Inhumane Treatment of Nuclear Disaster Victims

On October 02, I visited the towns of Tomioka and Naraha in Fukushima prefecture. Tomioka is situated within 10 km south of Fukushima Dai-ichi (No. 1) nuclear power plant, where four of the six reactors exploded following the major earthquake and the tsunami of March 11, 2011. It is now a ghost town as it is still under a mandatory evacuation order. Many houses along the road we toured by bus appeared still new, as if they had been built just before the disaster. They also looked intact, at least from the outside, but the owners may never be able to return to them.

Arriving in front of the Tomioka Dai-ni (No. 2) junior high school, our guide suggested that we get off to take a quick peek through the glass door of its gym. The area had not been affected by the tsunami, and the evacuation order was apparently issued in the middle of a graduation ceremony being held there. One can imagine how panicky people inside must have become at the news of the first explosion close by. Papers and chairs were scattered on the gym floor in chaos. One can imagine that there was at least an auspicious event going on when people suddenly had to flee. The red-and-white-striped curtain still hung around the walls inside.

I then took a quick look at the athletic field. After 5.5 years since the accident, the whole ground was overtaken by thick and tall weeds. One would not realize that it had been the area where kids used to run, play baseball, etc. Even the goals for soccer game were almost covered by the overgrown weeds. Standing there, I wondered where the children and their families had fled to.

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Tomioka Dai-ni Junior High’s athletic field

On the other hand, the situation in Naraha, about 15 km south of the nuclear power station, is a bit different. The evacuation order for the town was lifted on Sept. 05, 2015 after decontamination work had been carried out. According to Mr. Tokuo Hayakawa, the resident priest of a 600-year-old Buddhist temple in town called Houkyou-ji, however, few former residents had returned. For example, out of the 7,363 residents registered with the municipal government at the time of the lifting of evacuation order, only 440, or approximately 6%, came back. Among those under the age of 50, however, only 49 persons, or 0.7%, returned.

According to the priest, the decontamination work normally involved the scrubbing of rooftop and removing of old leaves and the surface of the earth within 20 meters around the house, making the radiation level around the house low enough to live, at least immediately after the work. However, no work is carried out in fields, woods and forests where radiation is still considerably high. As many houses in this rural town stand near wooded areas, the radiation level surrounding the house still varied depending on weather conditions. Under this circumstance, many families with children have opted to remain as evacuees elsewhere as they still feel their hometown unsafe for the children to live normally.

Many victims of the disaster are skeptical of government policies in dealing with them. One such policy concerns the maximum dose of radiation exposure people are allowed per year for maintaining healthy life. Before the accident, the Japanese government had accepted the standard set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which was 1mSv/year. After the disaster, however, it raised to 20mSv/year. Rather than questioning this decision by the national government in view of protecting its own residents, the Fukushima prefectural government has gone along with it. No wonder that many residents from affected towns and villages have decided to continue living elsewhere as evacuees.

However, the Japanese government is now putting pressure on voluntary evacuees to go home. Those from the areas where mandatory evacuation order has been lifted after decontamination work are now considered as evacuees on their own discretion. The government has announced that the housing assistance to such people would be discontinued after March 2017. Those who resist this pressure rightly demand that the government and TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company which was responsible for the accident in Fukushima, restore the environment in their hometowns back to the previous state. According to the Citizen’s Network for Evacuation from Radiation, a non-profit organization helping the evacuees from Fukushima, there were still 49,333 individuals evacuated to elsewhere within Fukushima prefecture (as of June 20, 2016). On the other hand, 41,532 persons were accounted for as evacuees in other prefectures (as of May 16, 2016). How many of them are now considered as voluntary evacuees is not clear, however.

One other government’s stance that I consider so inhumane and unacceptable concerns people’s health in relation to the disaster, particularly that of children. Since 2011, Fukushima prefecture has conducted rounds of medical exam of the children under the age of 18 at the time of the disaster. The first round held between 2011 and 2013 covered 300,476 children, while the second round held between 2014 and 2015 included 199,772. Among those examined, 172 have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, 131 of them have already been operated, while 41 are waiting to be operated. This is compared with only one or two cases of thyroid cancer reported among 1 million people (Info provided in the Leaflet by the Citizen’s Network for Evacuation from Radiation, dated June 28, 2016).   Nevertheless, the “medical specialists” responsible for the examination conducted under the auspices of the prefectural government assert that there is no convincing link between those cases with the nuclear accident. They claim that it is due to screening effect, meaning that highly advanced instrument used for exam detect even those at the very early stage of cancer that can be ignored for some time. However, this does not explain the fact that so many children had to be operated!

The words of the “specialists”, condoned by the national and prefectural governments, are not comforting to the parents and their children living in fear after the disaster. I consider inhumane for the authorities to demand that possible victims of the disaster prove the link between thyroid cancers or any other sicknesses with radiation exposure. Rather, I suggest that residents demand that the authorities prove that the disaster had nothing to do with the cases of sicknesses reported since March 2011. This can be done by carrying out similar exams on children in some selected prefectures to compare the result. If the cases of children’s thyroid cancer are truly due to screening effect as they claim, they should obtain similar results elsewhere.

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Takae’s Struggle

In early August, I visited Takae, a remote and small district of about 150 inhabitants in Higashi village in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, to take part in a sit-in against the construction of “Osprey-pads”. Two have already been built near Takae, adjacent to or surrounded by the pristine sub-tropical forest called Yanbaru, rich with its unique biodiversity. About 7,800 hectares of Yanbaru is reserved as the Northern Training Field (NTF) where the US Marine Corps’ Jungle Warfare Training Center is located. The US Marines have used the area since 1957 for training their soldiers for jungle warfare before they were dispatched to Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere in the world.

Yanbaru forestA

Yanbaru

The proposal to construct new “Osprey-pads” stems from the SACO (Special Action Committee on Okinawa) agreement dating back to 1996, concluded between the Japanese and the American governments. The agreement followed a huge demonstration in Okinawa in 1995, demanding the reduction of US military presence there after a local school girl was raped by three American soldiers. According to the Administrative Agreement under Article III of the Security Treaty between the two countries, Japan cannot even arrest and try any member of the US military forces who commit crime on Japanese soil (ja.m.wikipedia.org). Naturally, the Okinawans have rightly been angry at this situation in view of the fact that they host 74% of US military bases situated in Japan when their prefecture comprises only 0.6% of the total land area of the country (See my previous blog “Okinawa’s Struggle”).

Alarmed by the growing hostility of the locals towards the US military presence, the two governments tried to appease them by announcing that about 4,000 hectares of the NTF be returned to them, thereby reducing their burden. About half of Yanbaru forest now occupied by the US Marine Corps to be given back to the people sounded too good to be true. Sure enough, it was to be delivered with a certain condition.

There are already 22 helipads built throughout the NTF. Therefore, the condition of returning half of the NTF was based on the relocation of six existing ones in the part to be returned to the part remaining as the NTF. Moreover, the six “helipads” were to be built in such a way to surround the community of Takae (“Voice of Takae”, Oct. 01, 2013). However, little had the locals been told that the new “helipads” were no ordinary “helipads”, but were for flight training of MV22 Osprey, “a tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft almost universally reviled for its noise and safety record (See “Fighting to Save A Remote Okinawan Forest” by Jon Letman in his blog dated Aug. 12, 2016). Besides, each new “Osprey-pad” would require a space of 75 meters in diameter, including the landing pad of 45 meters in diameter, much larger than an ordinary helipad (“Voice of Takae”, op cit.). So, this was far from having the locals’ burden to be reduced. It was totally the opposite.

MV22Osprey

MV22 Osprey

In response to the SACO agreement, the Takae residents adopted in 1997 a resolution opposing the construction of new “helipads” in their district, and this was repeated in 2006. Nevertheless, the Japanese government ignored them and went ahead with the construction work in July 2007, when the residents began their sit-in. So, the government took some sit-in participants to court for obstructing traffic on a public road. But it was clearly a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit by the government to bully, harass and divide the villagers. The case, in which 15 individuals had originally been accused, including a child, lingered on till 2014, in which one defendant at the end was found guilty (Information provided at a lecture meeting held on July 30, 2016, at Community Centre in Funabashi, Chiba and “Voice of Takae”, June 28, 2015).

While the villagers continued with their opposition to new Osprey-pads, two were completed by 2014, one of which is located only 400 meters away from the nearest house in the village. The actual Osprey flight training using the completed ones began in 2015. While it has been reported that they are not allowed to fly over residential areas in the United States, they fly low over houses and schools in Takae day and night, destroying the quiet life of the villagers and precious environment in Yanbaru (“Voice of Takae,” June 28, 2015). Due to continuous resistance by the villagers and their supporters from elsewhere, however, the construction of other Osprey-pads had been suspended till July this year.

The work resumed suddenly and forcefully, however, soon after the elections of the upper house of Parliament in July. This was despite that the Okinawans clearly expressed their opposition to new US military installations by overwhelmingly defeating the member of PM Abe’s cabinet who was up for re-election there. As if to take a revenge for the election result, PM Abe sent in early in the morning of July 22 about 500 riot police gathered from different municipalities around Japan to remove about 200 villagers and supporters taking part in a sit-in in front of the main entrance leading to the construction site in the NTF.

Owing to soft soil in Yanbaru, heavy-duty trucks carrying building materials in and out of the construction sites have apparently caused a few places to cave in, hampering dumper trucks to transport materials smoothly. Therefore, the government announced the acceleration of the work by allowing trucks to enter from another point into the NTF, where the villagers have been blocking the entry by putting up a fence.

There was a rumor in early Aug. that the riot police would storm this gate early in the morning of either the 5th or the 6th of August. The villagers therefore appealed urgently to supporters around Japan, asking as many of them as possible to come and assemble in front of the gate to prevent the riot police from destroying the fence and removing the sit-in participants. So two friends and I flew to Okinawa to join about 1,500 others who responded to the appeal that weekend and spent tense and sleepless nights in tents and cars. Perhaps the number of us gathered there was too overwhelming for the riot police, so nothing happened on those days. Since then, the sit-ins by the villagers and supporters continue, and as at this writing, the gate blocking trucks’ entry at the other point is still intact.

The way the Japanese government has proceeded with the construction of new and large Osprey-pads under the pretext of reducing the Okinawans’ burden in relation to the presence of the US military forces has been awful and cowardly. The government tactic cannot be justified in a democratic country where human rights and pursuit of happiness of all citizens, including those of the Okinawans, are guaranteed under our current Constitution. A villager said that although PM Abe and the LDP, the ruling party, had been warning the Japanese people that unless we strengthened our defense, we might be engulfed by China or North Korea, but it was the riot police from the main land Japan who invaded Takae.

There should be open and nation-wide debates on national security and defence matters to agree on what should be done for the future of our country. Once we have a consensus, the burden should be shared fairly, rather than forcing the Okinawans to shoulder a large part of it.

It should be noted here that the US Veretans for Peace (VFP) adopted at its 31st annual convention (Aug. 11- 15, Berkeley, California) the Emergency  Resolution Opposing Arbitrary Resumption of Helipad Construction at Takae.  VFP “condemns the renewed helipad construction at Takae, and urges the US Government, and in particularthe US military, to communicate to the Japanese government that the US wants no part of this shameful, anti-democratic and discriminatory action, that it does not want new bases at such a price, and that it wishes Japan to abandon the plan to construct new US bases at Henoko and Takae.”

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Okinawa’s Struggle

Last November, I joined a three-day study tour to Okinawa. Since Mr. Takeshi Onaga won the gubernatorial race there in Dec. 2014, he has been fighting, in line with the popular will of the Okinawans, against the pressure from the Abe administration concerning the construction of a new US military base in Henoko in central Okinawa. In comparison with P.M. Abe who has pushed for the restart of nuclear reactors and new security-related laws in 2015, both against the will of the majority of the citizens in the country, according to opinion polls, Mr. Onaga appears as an ideal political leader in a democratic nation. Therefore, the number of people who support him keeps increasing throughout Japan. Under this circumstance, I decided to participate in the study tour to better understand the island and its people.

Before our departure from Tokyo and during our stay there, we received six hours of lecture in total on Okinawa from three different university professors. The were thought-provoking and meaningful. The archipelago of Okinawa was once a small, but an independent kingdom called Ryukyu with its unique language and culture. In 1609 it was invaded by the Satsuma feudal clan, which used to occupy the present-day Kagoshima prefecture area in southern Kyushu and became a vassal state of the clan. Then in 1872, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it was annexed by Japan. From March to June, 1945 at the final stage of World War II, fierce ground battles were fought in Okinawa in which a large majority of the residents were caught under fire. The islanders went through unspeakable misery of the war where 25% of the citizens were believed to have died and most of their houses destroyed.

After the defeat in 1945, Japan was occupied by the US military administration until 1952 when it regained its independence following the San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, Okinawa was disconnected from Japan and was continued to be ruled by the US military until it was finally returned to Japan in 1972. During those years under the US rule, the human rights of Okinawans were not guaranteed by the US constitution. In a sense, even the situation in current Okinawa and in Japan as well, for that matter, has not changed much. Because of the existing SOFA (US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement), the Japanese police cannot do anything with respect to crimes committed by US military personnel.

Immediately after the war and during the US occupation, Japan hosted many US military bases throughout the country. However, after 1952, the US military moved many of its functions and bases to Okinawa, which was still under its rule. As a result, the Okinawans were forced to bear heavier burden of having to live with more noises and base-related crimes. The main reason of the Okinawans’ struggle to rejoin Japan was that they thought they would be ensured of human rights as much as those in the mainland Japan enjoyed and that they would be able to live in peace and quiet with much reduced US military bases.

However, there was no reduction of US bases there even after Okinawa returned to the Japanese rule. Its burden of hosting US military bases has not been lightened at all; in fact, both the Japanese and the US governments intend to maintain the level of US presence there. The area of Okinawa is only 0.6% of the whole of Japan, but 74 % of US military bases located in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. Moreover, both governments have pushed for the construction of a new and bigger base in Henoko as a condition to close the Futenma US military airfield, which is said to be the most dangerous airfield in the world as it is surrounded by densely populated areas. The governments have been promoting and pushing for a new base in Henoko by ignoring the strong opposition of the Okinawans who have been forced to carry heavy burden of hosting military bases.

Throughout Japan, the proponents of a new base assert to those who oppose it that Okinawa would not be viable economically without US military bases. However, available data show that the base-related revenue accounted for 15.5% of the prefectural gross income in 1972, which declined to 4.9% by 2011. On the other hand, the tourism revenue jumped more than ten-fold from 32.4 billion yen in 1972 to 390.5 billion yen in 2013 (http://www.pref.okinawa.jp). Against the backdrop of Asia’s continuing economic growth, the tourism sector might even grow further if bases are eliminated from Okinawa. In any case, what the Okinawans are now demanding is that the hazardous Futenma airfield be closed as soon as possible and a new helipad in Takae and a new base in Henoko not be constructed. They are not demanding that the US Air Force Base in Kadena or other bases elsewhere in the archipelago be closed.

After arriving in Naha airport, we first visited the Sakima art museum in Ginowan city. There we saw a huge painting by Iri and Toshi Maruki entitled “The Drawing of Battles of Okinawa”, a powerful picture describing the suffering of the people of Okinawa during the war. Just standing in front of this impressive art work, I could feel the agony of the people of the archipelago in those days. From the rooftop of the museum, one can see the Futenma airfield. Later we listened to the talk of Ms. Eiko Itami, a member of Soul Flower Union, a music group, who had moved to Okinawa from the Kansai area of the mainland Japan 10 years ago. She is opposed to the construction of a new base in Henoko, but since 2007 she has been organizing music events in Ginowan city involving those who accept the new base. There seems to be a good atmosphere being created between the groups through cooperative work to make the events successful. Her positive outlook and open-mindedness must be paying off.

On the second day, we visited the seaside site of the group movement opposing a new base in Henoko. We also went to the tent in front of the gate of Camp Schwab, a US Marine Corps base, where a proposed new base is to be constructed by extending the current Marine base into the beautiful sea by reclaiming land. This would definitely destroy the natural habitat of dugons, an endangered species of sea mammal which can be seen only in Henoko around Japan. There, the leaders briefed us on the background and current status of their struggle. We also joined the demonstration in front of the gate, which was conducted peacefully as it was before the riot police from Tokyo arrived.

There is no convenience store or eating place in front of or near the gate. Under such circumstances, the lunch prepared by three charming women was delicious. Clad in a pink T-shirt with anti-base slogans on both sides of the shirt, these three ladies in their 70s, known there as “Zama Candies” apparently make monthly trips to Okinawa from Kanagawa prefecture to support the anti-base movement as volunteers and prepare lunch for the supporters, charging the actual cost. Where there is no eating place in front of the gate, the heartfelt lunch prepared by them was much appreciated.

Those who condone the new base in Henoko claim that those who oppose it are being paid the daily allowance of 20,000 yen for participating in demonstrations. What is the base for their assertion? We did not meet anyone who seems to fit that category. All the members of my study tour group paid for our trips out of own pockets, keeping the expenses down by staying in low-cost accommodation. It was reported that the members of the riot police are staying in luxury hotels costing taxpayers 20,000 yen per person per night (Shukan Kinyoubi News, Nov. 20, 2015 issue). We are different from the riot police who stay in top-notch hotels.

I learned a lot before and during the trip. The thundering noises of jet fighters in training flying overhead from early in the morning was too much to bear, but this is what the Okinawans have to put up with daily. However, the most memorable experience for me was the meeting with Mr. Minoru Kinjo, a sculptor-artist. Being a peace activist, he entrusts his powerful messages of the misery of war and desire for peace in all his works. His numerous sculptures being displayed side by side in both his garden and atelier condensed the sadness, anger and tenderness of Okinawa before, during and after WWII and they captured my heart. When P.M. Abe and other dignitaries of his administration visit Okinawa, I wish them to visit Mr. Kinjo’s atelier to truly understand the people there.

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Abe Shinzo, a runaway prime minister: His decision to re-start nuclear reactors

Currently 56.7% of Japanese people oppose the restart of nuclear reactors while 34.4% support it (see Tokyo Shimbun dated August 16, 2015). Ignoring this national sentiment, PM Abe decided that nuclear reactors would re-start from the 11th of August. The first reactor which was re-started is located at the Sendai power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, in the southern main island of Kyushu. The second one there is expected to be put back into operation in September. Normally electricity demand in extremely hot and humid summer months would jump up because of the use of air conditioners. Nevertheless, our electricity supply has been more than sufficient this summer and the last. At least, no incident of blackout has been reported. Moreover, there is an active volcano called Sakurajima within 50km from the Sendai power plant, and the eruption alert of this volcano has been raised, as of the 16th of Aug., from level 3 (climbing the mountain is restricted) to level 4 (ordering of evacuation preparation). There are other active volcanoes nearby, as well. Under these conditions, it is difficult to understand why nuclear reactors had to be re-activated at this time. I would say it is a reckless act of a runaway PM Abe.

There are some elements in relation to the re-operation of nuclear reactors that I consider reckless. One of them is that no sufficient evacuation plans have been drawn out for the residents near the plant in case of an accident. In addition, if reactors are put back into operation, this would only add up to the nuclear waste we have already accumulated thus far without having a clear and reliable policy on its safe disposal or processing. For a small earthquake-prone country like ours with so many active volcanoes throughout the country, we should not leave behind us more than what we have already accumulated the extremely dangerous nuclear waste for our future generations to have to deal with. That is the wish of the majority of people in Japan, but the head of Nippon Keidanren or Japan Business Federation, a powerful business lobbyist group, issued a statement welcoming PM Abe’s decision.

After the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, we experienced an unprecedented disaster as a result of the meltdown in Fukushima. Since then most of the nuclear reactors had been put to rest for maintenance and construction work to install new measures under the new safety standards stipulated by Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Due to the fact that about 30% of Japan’s electricity consumption used to be met by nuclear power until the disaster, however, both the government and the public were concerned about possible power shortage, especially during summer months. The former PM Noda therefore decided to put two reactors back into operation to cope with the situation.

As all reactors must stop after 13 months of operation for inspection and maintenance, these two reactors were of no exception, and Japan managed all right for the last two years without any single nuclear reactor in operation. This did not hinder normal economic activities or did not prevent the public from enjoying life as comfortable as before. The power companies might have faced difficult financial situations due to sharp increases in the import of oil and LNG. However, I wonder if PM Abe or Keidanren would not have imagined what might happen to Japan if another disaster like the one in Fukushima is repeated. How could they have made such a serious decision that might affect the survival of this country merely based on their short-term profit or loss?

Another point I consider reckless is that, as in the past, there is no clear-cut understanding of who is ultimately responsible for the safety of people concerned. PM Abe kept saying that only the reactors judged as safe by “world’s most strict safety standards” stipulated by NRC would be permitted to re-start. Indeed, the reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant have been declared to be in compliance with the new standards, but the chairman of NRC has repeatedly stated that even if they met the new standards, NRC was not in the position to guarantee the safety of reactors. .

In other words, the NRC chairman is implying that accidents can occur. If so, establishing realistic evacuation plans of people concerned in case of a disaster becomes absolutely essential. PM Abe, on the other hand, says that even if reactors are judged to be in compliance with the new standards, it was up to each power company to ultimately decide whether to re-start reactors or not. This shows that no one of the PM, the NRC and the power company is willing to take the ultimate responsibility in case of a disaster. If another horrific accident like the one in Fukushima is repeated, victims’ health would be ruined due to radiation exposure, their environment destroyed, they be forced to flee their homes and communities and their families disintegrated. On the other hand, tax payers would end up being forced to shoulder increased taxes to cover compensations to victims, no matter how hard they have campaigned against nuclear energy, simply because no power company can afford to pay huge compensation bills.

What I consider most unforgivable in relation to the re-start of nuclear reactors is how the government is treating the people of Fukushima when the disaster there is still far from being put under control. Not only that more than 100,000 affected residents are still forced to live in uncomfortable, temporary shelters, but also many of them are now being pressured by the government to return home. In addition, despite the number of cases of thyroid cancer discovered among children in Fukushima is much higher than the national average, the government still has not come to admitting officially, as of Aug. 16, a causal relationship with the nuclear meltdown there. Doesn’t it seem like a story that you might hear in a poor developing country somewhere far away? Indeed, this is what is happening in Japan, the third largest economy in the world!

Shinzo Abe and government officials have repeatedly stated that they would stand by the people of Fukushima in their recovery and reconstruction effort, but I would say that they should demonstrate this by action, and not merely by empty words. For example, the government cancelled at the end of Dec. 2014 the evacuation order for the Minamisoma area, pressuring the residents to go home. However, this was done by suddenly raising from 1mSv of the annual radiation exposure dose limit in their communities to 20mSv. It should be mentioned that the value of 20mSv per annum is the same as the restriction standards applicable to those who work in radiation controlled area in nuclear power plant. This sudden raise of the value of radiation exposure dose limit seems like something that we may witness in a dictatorial country where law is bent or reinterpreted to suit the convenience of the dictator. Naturally, the people of Minamisoma are now in a legal battle against the government, demanding that the cancellation of the evacuation order be withdrawn.

A similar case can be reported of the people of Narahamachi, not far from Minamisoma. They had been ordered to go home by mid Aug., but the government has agreed to postpone the cancellation of the evacuation order till Sept. 05 due to the strong opposition by the residents. After decontamination work around the house, the government insists that the radiation level has gone down to the level safe for residents to go home. But the radiation level fluctuates in different weather as fields, woods and forests cannot be decontaminated, and the residents assert that under such conditions, they would not be able to engage safely in agriculture or forestry, the main economic activities. Furthermore, they say that the tap water cannot be used safely as 10,000 Becquerel of cesium has accumulated per 1kg of mud at the bottom of the reservoir, the source of tap water. The government insists, however, that even drinking tap water is safe as no radioactivity has been detected from the surface layer of the reservoir. But who would accept those words with ease, especially after a rainy or windy day? Naturally, the residents would be very reluctant to go home in this situation.

Having been convinced of the myth that nuclear plants were safe and necessary propagated by the government and the power company, the people of Fukushima had accepted the national policy of building nuclear reactors in their hometowns. Yet, the way they are now being treated by the government is totally disgraceful and unacceptable. Under such circumstances, there should have never been a green light given for the re-operation of the Sendai nuclear power plant.

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Crisis of democracy in Japan?

Japan ranked 61st among 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a Paris-based watchdog. It ranked 11th among 173 countries in 2010, but its position deteriorated quickly to 53rd among 178 countries in both 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, it was down to 59th among 180 countries in 2014, meaning that its ranking dropped from 11th to 61st just in five years. In compiling the index, RWB evaluates a range of criteria such as “media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.”(http://index.rsf.org/)

Why such a sharp drop in freedom of the press in Japan in recent years? The deteriorating situation coincided with the re-emergence of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in 2012. He had once held the post just for a year from Sept. 2006, from which he stepped down for health reasons. It is interesting to note that Japan ranked 37th among 161 countries in 2005, but worsened to 51st in 2006, after which it improved to 37th in 2007 and further up to 17th in 2009 and 11th in 2010.

Regarding media pluralism, one of the criteria considered by RWB, I feel our society used to be open enough to allow newspapers, and TV stations affiliated with them, with a range of political views to operate freely. However, the established media with critical views toward the policies being pushed by Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are reported to be under increasing pressure from them. In recent months, for example, it was reported that Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat turned political commentator critical of Abe, had been removed from a TV Asahi news show under the pressure from them. There were other cases involving other broadcasters in which political bullying was rumored to have been behind in the ousting of certain individuals from news programs.

Abe and LDP’s attempt to intimidate and muzzle the media having negative views toward them extends not only to Japanese journalists but also to foreign correspondents (e.g. see “Confessions of a foreign correspondent after a half-decade of reporting from Tokyo to his German readers” by Carsten Germis of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which appeared in Number 1 Shimbun, April 02, 2015, after completing his assignment). Germis wrote in the article that Japan as he had known soon after his arrival in Tokyo and the country he left after five years of assignment had changed considerably.

For example, according to him, foreign journalists had often been invited to the Kantei, the PM’s official residence, where current issues were openly discussed when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. After Dec. 2012, however, he felt no appreciation for openness on the part of Abe’s administration. Although foreign correspondents had a long list of issues to be clarified and elaborated on by the government, there was no willingness shown by the government to talk with them. Yet, anyone who wrote articles critical of Abe’s policies was identified as a “Japan basher.”

Furthermore, citing his own experience, Germis claims that today even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved in exerting pressure on journalists. After he wrote an article critical of Abe’s historical revisionism, “the paper’s senior foreign policy editor was visited by the Japanese consul general of Frankfurt, who passed on objections from Tokyo.” This diplomat complained that the Chinese had used his article for their anti-Japanese propaganda. Worse, he even insulted him, the editor and the entire paper by insinuating that the journalist must have been paid by Beijing. According to him, this kind of behavior on the part of diplomats was unthinkable five years ago.

Such behavior from Abe’s camp make a mockery out of freedom of the press and people’s right to know, the fundamentals of democracy. Leading to and up till the end of WWII, people had been kept in the dark or silenced by the press controlled and manipulated by the militaristic government of those days and as a result ordinary citizens ended up paying heavy price. That is why journalists and citizens have nurtured over the last 70 years the basics of democracy. However, we witnessed a rollback in this respect in Dec. 2013 when the law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, or commonly known as a secrecy law, was enacted. It was aimed at preventing civil servants from “leaking” whatever the government deems to be “national secrets.” However, journalists and many people claim that it curtails their right to know.

The institutional mechanism to secure independence of the media in Japan is also far from being adequate. For example, the head of NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation), the public broadcaster funded by TV reception fees levied on all households possessing a television, is appointed by the prime minister, rather than being chosen by an independent commission.

The current head of NHK, Katsuto Momii, appointed by Shinzo Abe in Jan. 2014 for a three-year term, has been widely criticized for his views considered as not suitable for the post. While having to be independent and impartial, he stated he would not be able to say “left” when the government says “right.” This was his response to a question concerning the territorial issues between Japan with China and South Kores at the very first press conference upon his appointment. In another occasion, he was asked if NHK would broadcast a thoroughly investigative report on the highly controversial issue of “comfort women” from the WWII era. He replied “no” on the ground that the government position on it had not been firmly established. No wonder, lots of people feel that he is not suitable to head the public broadcaster which should be independent of the government.

The latest incident showing Abe administration’s increasing attempt to muzzle the media was exposed in late June. According to a leaked report from a closed “study” meeting involving about 40 junior lawmakers from LDP, close to Abe, held at the party HQs, the attendants apparently discussed how the two newspapers popularly supported in Okinawa, which are highly critical of Abe’s military policies, should be destroyed. Abe first shrugged off the criticism from the opposition parties regarding the behavior of his party members disrespectful of democracy, saying that the comments had been made in a private gathering. However, as media criticism grew wider and louder on this matter, he was eventually forced to apologize to the people of Okinawa, admitting that he was ultimately responsible for the comments made at the LDP HQs.

In view of the above, the sharp drop in Japan’s ranking in World Press Freedom Index in the last five years is understandable. But we should not just sit and allow our situation to deteriorate further. Both journalists and ordinary citizens need to be aware of what is happening and must reclaim our fundamental rights under democracy, guaranteed by our constitution since the end of WWII. Otherwise, we will one day wake up, realizing that our society has gone back to the dark era.

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Worsening child poverty in Japan and women’s predicament

According to Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions, a report released in 2014 by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) of Japan, the Japanese are economically worse off now than before. The relative poverty rate (the proportion of people with net income below a defined threshold) worsened to 16.1% in 2012 from 15% in 2004. The 2012 threshold calculated by MHLW based on OECD standards was 1.22 million yen, which was half of the median equivalent disposable income. Japan’s poverty rate was the 4th highest among the OECD countries, following Mexico, the country with the highest rate, Turkey and the United States. It also noted that the poverty rate of those under 18 years of age was 16.3%, indicating that one out of six children fall in this category (http://www.nipppon.com/en/features/h00072/). The rate was 11% in 1985, 12.1% in mid-1990s, 14% in mid-2000 and 15.7% in 2009 (OECD Family Database and http://www.oecd.org/els/social/inequality).

The trend of relative child poverty in Japan is worrying. The situation affects negatively the healthy growth, both physical and mental, of our future generations as well as their outlook on life. A study carried out among high school students regarding their future plans showed a close correlation between their aspiration to go on to university and the level of their family income (http://3keys.jp/state/).

Children should be allowed to hold aspiration for the future, irrespective of their economic condition at birth or during their childhood, and should be given the opportunity to strive for their dreams. So, unless we look at the hard reality of worsening child poverty and tackle the problem today, we may wake up one day with huge inequalities and little social mobility. This must be avoided in our society, the population of which is now declining. Securing a dynamic population is of utmost importance for our society to continue thriving in the 21st century.

Following WWII, the whole of Japan struggled to make ends meet, to rebuild the country destroyed in the war and to escape from the hardships experienced during and after the war. And, lo and behold, Japan became the second largest economy in the world by 1968, though surpassed by China in 2009 (The World Bank database). For a long time, the Japanese had little class consciousness. Most people used to consider themselves as part of the large middle class in an egalitarian society.

This changed around 1990, however, when Japan experienced a sharp economic downturn. Its net worth (national wealth), including land and stock prices, reached the peak of 3,531 trillion yen in 1990, which was eight times the GDP, but was down to 3,000 trillion yen at the end of 2012 (Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication: Statistical Handbook of Japan 2014).

After 1990, a growing number of workers faced an uncertain future. They suddenly found themselves unemployed or were forced to accept “non-regular” status, giving up the job security and accompanying fringe benefits they had enjoyed before. Many new entrants to the labor market were able to find only non-regular jobs without being able to accumulate seniority or being able to claim benefits, such as bonuses, which were offered only to regular employees. Here, “non-regular workers” include part-time, temporary, seasonal and contract workers who do not enjoy company-provided social protection and other benefits that regular workers usually enjoy.

The figures below illustrate the changing employment structure in Japan. Although the total number of workers grew from 39.99 million in 1985 to 51.11 million in 2010, the rise was largely among non-regular workers — from 6.55 million to 17.56 million. The proportion of non-regular workers among all employees climbed from 16.4% in 1985 to 35.2% in 2012 (MHLW: Rohdohkeizai no bunseki (Analysis of labor economics), 2013). By 2013, non-regular workers increased to 19.06 million, 68% of which were women (http://www.stat.go.jp/data/roudou/sokuhou/4hanki/dt/).

This has led to lower average net income, but more importantly, to widening household income gaps. Among male regular workers in 2013, 39.6% earned 5 million yen or more, 37.7% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 22.7% less than 3 million yen. Among male non-regular workers, only 4.4% earned 5 million yen or more, 15.3% between 3 to 4.99 million yen and 80.3% less than 3 million yen. On the other hand, only 13.7% of female regular workers earned 5 million yen or more, while 33% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen and the rest (53.3 %) less than 3 million yen. In fact, 19.2% of them earned only between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 5.9% less than 1 million yen. Female non-regular workers fared far worse. Very few of them (0.4%) earned 5 million yen or more, while 3.1% earned between 3 to 4.99 million yen. Most of them were in the brackets below 3 million yen —10.9% between 2 and 2.99 million yen, 38.5% between 1 to 1.99 million yen and 47.1% below  1 million yen (Ibid.). Clearly, many women are below the poverty level.

True, there are women who work fewer hours than regular workers just to supplement household incomes. The income gap between regular and non-regular workers may be partly due to the number of hours of work, but that does not explain all cases. For example, a large proportion of contract workers put in as many hours as regular workers for much less income. While more than half of part-time workers put in fewer than 40 hours a week, a considerable proportion of them work more than 40 hours for grossly reduced income in relation to regular workers with comparable hours of work. (http://www5.cao.go.jp/j-j/wp/wp-je09/09b03010.html).

Today, a growing number of women are sole breadwinners in the family, raising their children as single/divorced mothers. As divorce has become more common (e.g. the number of divorce increased from 157,608 cases in 1990 to 231,000 in 2013, according to MHLW database on population, 2013), the number of such households climbed from 554,000 in 1989 to 821,000 in 2013. Because of women’s low wages, many are feeling the crunch. A survey discovered that among such households, 49.5% found life very difficult and 35.2% somewhat difficult, as opposed to 27.7% and 32.2% of all households expressing the same (http://www.mhlw.go.jp/toukei/saikin/hw/k-tyosa/k-tyosa13/). This helps to explain why child poverty in Japan has been worsening.

Child poverty cannot be reduced without first improving women’s employment situation and reducing gender gap in earnings. The government proposes a number of policies to address the problem. They include, among other things, reviews of employment practices and pay structures, affirmative action to help competent women advance to higher positions, in addition to increased aid to needy families. They are all fine, but I strongly suggest that the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value”, as enshrined in ILO Convention No. 100 which Japan ratified in 1967, should finally be applied to workers in Japan.

Too many women in Japan have been pushed to low-pay jobs simply because they are women. Too many jobs women have are given a low value simply because they are done by women, even if they require skills and decision-making. The review of pay structure should therefore be made from the principle of “equal pay for the work of equal value” and not just “equal pay for equal work.” Applying this principle without gender bias should bring many women and their children out of poverty.

Posted in Child poverty, Economic development, Japan, Labour issues, Men and Development, National wealth, Women & Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Essay: Ageing female prisoners in Japan

According to the 2013 edition of World Population Ageing, a UN report, Japan was most aged society in the world with 32% of its population being 60 years or over. Italy and Germany came second and third, both with nearly 27% of their populations in the same age bracket.

In Japan, however, usually only those who are 65 years or over are considered as “old”. They are then broken down into two groups: (1) between 65 and 74 years old, who are simply labeled as “old”; and (2) 75 years or over, who are referred to as “old people in the advanced age bracket.” The latest White Paper on ageing of population (2012 data), released in 2013 by the Cabinet Office, the Government of Japan, shows the former group comprising 12.2% of the total population and the latter, 11.9%. This means that 24.1% of the Japanese population is made up of those who are 65 or over. As Japan’s fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, the ageing of the society may no longer be reversed, unless drastic measures are taken.

In relation to the ageing of population, I came across a sad article on female prisoners in Japan (“Hikari-o sagashite (In search of light)” by Miki Morimoto in Asahi Digital, May 23, 2014). Back in 1993, apparently only 26 women of 65 years or older were serving their sentences. By 2012, this figure increased by 11 times to 285. On the other hand, men prisoners in the same age bracket increased five-fold, from 368 to 1,907 in the same period. So the rate of increase was higher among women than men. Eighty percent of “old” women incarcerated are said to be serving for minor offenses, such as shoplifting and theft, while about half of them are recidivists.

Ageing among prisoners is simply a reflection of the society as a whole. Therefore, many inmates are reported to visit prison clinic frequently for their medical problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cataract, knee and leg pains, lumbago, as well as dementia. The scene of prisoners walking slowly from the dining hall to their cells with canes and walkers is said to increasingly appear like that in any home for old people.

The author of the article had interviewed some women prisoners, and I was saddened to read certain situations mentioned as possible reasons behind their committing crimes as well as repeating them. They included stress from not having been well accepted by parents-in-law in the past, the psychological wound from which still remained unresolved for some women to date; increased daily stress from having to deal with the husband alone after children had left home; loneliness from grown-up children drifting away from home; the feeling of not having their own place at home in the backdrop of husband’s violent behavior; and financial difficulties and uncertainties for the future (for both married women as well as those living alone). In effect, many of them seem to commit crime out of the feeling of insecurity and for not having their own place of comfort at home. They become recidivists in search of comradeship among fellow inmates. How sad it is, though, for anyone to feel that peace and comfort can be obtained in prison in the twilight of life.

In order to help such women to feel secure after their release so that they would not return there, some correctional institutions now provide counselling service for them. Many such women are said to have had poor communication skills, which had led them to isolation in community, which, in turn, resulted in their committing crime. So they are helped to build up communication skills through group therapy, where they discuss in detail and openly the problems they had had and the actual crimes they committed. The counselling service also provides information as to how and where they can seek financial help to prevent them from going back to shoplifting again after their release.

In the past when most people lived in an extended-family set-up, ageing mothers used to be looked after by their grown-up sons. This is no longer so, especially in large cities, throughout Japan. Therefore, women must also learn to grow out of being emotionally dependent on their children. They must nurture to have independent minds with clear wishes and dreams in life of their own, however small they might be. When they find their own purpose or meaning of life, they will be more forward-looking in life. So, I believe that arming them with better communication skills will go a long way for themselves as well as for the society as a whole.

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