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Two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a new phenomenon is on the rise: atomic divorce. Abigail Haworth reports on the unbearable pressures and prejudices being faced by those caught in the radiation zone
Perhaps one day Aiko and Kenji Nomura will laugh about the Birthday Cake Incident. It happened last autumn. Aiko, a care worker from the city of Koriyama in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, was celebrating her 35th birthday. Her husband Kenji decided to surprise her. On the way home from his job at the post office, he picked up the biggest cake he could find. It was filled with whipped cream and decorated with pink roses.
“I couldn’t help myself,” recalls Aiko. “Kenji had a huge smile on his face, but the first words that shot out of my mouth when I saw the cake were: ‘Is the cream safe?'”
Since March 2011, when a triple meltdown occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant 56km from their home, the Nomuras have avoided buying dairy and other foodstuffs produced in their region. Kenji, 42, confessed to Aiko that he had forgotten to check the cream’s origins. “I’m sure it’s fine. Please eat some – just this once,” he begged her. Aiko refused. She would not let their children have any, either. In silence, Kenji picked up a fork and ate the cake alone, right down to the last crumb. The couple did not speak for two days.
It is almost two years since the colossal earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan that killed 20,000 people and caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years. The Nomuras’ home city of Koriyama, an inland commercial hub with 337,000 people and shimmering views of nearby mountains, was spared the tsunami’s monstrous waves. But it could not escape the clouds of radioactive particles that spread widely, following multiple explosions at the Daiichi plant. The total amount of radiation released into the air was (depending on who funded the estimate) between 18 and 40% of the quantity released during Chernobyl in 1986 – and over an area of Japan with a population density 10 times greater. In the aftermath, radiation levels in Koriyama spiked at 30 to 40 times higher than legal limits, contaminating the city with caesium and other long-life radionuclides for decades to come.
The Nomuras, who have two small daughters, Sakura aged three and 15-month-old Koto, have managed to hold together their marriage and family throughout the crisis so far. But only just. Over the past two years, they have had to cope with the arrival of a new baby (Aiko was pregnant with Koto when the disaster struck), periods of enforced separation and life in an environment that feels infinitely less wholesome and secure than it did before.
The stress on family life for all two million people across Fukushima has been immense. Marital discord has become so widespread that the phenomenon of couples breaking up has a name: genpatsu rikon or “atomic divorce”.
There are no statistics yet, but Noriko Kubota, a professor of clinical psychology at the local Iwaki Meisei University, confirms there are many cases. “People are living with constant low-level anxiety. They don’t have the emotional strength to mend their relationships when cracks appear,” she explains. Couples are being torn apart over such issues as whether to stay in the area or leave, what to believe about the dangers of radiation, whether it is safe to get pregnant and the best methods to protect children. “When people disagree over such sensitive matters, there’s often no middle way,” adds Kubota, who also runs a counselling service.
Moreover, now that what Kubota calls the “disaster honeymoon period” of people uniting to help each other in the immediate aftermath is over, long-term psychological trauma is setting in. “We are starting to see more cases of suicide, depression, alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence across the area,” says the psychologist. The young are not immune either. In late 2012, Fukushima’s children topped Japan’s obesity rankings for the first time due to apparent comfort eating and inordinate amounts of time spent indoors avoiding contamination. “From the point of view of mental health, this is a very critical time,” says Kubota.
Most unmentionable of all, cases of discrimination against people from Fukushima are arising within Japanese society. Social stigma attached to victims of radiation goes back to the aftermath of the wartime atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when men could not find work and women were unable to marry due to fears they were “tainted”. While the ignorance that remains is far from universal, it is highly insidious. Tales exist of people from Fukushima being barred from giving blood, having their car windows smashed or being asked to provide a medical certificate of their caesium levels on job applications.
A Tokyo maternity hospital advised a new mother not to let her Fukushima-based parents visit their new grandchild, “just to be safe”. Prejudice against women is the most pervasive: many negative comments in the media and on websites insinuate that Fukushima women are “damaged goods”. Even some people who are supposedly on the side of radiation victims are prepared to throw them on the reproductive scrap heap.
Last year, prominent anti-nuclear activist Hobun Ikeya, the head of the Ecosystem Conservation Society of Japan, said at a public meeting: “People from Fukushima should not marry because the deformity rate of their babies will skyrocket.”
Aiko and Kenji are eating lunch when I arrive to meet them at a wooden restaurant just outside Koriyama’s city centre. It is a freezing winter’s day, but inside there is a charcoal-burning stove and the comforting smell of roasted sesame. The couple are sitting at a low table on a tatami-mat floor eating calmly while their impossibly cherubic girls, Sakura and Koto, clamber all over them.
The restaurant, Aiko says, is their new sanctuary. Called Ginga no Hotori (“Edge of the Galaxy”), it is a former Japanese health-food restaurant that has transformed itself into a place serving something even better for the body: guaranteed non-radioactive meals. “It’s relaxing to eat here. I don’t have to cook or worry,” says Aiko, who is swaddled in a brightly coloured jumper and scarf. “And the food is very tasty.”
Enormous effort goes into preparing the tofu burgers, black sesame buns, organic miso soup and other menu items. Hidden behind a rustic partition is a high-tech metal panel with dials and switches that operates a gamma spectroscopy machine. It looks similar to an industrial-size Magimix, except it measures levels of the potentially deadly radioisotope caesium 137. The restaurant’s owner, Katsuko Arima, an energetic 50-something in a blue bandana, explains that each food item must first be peeled and chopped before being placed in the machine for 30 minutes. “Samples from everything we use in our cooking are checked and re-checked,” Arima says. “It’s a lot of work, but I wanted to do this to give people some certainty, some peace, when they eat here.”
While the restaurant is one of a kind, numerous citizens’ groups with similar machines have set up makeshift offices in shopping centres so people can self-test everything from their groceries to garden soil. “Nobody trusts the government any more,” says Arima. She cites recent cases of official incompetence when supplies of beef, rice and vegetables declared safe by the authorities were found to be heavily contaminated. “You can only trust yourself.”
Aiko and Kenji Nomura agree. After lunch, they tell me that conflicting information about safety issues has caused countless arguments. “We’ve ended up screaming at each other,” says Aiko. Now they have made a pact to take their health, and that of their daughters, into their own hands as much as possible. “We would rather move away from here altogether, but we can’t afford it,” says Kenji, a softly spoken man with a fringe that sits neatly on the rim of his spectacles. “I would have to give up my job. It is hard to find new work in the current economy.” Koriyama, like many affected towns, is outside the mandatory evacuation zone. The government decreed that the radiation risk to health was “minimal” beyond a 30km radius around the plant and has provided no support to help people leave independently. Kenji says it is afraid of triggering an exodus that would impoverish the disaster-hit region even more.
The official position on radiation risks is based on the fact that very few Fukushima residents received doses over 100 milli-sieverts per year – the level above which some scientific studies show is the threshold for an increased risk of cancer or other serious disease. But other epidemiological studies show that cancer can occur in much lower doses. Last November, UN special rapporteur Anand Grover visited Fukushima and censured Japan for its narrow assessment of potential damage to health. But it is, as they say, complicated.
The science, not to mention the politics of how it is disseminated to the public in a world that is polarised over nuclear power, is a phenomenally intricate business.
The Nomuras believe there are far too many variables and unknowns to feel secure. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the government and scientists don’t have all the answers,” says Kenji. “Even if the risks are low, we must do everything we can to minimise our daughters’ radiation exposure.” Aiko nods. “As parents who have to live here, it’s the only option,” she adds.
In practice, this means trying to seal all the leaky edges of their world without turning it into an over-sanitised bubble. It is a difficult balance and Aiko admits she often struggles. “Sakura always wants to pick up flowers and leaves when we’re outside, and I hear myself saying things like, ‘Don’t touch. Get away from that.’ It’s sad.” The family wear facemasks outside and drive instead of walking. They dry their laundry and air their futons inside. They avoid tap water, fish, seaweed, dairy and locally grown rice and vegetables. Like most people, they own a portable dosimeter for measuring external radiation (a popular home brand is Mr Gamma). Although most of Koriyama has been decontaminated through washing and removing topsoil, high radiation levels can return with wind and rain. The periodic discovery of new concentrated radioactive “hotspots” everywhere from playgrounds to parking lots is a constant concern.
Arima brings a tray of radiation-free coffee. It turns out it is also coffee-free coffee. It is her own recipe of steeped bamboo charcoal grains, charred soy beans, azuki beans and crushed brown rice. “It has excellent decontaminating properties,” she declares, cheerily. Everyone drinks it down and, like everything else in Arima’s restaurant, it is surprisingly delicious.
The next morning I visit Aiko and the two girls at their apartment. Kenji is at work. Their home is in the classic utilitarian Japanese style: low-rise concrete exterior with tatami floors and cream walls inside. We sit at the living-room table, with drying laundry dangling over our heads. Although Sakura and Koto have plenty of cute toys lying around, the girls never stray from their mother during the whole three hours we talk.
Aiko was driving when the magnitude-nine earthquake struck at 2.46pm on Friday, 11 March 2011. As a care worker for the elderly, she was on her way to visit a disabled widower. “The road started shaking and I stopped the car. The quake was so violent the traffic lights were waving like flags.” Kenji was at home that day taking care of Sakura, then 15 months old, who had measles. “I managed to call him on my mobile. They were not hurt.”
At first, the Nomuras were preoccupied with the news emerging about the annihilation of towns along the beautiful Tohoku coastline. The tsunami reached up to 40m – taller than Nelson’s Column – and it was obvious that hundreds, possibly thousands of lives, were lost. “I couldn’t stop crying. I’d never seen anything like it,” says Aiko. She heard the dulcet tones of the NHK newsreader mentioning the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, but she was not alarmed. “All I caught was that there was not a serious problem.” Indeed, it’s now emerged the government knew a cataclysmic failure of the cooling systems was likely to occur, but failed to raise the alarm.
On the evening of the disaster, an official spokesman told reporters: “There is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak.” When the hydrogen explosions began, the authorities continued to downplay the severity and misinform the public.
The Nomuras had much at stake when the reactors blew up. Aiko had just realised she was expecting Koto; she was only five weeks pregnant. The joy of learning they were to have another baby quickly turned into frantic despair. “We knew radiation was especially dangerous for unborn babies, so we were terrified.” Mollified by continued government reassurances, it took about a week before Aiko decided to flee south with Sakura. This was too late to prevent their exposure to iodine-131, a radioisotope with a half-life of about eight days, that attaches to the thyroid gland. Iodine-131 is believed to be the cause of hundreds of cases of thyroid cancer among children in Chernobyl. As of February 2013, Japan has tested 133,000 children in Fukushima and found abnormal thyroid cysts and nodules in 42% of them. Three cases of cancer were confirmed and another seven were suspected cases “with an 80% chance of malignancy”. The issue is bound to escalate further.
Sakura is still waiting to be tested. Aiko went south to friends in Osaka. Kenji remained at home. As stories of major contamination dominated the news, she pleaded with her husband to leave Koriyama, too. “I told him it didn’t matter about his job. I didn’t care about money.” Kenji, she says, grew furious with her. He had worked at the post office since he was 20 years old; he told her that leaving his colleagues would be like desertion. “Some people in Koriyama even put pressure on me to come back. They said if we’re all going to die, we should die together – that’s the mentality,” says Aiko.
In November 2011, near the end of her pregnancy, Aiko left Osaka for Tokyo. The capital had more specialists in the effects of radiation on unborn children and it was closer for Kenji to visit. But their three-year marriage was on the point of collapse. “We wanted to make it work, but it seemed impossible. Neither of us was prepared to budge.”
Being alone in the capital, a heavily pregnant nuclear refugee with a young toddler in tow, was almost “breaking point” for her, she says. Koto was born with a “strange mark” on her bottom, but otherwise apparently healthy. The couple were elated. The crescent-shaped mark was so unusual that 10 specialists came to examine it, Aiko says, and none of them could determine what it was. “All the doctors were in the room at once. I felt like we were guinea pigs.” They still have no answers about the mark.
When Koto was a few months old, Aiko gave in and moved back to Koriyama. “It was too damaging for the children to be separated from their father, living like gypsies.” The atmosphere in Koriyama is very different now, she says, than when she left in March 2011. Fukushima, formerly one of Japan’s richest agricultural areas, producing rice, seafood and vegetables, is now trying to recover economically. In the finely calibrated world of Japanese social interaction it is taboo to admit to not buying local produce or even to mention radiation fears. The nearby city of Iwaki even has a superhero called Jangara, a local resident in an Ultraman-type costume, who appears at events for children. His arch enemies are “fools and sloppy people” who complain about radioactivity and spread fuhyo higai – harmful rumours – that the area is not safe to visit.
Aiko understands the desire to regenerate the area and dispel negativity – but not at the cost of downplaying the disaster or the dangers it still poses. She is angry with the government and the power company, Tepco. She is also angry with herself and everyone else in Fukushima who colluded with nuclear power.
“We are all responsible,” she says. “We voted for the plant to be built, we wanted the material benefits it would bring.” And she worries, terribly, about whether her daughters will face their own problems with fuhyo higai in the future.
Still, the Nomuras’ greatest concern is the actual health of their daughters. Serious health consequences of low-dose radiation, which enters the body’s tissues and damages DNA, often do not show up for years. As the second anniversary of the disaster approaches, the couple are happy they are rebuilding their family life and that their home region is slowly regenerating. But the passage of time also brings an unwelcome twist.
“It’s impossible to recover fully from a nuclear accident,” says Aiko. “Each anniversary Kenji and I will be thinking: ‘Is this the year that one of our daughters will get sick?'”
The names of the Nomura family have been changed to protect their daughters’ privacy
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