7 Days in Japan
at Earthday Tokyo, with Tokiko Kato, Kousaka, Keibo and Kusajima
Survival post 3/11
For over 20 years, I’ve been visiting Japan as a singer and campaigner, helping form a group called the Sloth Club over ten years ago to promote sustainable lifestyles. This year I was invited to perform at Earth Day in Tokyo, just over a month after the devastating earthquake and tsunami and as the radiation continued to spill out of the Fukushima plant. I went because I wanted to support the people who are leading the way to a sustainable future. I was moved, enraged, inspired and have become more peacefully determined.
Day one – Kyoto
I flew into Osaka from Australia and spent the first night with friends in Kyoto. Mayumi took me to a famous tourist spot - Arashiyama, a network of temples and traditional houses and gardens picturesquely set beside the river. My host quickly noted that there were hardly any tourists, Japanese or foreign and she had never seen souvenir shops closed before. But this was Kyoto, supposedly beyond the reach of radiation particles from the Fukushima reactor. I sensed that people lost faith in Japan.
I asked what her reaction was to the nuclear disaster and she said; ‘I simply did not know, I simply couldn’t imagine how dangerous nuclear power could be and I just didn’t realise how many reactors (53) there are all over Japan’.
Mayumi is an intelligent, highly educated wife and mother involved in the environment movement. She has been organising gatherings of her friends to make chopsticks with cloth holders to send to homeless victims of the disaster. She says that many of her friends feel the same; the veil has been lifted, the promise of a safe, secure and prosperous future in Japan can no longer be trusted.
Day two – Café Dela Terra, Yokohama.
The next day I moved to Yokohama where I stayed and performed in a Buddhist temple. The theme of the event was in sharing the story of the Penan tribe of Borneo, their struggle to protect their forest and their peaceful way of life that can teach us all something about living in harmony with each other and nature. It was their forest homelands that were sacrificed largely to form the concrete that has become modern, industrial Japan - those tall skyscrapers in central Tokyo defying gravity as they swayed during the earthquake- now supporting a culture that has moved farther and farther away from the Earth. It is ironic that despite its 30 million people, you can feel more lonely in downtown Tokyo squashed into a rush hour train than sitting by yourself in the deepest Borneo jungle…
With musician Matsuya Fuyuta, we sang and we prayed in front of the Buddhas, humbly calling on our sense of connection with the Earth, with each other, inspired by the wisdom of people like the Penan, to find a way forward.
I started speaking with mothers in Tokyo and they told me of the anguish they had in deciding whether to stay or go in the days after the accident. Those who did escape with their children to the south of Japan to wait for accurate information about the levels of radiation were accused by those who stayed behind as being selfish – abandoning their communities who stayed behind. My friend Atsuko who directs a parenting association talked about how they tried to moderate the on-line discussion to reduce the element of panic and fear, as there were many mothers in their network still living much closer to the reactor with their children.
Day three – Earth Day Tokyo
I took the train into downtown Tokyo. Performing on a cold, wet day to the dedicated crowds who came into to the city for Earth Day. It was a kind of somber, kind of reckless day. Our discussions were open ended and full of questions, no one professing to be the ‘expert’ with all the solutions. What we do know is how we feel; closer together in the face of this new Japan than before; less judgement, more anger, more compassion, more courage, more creativity. Emotions are bubbling to the surface. In some ways, the disaster has delivered freedom.
In the evening I sang in an organic vegan restaurant, the tsubu, tsubu café. My friend Otani Yumiko, the ‘Queen’ of natural grains in Japan’ has been leading a ‘survival’ movement based on diet and nutrition for many years. She is full of hope for what she believes is a profound change sweeping Japan. Like many in the macrobiotic food movement, based on survival stories from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, she says the best way to clear radiation out of your body and stay cancer free is to eat organic brown rice, miso soup, sea salt, sea-weed and pickled plums.
Some of my friends in Japan say they have lost weight and gained health and vitality since the disaster…
That night I went back to stay in a beautiful home in a fashionable district, where European cars filled the garages. Tomoko, her husband Kazuhide and I stayed up till the early hours in the morning; ending up with more questions than answers. Kazu told me an interesting story about, TEPCO - the same company now in the daily headlines exposing its inadequacy in dealing with the nuclear disaster.
A few months ago TEPCO started running a campaign encouraging consumers to ‘switch’ from natural gas (for water heating and cooking etc) to ‘safer’ electricity. They gave consumers a gift of a stainless steel water bottle if they made the switch. Kazu received one and happily packed it into his day bag to bring to work. After a few weeks he discovered that it had leaked all over his belongings. He inspected the offending water bottle and discovered that the cap was the problem. He called TEPCO and asked where he could source another cap. They told him: ‘sorry, we don’t have any replacements’. Kazu persevered. He inspected the cap in more detail and discovered why it had broken so quickly. The seal had been cut through by the sharp metal from the water bottle. It was a design flaw that would make it impossible for any of the bottles to hold water after a few months. He thought about how many millions of these bottles must have been sent out by TEPCO through their ‘switch’ campaign and how many people’s belongings would be soaked by the water, how many trashed mobile phones and sopping wet organisers…(if I believed in conspiracy theories I could think it was deliberate sabotage of the movement to bring your own water bottles to avoid using electric vending machines…)
Anyway, he called the company again and asked them to recall the bottle to avoid this fate befalling all the people who had received this ‘gift’ from TEPCO. They ‘politely’ refused this request and directed his attention to a small note inside the gift box asking users to ‘take care’ when using the bottle in case of leaks.
And then the great earthquake and tsunami came and TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear plant blew up. Now the whole world knows about TEPCO’s incapacity to deal with leaks.
Kazu is angry. TEPCO even sent representatives to his home to ‘deeply apologise’ for his inconvenience, but he knows nothing really changes. If they can’t even take responsibility for a leaking water bottle, how can they be trusted to run a nuclear power plant, and how can they plug the big leak at Fukushima?
Kazu says the most frustrating thing is the fact that TEPCO is the only electricity supplier in Tokyo. Although there are ten power companies in Japan, each company operates a regional monopoly eliminating competition. If they refuse TEPCO power, they have no other choice. No electricity – no toilet, no lights, no water, no bath, no heating…Almost everyone in Japan is now ‘dependent’ on the very companies that may well kill them.
I asked them what they would do if the situation became worse, if there was another earthquake and if this time the nearby Hamaoka nuclear reactor was damaged. They said that they were essentially trapped. Physically they wouldn’t really have anywhere to go – both the north and the southern escape routes would be blocked by radiation. And then there is the issue of their mortgage. Even if they were to leave their home (and jobs), they would still have to find a way to make their repayments. With prices dropping in the economic climate of Japan, they wouldn’t be able to pay their debt by selling their house.
It dawned on me, the sheer scale of the challenge to turn the tide in this country (and the world), I realised that hundreds of millions of people in Japan are completely trapped – they can’t even escape to survive.
For many years I have known instinctively that there is more strength, resilience, adaptability and creativity in the communities of the poor within the ‘poor’ countries I have lived in. Here, through this disaster in Japan, the theory is verified; ‘poverty’ can mean freedom; ‘poverty’ becomes survival.
Day four – Earth Day Tokyo
The next morning I joined my hosts as they went to cast their vote for their local elections. We are confronted with a huge billboard with about 40 neatly filled squares, of faces and simple slogans in Japanese. For many people who do chose to vote (voting is not compulsory), this is often where the decision on who actually to vote for begins. The expressions on the faces displayed range from fierce determination and clenched fists to wide toothy smiles. My friends decided to vote for the only person who has a small caption stating they are ‘anti-nuclear’. I peek around the corner into the voting area to see an attempt to create a perception of pomp and formality – paper table cloths obscure the legs of standard hardwood veneer tables. And that’s what it’s all about, the perception that everything is in order and under control…but what if it isn’t?
The second day of Tokyo Earth Day weekend saw glorious spring weather and hundreds of thousands of people celebrating; enjoying performances on the many stages and browsing among the hundreds of stalls. From a booth selling cloth nappies and sanitary napkins to a Michael Jackson ‘Earth song’ stall to food stands selling wild deer meat burgers – Japan’s environment movement has grown and evolved magnificently over the past 20 years.
The Sloth Club had its stall there too. This is a group I have been involved with from the beginning over ten years ago, promoting happy, healthy, sustainable lifestyles. Leading a wide variety of campaigns from switching off lights for two hours at solstice (pre-Earth hour) to the successful campaign encouraging people to carry their own drinks. This Earth Day its main message was: ‘ampere down’, promoting practical ideas to reduce home electricity.
Fuyuta and I sang our hearts out, leading the audience in the refrain of a new song we are writing together: ‘Arigatoo, Sayonara, Genpatsu….’(Thank-you, Good-bye, Nuclear Power). The simple message is that we are ready to let go of nuclear power now - it’s served its purpose, now we can move on and create a truly safe and sustainable future.
In the evening I revisited one of my favourite towns on the outskirts of Tokyo, Fujino. This is the home of the first approved Steiner school in Japan, along with one of the most vibrant and active ‘transition town’ movements. It’s where the first example of permaculture was set up in Japan and is famous for its high concentration of artists and assorted ‘cultural creatives’.
After our performance in a jazz bar at the traditional artist’s village (Geijitsu no ie) we sat down and talked with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the town. In Fujino quite a few families have ‘moved’ south after Fukushima, some of them have permanently relocated to the southern island of Kyushu.
Some of the people who’ve stayed behind say they feel like guinea pigs - the government is testing them to see what the results of low-level radiation exposure from nuclear power meltdowns will be.
In Fujino we shared how difficult it is to talk about the disaster in normal conversation. There is such a wide range of opinion; from reports that ‘a little bit of radiation is good for you’ to respected doctors warning that no amount of radiation exposure is ‘safe’. So, people tend not to talk about it at all.
Life returns to a semblance of ‘normal’ but nothing is the same. Perhaps one of the problems is that there is no instruction booklet on how society (or an individual) should respond. And since Japan has created such an obedient and compliant society, where independent thinking is discouraged, people are left paralysed and confused, but somehow life in Japan lurches on…
One man said that his daughter moved out of her brand new high-rise penthouse apartment with a million dollar view out over the bay when she realised that if you happen to be trapped in a highrise building during an earthquake (even if it defies gravity by staying intact) – when the power is cut you have nothing – no water, no toilet, no heat, no elevators, you can’t even open the windows to jump free.
I asked my friend who works at the Steiner school how they are coping. She said they have their own monitors for radiation levels (for both water and air) and have taken steps to limit outside exposure (this years sports carnival will be held indoors). She says that a few families have left the area and there is some confusion about what they should do if they ask to return in a few months.
Day 5 – Downtown Tokyo
Today we had a strategy meeting at the Sloth Club’s Tokyo office. Staff and volunteers have been actively organising events, networks, helping victims, commentating on media, leading initiatives of hope for a sustainable future. The Sloth club is quite unique in Japan, made up of a wide variety of people from all ages and walks of life, sharing and supporting each other to ‘do what you can do’. The Sloth Club is one of the rare environment groups where people are encouraged to feel. Today we are all teetering on the edge of vulnerability, confusion and despair, balanced by a sense of the enormous potential there is now for positive change.
This theme continued into the evening event at the Yoshimizu hotel in Ginza. This is without a doubt the ‘greenest’ hotel in Tokyo; organic food, bedding, walls, everything. It’s beautifully traditional; clean, simple - an ecological oasis in the heart of Tokyo. While the hotel itself was almost empty, with most environmentally conscious tourists keeping away from Japan, its performance hall was packed.
One of the Sloth Club directors, Kousaka-san, has recently written a best selling book on the topic of ‘down-shifting’ – living more simple, fulfilling lives to escape the rat race of over-consumption. I joined him and Keibo Oiwa to delve more deeply into this concept in the context of the nuclear disaster.
Day six: Café Slow Kokobunji
I woke up ridiculously early – as usual. There’s no jetlag between Australia and Japan, but my internal clock is triggered by sunlight. In Japan, it seems that people generally sleep very little (at night anyway), are dependent on electric alarm clocks and as a result department stores open at around 10.30am. (I suspect that electric companies figured out they can boost profits by keeping people awake longer, and thus 24 hour ‘convenience’ stores litter the streets and the whole country glows all night).
I set off for an early morning walk in Tokyo and found I was staying just down the road from one of the most famous tourist meccas of the country – the Tsukiji fish markets! And after 22 years of visiting Japan - I had never actually been there before. It was a surreal experience; I felt I was witnessing something that was no longer real. Like a visitor from the future watching a movie – all manner of seafood harvested from all over the world…I couldn’t help wondering how much was poisoned – not only from the Fukushima radiation, but from the plastics and other toxins spreading out far and wide. Fishermen – hard workers and, somehow, honest workers, despite the cruelty often implicated in this work – facing a very uncertain future.
This was the fish market post 3/11 - hardly any tourists – no crowds to hamper stopping and staring at the beautiful creatures caught from the far reaches of the planets oceans. We are global culture now – global impacts, global responsibility; the meltdown at Fukushima is my problem just as much as it is the problem of these fishermen in Tokyo.
I soaked in a deep morning bath before packing up to move once again, this time to the final event at the Café Slow in Kokobunji, marking the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, that the New York Academy of scientists had recently verified had caused the death of one million people from ongoing low-level radiation.
In a month’s time it will be the tenth anniversary of this café, that has become an institution in Tokyo. It functions like an institute of higher learning for progressive ideas, networks and creative projects – from parenting, to nutrition, alternative currency, local markets and sustainable architecture and design. Thousands of people have transformed their lives after a visit to this café; sipping on a cup of organic fair trade coffee (where you can make direct contact with the farmers) or dining on delicious macrobiotic organic food.
It was quite exciting to see that the theme of this event was on the topic of ‘bimbo’ lifestyle. It seems that ‘bimbo’ is a derogatory term in Japan for being poor. Japanese friends have politely discouraged me in the past when I’ve used this term to describe my lifestyle – but I love the creative challenge of living within a low income; building my home (and dressing my family) with things people have thrown away, learning how to make simple (and sometimes throwaway) ingredients make delicious, low cost meals. It’s a kind of ‘down-shifting’ for people like me who have never really had anywhere to ‘down-shift’ from.
‘Bimbo’ lifestyler Mr. Matsumoto, is a main organiser of the creative, artistic demonstrations bringing thousands of everyday people to the streets of Tokyo to call for an end of nuclear power in the country, and has popularised the ‘bimbo’ concept through his writing. He joined Keibo, Fuyuta-san and I to discuss the role of poverty and survival and the challenge of Japan post 3/11.
A member of the audience had been to Fukushima that very morning. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he showed me video of the spiking geiger counter readings taken from inside the car just outside the 20 km exclusion zone and said that the levels on the ground were much higher due to concentrations after the rain. He told me he begged a 20 year old girl working in a 7-11 store nearby to leave immediately. He pleaded with her employers to let her go. But she said that the government had said that it was safe for her to stay, so she would follow their advice.
To me, the disaster at Fukushima is a symptom of a society that is addicted to having more. The truth is most people have long since lost a sense of true wellbeing and happiness, despite having unsurpassed ‘convenience’, 24 hour stores and vending machines on every corner, toilet seats that do just about everything - technology of every description. Electricity consumption in Japan has risen 5 fold since the 70s, but these days some 30 000 people commit suicide every year. Everyone I spoke to said they would rather live with less electricity than deal with the constant and ever present threat of nuclear radiation.
The disaster calls into question many assumptions. Japan is one of the most educated, developed and technologically advanced countries in the world – but what happened to commonsense? Who builds a nuclear power station on a fault line; who builds dangerous, expensive nuclear power stations with no solution to storing the waste? How can a culture that directly experienced the impact of radiation (and suffers as a result to this day) continue to promote this technology? If this is the result of a ‘good education’, then I feel like pulling my children out of school.
Return to Australia.
I felt such a strange conflict of emotions; relief that I had ‘made it’ back, despair my friends coping with the ongoing disaster, excitement that especially young people are leading the way in creative action for a sustainable future.
Here in Australia the issue is now out of the media, despite the fact that TEPCO now admits the accident is far worse than they previously stated and that a full melt-down has occurred. In response to the continuing high levels of radiation being experienced in Fukushima prefecture, the Japanese authorities have now increased the maximum yearly radiation exposure to some 6 times previously acceptable to an adult working in the nuclear industry. The children of Fukushima have been condemned to a radioactive future.
I encourage everyone to sign petitions (http://fukushima.greenaction-japan.org/petition/), encourage mothers and children to leave the area (even as far as Australia if need be) and protest joyfully and creatively - but ultimately I think the most effective action is a deeply personal one; ask questions, shift our thinking and change our way of life.