Science Scope

A year after Fukushima, how life in Japan has changed

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Filmmaker Yuki Kokubo describes post-disaster life in Japan, based on visits to her parents, who live 90 miles south of Fukushima.

As told to Laura Shin by Yuki Kokubo

Yuki Kokubo is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who focuses on social and environmental issues. She was born and raised in Japan until age 8, when she moved to New York City. Her parents returned to Japan when she was 16, and they now live in Kasama, about 90 miles south of Fukushima. She is working on her first feature-length documentary, Kasama-Yaki (Made in Kasama) about the lives of her parents after the disaster. Since the earthquake and tsunami, she has visited Japan twice -- once in June, and again in December.

How energy use has become more efficient

The earthquake and tsunami have really changed Japanese attitudes. My mom told me a story that, before the earthquake, they were driving at night on an elevated highway overlooking Tokyo. She looked at the skyline and noticed all the lights were on, but clearly nobody was working. She remembers thinking, "What a waste."

After the disaster, Japan shut down 52 of the 54 nuclear reactors, so the country has to conserve energy. The stores used to be brightly lit, but now they're operating at 50% brightness or less.

There's a lot of talk about turning to renewable energy like geothermal plants, but some bathhouse owners are afraid that if they created geothermal plants, there wouldn't be any hot water for the public baths. Of course there would be. I don't know how these rumors get spread.

When I went back in December, the government was considering turning on some of the reactors, but there was such a huge outcry, I've recently heard they may shut down the remaining reactors. There's just too much fear now.

How conformism gave way to demonstrations

Japan is a conformist culture, and people rarely speak up, but that changed after the disasters. The government hid information about radiation levels after the Fukushima meltdown and for the first time, people are really angry, and there have been demonstrations. I think that's a good thing. The disasters gave people courage to say what they think.

The first thing that made people really angry was that the government raised the acceptable exposure levels on vegetables 20 times so it wouldn't affect the agricultural industry, and contaminated vegetables were going into school lunches. They were also really angry that the Japanese government covered up the fact that they knew how high radiation levels were in places like Tokyo. The government supposedly knew, according to the people complaining about it. A couple from my parents' town fled to Tokyo for safety, but they may have exposed themselves to more radiation than they thought.

How people find reliable information

A lot of people have become skeptical of NHK, the big television network in Japan. People are reading blogs, and Twitter is huge. I can't read Japanese very well, but I have come across citizen journalists who have become very visible activists on Twitter. But the downside to citizen journalism is that there is a lot of unverifiable news, which is frustrating.

What the government is doing

In Kasama where my parents live, the city has made a couple of Geiger counters available for rent, but I've heard frustrations that the instruments may not be accurate. Also, I'm not sure how much the government could do. Low levels of radiation spread to such a wide area throughout Japan. In some places, they have scraped off the top layer of playgrounds and schools, but they then just piled the soil somewhere else.

How the Japanese attitude toward earthquakes has changed

I never thought about tsunamis growing up. They were not part of my consciousness at all. But earthquakes were really frequent. I remember there was a 5.5 quake when I was in nursery school and part of the ceiling caved in and we were all hiding under our tables. But that's part of living in Japan.

There have been so many aftershocks after 3/11 that people have gotten numb to them. Like when I visited, I'd feel an aftershock and my parents wouldn't even notice, but I'd be getting ready to run out of the house. It's crazy. My mom was like, "I don't even notice anymore unless it's a 6."

What it's been like on her visits

I went back in June. I wanted to go back earlier, but there were food and gasoline shortages and the trains weren't running to Kasama. Radiation levels were said to be high in the area, so people were advised to stay inside for weeks. So my parents discouraged me from visiting in the first few months. Plus, I was wrapping up a semester.

In June, people were still jittery about radiation exposure. They banned some produce and milk from Ibaraki Prefecture where my parents live. There was a lot of talk about which vegetables were okay to eat from which prefecture, and many people were buying imported bottled water to drink.

My father wanted to go see the disaster zone. We had planned to drive up the coast for a few days, but we went home after the first day, because it was so devastating -- people crammed into hospitals and mass graves. When I came back to New York, I couldn't look at the footage until November because it was too raw.

On my first trip, I was really careful about food, and I bought bottled water because my parents drink well water and it scares me to think what might be in their soil. But when I go back in April, I might not take those precautions anymore. It’s so expensive, first of all, but I’m buying into my parents’ attitude a little bit. Maybe it’s a Japanese, fatalistic attitude, but it’s like, “Everyone else is going through this, so why should we be exempt?” I’m going to be there for two months, and there’s no way I can afford to buy water for that long. So I need to be more lax about it.

Some people who were worried about their children growing up exposed to radiation moved away from my parents' area. I think a lot about my cousins there who have little kids. No one is really sure of what will happen to their health. It could be another Chernobyl. They're environmental refugees in a way. My parents are just trying to get back to normal life. They are 70 years old, so they are choosing not to think about possible long-term effects of radiation exposure.

Why she decided to make the film

My parents and I have been living apart since I was 16 and we've never been close, but the disasters made me realize how far I'd been from them, geographically and personally. Although my parents didn't lose their house and none of our relatives died (thank God), it made my whole family realize how important we are to each other. It also brought home how temporary life is.

The camera gives me reason to ask them questions I had never asked them before, and a lot of the distance and anger we had as a family have been softened by this new way of relating. Also it helps me figure out how my family is coping with this emotionally. I feel like I've become so Americanized, I don't really understand. We read all these articles by foreign journalists, but I don't think they have the deep perspective that I want.

When everything happened, my dad lost his part-time job doing excavation work for the city, which he had taken up because they hadn't been able to earn enough money with pottery, and I had to raise money for them by selling my photos. Initially, I was really angry that they were so irresponsible financially, but eventually, I realized that they have a lot of lessons that they can teach people about how to live and enjoy life with just the necessities.

How her parents live

My parents are artists who live in a place called Geijitsu-Mura ("Artisan Village"), which was built by a big gallery owner in Tokyo who bought the land, subdivided it and sold it cheaply to artists. So the whole area is full of potters and artists. My father paints, and my mom does sculptural work with clay, and they make their living doing pottery.

My parents never strived for financial success. They always lived their lives for their art. They have a small plot of land with a house and a workshop, and a small garden. That reduces the amount of food they have to buy whether it's from Japan or shipped from the U.S. My parents don't have a lot of things. If something breaks, they fix it. The disaster hasn't changed the way my parents use energy because they never used that much of it. But they notice how different things are in stores, and they think, "We've known this all along."

Their way of life is based on an old Japanese philosophy that Japan has forgotten post-war. Traditionally, people had a huge respect for nature -- they lived with nature and not against it, whereas in Western culture, you conquer nature and use it to your advantage. But you can't fight nature. Look at what happened with the tsunami.

In Japan, the disaster has made a lot of people anti-nuclear, but I think people both in and out of Japan need to really think about using less and consuming less. Because if it's not nuclear, it's fossil fuels. We really need to rethink what we think is the "good life." And perhaps focus less on consuming, and more on creating, like my parents do.

For more information on Kokubo's film, see her site: www.kasamayakifilm.com.

photo: Top: Yuki and her parents eating breakfast. Bottom: Yuki Kokubo. (Courtesy of Yuki Kokubo)

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure