Thursday, 19 September 2013

Japanese education - Racism: the white man's burden

It's easier to sanitize one's own past than
reflect on it...
Happy Manchus, Chinese and Japanese
co-operating during Japanese occupation
I was having a coffee with a Japanese English teacher friend the other day.  He was saying that he is doing a unit on Gandhi at the moment from the Ministry of Education authorized textbook that he is using.  The chapter dealt with Gandhi in South Africa, being evicted from the train as a coloured person and his subsequent struggle with authorities to gain rights for Indian people in South Africa.

It's a great case study of civil rights and leadership;  I've actually taught it myself.
But... it highlights a mindset that dominates the ministry's attitude to history: wrong is done by other people. There is no self-reflection, let alone reflection, in the ministry's approach to history. The point of looking at Gandhi or Martin Luther King is supposedy to globalize the kids and provide moral education that discrimination (outside Japan)  is bad. It's a great opportunity to combine English with history and civics   e.g. questioning laws that are wrong, having a  sense of what constitutes unacceptable treatment of other people, having courage to act when there are problems that are ethically wrong,  effective means of protest; assessing and encouraging  principled leadership.  But I can guarantee with 100% certainty that there will be nothing that has anything to do with encouraging active citizenship.

The text books  serve to confirm perceptions of white racism and Asian / coloured victims. Which no doubt has been and remains a problem.  Racial theories popularized in Europe were well received in Japan and were used to legitimize poor treatment of racial "inferiors"   School education here completely avoids local unpleasantries like the treatment of Okinawans, Ainu and Zainichi Koreans.  Unpleasantries, controversies, and empowering students to be active citizens are not suitable for ministry sanctioned classroom discussion.

Incidentally, last year I looked at the same case study of Gandhi and  I did try to make it socially relevant.   I asked students to discuss whether they thought Gandhi was doing the right thing. All agreed.  I asked them if they had been there, would they have joined in. They had to weigh up pros and cons  - with little hesitation most said no on account of it being dangerous.  I asked if there was anything that they felt would be worth protesting about (keeping in mind there is a major nuclear problem happening). Most students said no.  Those who could think of something worth protesting about tended to say something along the lines of a hypothetical situation where their families were attacked and they wanted revenge, not a broad social principle.  

All that said though, perhaps it's generational....the generation that's only known recession...

This semester I'm teaching Japanese history... I am sure it will be as much of an eye opening experience for me as it is for the students...

Fukushima - what the government should be doing.

Getting the nuclear plant stable so it is not emitting or dumping nuclear waste is obviously an imperative.  The New Scientist's assurances that it is less radioactive than Pacific nuclear tests such at Bikini Atoll, (which incidentally included the  irradiation of the Japanese fishing boat the (un)Lucky Dragon) are  not consoling.  Poison in the Well's  assessment of the evolution of nuclear waste policy in  helps build historical context,  but knowing that nuclear dumping has happened in other places is no consolation to the fishermen who can't sell their fish or to the farmers whose rice is growing in contaminated soil.  It's not acceptable anymore to be dumping waste into the ocean, irrespective of whether it can be feasibly argued to be safe.  Public outrage and distrust of information sources is too high. At the moment saying a bit of nuclear in your food is not ideal but on balance it's OK is a bit like saying be like trying to mount a case that a little bit of pedophilia is OK..

Anyway, the government doesn't seem to get the fact that they have to deal with the outrage as well as the nuclear problem, and that the two are inextricably linked.

At the moment Japan is considering taking Korea to the WTO to demand that they lift trade bans on fish caught in the waters off north eastern Japan.  In a sense it makes no sense to ban fish based  on location since fish can obviously swim... but the government misses the point that forcing people to buy fish which they believe is unsafe does not restore faith in the food system.  If anything it stigmatises all Japanese fish...

According to Sandman there are 5 steps that need to be taken to reduce outrage.  The government is not doing so well.
  • Admit the error.
I am trying to think of examples of the government admitting error. What comes to mind is PM Abe blaming former PM Kan for his handling of the situation in the initial days.  (I think history is likely to treat Kan well - it is bad, but it could have been much worse in the initial days.)  TEPCO has been admitting errors, but they have a tendency to do so only AFTER they have been caught in the spotlight.  
Abe's assertion that everything is under control might be good for getting an Olympics, but good at all for restoring the faith of those who are affected.

PM Abe's decision today that reactors 5 and 6 need to be decommissioned is long over due and very welcome.  It's not an admission of error, perse but it comes close.  The PM is planning to visit Dai-ichi this week... I hope  he spends enough time with people there to be more compassionate in the way the govt. deals with them.

  • Apologize 
Again, I can't think of any government apologies. TEPCO officials were apologizing to fisherman  the other day for dumping wastes that destroys the fishermen's livelihood. Apologies are often "kuchi dake" - just words in Japan (like anywhere I guess.)  Their website has emblazoned across it
We deeply apologize to the people of Fukushima and broader society for the tremendous inconvenience and anxiety caused by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

"Inconvenience and anxiety"  !!  Abysmal EQ.  

Apologies are important, but unless they reflect an understanding of the devastation that their actions have caused... it trivializes people's suffering and just makes people angry and cynical.

  • Compensate and mitigate
Compensation is inadequate, and will never be adequate for the upheaval that people have faced.  But, farmers should not be farming land that they believe is unsafe.  If land is contaminated, people must be given the option to relocate.  It's hard to restore confidence when farmers themselves believe they are producing tainted goods.

It is a great pity for Fukushima prefecture that the area is so large and that the reactors were named after the prefecture.  All Fukushima produce is tainted by association.

The government has been doing a lot of health checks to alleviate concerns, except they haven't alleviated concerns because they have been finding an abnormal number of growths in children.  Medical experts are saying that it is too early for growths from the reactor to be showing up, and they are finding growths because they are testing.  (The inference being that if mass testings were done anywhere, elevated results would be found).   People have to wait and see.... which contributes to anxiety. 

  • Promise to never do it again
They can't and they won't.  So long as they can't and they won't they need to be doing testing has to be vigilant, and results have to be transparent.  Abe is still determined to bring nuclear back. Without cheap(ish) electricity, it's hard for Japan to regain exports.
  • Do penance
No evidence of that ...


The situation is very difficult. It's easy to criticize the government and there is a lot they could have done and could be doing better - like insisting on safety procedures being followed, being transparent with information,consulting more with Chernobyl experts, communicating with the public and not treating the public as idiots by saying things like "everything is under control", being more empathetic and responsive to farmers and residents and making it clear that the health and well being of people in Fukushima prefecture is as important as people in Tokyo, making sure that information is available in Japanese and other languages, that there are people who are informed who can answer technical questions in lay people's language.

I am sure many govt. and TEPCO workers are working as hard as they can. It doesn't help that the policy with workers in Japanese government and corporations are often deliberately kept generalist but not truly specialised in anything.  Many of them are clearly, despite good intentions, way out of their depth.

I don't see the plight of the farmers being resolved any time soon, nor is there much to persuade those who are anxious about food safety that it's Ok to consume food from the north.  I don't think the government has the PR skills, or the integrity to persuade people otherwise.

My outrage level is not nearly as high as my food consumption from Fukushima. A lot of the reaction is  hysterical, inconsistent and uninformed, people are very risk averse when they feel the govt. is playing them for mugs.  But the the lack of transparent information,  lack of effective communication, lack of empathy in listening to and acting on concerns makes it almost inevitable.

All of this compounded by media that in many cases is not interested in promoting deep understanding... While most of Japan can switch off or zone out or eat food from Kyushu,  for the farmers, fishermen and people of Fukushima - there is nowhere where they can avert their eyes.

Fukushima, radiation & data

This is an interesting graphic from  It is the kind of information the government is working with - there is radiation, but it's not that dangerous. This kind of information, while extremely useful and reassuring,  by itself is totally inadequate for appeasing outrage.

The plight of Fukushima farmers III

  • Individually controlled vs. controlled by others
Farmers have very limited control. They are told where they can farm, where they can't farm. They are told what is "safe" and what is "not safe".  Despite misgivings about tilling the soil on land with radioactive readings, they are told that it's not contaminated enough for them to be compensated to the extent that allows them to move somewhere else or acquire new skills to pursue a different career. They go to meetings - like the one on the video- and the people who do control the decisions don't understand that part of the core anxiety of farmers is that the they have been rendered totally impotent in  decision making. 
  • Fair vs. unfair
Not fair.  Not fair. Not fair at all.  Even thought some of the places near the plant - in particular Tomioka - (but not Namie which has a long history of resistance against the plant) received financial incentives to have the plant in their local government area. This was compensation (bribes) for the plant; it wasn't to mollify people, who had been sold the myth of "Atoms for Peace", in the face of nuclear meltdown.   Anywhere in the world agriculture and fishing have an uneasy relationship with mining and heavy industry.  The integrity of agricultural products depends on perceptions of food safety.  For farmers who have been campaigning against the plant for years, it's bitterly unfair.  Rural Japan provides the oxygen for the cities to live.  It's an unfashionable point of view that is also found in the sentimentalized fascist constructions of a mythological glorious past.  But in reality Tokyo in particular relies on the regions for domestically produced energy - in the case of Tokyo, much of it from Tohoku. Nuclear plants in particular have kept energy cheap, at least cheaper than it would have been, and allowed Japanese industry to thrive.  The constant stream of cheap labour from the north facilitated the post war reconstruction.  Hiro's uncles were typical of their generation - rice farming in the spring summer and autumn in Akita,  labourers in Tokyo through the summer.  The children of the sixties and seventies left the regions for education, many finding work in Tokyo and making it their home.  The farming towns of Fukushima, like the farming towns all over Japan, have dwindling and aging populations.   There is outrage in Tokyo about potential danger to "our" food, but you see hints of outrage against farmers too for being complicit in knowingly producing food that is contaminated.  
The unfairness of that perspective, is something I lack words to describe.

  • Morally irrelevant vs. morally relevant
As Peter Sandman says, pollution "used to be unimportant (but) now pollution is morally wrong and polluters are reprehensible." We can subsitute "nuclear residue". It used to be unimportant, because it wasn't an issue, but now radioactive residue is absolutely unacceptable.  It makes absolutely no difference whether the Maximum Residue Level is 10 becquerels or 100,000 becquerels.  The fact is any becquerels is unacceptable. Mass opinion, in the absence of scientific "proof" does not want any becquerels as residue in their food.  The fact mass opinion doesn't condemn clogging tonkatsu or transfat filled Oreos, permits smoky coffee shops and doesn't question the intentional irradiation of food as a hygiene method  are a point of irony that bemuse me, but essentially not relevant to the fact that in the popular mind there is no safe level of nuclear residue.  No amount of persuading that 100 becquerels is safe, will convince the population that nuclear residue is comparable  to something like butter  where some is OK, but too much is bad for your health....

  • Responsive process vs. unresponsive process
The government has done some.... they've made an exclusion zone.  But the farmers that are complaining here are not being listened to.  The govt. and TEPCO are not being open and transparent about how decisions are being made.They are  not admitting that they have and are making mistakes.  TEPCO is not admitting mistakes.  It was announced perhaps two weeks ago that no-one is going to be prosecuted for the mistakes made.  Despite the fact that warnings were ignored, false information was given, no-one is going to be held accountable.  Listening to farmers talking about their dire situation and responding with what may as well be  - you are gullible for believing rumours that your food is not safe is not the kind of response that heightens anger, outrage and mistrust.

  • Trustworthy sources vs. untrustworthy sources
The government and TEPCO have lost all credibility.  PM announcing that the situation is under control to the IOC sent shockwaves through much of Japan.... For the farmers in this video, they are very clear that it's not under control.  They know themselves that they are contributing to a food chain that people can't trust.  If it's under control why is water with radiation being poured into the Pacific?  An official from the plant is on the record last week saying it's not under control.      If there are lies about such basic things, why would you believe in the integrity of the food chain, or that 100 becquerels is safe, or that it's not going to cause cancers, or it's not ever going to affect Tokyo...

Anti Nuclear Protest - more undercover police than protesters

Uniformed police waiting for a protest of about 80 anti nuclear protesters

If the authorities put as much energy into responding to
people who live in affected areas as they spend intimidating
anti nuclear protesters... a lot more might be achieved.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The struggle of Fukushima farmers part II

Continuing through Peter Sandman's list of factors contributing to outrage and applying it to Fukushima.   5-7

  • Not dreaded vs. dreaded
Nuclear accident - no explanation required.  In the tradition of Godzilla, On the Beach, The Day After... nuclear contamination is dreaded and stigmatised. 
  • Chronic vs. catastrophic
It started at a  catastrophe or near catastrophe, has arguably become chronic but the threat of a catastrophe lingers in the background.  Now that the feeling of impending doom has passed for the people of Tokyo it has become easier to ignore; the outrage here has diminished, somewhat. We can always buy produce from Kyushu...  But for people in Fukushima it's hasn't really moved from catastrophe to chronic and their representatives are charged with the task of persuading the authorities to recognize that it is a catastrophe.
  • Knowable vs. unknowable
This is on of the most basic problems.  What is safe? Who knows... The Ministries give assurances that they are complying with international acceptable radiation levels, and it is true that their levels are stricter than international averages: science is on their side, or so they say. And yet any minimum residue level is just a guess, usually a conservative guess, but there is no guarantee that there is no risk.  The public wants no risk; scientists want acceptable risk.   But acceptable to whom?

When you look at a tomato in Fukushima, or a rice field... it's not possible to know what level of radiation it has unless its tested.  And you can't test every tomato or every spec of soil in a rice field.  When you see Fukushima cucumbers in the shop, you have no idea whether it's from next to the exlusion zone or towns more than 70km away.  (Pointing out that many of these people probably allow their children to ride a bike without a helmet or eat beef with hormone growth promotants is a bit of a red herring and not relevant to the farmers in question.    Many people avoid Fukushima produce because they just don't know...and to a large extent it's understandable.

Approaching the exclusion zone

Rice field that is not being farmed. I assume contamination
levels are too high.
A sports field near the exclusion zone. Despite the weekend,
there was no-one in sight.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The struggle of farmers in Fukushima part 1

This 12 minute video of Fukushima prefecture farmers at a meeting with Ministry officials. It's really grim watching. Farmers are bringing very reasonable concerns about contaminated land, contaminated food, the precarious existence of those who want to evacuate but can't.  The Ministry officials are sincere, within their capabilities, and are troubled by the plight of the farmers, but there is a total failure in communication. The farmers believe their food and land is contaminated, the Ministry sees fears of radiation being the product of "terrible rumours".   
The farmers will walk away from the meeting frustrated, angry and feeling that they have not been listened to. It's the Ministry's job to listen and respond to what they hear, not just the words but the feelings.  They don't  don't know this and I assume they don't know how to do this. Telling a farmer that people in the Ministry buy rice from Fukushima does nothing to make a farmer who believes he is selling contaminated rice think that the rice is now safe

Peter Sandman, a pioneer of a risk communication emphasises that where the public doesn't understand the risk, educating the public is useful.  In contrast, where there is public outrage,  public education of risk is not enough, the outrage itself must be dealt with.

Looking down Sandman's twelve point list of factors that contibute to outrage, it's hard to see any kind of resolution to the situation in Fukushima  short of making it financially possible for anyone who wants to evacuate to do including giving people the means to re-establish livelihoods. The situation on the left hand side reduces outrage; the situation on the right exacerbates it.
  • Voluntary vs. coerced 
There is nothing about Fukushima that is voluntary. The exclusion zone has been set. For those outside the exclusion zone, there is no assistance to re-locate or re-establish themselves. Farming itself is co-erced.  Farmers don't want to produce goods with radiation, even if it is below the 100 bequerels that has been established as safe, but if they don't produce, they have no income.
  • Natural vs. industrial
There is nothing about Fukushima that is natural. Radiation may be a naturally occurring substance, but it's not in Fukushima. The tsunami may have been the catalyst but it was industrial and government failures that lead to the failure at the nuclear plants.
  • Familiar vs. not familiar
Japan spent the 50s - 2011s making nuclear palatable. For a country that experienced nuclear attacks, the concerted effort of government, media and industry, not to mention the seduction of cheap energy prices, anti-damming ecology movments, fears of global warming made remarkable inroads into making nuclear a  popularly acceptable energy alternative.  And yet, the stigma of nuclear pollution and the health of those who were irradiated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain in the public psyche.  The familiarity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined with the unfamiliarity of knowing how constant low level radiation affects people combine to elevate anxiety.
  • Not memorable vs. memorable
Memorable... 3 years ago you'd be hard pressed to find someone outside of Japan who knew where Fukushima was. Now you'd be hard pressed to find someone with media access who did not.  The stigma of Fukushima is palpable. In one of my classes a student presented on her hometown.  She said she'd lived there for two years. In Q & A time one of her classmates asked where she lived before that. She replied Fukishima and that she was a post-disaster evacuee.  The unease was palpable. There was no unkindness, more like an OMG....Fukushima...  It's a tainted word, anywhere, the new Chernobyl.
  • 5-12 to come tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Geidai festival

I was wandering through Ueno Park the other day & came across the Geidai (Tokyo Geijitsu University) Festival. Each University has its own festival, some much more impressive than others.  This is at the highly accomplished end of the spectrum.  Each faculty makes a float and happi coats to wear.
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Typhoon & Darwin awards

There is a typhoon making its way up the Pacific Coast.  This morning it was teaming rain.  Hiro has gone to play golf with his friends.  If he is struck by lightning or crashes a golf buggy into a lake and drowns, I am nominating him for the 2013 Darwin Awards...

The Olympics

Newspapers this week showed groups of elated Japanese when the decision  of the IOC to give Tokyo the Olympics was announced.  While I can't say the pictures were contrived, it's fair to say that the degree of ambivalence is considerably higher than such pictures indicate.   The same is no doubt true of any Olympics where there are concerns about whether the city and country can afford the massive  expense that the Olympics requires.

Tokyo is not a young city, and Japan is not a young country; there is more demand for nursing homes than there is for sports stadiums.  The pools are set to hydotherapy temperatures presumably to cater for stroke rehabilitation, not for the local wanna-be lap nazis.  Misgivings about spending on the Olympic village are highlighted by photo comparisions of the very basic temporary housing of forced evacuees from the area around Dai-ichi. (thanks Ru).  Dumps of radioactivity into the Pacific are disconcerting at the very least, even though New Scientist apparently says it's not much of a problem,     PM Abe's assurances during the bid that "Tokyo has never been affected by radiation and never will be"  seemed particularly callous - as much to say it doesn't matter if the people who live near the plant or up and down the coast from the plant  face ongoing raised levels of radiation and have their livelihoods destroyed, so long as Tokyo is OK.

The disparity is not just geographical, it's also socio-economic.  Yesterday walking through Akihabara I was shocked at the condition of many of the homeless people there.  Homeless people in Tokyo used to be  essentially normal people by the standard of a contemporary post industrial society - well dressed, clean, socialized.  The men in the park yesterday were emaciated, absolutely filthy and presumably incontinent based on the stench. They were atomized in their mental illnesses, with no sense of camaraderie that used to characterize (and still does in some places) homeless people.  One man who had a trolley of rotting garbage had clearly just wet himself. He was wandering, unable to walk in a straight line, as as far as I could see it was not from drugs or alcohol.  If I see desperate looking homeless people, I often buy them a lunch box and coffee, but this man was so far gone I wasn't game to approach him.  It's extremely rare for me to feel like this about a homeless person. Social welfare is limited here and there isn't the same network of churches and charities that look out for people.   The health and wealth gap is becoming increasing stark. It's hard not to feel discomfort with the Olympics.

And yet  the Olympics, are here now ( according to Andrew de Wit  because Tokyo's was the best of three weak bids). And  there is an onus on Tokyo and Japan to make the Olympics good for the country.  TEPCO and the National Govt. will be under a lot of pressure to do a better job with Dai-ichi with the increased international scrutiny.  The bid was about being a green games, and more than ever Japan needs to be imaginative with new energies. There is a growing realization that it's no longer OK to be relying on nuclear.   Being entrusted with the Games presumably will also force Japan to be less antagonistic to its neighbours and rein in the ugly right.  Japan will also be faced with other cultures en masse and will have to accommodate.  Last week a Hokkaido onsen banned a sixty year old Maori woman who was presenting at an indigenous conference because she had tribal facial tattoos.

I hope the Games will be Japan's Games and not simply consolidate the Tokyo centric nature of government here.   I hope the Olympics will give Japanese the chance to reflect on Japan and develop a positive and outward looking sense of national identity, rather the inward looking, defensive victim-mixed-with-contrived-superiority narrative that characterizes much of the way Japan sees itself in relation to other countries.  I hope that the country can gain vigour and the young people who have never known anything but a recessed economy can find confidence and re-energize the country, for it is sorely needed.

It's too late now to ruminate about whether or not we should have them, the onus is on us, and not just the government,  to make sure they benefit the country.

Olympics poster at Tokyo station

Olympics poster with a "WE WON" stuck across the bottom
The Rainbow Bridge in Olympic colours.  Tokyo tower which is just visible is also in rainbow colours.
The Rainbow Bridge.  Will Japan manage to have it's metaphorical Statue of
Liberty looking out to the Sea to welcome visitors?
Reflection of a commuter  in the rainbow bridge.
Enthusiasm is tempered by anxiety.
An Olympic poster at a university with a very liberal leaning
faculty.  The closest I came to seeing graffiti across an
Olympics poster.  

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hydrotherapy pool....

Yesterday it was hot. Again. That's Ok, it's the end of summer, so it's OK to be hot, but  I thought it could be a good chance to do a few laps.

I have a resistance to the local pool because it's hot.
Yesterday I went to check it out.
The pool water temperature is written on a sign board at the entrance.

Just for comparison a pool in Aus might be 24 degrees or so, people do laps energetically.

The water temperature last night..  33 degrees.
I kid you not.
Ideal I guess for the hydrotherapy demographic..

I regret not taking a photo of the sign.

I saved my money  and will look further afield.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A dog in Japan eats better than an Australian

Out and about today. This dog food looks better than anything I cook....
And this is 100 yen shop food...

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