Thursday, March 17, 2011

Place Names

The idea that this tragedy marks a moment through which the nation has proudly come together, as writer Azuma Hiroki has suggested in a recent New York Times piece (March 16, 2011), has already been squelched. Those people sequestered in towns and cities in Fukushima’s exclusion zone are finding little help from the outside as power and food supplies are rapidly depleted. Elderly Japanese have already died from lack of medicine and heat there. As reported in the LA Times and by BBC, those asked to stay in their homes in Fukushima are feeling sickened at their abandonment by the government. Japanese and foreign aid workers are reluctant to enter a zone that may likely be contaminated, and the government brings no relief supplies even as it asks them to stay home. One group suggests that the government asks them to stay indoors not for their own safety but to make their whereabouts traceable. Mayor of the town Minami-Souma in the exclusion zone, Katsunobu Sakurai, said on NHK television, "The government is demanding that we don't go out, but it isn't bringing us anything . . . Truck drivers don't want to enter the city. They're afraid of being exposed to radiation . . . . If the government says we're in a dangerous area, it should take more care of us!"

Traditionally, Japanese place names resonant with powerful histories. I am told that Minami-Souma has had an annual festival that commemorates the Souma clan capturing, training and offering wild horses to shrines of Souma. “Uma” means “horse” in Japanese. Commemorative battles of Japanese men (and more recently including women and children) in samurai garb sitting atop meticulously brushed horses are held in late July every year. Now, instead of being known for these festival events involving the place name of horse, Souma will be one of a number of areas linked with the disaster in Fukushima.

Sometimes those place names can have ominous associations. Minamata in the south now has a global association with methyl mercury poisoning. Fukushima will likely be forever linked to nuclear contamination much in the way that Minamata is forever remembered for the mercury contamination of its waters when the Chisso corporation began in 1932 to manufacture acetaldehyde, used to produce plastics, there. Mercury was essentially dumped into the water for decades but it was not until 1959 that the Chisso plant was found responsible for the pollution. It took ten more years for Chisso to finally stop production of acetaldehyde in 1968. Sociologist Akira Kurihara called the poisoning of the Minamata Bay a species-crossing genocide. It left hundreds of humans and millions of organisms dead and left thousands permanently impaired with devastating illnesses. Minamata is a name that is forever associated with industrial pollution and the fishing communities who contracted mercury poisoning. The disease they contracted, Minamata-byo or “Minamata disease,” is named for that place. Those with Minamata-byo were heavily ostracized and disparaged for fear of contagion.

Those living in the exposure zone of Fukushima are already linked with “hibakusha” (“explosion-affected people”)— those who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Postwar hibakusha and their progeny, like the survivors of Minamata, have faced tremendous discrimination in Japan for fear of contamination directly by exposure or hereditarily—by having children with them. Rumors of the prospect of a similar stigma now worry some of those in and around the Fukushima plant. A 65-year old retired engineer from Sugagawa City, 30 miles from the plant who wished to remain anonymous was quoted as saying, "I am worried about the future . . . There could be some rumors that the people from this area are contaminated by radiation, and that people should not get close to us."

We should recall that decades-long fears of contamination from hibakusha or those with Minamata-byo were groundless. And there should be a way to get goods to the good people of Fukushima. Given the strong associations between place and disease in Japan, however, one shudders to think what the symptomatology of “Fukushima-byo” will be.

We’re all in this together.