One Person Can Make a Difference
by Jason Bartashius
On the second anniversary of the 3.11 disasters, all eyes zoomed in on the recently released World Health Organization’s assessment of the health risks caused by the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. The report indicated the likelihood of residents contracting cancer would rise only slightly. The findings, however, were quickly challenged by medical and biological scientists at a two-day symposium in New York titled, “The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident.”
And so the debate goes on. The conflicting opinions baffle, creating a sense of uncertainty that muddies victims’ hopes for the future. The discussions often fail to pay attention to the human struggles. The crisis in Fukushima has torn many families apart. Mothers evacuated with their children, who are more susceptible to radiation, while fathers stayed behind to work. Financial difficulties, health concerns, and psychological distress are just a few of the other challenges the nuclear evacuees must endure.
As part of her mission to raise awareness to the refugees’ circumstances, activist Yuko Nishiyama addressed SIETAR Kansai and Osaka JALT members on March 30th in Takatsuki.
Taking Action: Yuko Nishiyama and Minna no Te
Nishiyama’s presentation was a personal account of her experiences after the nuclear crisis began. On March 12, 2011, having no knowledge of the high radiation levels, she took her daughter, Mariko, to a nearby playground in Fukushima city. Before the crisis Mariko could only speak a few words. But, fearing the earthquake and ensuing aftershocks she quickly learned to say “Mommy help me. The earthquake.” Nishiyama hoped trips to the park might help her daughter regain a sense of normality.
It wasn’t until some days later that she learned—not from the government, but through a friend—of the dangerous radiation levels. She then realized the park was no longer a safe place for her daughter. Nishiyama’s home is 60 kilometers from the crippled power plant. She later discovered the radiation level near her home had reached 625 times above normal! By March 16, she felt that she should evacuate, but her parents and her husband were against her plan. This put her in a very difficult position.
Finally, when she learned the U.S. government had issued a warning for people within an 80-kilometer zone to evacuate, Yuko resolved to take her daughter to Tokyo. She flew from Fukushima to Haneda where she saw many others also leaving—some, she reported, planned to go as far away as Malaysia and China. Nishiyama and her daughter stayed in Tokyo for two months. However, the city office could not provide any support. It would have been financially difficult for her and her daughter to remain in Tokyo.
Nishiyama returned to Fukushima during Golden Week, and although she was glad to be back with her family, her worries about food, the air, and her daughter continued to plague her. Upon learning that Kyoto City had offered free housing for Fukushima victims, Nishiyama and her daughter moved again in June.
In Kyoto, Nishiyama soon sprung into action. She reached out to other evacuees as a way to combat loneliness in a foreign city. By networking she was able to organize Minna no Te, a support group for evacuees, which she now presides over. Minna no Te (http://www.minnanote.com/ ) assists the over 1,000 evacuees from the Tohoku and Kanto regions now living in Kyoto and the surrounding area. The organization accepts donations from the local community, arranges children’s events, produces a newsletter, shuttles people to and from Fukushima during the summer and New Year’s holidays, and is about to open a café. You name it. They’re doing it.
Since around 700 of the evacuees are from Fukushima, the organization puts emphasis on helping those affected by the nuclear crisis. One of Minna no Te’s most notable activities is the Kodomotachi no Natsu no Yume (“Children’s Summer Dream”) project. Children still in Fukushima are invited to Kyoto for a week to spend time with friends who evacuated. Nishiyama showed pictures of the activities children enjoyed last summer including their trip to Hirakata Park. She described how volunteers sold T-shirts and collected donations on street corners in downtown Kyoto to fund the project.
Nishiyama’s face lit up when she began to discuss her latest project, Minna no Café, which is scheduled to open this spring. She explained its purpose: to serve as a place where evacuees can connect with the local community. By employing evacuees the café can also be viewed as a means to address the economic struggles many face.
Nishiyama’s presentation also touched on the sad realities found in Fukushima. On a trip back to Fukushima she snapped a shot of a Geiger counter displaying one microsievert being held in front of an overgrown lot that was once her family’s well-tended garden. This is far from acceptable.
During her visits to Fukushima she also observed the ways people are learning to cope and accept the presence of radiation. For instance, a kindergarten principal proudly showed Nishiyama a newly constructed indoor play area. Since children’s playtime outdoors has been restricted, building a facility to substitute for a playground seems to be the only feasible solution at this school. Nishiyama questioned whether this was real progress.
Parental concern for children’s health was another topic Nishiyama discussed. More than 40 percent of children in Fukushima have been found to have thyroid abnormalities, such as cysts and growths. Studies have been conducted on a smaller sampling of children in other prefectures. The results suggest that this phenomenon is not unique to Fukushima.
Nonetheless, parents, understandably, continue to worry. Three children have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer bringing the total number of children “believed to be suffering some form of cancer” to 10. (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/ 2013/02/14 /national/ fukushima-disaster-panel-so-far-reports-three-young-people-have-thyroid-cancer/ #.UXDM44768as) As Nishiyama explained, concern and suspicion are exacerbated by many doctors’ refusals to fully disclose to parents all the results of the thyroid tests.
Volunteering for a Better World
At the end of her presentation, and at the following dinner party, the conversation turned back again to volunteerism. The audience inquired about ways to get involved. One member offered to help arrange for Nishiyama to be a guest speaker at her university. Another member volunteered to assist in teaching the children English at an upcoming event.
Nishiyama also invited the audience to take part in this year’s “Children’s Summer Dream” project. Volunteers will be needed to help with fundraising. People will also be needed to assist with the children’s activities. By telling her story and inviting others to help, Nishiyama relayed her conviction, “One person can make a difference.”
For related articles, see http://www.deepkyoto.com/?p=7886