This past weekend I was one of 350 people at the Fukushima Kaigi in Fukushima City. I was amazed. It was a weekend long Community Congress, people from Fukushima as well as other parts of Japan who came together to honestly discuss the current situation and figure out what to do next. I don’t think I have ever witnessed a group with more clarity of purpose: This is where we live. The past is gone. The present in untenable. The future we have is the one WE create together.
I want to share some of what was said and describe the overall atmosphere. I think important lessons are present.
We ALL know about the radiation! I get irritated with some of the coverage I see of Fukushima. It often feels like there is an undertone of “what’s wrong with you people, don’t you know it’s dangerous to live there?” Believe me, they all know. One initiative — Safecast — is the most extensive opensource data gathering and presenting project in the world. Go look at the maps at http://blog.safecast.org/maps. The data is so reliable that it is used to cross-check government reports. There are public monitoring stations everywhere. The monitors are watched. But here’s the thing, no one really knows the significance of the readings. Even with more than 60 years of epidemiological studies of radiation from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, we still know very little about the impact of radiation. Of course, it is bad, but when it is bad and what mitigates its impact?
It is all about the children. And the children know it too. Young women High School students in Minamisoma, a community 25 miles away from the reactors, made DVD’s so that their voices would be heard. A year ago they said we were living ordinary lives before 3.11, but now we don’t know what is safe. Government says we can plant crops now, but I worry about it. We doubt the safety of the vegetables. I don’t know what we should trust and what we shouldn’t. We can’t get away because this is the place we live and we have many good memories. But we can’t get the truth. This year the voices had more anger: our freedom has been stolen. We cannot drink water or breathe the air. If we get pregnant in the future, what if our babies have diseases. We want to have babies, but maybe it is not something we can realize. This mess is not our responsibility, but we have to be responsible for our children if they have diseases or problems. But they we think, being healthy depends on what we think health is. We are in good health right now physically, but not mentally. We have no idea about our future health. Our law covers basic rights like the right to live in health — will we be healthy?
The adults, of course, talk about the children as well. One woman says we must help those who want to to evacuate, even if their parents want them to stay. Another talks about how we must help children stay in touch with nature — a year in their lives is so long compared to a year in our lives now. Later, after the Kaigi, I’m shown a video of an effort to organize ways to take children to places where it is safe for them to play outside (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbclb7H56P4&feature=em-share_video_user). People talk about what is best — and children remind adults that children need to be a direct part of those conversations.
How do we live in a healthy way? People talked about learning how to live in healthy ways, beyond the radiation. We need to spend more time in nature. We need to find ways to have less stressful lives. Acupuncture helps to improve the flows in the body. By all means, we need to be raising and eating organic foods; the chemicals used on foods are probably more dangerous to us than most of the radiation. Above all, we need to reconnect to each other. We can’t face this alone. We need each other. People know to stay away from places that are really “hot.” They know to continuously check because a place that was okay yesterday might be hot today. They know to watch and pay attention to the data. They know they need to take responsibility for living in the most healthy ways they possibly can.
So many conflicts. One mother says I decided to move back here with my family, even though my parents tried to stop me from coming. I told them, this is my home as well. A man says I live in Saitama (neighboring province) and we have hot spots as well. I have two daughters and sometimes my wife and I fight about how to cope with the radiation. Some people who were evacuated to other parts of Japan want to come back. Some people who stayed want to find a way to get out. People who have no job now and receive only a stipend from the government are resented by those who are working. Those who are making good money working in hazardous cleanup situations are resented by those not making much money. Everyone has layers and layers of grief.
Really, there is no escape. One woman spoke of having been evacuated with her children to Hokkaido, the northern island. I live with other evacuees. At first I didn’t have the courage to talk to anybody. But I started to speak out. People there are isolated. They confine themselves to a small shelter and have no information. It is very lonely. We have to connect back with you. Another man speaks and says I lived here in Fukushima for the first 20 years of my life and I’ve lived elsewhere for 40 years. I’m amazed at the stories I am hearing today. There is amazing courage in Fukushima. High School students, farmers, housewives, businessmen — you are all working with clarity to build a new future.
We must change. A farmer says we have to open our minds and hearts and become aware of what we are feeling. We have to open up and accept other people. We must change our ideas. I’ve come to realize that we need to tell our children that college probably isn’t all that important for them — we have to learn how to live in and open up to nature and we have to learn how to relate differently to our natural world. Colleges don’t teach important things like this. An older woman spoke of how people are polite and patient in Fukushima. We don’t know how to raise our voice to government. What is the core problem — we don’t know. We all ignored Minamata Disease because it was someone else’s problem. This is OUR problem. We must raise our voices to government; this is a revolutionary thing for me to say. We are living now without escaping from anything. My daughter moved back home from Sendai; she says she may not be able to marry because she lives in this area, but we need to come together.
Let’s focus more on what we can control. People here know they can’t control the radiation, but they believe they can learn to live with it. One example was another farmer who says the government says it will spot check crops for radiation. That’s not enough. We must check all crops for radiation and have very high standards. We must not sell crops with any radiation. If we have high standards, people in other parts of Japan will begin to trust our food again. They will remember that they used to think rice from Fukushima was the most delicious in all Japan. People from other parts of Japan spoke of wanting to buy food from Fukushima, but not being able to find it in stores. Another woman spoke of seeing food from Fukushima in stores, but being afraid to buy it because she doesn’t know it is safe.
The comments go on and on… It is beyond what I can do right now to give a complete summary. But I hope this gives you a flavor. These are ordinary people, coming together to build a new society. They know that many of their neighbors are not present. Some are still too overcome by grief to make even a single step. Many are just plain overwhelmed. Some are looking for ways to leave. But these people are the ones who will make a new life. The atmosphere was serious and somber. Yes, there were smiles and sometimes laughter. Yes, there were chocked voices and tears, often hidden. Mostly, there was respect and deep listening. Mostly there was humility and a sense of engagement in a common enterprise. From a group dynamics point of view, the meeting room was terrible — a university lecture hall with a stage at the bottom and rows and rows of fixed seats, with video cameras and cables making things even tighter. But because people’s desire to be together was so great, these inconveniences were overlooked.
Comparing to Chernobyl. Chernobyl itself, mostly hidden from public view has changed. Check out these stories: http://www.more.com/chernobyl-women-nuclear-holly-morris
and a film in process: http://thebabushkasofchernobyl.com/. In terms of community organizing, one of the big changes is the internet. E-mails and Facebook made it possible to organize the Fukushima Kaigi. More than 100,000 people watched the interactions of the Kaigi on Ustream, a streaming video which carried all activities during the weekend. The internet is used to connect people and to find information and knowledge. It makes it possible to accelerate connection and change.
Finally, they work for all of us. The night after the Fukushima Kaigi, my dreams were filled with words and people and images. A startling realization came to me. As much as I wish that all over the world we would end our nuclear madness right now, I know we will not. With an increasing pace of occurrence of climate disasters, I suspect we will have another major nuclear accident in the near term. I hate saying that and I do not wish for it. But I suspect it is true. That means that what people are learning here in Japan — how they’re organizing, how they’re grieving, how they are moving ahead — all of those are important lessons for all of us.
We’re talking now about how some of the Future Center work I am doing in Japan can be merged with the Fukushima Kaigi so it becomes a more effective organizing space for collaborative action. This is an amazing community of people and I want to do all I can to support them.