I’ve received many emails and calls asking about the people I’ve profiled in Japan after the recent disaster. I will be blunt. The people in A Different Kind of Luxury have been fighting the use of nuclear power their whole adult lives. Most of Japanese society and the Japanese government has ignored their warning messages. And now a nuclear reactor has exploded. Just hours before this, government and industry sources were maintaining that there was no reason to worry and that everything was perfectly safe. I’m furious.
Oizumi (Chapter 1) has lost his brother in the tsunami. He and his family are preparing to evacuate to China if necessary. Atsuko (Chapter 3) and her family are safe, although her daughter did evacuate Tokyo. Atsuko said to me on the phone, “The danger of an earthquake, the danger of a tsunami, and the danger of a fire after an earthquake: these dangers are enough: but now the danger of nuclear radiation is about to hit Japan.”
It didn’t need to happen. Don’t let anyone tell you that because Japan is a “resource poor nation” that they had no choice but to adopt nuclear power. Japan had a thriving culture and civilization for thousands of years without nuclear power. Nuclear fuel itself comes from overseas, like oil coal and gas. About a third of Japan’s power comes from nukes. About that much could be saved by just eliminating waste and excess lighting and air conditioning and pachinko parlors. Japan is the most lit up nation on earth. I’ve read that one entire nuclear reactor’s worth of energy is used to run the nations drink vending machines, keeping the drinks cold and hot all over the country, 365 days a year.
And now, the Fukushima plant has had an explosion, something nuclear officials assured people would never happen. Even now officials are suggesting measures to people living near the plant as simply covering their mouths and staying indoors.
I haven’t spoken with anyone else from the book, but I do think they are OK so far since they live far from the epicenter of the quake. If the core melts down, none of us, here or there are safe. Radiation will spread all over the world, as it did when Chernobyl happened. Cancer rates shot up worldwide after this. People are still dying from it.
One of the messages in the book is that we need to go beyond tiny little lifestyle tweaks to solve this problem (more efficient light bulbs, etc.) We need to fundamentally change the way we live.
Atsuko said to me, “The whole world should see Japan’s present state and turn away from nuclear power. We have to face the fact that nuclear power really is dangerous. We knew it before but we didn’t want to face it. We can’t keep avoiding looking at it.”
Before I give you a short excerpt from the book that talks about nuclear issues, I want to point out that because Yamashita (Chapter 9) successfully led an effort to prevent a nuclear waste dump from being sited near his house, he and his children are in less danger. Although social activism doesn't always work, as Oizumi well knows, it is important, and does make the world better to live in.
Here’s an excerpt from the book from Chapter One, when I’m driving with Oizumi:
Out the window I see all the familiar gaudily colored flashing neon signs, tangles of overhead wiring, blocky cement buildings next to train trestles rusting in the humidity, electrified vending machines on every corner keeping canned drinks both very hot and very cold in all weather, and steel-panel billboards advertising electrical appliances and gadgetry. And then there are the blaring lights and chrome of the pachinko gambling joints. I never cease to be amazed at how many there are. (Pachinko is a type of vertical pinball game in which a cascade of steel balls pours downward with a deafening sound through a maze of metal nails, with a full cacophony of buzzers, bells, and sirens.) The whole thing feels like a binge on electricity, on a culture-wide scale. Both Oizumi and I know that the proliferation of nuclear power stations is a result not only of Japan’s industrial production but of the Japanese public’s electricity use run amok. The plants, however, are always sited in rural areas hungry for jobs, remote from the mass of urban people who use most of the electricity. The predominance of nuclear power, along with the massive use of agricultural chemicals, is linked as well to the rise in cancer rates in this small, crowded country.
Oizumi says, “I myself don’t expect to live a long life: the world is too dangerous now.” If it were not for this evening’s lecture, I might be inclined to think that Oizumi’s talk of danger is somewhat overstated. But then I think back to the community hall crowded with over two hundred local residents as a researcher from the U.S. Nuclear Control Institute, Edward Lyman, [Note: Lyman currently works for the Union of Concerned Scientists] told the audience story after story of nuclear waste storage canisters corroding and leaking, cancerous substances leaching into the water table, the potential for bomb-capable material being hijacked during transport, cost-cutting by the nuclear industry, and lax regulation by the government agencies that are supposed to be protecting the public.
OizumiOizumi standing silently, listening in the back with his arms crossed over his ochre corduroy shirt. The information seemed in no way to surprise him. Nuclear accidents and spills are not uncommon in Japan (though they are rarely reported) and there are more than fifty-five nuclear reactors already running in Japan.
Oizumi says, “At any time another Chernobyl could happen.” He’s right of course, and I, like most people, prefer not to think about it. Oizumi however doesn’t let this forgetting happen to him.
“Nuclear power,” Oizumi continues, “is inconsistent with the Way of Tea.” He lets the statement sit there for some time until I ask him what he means. “The Way of Tea is one of humility and poetic sentiments, not of grandiosity and gorgeousness. The ideal behind nuclear energy is a limitless amount of free electricity lighting up every part of the planet. Also, the Way of Tea requires that one must never bring weapons into the tearoom, or anything that might be used as a weapon. Not only nuclear fuel but even nuclear waste, as you know, can be used to make weapons.”
This excerpt is from Chapter 3, on Atsuko Watanabe:
“When,” I ask her, “did you first start getting active in politics?”
“It was the incident at Chernobyl. After that I realized I couldn’t just live a humble and plain life in the mountains. I had to get together with other people and try to make changes. Actually, I think it would be much more ideal to have a world where it wouldn’t be necessary for mothers to go out into the society just to protect their children, but since other people weren’t doing it, I felt I had no choice.”
Opposition to authority (especially outside of the biggest cities) is widely frowned upon in Japan. Companies pressure employees to sign political petitions at work against progressive initiatives and make vague threats that bad things will happen to them if they don’t, and shame or even ostracism is often spread to the family members and associates of those that step out of the accepted framework. One doctor I met had trouble renting an apartment for more than two decades after participating in a student antiwar protest on the other side of the country. His name, it seemed, was on some sort of blacklist. I thought to myself when I heard this, “and this guy is a doctor.”
I know that activists in Japan must resign themselves to the reality that their chance of success is low—citizens rarely win any kind of battle against the government or large corporations here, even when the law is on their side.
Atsuko’s firmness and stark decisiveness can take me unawares; she’s fiercely sure of herself sometimes. I remember an incident a few years ago soon after yet another nuclear accident in Japan. [Note: this was written about an accident in 1990!] I attended a protest that her anti-nuclear group organized at the electricity company office downtown, a brown, boxy bureaucratic building. As is often true in conformist Japan, only a small number of people turned out to the protest. When a few older male officials came down in their blue suits to make a show of “listening,” I was surprised to see Atsuko Watanabe step out of the group to confront them, looking them in the eyes. She became furious when they started lying to her. “Don’t you have children? Don’t you give a damn about your own child?” She almost shouted at them. “How can you expose your children, and my children, to atomic radiation leaking from the plant? Why won’t you take any responsibility for what has happened?” I was almost as startled as the bureaucrat seemed. It’s not culturally smiled upon to show anger, especially in public, especially for women. But she was dead serious. I then remembered the photo exhibition of victims of the Chernobyl disaster that Atsuko had invited me to. I could almost feel the grief in her voice when she talked about the children deformed, or dying of cancer, the land blighted.
I will close this blog post with something my partner Cynthia said to me after we watched a horrific video of a tsunami wave rolling across the land. The video was shot from the sky, and down there, on a road, one little car was trying to turn around, to head another direction to avoid the onrushing wall of water sweeping everything away. The wave was less than 30 feet from the car. Cynthia said, "It's like a metaphor for nuclear power. When the wave is actually heading right at you, it's too late to choose that moment to turn around."