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Japan Diary: Fukushima women

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Mary Olsen – Nuclear Information & Resource Service.

Early March 2016 – I am here in Japan with Arnie Gundersen from Fairewinds Energy Education (, and after leaving Fukushima Prefecture we have begun our speaking tour. People who have fled Fukushima turn up at our events, and side-gatherings are organized for me to meet with mothers and grandmothers who have moved out of contaminated areas. These meetings are called Tea Parties and are somewhat of a snowball! Word is spreading. I have met with Moms in Fukushima City, near Okayama, Onomichi, Kyoto, Maizuru, Osaka, and now in Tokyo ...often a Mom says a friend of hers met with me already.

These refugees from TEPCO's radioactivity are often in conflict. Many have left family members behind, in some cases suffering ridicule and derision from their relatives for leaving. There is a choice-point now that they have left; do they now fade into anonymity? Or do they stand up to say "see me" and fight for justice. Many are engaged in legal battles to win compensation. Some are now effectively homeless and relying on the help of service organizations, churches and help from family. Many are women whose husbands do not support their choice to move their children to less contaminated areas. Divorce due to Fukushima Daiichi is not uncommon.

In the field of physics they say that the act of viewing an event changes it. Here I will tell you that being seen, witnessed, also changes events. These two: seeing, and being seen, are not the same. A large part of what I can offer the radiation refugees is the simple act of being their witness. I met a representative of a service organization that has done interviews with families that were directly exposed when Fukushima Daiichi 1, 2 and 3 melted down ... and by contamination since 2011. When the report comes out, it will say that 80% of the large number of families they have spoken to have health problems. When this report becomes available, we will share it. For now, I will simply say: cancer is not the only harm that comes from radiation exposure.

For me, as a woman who suffered an acute radiation exposure at work at the age of 25 (1984), this is not news. This trip has been a personal gift to me insofar as I have never talked about the immediate and near-term problems I suffered after my exposure, but listening to these women I often say "Yes, that happened to me too. I understand."

Immediate harm includes decimation of the digestive tract, immune system, sensory function (primarily eyes but also sometimes taste and smell), reproductive function and physical depression. Some report becoming reactive to chemicals – something I experienced too. I have heard many reports of joint pain and a startling number of reports of spontaneous bone fracture. There are the nose-bleeds and headaches. It is also typical for people to be consumed by deep, tragic regret and/or rage. In Japan these last are clothed in daily decorum. And yes, thyroid cancer (in all ages) is appearing.

Yes, these symptoms all have multiple causations, but there is a pattern; and those suffering unequivocally know that they did not suffer these problems prior to exposure. The good news is that often these immediate non-cancer problems can reverse if the body is allowed to recover. A physician, one of the few here in Japan openly diagnosing radiation-related illnesses reports that when people move to safer zones, they are improving.

"You are the first person who has come to talk to me about radiation, and how to protect myself." I hear these words from a woman evacuated from her home in Namie, as we leave a Temporary Housing community room near Koriyama. It is nearly incomprehensible to me that I am the first person to talk with these women about the danger of radiation, and small ways they can reduce their exposures. Then, I remember: the invisibility of radioactivity is so convenient.

I meet this small group of women almost five years since they were forced to immediately leave their homes, many with only the clothes they were wearing. None of these women had any idea when they left that five years later they would still not be home. Most are allowed to visit their homes up to 30 times a year, but some of these visits are only for a few minutes because the radiation level remains high. The levels of contamination are a patchwork; some property has lower levels and one of my new friends spends a couple of afternoons a month at home.

Of 12 women I am meeting with, one has been officially informed that she can never go back, the level of radioactivity around her home exceeds any official plan to remediate. She sits quiet, it is apparent that her experience is quite different from the women who believe that the day will come when they can return. I am silently relieved that these women are grandmother-aged ... but I know that some areas are soon to be officially declared "OK" and that families with children are expected to return. If they do not, they will lose what benefits and support have been available to them ... but there is also no-one who would buy their homes. Really a bind.

One woman told me she has moved seven times in these five years. Her husband has died during that time, her children have moved away and she is alone now.

Where are the men? Many have died (those gathered are in their 60's and older). Some were already gone in 2011, and others are here, but prefer to hang together outdoors smoking. The Tea Party is a support group for women. Sometimes a guy will come, but not today.

I want to tell them that I do not think they should go to their house ... even if they are told their house is "OK." But there are many places here, in unrestricted areas of the Prefecture, where our monitoring team has seen levels 50 and 80 times usual background for this area ... and particles that are "through the roof" hot ... I am faced once again with depth of incomprehension that a nuclear meltdown's impacts produce. So, I say nothing.