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Harvard Anthropologist Honored by Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency

The Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University recently announced that it current Director, Theodore C. Bestor, received the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Award for the Promotion of Japanese Culture from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Japan.  The Agency of Cultural Affairs is a special body of the of the Japanese Ministry of Education, established in 1968 to promote Japanese arts and culture. Dr. Bestor is the twelfth person to receive the honor.

Fukushima Women Against Nuclear Power

AAA member, David H. Slater, is an associate professor of cultural anthropology in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and the Graduate Program of Japanese Studies at Sophia University, Tokyo. His most recent article, “Fukushima Women Against Nuclear Power: Finding a Voice from Tohoku” was featured in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Below is an excerpt of the article. To read the complete article, please click here.

From the very first, it has been quite difficult to politicize earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku, despite the poor planning, the slow and uneven response, the failure to provide aid in a timely way in the days and weeks afterward, and the often poorly organized evacuation centers—an issue which resulted in a number of unexplained deaths. Now, the temporary housing facilities virtually insure that communities, or what is left of them, will stay dysfunctional for a while, even as their residents are often the ones called upon to manage their own relief. While the silences of fatalism and the shock of such a terrible disaster have been noted,  anyone who has been to the Northeast on a regular basis is aware that the frustration and anger  erupt in different ways almost every day. The point, however, is that rarely does it emerge in the unified voices of protest, rarely in coherent demands for systematic help, almost never in anger expressed in a way that the rest of the nation can hear.

In contrast, the threat of nuclear radiation and critiques of the nuclear industry have been skillfully politicized in ways that have led to the largest set of demonstrations in Japan (with the exception of Okinawa) since the US-Japan security treaty protests of the 1960s and 1970s. These protests have been based in Tokyo, utilizing urban networks of activists who have provided the digital framework for organization that has brought together an older generation of anti-nuclear activists, young families, hip urbanites, office workers and union protesters. This is, perhaps ironic, considering that many of the protesters and marchers rarely have contact with Tohoku. The nuclear threat, organizers say, extends beyond Tohoku, even beyond Japan. And indeed, this is the message that has been heard around the world, as the anti-nuke protest and politics were staged with specific reference to Fukushima (sadly, rarely with respect to the wider ‘Tohoku’ region).

To read the entire article and watch the interviews, click here.

Post-earthquake Japan – An update from Yoko

Collapsed bookshelves in my room on March 11, 2011Structural damage caused by the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Koriyama.

It has already been over two months since the mega earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant problem is ongoing.  The current plan/estimate is to stabilize the plant in six to nine months, and that is the best-case scenario.  Meanwhile, in my city, Koriyama (population 336,232), hourly radiation fallouts have been decreasing and are averaging around 1.35 micro sieverts per hour lately.  The city is monitoring the radiation levels in food, and water, as well as in outdoor spaces such as parks.  As a precaution, nursery schools, kindergarten, and schools at the K-12 level have implemented restrictions in the use of schoolyards.  There have been efforts to reduce the effect of radiation fallout at schools in my city by covering the contaminated topsoil with soil extracted from a lower stratigraphic level.  The mayor initially experimented with removing the topsoil completely, but there have been problems in finding a location to dump the soil.  In either case, there has been a reduction in the level of radiation detected on the ground after the treatment.  Radiation and earthquakes have been an everyday topic of conversation for people here in Fukushima.  Since the earthquake on March 11, we have not yet had one aftershock-free day in my city, but, thankfully, the ones we are getting lately have been pretty small.

Structural damage caused by the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Koriyama.

It has been interesting to observe a great variety of opinions regarding the situation in Fukushima and radiation risks on the internet, especially on Twitter.  As a Fukushima resident, it is surreal to read people’s tweets and blogs that claim Fukushima–the entire Fukushima prefecture–is uninhabitable.  Many people and some environmental organizations, like Friends of the Earth Japan suggest that government’s provisional standard for the safe level of radiation exposure for school children (under this emergency circumstance) is set unacceptably high (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has recently announced that it will reduce the acceptable annual radiation exposure for Fukushima children from provisional 20 mili sieverts to 1 mili sieverts.  It is not clear right now what more will or can be done to meet the new goal).  Meanwhile, life is going on as usual here in Koriyama.  The current event has made me think a lot about scientific and social understandings of risks, and the classic environmental topic of costs and benefits. 

Ricefield in Koriyama in March 2011

The main attraction of Fukushima prefecture is the beautiful landscape and great food (and many hot springs as elsewhere in Japan).  It is a sad truth that it will be a long while before people think of food from Fukushima only in terms of how delicious and fresh it is.  Right now, it is more about monitoring to ensure the safety of the produce grown here.  Tourism in Fukushima is suffering.  Actually, Japan’s tourism industry as a whole seems to be suffering, as many foreigners avoid Japan altogether.  Japan is open for business, as well as most parts of Fukushima.   

1000+ year-old Cherry tree in Miharu, Fukushima in April 2011

As for the physical damage caused by the March 11th earthquake, in the city of Koriyama, there were more damage than I initially thought.  One person died in a partially collapsed building, and about 1,190 houses/buildings have been deemed damaged beyond repair (according to the summary of the damage of the earthquake listed in the Asahi Shimbun on May 29, 2011, p. 28).  The entire northeast region of Japan faces a long road to recovery.  This is also the chance to build new, well planned out cities.  For Fukushima, the challenge is complicated by actual radiation fallout as well as the prefecture’s name association with the infamous nuclear power plant disaster.  Fukushima prefecture is the entrance to the rest of the Northeast (Tohoku) Japan.  The major arteries of Japan such as the railroad for Shinkansen (the bullet train) and Tohoku highway run through Koriyama-City and Fukushima-City (the capital, population 291,732).  Fukushima’s recovery is crucial for the well-being of  Northeast Japan, as well as for Japan as a whole. 

View of Inawashiro, Fukushima in May 2011

Upon Returning Home

Pamela Runestad, a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, is back in the US from Japan and continues her account about post-earthquake Japan.

This is the first time I’ve been so acutely aware that I’ve left a collective consciousness behind. I’m usually more focused on the re-integration part. But this time, I feel like I’m supposed to be part of what is happening in Japan and suddenly, I’m not. Reading emails and blogs by Japanese friends, and checking the NHK website for Japanese news feels different now that I am not in Japan––much in the way that reading about news in the U.S. feels distant when I’m not here. I feel the physical disconnect. It’s a reminder that being embedded in a media matrix is not the same as being embedded in a social matrix.

To read her previous accounts from Japan, go to the Triangle Center for Japanese Studies and check out Part One, Part Two and Part Three of her “Inside Looking Out” series.

A View from Tokyo on March 11

Guest blogger John Mock (Temple U Japan) is a sociocultural anthropologist who lived in the Tohoku region of Japan for many years and now lives in Tokyo. He was at work in Tokyo during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. In this post, written just a few days after the earthquake, he shares the story of his own experiences that day.

When the earthquake struck, several hundred kilometers north of Tokyo, I was in my cubicle at Temple University Japan, on the 6th floor of the main university building.  At first I thought that this was just another quake, which are fairly common in Japan.  My second thought was, “Hmm, this seems to be a bit stronger than most,” particularly when a filing drawer, opening on its own with the power of the quake, attacked my leg.  My third thought was “Oh, my, this is a very big quake and a very, very long quake.”  In fact, the quake went for several more minutes.  .  After the quake was over (which was much smaller than the 8.9 Richter scale one that hit further north), the loud speaker told everyone to evacuate, which folks slowly did (it is a 12 story building), all very orderly and subdued.  After going in and out of the building a couple of times because of aftershocks, the Dean closed the university.

 We were then left with the problem of how to get home.  Many TUJ faculty, staff and students live a long way from the campus—some students have as much as a 2-hour commute each way. After talking to my students and finding out that they were OK, I I started the walk home around 5 pm.

Tokyo is not a particularly big city and I live toward the other side of the city from TUJ.  Since I have spent quite a lot of time bicycling around Tokyo, I had a pretty decent idea of how to get home.  In addition, Tokyo has “koban” (police boxes) every few blocks which display maps and have police answering questions.  As I started to walk through Roppongi (for those who know Tokyo), a couple of things struck me.  The first was that there were a lot of people walking. A terrific number, in fact.  With the trains and subways stopped— these are the heavy lifters of the Tokyo mass transit system—many people were walking.

Most of the walkers were very quiet, even when they were in groups.  There was very little loud noise of any kind.  In fact, because of the traffic jams, the city seemed amazingly quiet.  Many of my fellow pedestrians seemed bothered by the fact that cell phones weren’t working.  I tried mine and was told the system was flooded, so I did not try again for a couple of hours.  However, I saw other folks hitting redial over and over again, and shaking the cell phones as if it was a problem of the battery.  Rather puzzlingly, I also saw many people walking staring at their cell phones.  At first, I thought they were watching to see if they could get them to work but then I realized, in addition to folks texting, that other folks were watching news.  I also saw that folks with smart phones (unlike mine) had called up maps to figure out how to get home. 

Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I asked one of them how it worked and why he was using it.  After rather proudly showing me how it was a GPS system that moved when he did, thus always showing the route a few hundred meters ahead (but with a sidebar that showed the whole route along with a progress report on how far he had gone and how far he had to go), he seemed to have difficulty with the second part of the question.  At first I thought I had misstated my question (Japanese is not my native language), but I had stated it correctly. He thought I meant something beyond the obvious.  Rather quickly, we determined that while I was walking through Tokyo (his hometown), just using my memory of where I wanted to go and various landmarks, he had no idea even which direction to go.  Once we figured that out, it was easy.  Unfortunately, I also had to tell him that he had a really long way to go, which he had sort of realized, and his phone was trying to tell him, but he had not really understood.

Moving on through the quiet and very polite crowds, it got darker and became a bit eerie.  Tokyo is normally a very bright place but any of the lights were out.  There was no blackout; it was simply that quite a few places were closed.  The restaurants and such still open appeared to be doing a booming business.  At one point, not being so young and feeling a bit footsore, I thought about alternative modes of transportation.  It was obvious from the closed train and subway stations that the choice was either busses, taxis or continue on foot.  I saw dozens of people trying to waive down taxis with no success.  I saw a bus headed toward Shinjuku and thought momentarily about trying to take a bus.  I then realized that there was a long line of people at the bus stand—I counted more than 60 at about every stand I passed—and that the busses were absolutely packed with people.  I was actually walking faster than the busses were moving because of an almost solid traffic jam on all the main streets.

After a couple of hours of walking, I was home.  My apartment was a bit of a mess but nothing catastrophic had happened.  I have been wondering what this experience would have been like in another city.  I was born in New York and the great blackout a couple of decades ago might have been similar in some ways, but was it as quiet and polite?   Looking at the number of people crammed into the busses, would Americans have packed themselves so tightly, and politely, into busses? 

Later that night, the subway I usually ride came back on line.  That night and Saturday, line by line, the various trains and subways reported at least partial service.  All tracks need to be checked before the trains run again, and with the multiple aftershocks, delays are inevitable.  Even now, five days after the quake, the lines are running fewer trains than usual to conserve electricity. Fukushima #1 power plants provide a significant percentage of the electricity for Kanto. A policy of rolling blackouts has been instituted by the government to save electricity. March 11 is behind us, but we are all still feeling its effects.

Living in the Earthquake Aftermath in Koriyama, Japan

AAA member, Yoko Ikeda lives in Koriyama-city in Fukushima prefecture with her family. She is a recent graduate from the Graduate Center, City University of New York with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Here she gives an account of her experience living in Japan in the earthquake aftermath. Thank you, Yoko!

Koriyama is in the middle part of Fukushima prefecture, not near the ocean at all.  My city was not affected by the devastating tsunami. Some buildings were damaged when the March 11 earthquake hit, but houses around my house had only minor structural damage, if any. Most people reported that much of the damage occurred from things falling inside the house and made quite a mess – the same was true for mine.  Although parts of this city are without water and electricity, my area got them back within the same day of the earthquake.  I believe nobody was killed or seriously injured in my city, although it is possible that such news has not been widely reported because of the massive disasters going on in many other places.  

We are still getting many aftershocks. It is unbelievable how often we are having earthquakes each day. Even though we are used to earthquakes in general, what we’ve been experiencing now is unprecedented.  

Many evacuees from the nuclear power plant area are here. There is no evacuation order or restriction to be outside in Koriyama right now and many stores are open.  Because of the massive scale of the problem Japan now faces, there is some scarcity of gasoline and heating oil here, too. It seems that we are getting enough food supplies in stores that are open, but people often have to get in line to get in some grocery stores right now and the lines at the checkout are pretty long – 30 minutes to an hour at the store my mother went to. 

Photo courtesy Emotinal Black

Many businesses are open and people are going to work, but the limited gasoline supply makes commutes stressful. Transportation services are limited due to the damage to roads and railways. Long-distance busses just began running again or are about to resume on a limited basis. I don’t think there is train service in my city at this time.  And given the shortage of gasoline, people do not feel comfortable going too far, unless they absolutely have to. I’ve heard many people complain that they feel stuck at their location due to the gasoline shortage.

I think that the biggest concern for people in Koriyama is what is happening with the broken nuclear power plant.  Some people are worried about the nuclear power plant situations and have left the city; but for now, the overwhelming majority is here, living as normally as possible. Some people are taking radiation precautions by trying to minimize their time outside, and if they have to go out they wear a mask and hat. I hardly have been outside myself, but I don’t really have to since I am currently job hunting. Continue reading

Inside Looking Out, Part Three

Pamela Runestad, a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, continues her account from Japan. Here is an excerpt:

…[O]ne of my interviewees in Osaka told me on Friday: “Ms. Pamela, I really want to talk to you. But please understand that I’m not quite myself today. I’m from Sendai…”

Despite his initial note of caution, however, this man talked with me for four hours and then we talked over dinner for another two. Sometimes acting “normal” helps get you back to feeling normal.

To read the full “Inside Looking Out, Part Three,”  go to the Triangle Center for Japanese Studies. Also be sure to check out Part One and Part Two.


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