100 Bq/Kg, 0.23 μSv/h: The standard of living in Fukushima

Last Friday I took a day trip to Glasgow to see 100 Bq/Kg, 0.23 μSv/h: The standard of living in Fukushima, a documentary produced by Japan Desk Scotland. As the title suggests, the documentary looks at how residents of Japan’s third-largest prefecture cope with radioactive contamination on a day-to-day basis following the nuclear accident in 2011.

Japan Desk Scotland

Japan Desk Scotland

A significant proportion of the documentary looked at the work being done by staff at Fukushima University, which has gone from doing virtually no research on radioactive contamination to being a real-world lab and research centre in the space of three years. Director Yushin Toda showed us professors and their staff measuring radiation in rivers, commenting on the safety of food, and above all reflecting on what it means to be a human living and working in proximity to radioactive contamination. As the text at the start of the film reminded us viewers, this is not research the Fukushima University staff are doing out of academic interest – footage of one professor’s children playing in a park stood as a poignant reminder of just what is at stake with the radiation monitoring work that is being done.

What really jumped out for me was not the levels of contamination as such, but rather the effects the word ‘Fukushima’ has had on a region half the size of Belgium where over two million people still live. The documentary told us how fruit and vegetables – formerly a product for which the prefecture was famed – are now sometimes sold at reduced prices, and in his commentary afterwards Yushin told stories of how cars with Fukushima registration plates were turned away from petrol stations in Tokyo after the accident for fear of ‘spreading’ radiation.

Against the narrative of doom and destruction, there are lots of positive stories too – like the supermarket chain doing their own monitoring of radiation levels in home-grown produce and making daily reports available to customers. A beaming young man who is now a manager for the supermarket chain explained that as a graduate of Fukushima University himself, he felt a sense of pride at the work his alma mater was doing. In video footage of the youngster delivering a presentation, we see him explain how the supermarket absorbs the cost of the extra monitoring itself rather than passing it on to the consumers through increased prices. Nonetheless, as the documentary moved towards its conclusion we also saw frustration at the Japanese government, perceived by some speakers as ‘forgetting’ the region and instead concentrating on creating an economic boom in Japan’s heartland.

Much like the physical properties of radioactive contamination itself, the social effects of the Fukushima disaster are variable across space and time, and not reducible to one single narrative. By allowing the stories of physicists, social scientists, supermarket mangers, farmers and many more to stand alongside one another, 100 Bq/Kg, 0.23 μSv/h: The standard of living in Fukushima lets this complexity speak on its own terms.

Information on Japan Desk Scotland’s upcoming events: http://www.japandeskscotland.com/

The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) has been heavily involved in mapping in Fukushima Prefecture, and a summary of their work to date can be found here: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/86365/

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