Fear and Eating in Fukushima

Mar 30, 2015

We are no strangers to earthquakes here in the Bay Area. But there’s been nothing in recent memory to match the 9.0 quake that shook Japan on March 11, 2011.  

The quake set off a deadly tsunami and was so powerful that it shifted the earth’s axis by several inches.

But the news that came out of Japan the next day, gripped the world with fear. A nuclear explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Reactors melted down releasing giant plumes of radiation into the atmosphere. Here, on the other edge of the Pacific Ocean, many were concerned -- Would it reach us?

Over the years, this concern has not gone away.

Consider this ABC news report from February, 2014: “There continues to be serious concerns about whether radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster has reached our shores.”

And indeed, radioactive Cesium-134 from the Fukushima plant was detected 100 miles off the coast of Eureka, California. "It's not zero," said Ken Buesseler, the researcher who made the discovery, “but it's not some large, dangerous amount of cesium that might reach our shorelines."

But if people are still truly worried here - some 5,000 miles away from the nuclear plant.  What about there? How are people in Fukushima making sense of the health risks in their environment? And when it comes to one of the most daily necessities - food - how are they figuring out what’s safe?

I traveled to Japan this summer as part of San Francisco State University’s Fukushima Reporting Project to ask this question.

I started at the grocery store in Fukushima. A place name that evokes fear for some. But to Michiyo Kainuma, who was born here, Fukushima is so much more than its radioactive reputation. It’s home.

Kainuma is a spry 61-year-old English teacher and my guide at this supermarket. Her hands move nimbly over displays of green peppers, onions, potatoes, and Japanese leeks.

“These are really cheap and fresh,” she says.

I’ve met up with Kainuma to do perhaps one of the most basic and yet most controversial things you can do in a place after nuclear disaster: prepare a meal.

She plans to make tempura tonight using fresh vegetables from this store. In front of us is a display of produce grown and packaged here in Fukushima.

A row of photographed faces are lined up above the food. They kind of look like baseball cards. But they are portraits of local farmers.

Kainuma lets out a girlish laugh and asks me, “Who is handsome?!

Despite the supermarket’s promotion of local food and Kainuma’s positive and playful attitude, I’m wondering what’s really okay to eat here?  

Right after the nuclear plant exploded in Japan, I remember walking into a grocery store in San Francisco and noticing the big bulk bins of seaweed were all wiped clean. People thought the seaweed's natural iodine would protect their thyroids from radioactive iodine that might be drifting towards them from across the Pacific.

But ironically, as people scurried to protect themselves here, some people much closer to the contamination, didn’t even know a nuclear meltdown had occurred.

Kainuma didn’t find out for 10 or 15 days after the hydrogen explosion. She didn’t have access to TV because the power was out.

And no one came to tell her.

Just after the earthquake, the Kainumas were focused on meeting their basic needs.

“Food, food, food,” she says. “The first thing I think about is food.”

She and her family stood in a long line at this very grocery store, waiting to get what limited food was available. Radioactivity was far from their minds. They just didn’t want to be hungry.

When she found out, though, she “really worried about that invisible fear.”

Invisible. As Kainuma said, they had no way of knowing how much danger they were in or where it was. One of the scariest things about radiation is - we can’t perceive it with any of our senses.

Now Kainuma knows full well that her city was caught in the shadow of nuclear fallout. But here, buying food more than 3 years later, she shows little concern about it.

As she shops, I wonder how she went from fearing irradiated food to enthusiastically buying local. It’s not exactly because the farmers are handsome, though the pictures, she tells me, do help.

“Every name is stick to the pictures so we can see the farmers face,” she tells me. “That’s really comfortable for us to choose what we want to buy.”

Maybe patriotism plays a role too. Kainuma’s husband worked for the local government, and Kainuma herself has volunteered with them distributing leaflets about efforts to monitor food.

As we move through the aisles, I start to notice a pattern.

“So basically if you see ‘grown in Fukushima’ to you that means safe?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “Yes.”

She points out what she tells me is a unique inspection code on every bag of rice. There’s even a phone number.  

“It’s toll free dial,” she assures me. “And by calling it you can find out information about this bag.”  She taps the package emphatically.  

She’s never called it herself. But she says she has been to the inspection center where the monitoring is done. And she says, “I can clearly see the latest technology shows it is safe. So I perfectly trust all of them.”

Trust. That might be what this all boils down to. As we check out, and leave the store, I can’t help thinking that shopping for food is a form of trust.

After all, I often look for and trust labels that tell me whether the food I’m buying is organic or local! Of course I might be more skeptical if I were watching out for nuclear radiation. And naturally, some people in Fukushima are.

Like Chiaki Oku.  

Oku is 56 and, like Kainuma, she is an English teacher who lives in Fukushima Prefecture.  Unlike Kainuma, she has completely changed her food habits.

She was extremely worried about the food and the water right after the accident.

Even though food from Fukushima is cheaper, she still buys milk and vegetables from other areas. While I’m talking to her on Skype, she brings her computer over to the kitchen. Going through the produce in her refrigerator is like a tour of all the other parts of Japan.

Her radishes are from Ibaraki.  Her potatoes are from Hokkaido.  

After the disaster, Oku’s children and grandchildren moved to a different part of Japan because of the radiation threat.

“I was very sad and lonely,” she says.

She decided to stay because.. well.. it was her home.  I tell her about Michiyo Kainuma’s trust in the government and the food system.

“It’s her choice.” Oku says. “So I don’t want to say it’s dangerous, don’t eat this thing or something.  Depend on the personal thinking.”

She just has a bad feeling about the vegetables.  Even if it’s only her opinion, she says, “I don’t want eat.  I feel it.”

So Oku’s decisions about food, just like Michiyo Kainuma’s, are based on trust - or lack thereof.  A feeling in the gut.

Understandably she’s overwhelmed when she imagines intensely restricting her shopping like this for the rest of her life.  She admits that she might eat food from Fukushima someday.  But, “for now,” she says, “I have to take care of my body.”

And she’s not about to put her health in the hands of the government.  

She knows the Japanese government says everything is safe and not to worry.  “But,” she says, “this is not true I think.”

There are clear reasons why some people like Chiaki Oku don’t trust the authorities. For one, the Japanese government along with TEPCO, the company who owns and runs the nuclear plant, notoriously mishandled the meltdown disaster. And there’s a revolving door between government and the nuclear industry in Japan. One group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it a perfect example of regulators being too close to the industry they oversee.

Now it’s regulators from that same government overseeing the food supply. But there are ways people can test their food directly. There are 26 food monitoring centers in Fukushima just for homegrown produce. Like the one I got to visit.

We take our shoes off, put on plastic slippers, and then walk across squeaky blue sticky mats to get inside. This is all to keep us from tracking in extra dirt, dust, or anything from the outside world that might be contaminated with radiation.   

We are met by Kenichi Hanzawa, the technical official here and our guide for this tour.  “People were extremely concerned about food safety and their products,” he tells us. “So we built centers like the one you’re standing in with devices you see here.”

The devices he’s referring to are stout cylindrical machines made of thick metal and mounted on short tripod legs.  Standing at attention near Hanzawa’s feet, they look like cousins of r2d2.  And they’re designed to measure Bequerels - units of radioactivity.

Hanzawa demonstrates how they’re used.   He loads one up with a sample of rice. The whole process is nearly silent and faster than an ATM transaction.  The results show up on a laptop screen.  And this rice checks out.  It’s under the new local standard: 100 Bequerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram. To put that in context -- that’s 12 times more strict than the U.S. radiation standard.  

For the first year, the center was swamped.

“We would get phone calls from people who wanted to come here,” says Hanzawa. “Some would get very upset and some were even in tears.  It created an atmosphere of panic.”

These centers have been vital in calming that panic. Since so many people in Fukushima grow their own food, being able to test it for radiation can be like giving people glasses to let them see what’s otherwise an invisible threat.  

But Fukushima is also a big commercial farming region. These farmers have had their own set of problems.

Shinichi Katahira is a fourth generation peach farmer and owner of Michinoku Orchard in the part of Fukushima, known as the ‘Fruit Line.’  This used to be the second largest peach growing region in the country.

Katahira’s orchard is in a valley green with peach trees ... alive with crickets and cicadas. It’s far enough inland that they didn’t really suffer from the earthquake or tsunami. But the next day, when the power plant exploded, they were advised to evacuate.  He and his family thought “it’s all over.”

Katahira’s orchard is about 40 miles away from the power plant - not close enough to be officially evacuated, though many people left out of precaution.

But Katahira and his family stayed.  “As farmers who own and work on our land,” he says, “we couldn’t just pick up and leave. So we waited for more information.”  

Eventually, he made the difficult decision to continue farming.  But there were some obvious obstacles. How would he guarantee his crops were safe? Katahira and other farmers consulted with experts at the local university.

They used high pressure washers to wash the bark clear off all of their trees.  It fell to the ground.  Then they scraped up the top 5 centimeters of soil and debris from the entire orchard.  That’s a lot of material to move.  And there was no official place for it to go.  

With limited resources, they trusted what becomes conventional wisdom after a nuclear disaster.  Radioactive cesium, once bound to clay, doesn’t travel much.  So they buried the contaminated soil in about a half acre of their own land, just a little ways from where we are standing.

For Katahira, farming after a nuclear disaster has meant more than just figuring out how to decontaminate his orchard and his fruit.

“We have to find new markets now,” he says.  “And to do that, our produce needs to be great.  With free trade, we hope to sell around the world.”

Not all farmers in Fukushima have pressed on. Some people were forced to leave their contaminated land.  Fukushima prefecture used to be the 4th largest rice producer in Japan, but has dropped to 7th.

Katahira’s voice takes on a heavy weight when he admits how much life has changed since the accident.  “It will never be the same as before,” he says.

As we leave, he gestures earnestly to his trees and offers us fruit.  “Please try my peaches!” he shouts.  And coaches us to pick the the most ripe ones.

I indulge.

Katahira says he’s constantly testing his fruit to make sure it is safe. And standing here under his trees, I believe him.  But will people buy it if they have the choice?   Should they?

That begs the question: how dangerous is radiation in our food?  What do we know about how it affects our health?  We know that one very large dose from a bomb or a meltdown can cause death or severe sickness.  But there’s also naturally occurring radiation all around us - in the air, soil, even in food.  Bananas, for example, contain 130 Bequerels per Kilogram of radioactive Potassium - that’s higher than the level of radioactive Cesium Fukushima allows in its food.  

Doctors and researchers - including from the National Academy of Sciences - are concerned about the increased risks for cancer and genetic mutations - but they still haven’t determined the exact impacts of low doses of radiation over time.

So that’s...more uncertainty.

Which itself can harm people’s health. The World Health Organization concluded that in Fukushima, like in Chernobyl, the chronic stress of the nuclear accident could outweigh other health problems.

What if you thought about radiation every time you went shopping? Or ate? Or cooked…?

I am back with Michiyo Kainuma in her home now, watching her prepare dinner. Rice for sushi and vegetables for tempura.

Kainuma cooks traditionally, carefully considering every detail of the meal.  She listens to the changing pitch of the tempura oil as it bubbles. She watches the color of the boiling meat.

But what’s the protocol for an ingredient that can’t be sensed?   We all have our own way of dealing with the unknown. The Kainumas choose to eat locally.

Over the dinner table they joyously incant the traditional Japanese blessing on the meal.  “Itadakimas!  Kampai!  Cheers!”

At the end of the meal, Kainuma’s husband turns on his favorite classical music while she slices up fruit for dessert.  She asks me if I want to eat some local peaches.

Peaches— one popular symbol of Fukushima City.   

Fukushima has a long way to go before it solves its problems with radiation, the future of food production, and the dislocation of residents.

But larger questions loom too.  Japan is criss-crossed by fault lines.  All 48 of the country’s nuclear power reactors remain shut down in the wake of  the Fukushima disaster.  But industry and government leaders are pushing to reopen one in the coming year.  And here in California, the active Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant sits just miles from fault lines.

So, while we don’t understand the full impact of nuclear fallout on our food and our health, maybe we should try a little harder to grasp it.  Because it could just be a matter of time before something like Fukushima happens again - in Japan or here.

Until the long term studies are done, though, people have to feel their way through this disorienting, invisible threat.  

As I savor this slice of Fukushima peach, I feel connected in some small way to the land where it grew. And to the people I’ve met who still have to navigate between trust and fear.

Special thanks to William McMichael, Jon Funabiki, Gary Sakamoto, Nicole Martinez, the Fukushima University Ambassadors Program and the San Francisco State University Fukushima Reporting Project.

For more information about the health impacts of radiation:

Health Physics Society - Q+A about radiation and health

This story originally aired on November 12, 2014.