Letter from Tokyo: In “The Zone” of Disaster

Matt Noyes

Radiation is mighty!
Radiation is great!
You can’t beat it and
it doesn’t discriminate.
— Rankin Taxi and the Ainu Dub Band(1)

ON THE MORNING of Thursday, March 17th, six days after the earthquake and tsunamis, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper had just one advertising supplement: a full-color glossy piece from a Buddhist temple, selling grave sites.(2)

The news gap was at its height, with Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) declaring the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant “an accident with local consequences” like Three Mile Island, level 4 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The government-owned NHK and other TV channels brought out pro-nuclear power experts who compared the risk of contamination from Fukushima to that from eating bananas or getting an x-ray. Meanwhile the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission was recommending that all U.S. citizens in Japan evacuate to at least 50 miles from the Fukushima NPP and providing free iodine pills at the embassy. Ironically, even the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, stationed near Yokohama, put out to sea to escape the fallout.

The truth about the first week of the disaster, that three full meltdowns had already occurred and melted fuel had burned through the containment, was still months away from being officially revealed. Though the worst of the contamination had occurred in the first few hours and radiation was still pouring out of the damaged reactors and the spent fuel pools, TEPCO would not rate the incident a level 7 — the highest level on the INES scale — until April 12th.

For myself, having decided to stay, the most pressing questions were how to keep my family safe and how to help. Do you let your child go outside? Should s/he wear a mask? Let him go out in the rain? Drink the tap water? Should you keep windows closed at all times? Stop hanging your laundry outside to dry?(3)

Though I did my best to find information and advice, I felt like I was in “the Zone” in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker,” tossing bolts with knotted fabric tails before me as I walked through the lush tall grass and rubble, testing for some unknowable danger.(4)

Five months on, we are still in the Zone but a number of things have become clear:

* The full extent of damage at Fukushima and the resulting contamination of air, land, and sea has not yet been fully measured, but it is clearly the largest nuclear disaster in history, if only in the severity of the meltdowns and the amount of nuclear fuel involved.(5) While much of the radioactive material blew out to sea and over North America, in Japan the fallout has spread in a horseshoe pattern, running north from the plant, curving further inland and then back down towards Chiba and Tokyo.(6)

* The crisis is ongoing: after working non-stop for five months, systems for draining and filtering, and recirculating contaminated water from the reactor buildings are performing far under the needed capacity so contaminated water continues to accumulate and leak. The filters generate a new problem: tons of contaminated sludge. The first of four huge tents is being erected over one of the ruined reactor buildings in an attempt to capture the radioactive steam and smoke still being released into the atmosphere. Recent detection of levels of radiation in excess of 10 sieverts/hour at an exhaust stack between the Fukushima #1 and #2 reactor buildings show that highly radioactive material is still being released.(7) Large earthquakes (magnitude 6+) continue to shake northeastern Japan, raising the risk of new damage.

* The nuclear crisis is larger than Fukushima. It is important to remember that Fukushima was not the only NPP to suffer damage. The Onagawa plant north of Fukushima had fires, loss of cooling, and radiation leakage on March 3, only to lose two of three sources of external power in a magnitude 7.1 quake in early April. The April quake also took out all external power sources to the Rokkasho nuclear waste reprocessing uranium enrichment plant in Aomori prefecture. Other plants have lost power and had leaks. Nor is this the first time. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant near Niigata on Japan’s west coast suffered major damage in a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 2007 and has been offline since.

What to Do?

A friend asked me what social networks people turned to in this crisis. My experience is not typical, but the four networks to which I turned each reflect a different aspect of the crisis and indicate ways people are responding.

My first opportunity for action was the Oyaji-(“old guys group”), an unofficial committee of fathers from my son’s school that organizes events several times a year.(8) The agenda of the group’s meeting, just days after the quake, was a discussion of a proposal to help the people of Miyako, a major fishing port wiped out by the tsunami.

North of Fukushima, Miyako supplies the fish for the annual “Meguro Sanma Matsuri,” a mackerel festival in the Meguro area: on a hot August day, volunteers grill thousands of mackerel and give them away to huge crowds. One Oyaji who is a festival organizer told the 20 fathers at the meeting about the total destruction of the port and surrounding community and the lack of basic necessities. He told us how he and others had already gathered supplies and sent three trucks to the survivors, and asked us to donate the money in our small treasury and make donation boxes to place in stores throughout the district.

The room was full of compassion and solidarity. But there was a point of friction: one father asked whether we should be doing something to protect our children, in Tokyo, from radiation from Fukushima, drawing an irritated and dismissive response from another, younger, father. Whether the younger man was angry because he felt it was inappropriate to talk about our safety when others were suffering so much more, or because the government had clearly said there was nothing to worry about, it was clear that the concern was out of bounds.(9)

The friction reflected a larger phenomenon: the division of the disaster into two disconnected parts, treated very differently. On the one hand there are the earthquake and tsunamis,(10) on the other, the “accident” at the Fukushima NPP.(11)

The earthquake and tsunamis demand a full-scale mobilization of the type we have seen: fund-raising, volunteer crews, public service ads telling us we are not alone and Japan is strong and can recover.

Natural disasters are always political (Katrina, Haiti), raising questions of resource allocation, legal liability, discrimination and inequality, longterm health effects, agricultural policy, promotion of nationalism, etc. But the basic framework for understanding an earthquake and/or tsunami is apolitical on its face and calls for a universally accepted — and apparently neutral — type of civic action.

Nuclear power, however, is political in every way. Whether an “accident” has even occurred, what to measure, how often, how to assess the danger it poses, whether, when and how to respond, whom to evacuate, if anyone — every moment, every word, every action is political.(12) Even raising a question about our children’s safety.(13)

“Politics” in Japan, as in many countries, has been the domain of politicians, bureaucrats, corporate oligarchs, and political parties, on the one hand, or the proper field of economists, scientists, engineers. The political activity of unions and social movement groups is seen as part of the same system, or ineffectual protest in any case something done by activists — not ordinary people.

The nuclear crisis has shifted the terrain; ordinary people find themselves in a zone where simply describing what they see, asking questions — even just of their neighbors — and seeking solutions makes them political and puts them in opposition to the government and the companies.(14) The government’s failure to protect children in Fukushima led to the formation of the first of what is now a national network of parents’ committees.(15)

The approach of the Oyaji-kai was compassionate and practical, but that network didn’t provide a vehicle to deal with the nuclear crisis that affects parents even in Tokyo and increasingly defines this disaster.

Labor Now: Social Movement Unionism

On March 21st, the day after the Oyaji-kai, there was an emergency meeting of Labor Now, a non-profit labor education, media and research group to which I belong. (Labor Now is the successor to the Center for Transnational Labor Studies started by Ben Watanabe and other scholars and activists and incorporates CTLS’s mix of research and solidarity campaigns.)(16)

About 25 activists gathered in the office of the Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center (TOSHC) in the Kameido district of Tokyo.(17) These were mostly union activists of the 1960s and 1970s generation; the meeting was focused on the nuclear disaster.(18)

Professor Sugai Masuro of Kokugakuin Daigaku, who has studied the nuclear industry and anti-nuclear movements, spoke about the accident at Fukushima putting it in the context of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.(19) Dr. Hirano Toshio, founder of the TOSHC and a well-known medical doctor in the “barefoot doctor” tradition, commented on the danger posed by the release of radiation and how people might protect themselves.

TOSHC has worked for years on occupational hazards like asbestos — a major concern for people in the areas devastated by the tsunamis.(20) Dr. Hirano described their efforts to distribute proper masks and train relief workers in Tohoku to avoid poisoning from asbestos and other toxic substances.

Toward the end of the meeting, still looking for opportunities to take action, I asked people what the unions were doing to help the  people of Tohoku. Interestingly, the same divide I encountered at the Oyaji-kai seemed to be true of the trade union movement.

Unions whose members were directly affected, like the independent All Japan Dockworkers Union (Zenkowan), were raising funds and providing help, but there was silence on the question of the nuclear crisis.(21) Rengo, Japan’s largest union federation, had taken a pro-nuclear stand last year, having avoided taking a position for years due to conflict between pro- and anti-nuclear member unions. After the earthquake, Rengo officials returned to having “no position.”

Zenroren, the Japan Communist Party-aligned union federation, has long advocated higher safety standards for nuclear power plants but threw its support to the anti-nuclear movement only after May Day, when the JCP leadership took a clear anti-nuclear stand.(22)

Interestingly, the two main groups opposed to nuclear weapons, one close to Rengo the other to Zenroren, have struggled with this issue with different results. The Rengo-affiliated group rejects all uses of nuclear technology, while the group supported by Zenroren calls for a review of Japan’s energy policy with the goal of moving to alternative energy sources.(23)

Though it did not lead to any action proposals, the meeting was actually the first step in a very positive development: Labor Now was taking up the political challenge of the nuclear crisis, making it part of our work. There was some debate about whether this fell within Labor Now’s mission, but the group’s commitment to Social Movement Unionism(24) enabled us to move forward and launch a No Nukes Project. Labor Now has held a series of public meetings and is producing videos documenting the efforts of teachers and other unionists in Fukushima to organize against contamination and exposure, especially of children.(25)

Like the Dispatch Workers Village (Hakenmura) of 2009 which brought together homeless workers, activists, unions and movement groups across political and organizational lines, Labor Now’s No Nukes Project, while very small, may prove to be another step towards the regeneration of the workers’ movement in Japan.(26)

A Cross-Movement Space

Since 2004 Yamasaki Seiichi and I have taught weekly “English for Activists” (EFA) courses in Tokyo and Yokohama.(27) Two days after the Labor Now meeting, on March 23, participants in EFA met for a previously scheduled going away party for two members, one going on sabbatical at Brooklyn College in New York and the other for an internship at Asia Monitor Resource Center in Hong Kong.

EFA is an interesting mix of activists: that night we had a professor who researches women workers in Nepal, a young union organizer, a retiree who is an expert in cooperatives and solidarity economy, a retired sanitation worker, two managers from a food company, a veteran women’s movement activist, and more. The course is largely self-taught and serves as a space for sharing experiences, ideas and concerns from a wide range of social movements.(28)

The nuclear crisis has become the focus of English for Activists. The themes of our discussions reflect some of the concerns of Japanese activists: the re-election in mid-April of Ishihara Shintaro, (Tokyo’s anti-immigrant, right-wing governor who said the earthquake was punishment from God); traditional and newer styles of demonstrating (e.g., the differences between the violent “zig-zag” demos of the 1960s and today’s festival-like ones); and how to stay physically and mentally healthy in a time of stress and anxiety. EFA provides a space for sharing and reflection among experienced union and social movement activists and people new to activism.(29)

Using English to discuss activism gives people a common ground and forces us all to express our ideas as simply and clearly as possible. EFA is also becoming a vehicle for action. We organized a small contingent for the anti-nuclear demo on June 11th and may hold our first public event in the fall. The weekly class has become an important space for the participants to discuss and analyze the anti-nuclear movement, providing continuity and a bridge between demos and a space where “ordinary people” feel comfortable. Since the earthquake several people have joined.

Lowering the Barriers to Politics

On April 10th, after returning to Tokyo from a week in Hiroshima, my son and I joined our first post-earthquake anti-nuclear demonstration. There were two demos in Tokyo, one called by the traditional anti-nuclear organizations and left groups, the other by a loose network of activists.

The model for the traditional demonstration was familiar: contingents with banners, placards, sound trucks and “spreche calls” (routinized call and response chants). The other, which we joined, was organized mostly through Facebook and other social media and held in Koenji, an artsy neighborhood outside of Shinjuku. Participants were encouraged to create and share their own placards, slogans and posters.

In an interview in TimeOut Tokyo (which advertised the demo as an event) Matsumoto Hajime, the main organizer, explained, “People who weren’t into politics are developing strong feelings against nuclear power plants… This demonstration…[is] not part of an ongoing anti-nuclear power demonstration…[it is] not run by labour unions or political organizations… I think this will set the bar lower for Japanese youth to participate in the broader political movement.”(30)

The two demos reflect a resurgent anti-nuclear movement rising from both the long-haul efforts of dedicated activists and the spontaneous entry into politics of non-activists. Matsumoto Hajime and other activists are experienced radicals (he owns a store/space called Amateur Revolt), but their objective is to facilitate the entry into politics of non-activists by leaving the movement largely undefined, open for participants to create.(31) There have been several joint demonstrations uniting the old and new sides of the movement, as well as, on June 11th, hundreds of demos in communities all over Japan, including at least four in Tokyo.(32)

When asked in the same interview, “Your event is a campaign against nuclear power, but what do you see as being the alternatives?” Matsumoto replied:

“I have no idea (laughs). To give you a few examples, there’s solar power, geothermal heat and wind power. I have heard about seismic power but I’m not an expert, so I’m not sure. However, one thing I am certain about is that I’d rather live with much less electricity if it comes with the kind of risk we are seeing now. Japan’s electricity use is excessively wasteful. Seeing 20 vending machines lined up on the side of the street is just one example. I think there are lots of possible alternatives, but our top priority is to stop the nuclear power plants. Also, I want to point out that gatherings are environmentally effective — they’re more fun and use less electricity compared to each person individually using power at home. Imposing voluntary restraint on hanami [cherry blossom-viewing] parties [as Tokyo Governor] Ishihara attempted to do last week is the complete opposite. They should encourage year-round hanami parties to save electricity (laughs).”

“Matsumoto’s reply gets to another crucial point about this crisis: the meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima raises fundamental questions not just about nuclear power, but about Japan’s energy policy as a whole, and, at a deeper level, about the basic economic and political structure.”

Yappari Iranai!

It is now becoming clear to everyone that, as demonstrators shout, “genpatsu iranai!” — we don’t need nuclear power.(33) According to the anti-nuclear group Tanpoposha, even though nearly 30% of Japan’s electrical capacity is from NPP,  if all the reactors were immediately shut down the energy needs of the country could be met on all but a few of the hottest days of summer — small conservation measures would be enough to cover the loss of nukes.

At the moment, only 14 of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan are online. The rest are shut down for maintenance, testing, or due to damage or malfunction. By next spring, all 54 reactors will likely be offline. To paraphrase Sandra Bernhardt, “if we can’t live without nuclear power then why aren’t we dead yet?”

It is not enough to simply take nuclear out of the picture (a process that will take decades, cost billions of dollars, and poses many risks for contamination and the problem of waste storage) and substitute renewable energy (not something that can be done overnight). The basic economic model of Japan as a high-consumption, high-waste society is called into question.

The nuclear crisis has pushed people right up against a crisis that was already on its way, forcing people to confront questions that were thought to be decades away: What kind of energy? What kind of consumption? What kind of culture? Matsumoto Hajime’s “year-round hanami” playfully points to the need for alternative economic models along the lines of solidarity economy and new energy strategies promoted by groups like Eneshift.(34)

The extent and implications of the nuclear crisis are still only beginning to be grasped and expressed. In the last month, with the discovery that beef from cattle that had been fed rice straw contaminated with cesium, and presumably other radioactive isotopes, had been shipped and sold in all but one of Japan’s prefectures, the specter of food contamination forced its way into the national consciousness. The fall rice harvest will be another moment of truth.(35)

Likewise, the problem of accumulated exposure to various sources of radiation is starting to be discussed, with another draft government regulation setting 100 millisieverts as a limit for safe lifetime exposure.(36) This is a crisis that is expanding and that will not be going away for years to come.

Still, as I saw in the Oyaji-kai and have seen many times since, on the grassroots, non-activist level there is a powerful reluctance to ask questions or raise issues concerning radiation. While most people tell pollsters they oppose nuclear power, the opinion is still mostly unorganized in the face of government policy and continuing propaganda from the utilities.(37) But it’s moving. For my part, I plan to continue working in each of my networks. I hope to work with other parents to make sure our children’s school lunches are safe and to get more parents involved in demonstrations and other activities.

In Barcelona in late May, walking among the indignados and indignadas of the Placa de Catalunya, Eduardo Galeano was interviewed by young activists. “Some people ask me, ‘what is going to happen?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know… and it doesn’t much matter to me. What matters to me is what is happening now… what IS, not what may be… It’s like love, what matters is that it is infinite as long as it lasts…’”(38)

We are still in the Zone, feeling our way, but the movement is growing and still infinite.


  1. http://youtu.be/mF12h19h5uo.
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  2. Buddhist temples have a near monopoly on funerals and cemeteries. In fact, since March 11th, there has been a debate among Buddhist orders about whether to suspend the normal fee charged to family members for a posthumous name for victims of the earthquake and tsunamis. Some fear setting a precedent that would undermine an important source of income on which temples rely.
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  3. Our son wore a mask and did not drink tap water or other drinks from northern or central Japan. We kept the windows closed and dried the laundry indoors. In retrospect, it was not enough, but I’m glad we took at least those steps.
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  4. Tarkovsky’s film, made before Chernobyl, is a poetic exploration of the relationship of the individual to a catastrophe of unknown cause and dimensions.
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  5. Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama is the head of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo says the contamination is the equivalent of 20 Hiroshima bombs and has a much slower rate of decay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dlf4gOvzxYc&feature=player_embedded.
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  6. For an excellent map: http://www.nnistar.com/gmap/fukushima.html Note that the radiation is not in the pattern of concentric circles used by the government to determine evacuation zones.
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  7. See Arnie Gundersen’s recent analysis of the record-high radiation readings: http://enenews.com/gundersen-on-lethal-radiation-levels-even-higher-measurements-to-come-nuclear-core-has-leaked-out-and-is-on-floor-like-a-pancake-working-its-way-down-video.
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  8. The labor market remains highly segregated and long work hours make it impossible for many fathers to participate in school activities.
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  9. Members of the Koto Kodomo Mamoru Kai (Committee to Protect the Children of Koto Ward – a ward of Tokyo where radiation levels are especially high) told me other parents have called them “urusai” (loudmouths) and “hoshano-baka” (radiation nuts).
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  10. The official name for the disaster of 3/11 is Higashi Nihon Dai Shinsai, meaning “Great Eastern Japan Earthquake Disaster.” Some activists refer to it as the “Great Eastern Japan Nuclear-Earthquake Disaster” (Higashi Nihon Dai Genpatsu-Shinsai).
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  11. In Japanese, jiko. This is the term used in the media. Muto Ichiyo has suggested referring to it as the “nuclear crisis” (kiki).
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  12. In the first hours of the disaster, the prime minister ran a running battle with plant management over whether to open vents to release pressure and whether to inject sea water.
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  13. Of course, for millions of people in Tohoku, the issues are inseparable -– to take one example, temporary housing for evacuees from Kesennuma was built in an area of high radiation, leading evacuees to refuse to return.
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  14. See the piece about an older woman in Fukushima who has been monitoring radiation because the government refused to act. Japanese Find Radioactivity on their Own, by Ken Belson http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/world/asia/01radiation.html?pagewanted=all.
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  15. In one remarkable incident a delegation of parents traveled from Fukushima to hand deliver bags of radioactive dirt to TEPCO executives http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/02/parents-revolt-radiation-levels; http://kodomozenkoku.com/.
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  16. http://www.jca.apc.org/labornow/.
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  17. In May we found out that the very day of our meeting, Kameido had exceptionally high levels of radiation –- a hotspot in Tokyo. The Kameido local government is investigating.
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  18. Most people there were middle-aged or older, from the 1960’s-70’s generation of student activists. This layer continues to be very active, especially as people retire and can dedicate more time to activism.
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  19. After the meeting, Sugai took me aside and told me I should take my son out of range of the Iodine and Cesium blowing down from Fukushima, back to the US or at least to southern Japan. I decided to take my son to Hiroshima for his spring vacation, starting later that week.
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  20. Asbestos was not banned in Japan until 1995. Tokyo Occupational Safety and Health Center: http://www.toshc.org/toshcEnglish-top.htm.
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  21. Donations can still be made through ILWU Local 40: http://www.ilwu40.org/index.cfm?zone=/unionactive/view_article.cfm&homeID=197805. In fact, rank and file members and local officers of many unions in Tohoku were already in action, including teachers in Fukushima who were mobilizing to get information about the nuclear crisis.
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  22. The shift is visible in the helpful digest of updates from Zenroren International Bureau Director Keisuke Fuse, on the NTUI website: http://ntui.org.in/media/item/updates-from-japan-the-zenroren-diary/.
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  23. See the websites of Gensuikin http://www.gensuikin.org/english/ and Gensuikyo http://www.antiatom.org/GSKY/en/index.html.
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  24. Some of the first meetings were sponsored by Labor Now’s “Social Movement Unionism Study Group.”I have doubts about the usefulness of the term, but Social Movement Unionism has been widely adopted by Japanese labor scholars as the name for an alternative unionism. See “Business Unionism and Its Discontents” an article I wrote for Rodo Horitsu Junpo http://www.re.rollingearth.org/?q=node/148.
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  25. English subtitled versions forthcoming on Labor Now’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/labornowvideo#p/u.
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  26. See Toru Shinoda’s “Which Side are you On? Hakenmura and the Working Poor as a Tipping Point in Japanese Labor Politics.” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/shinoda090409p.html.
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  27. The Tokyo course is sponsored by Labor Now. Yamasaki Seiichi is a retired sanitation worker and fellow LN steering committee member who has taught English to activists since the 1980s.
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  28. Yamasaki Seiichi and I are preparing an article on English for Activists that examines its role as a cross-movement discussion forum.
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  29. We have members and staff of RENGO unions and Zenroren affiliates, as well as non-union workers and leaders of women’s labor groups like the Tokyo Women’s Union.
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  30. Japan’s anti-nuke agitator speaks out: http://www.timeout.jp/en/tokyo/feature/2840/Japans-anti-nuke-agitator-speaks-out.
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  31. There is a lot of video of the April 10th demonstration in Koenji online http://410nonuke.tumblr.com/. My favorite is a piece in which participants are asked, “Why are you here? Do you often go to demonstrations?” Nearly all the people reply that it is their first demo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7llbVEM14Y.
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  32. In one scene that captured some of the old/new divide a Koenji-type amateur samba band ended up next to a very dedicated group of anti-war Buddhists with small, handheld drums. As we prepared to march, the Buddhists struck up a simple repetitive beat, chanting sutras. The samba group gamely tried to join in, but there was nowhere for them to go musically and the Buddhists showed no interest in diversifying their rhthyms.
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  33. Is nuke power necessary? According to the anti-nuclear group Tanpoposha even though nearly 30% of Japan’s electrical capacity is from NPP, if all the reactors were immediately shut down the energy needs of the country could be met on all but a few of the hottest days of summer – small conservation measures would be enough to cover the loss of nukes. See the pamphlet “What is truly environmentally friendly electricity?” (Japanese only) http://www.ohdake-foundation.org/index.php/pamphlet/169-denki.
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  34. http://solidarityeconomy.web.fc2.com/en/index.html Eneshift: http://staff.energy-shift.org/.
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  35. According to a former advisor to the Prime Minister, “come the harvest season in the fall, there will be… chaos.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304450604576419560689685524.html.
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  36. Children would reach the lifetime limit in just five years under the government’s “safety” standard. http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201107220493.html
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  37. .

  38. See “Nuclear regulator asked utility to push nuclear power in public forum.” Asahi Japan Watch, July 30, 2011. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201107305062.
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  39. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBW3XRN7OK0.
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September/October 2011, ATC 154