains of blue and black vinyl bags dotted around the countryside. Many of these are slowly being transported to special depots but some of the strict safeguards necessary to clean the area are already being ignored at this report in the Asahi Shimbun exposes.
Indeed, though technological solutions were promised to both speed-up and improve the decontamination work and companies that have expertise in dealing with such situation were invited to demonstrate their techniques; the job is mostly still being done by hand and the tools the workers can use are routinely primitive to say the least.
The Japanese government initially set aside 650 billion Yen for the decontamination but the area and the costs have risen beyond expectations. Corners are almost certainly being cut to save costs. Not least of these is in protecting the people doing the hard, dirty work of raking through the undergrowth and picking up the soil and leaves are putting them into the bags themselves. We saw no radiation suits or proper masks being worn. Indeed the most common mask we saw worn inside the zone, be they returning residents, clean up workers or policemen, was the next to useless hayfever paper mask that cost pennies in every convenience store. Some on the cleanup crew wore no masks at all! When we asked a not too happy security guard if the radiation was high in the trees and safe he said they measured it everyday and it was less than 0.6 microsieviets an hour (the Government reading). Yet if this was true why bother cleaning the area at all, it was already under the level that was the target of the action? Our Geiger counter read 1.57 microsieverts an hour on the road near where they were working. I cannot imagine what the readings must have been in the mud and leaves of the forest.
Whether this clean-up is for real or not is something I am unclear about. There are people returning to the Fukushima countryside for sure and a lot of the land in parks and schools and areas where people have quickly returned to now has a dry, dusty brown colour where the topsoil has already been removed. But the decontamination of the Prefecture’s mountains just looks like so much window dressing to me. Perhaps it will go on just long enough to convince people that efforts are being made to clean-up the mess and than will be quietly forgotten. It would take hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, to complete remove the top layer of the soil in the affected area of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures. A school playground can effectively been cleaned perhaps but the bottom twenty metres of a slope will easily be contaminated again the next time it rains anywhere on the slopes above. The project seems pointless to me: designed more to suggest it is now safe to return to the area; that nuclear pollution is actually easy to remove and thus nuclear energy itself is no longer something Japanese people should fear. This will of course make it easy for the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to follow through on its stated aim of building more nuclear power-stations.
Anyway it’s late I have another photo job tomorrow in Soma, north of the zone. And need to get some sleep.
The emperor of Japan visited the Kawauchi Elementary School last Autumn. There is a commemorative stone near the entrance to mark the event. The school children run past it on the way into school in the morning and out again in the afternoon. If they notice it they seem not to react to the honour. It makes their school special for parents and newspapers. But for the kids, their is school is special anyway.
The building is spacious and airy; the windows large and the floors and ceilings all polished wood and beams. The building is very beautiful but that is not what makes the school special. At 3:30pm as the school day finishes, the teachers (all of who seem to be quite young and wearing tracksuits) walk the children out, past the Emperor’s stone, and line them up to wait for the buses to take them home. The yellow-hatted first graders giggle and squirm as they wait. Noisy and naughty like six-year olds everywhere they are feral at this time of day and after climbing onto the buses rattle around the insides looking for distractions. Indeed as the teachers wave them good-bye, two small hands flap against the back window of the second bus; wishing the teachers desperate farewells. The hands are small against the emptiness of the bus’s back seats, the boy and girl, unable to continue the amusements of the queue in their isolation, look sad to be leaving. They are the only two children on the bus and they have nothing to do but wave. They are heading home to a town in a landscape that does not have a lot of young children anymore. This time two years ago in fact no one lived here at all.
After the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11th 2011 the town of Kawauchi swelled as it took in over a thousand homeless people from Tomioka on the coast. The tsunami could not reach this hill town of course but the sound of the explosions at the nearby Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant could and by March 15th the town was empty due to fear of radiation.
Yet Kawauchi is slowly recovering now it seems. One of the first places affected by radiation to re-open, the contamination readings are quite low and people are starting to make their lives here again. A lot of the topsoil has been removed and people are planting crops and setting up homes among the fields once more. A vegetable factory recently opened. Though if the area can ever regain the trust of the food consumer remains to be seen but there is hope that Kawauchi’s famous mushrooms will be a favourite of Japanese dishes as before. Most importantly however is the fact that some children have returned.
Even before the Fukushima disaster rural Tohoku had a problem with shrinking and ageing populations. Fears of radioactive contamination, and pointedly its effect on children, has unfortunately kept many from returning after they evacuated. In 2011 the number of students at the school stood at 114. This year there are only 24 across the first 6 grades. The first grade has a mere seven students: five boys and one girl. Grades three and four however have just one student each.
The teachers, all of whom were sent to the town from other areas of Fukushima when the school re-opened in April 2012, seem genuinely to love their posting here. Living in a school apartment building with other teachers from the elementary school and nearby junior high school and away from family and friends who are often in distant parts of the prefecture, they take the care of these kids very seriously. That reopening year there were only 16 students yet they have been surprised at how easily the kids have coped with the trauma of evacuation and a somewhat lonely return. Only one child was unable to get over the sounds of the explosions at the plant: Every-time it would thunder she would get very scared. All the teachers and other staff had to help her; talk to her; tell her it was going to be okay. It took just two weeks for the girl to believe them.
There is a deep skill and love in their teaching here. They know that the children are missing out on the normality of many friends and classmates and it is difficult for them so they fill in the spaces with a generosity of spirit that is humbling. We watched children practising athletics in the dusty, de-contaminated sports field. Athletics is a sport that individuals can do against the clock or each other because there are not enough students for a football or baseball team. All the teachers I met in this school seemed very genuine and gentle. Most importantly though they seemed to recognise that the children themselves were special. Just dealing with unreality of their school days here on the edges of the Fukushima exclusion zone takes a degree of bravery and determination that many children could not easily match.
The sun may have been out and the ground drier but due to the fact that not many people have been in the two years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the scenes of destruction in Tomioka were very reminiscent of the time I was working in Iwate just after the disaster. Add in some radioactivity and you have a nightmarish landscape that was just a little too familiar to be comfortable.
Off out to the zone again today.
More images of Tomioka Town inside the Fukushima exclusion zone at my archive site here: