When Takashi Takemoto goes shopping for groceries, he looks for two things: freshness, and proof that the produce came from nowhere near Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Like many Japanese, Mr. Takemoto says he can’t trust government assurances that the produce from the region around Fukushima Daiichi is safe. So he boycotts rice and vegetables grown in Fukushima prefecture and the surrounding provinces. He avoids all Japanese meat and seafood, concerned that even livestock from elsewhere in Japan might have been fed contaminated grains. Fish, too, in case they were pulled from waters too close to the crippled nuclear reactors.
“We rely now on Moroccan octopus and Chilean salmon,” the 60-year-old business consultant says, chuckling. “It’s not too expensive, and it’s good enough.”
The Fukushima fallout has now spread well beyond what can be measured with a Geiger counter. In the minds of many consumers, Fukushima prefecture – which, at almost 14,000 square kilometres is bigger than Lebanon or Jamaica – and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are one and the same. Though the Japanese government has evacuated only a 20-kilometre radius around the plant, many inside and outside Japan treat the entire region as though it’s contaminated, unsure of what to make of shifting official assessments of the situation.
In addition to spurning the region’s produce, Japanese tourists have also avoided Fukushima’s previously popular beaches and hiking trails, leaving hotels and traditional ryokan inns on the verge of closing. The Fukushima stigma is such that schoolchildren from the region are being ostracized and bullied by their classmates. “The other kids surround them after school and yell ‘radioactive, radioactive,’” said Masahiri Watanabe, a resident of the town of Hirono in Fukushima prefecture.
The stoic solidarity that Japanese have shown in responding to the tsunami that wrecked entire cities in the northeast of the country is absent when it comes to Fukushima and the threat of invisible radiation. “People from other [parts of Japan]don’t want to visit Fukushima prefecture, even the places that don’t have heavy contamination. People are simply afraid,” said Toshifumi Takada, an accounting professor who lives in Fukushima city, 50 kilometres from the nuclear plant.
Part of the problem is the country is still struggling – seven months after a massive tsunami set off a series of explosions and meltdowns at four of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors – to understand the scale of the disaster and how it will change Japan.
Seemingly every week there’s another headline in the local press about radioactive substances being discovered on another product from the region: beef, milk, spinach and tea from Fukushima have all seen recalls or bans. Last month, elevated levels of radioactive cesium (though not high enough to be considered unsafe by Japanese government standards) were discovered on the region’s rice, leading to concerns about even that staple of the country’s diet.
The region’s $3.2-billion-a-year agriculture industry has been decimated for at least this year, dealing another economic blow to an already reeling region. The Japan Times newspaper reported this month fishery officials say catch volumes from the area are down 85 to 99 per cent, as many fishermen realize they can’t sell produce with a “Fukushima” label on it.
“Fish from Chiba and Ibaraki [two neighbouring prefectures]are all caught from the same area of the sea, yet only ours aren’t selling well because they are labelled ‘Fukushima.’ It’s absurd,” a fish market official was quoted as saying.
On Tuesday, the Japanese government publicly stated that all newly harvested rice grown in Fukushima prefecture had been tested and was considered safe for consumption since none exceeded the limit of 500 becquerels of radioactive material per kilogram.
But some Japanese say they no longer believe such guarantees. “Many people do not trust the information publicly released by the government. It’s hideous, but we don’t trust the news released by [national broadcaster]NHK or the private channels and newspapers,” said Mr. Takemoto, the business consultant. He is particularly sensitive to radiation worries since his 84-year-old mother is a Hiroshima survivor.
“Fukushima is known for having the best peaches in Japan. But we won’t buy a Fukushima peach for 10 years to come.”