Effects of the 3/11 Disaster

In Japan, people refer to the triple tragedy of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear plant explosions in northeastern Japan as “3/11”— their version of 9/11 in the United states. I met with Kana in January 2012, ten months after the quake. She was fortunate in many ways because she lives south of tokyo in an area to which the wind did carry some radioactivity but much less than in other affected areas. Unlike farmers in Fukushima Prefecture, home of the nuclear plant that exploded, she can still farm, and her goods are not tainted by the very geographical name of her area.

Nonetheless, Kana has problems. The number of members in her consumer group declined to thirty-five because mothers of young children were worried about radiation levels of Japanese food. Many started buying imported food or at least food from only the very south or the very north of Japan— areas that were not affected in any tangible way by radioactivity. The spread of the radioactivity, mainly of cesium (some of which has a half-life of thirty years), depended on the wind and the rain. Ironically, the wind had blown Northwest for a while but then headed out to sea and back in over Japan to affect places far south of the exploding nuclear plant, including tokyo and Kana's area of Kanagawa.

In 2012, organic farmers assiduously measured the level of becquerels of cesium in a sample of each of their crops or compost ingredients to see if they contained radioactivity.4 Measuring each item is expensive—from $70 to $150 per item—but Kana got in on a research study through which she received measurement for free. She breathes a sigh of relief that her vegetables came back “nD”—no detected level of radioactivity. That does not mean zero, but it means that the machine cannot detect any. However, out on the same hilltop field as before, as she pulled the long white daikon by their green leaves from the loose, black soil, she said, “the problem is the compost i make. I have always used a lot of rice bran, but now we find that the rice bran around here measures positive for radioactivity. It seems to absorb the radioactivity more than the rice kernel, and my rice actually showed a low level of radioactivity. So now what shall i use?”

Last summer Kana had bought organic fertilizer because the government said not to use natural, local items, but on economic grounds she could not continue doing this. Like other organic farmers, she thought of using fallen leaves or the chips from the fallen trees used to grow mushrooms, but all of these resources from the mountains had absorbed radioactivity. Kana said, “i realize that what i have to do is to plant other plants [rokuhi] that i can use as compost. That means there won't be as much land for the vegetables i sell, but. . . .”

I ventured to say, “But if you marry, perhaps you won't have to make so many vegetables.”

She laughed and bent her head with some embarrassment, not yet used to the idea of depending on her husband. “i have thought of that. I can maybe make fewer, higher-quality vegetables for fewer customers.”

The big earthquake of 2011 was a huge turning point for many Japanese and was rumored to have encouraged people to think more seriously about marriage and family, but for Kana, the contribution of organic farming was less clear. She felt a strong responsibility to make her vegetables in a way that would maintain the safety of her consumers. Her alternative lifestyle had centered on creating a local economy that would improve the environment, but now she said, “Local production and local consumption [chisanchishō] are in a hard place with the radiation. Maybe it will all fall apart.”

Soon Kana's old self-confidence and passion revived, however, as she Declared, “People eat food with agrochemicals as if it is nothing, but they won't eat food with radioactivity. People say it is because you can't chose when it comes to radioactivity. But i wonder if it is only radioactivity we have to worry about. Society has various problems—not just radioactivity or electric power. The goal of economic growth itself is a problem.”

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