Commentary: Post-Fukushima ethics

Lessons of Minamata must not be forgotten

by Ken Ishimaru, Editorial Writer

These days I can hardly wait to eat sweet summer oranges. I once visited several fields in Kumamoto, where these oranges are grown. Former fishermen who suffered from Minamata disease were staying there and helping with the harvest.

The fields, which had been carved out of hillsides, were steep. The hands and feet of the Minamata disease sufferers were numb, and they couldn’t do as much as they would have liked to do. Although they should have wanted to make their work easier, for some reason they didn’t seem to want to rely on insect repellent or weed killer.

“If we who are victims of pollution were to apply agricultural chemicals and harm consumers we would feel terrible,” said one.

The very same thing is being said in Fukushima by the victims of the “pollution” resulting from the release of radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

“We don’t want anyone else in the world to experience what we did,” the mayor of the town of Futaba said in a video shown at last month’s Berlin International Film Festival. All of the residents of the town, which is the site of the power plant, were compelled to evacuate following the disaster.

The administration of the Democratic Party of Japan invokes Fukushima and talks as if it were an ally or supporter of the prefecture’s residents.

If that is the case, will it stop advocating the export of nuclear power plants? If nuclear reactors are sold while measures to bring the situation at the plant under control and decommission the reactors are still in doubt, there is no guarantee that this will not lead to another disaster. The issue is whether or not this is ethically acceptable for Japan, which has been exposed to radiation as a result of the accident at the nuclear power plant.

The opposition parties should be asking this question, but we can’t rely on them. If you go to the website for the Diet and search the minutes of their meetings for “export of nuclear power plants” and “ethics,” you get only one hit: an argument made by Tokunobu Yamauchi of Okinawa. And even then, debate on the issue was sidestepped.

This is not limited to the export of nuclear power plants. The many contradictions posed by the unexpected accident at the nuclear power plant seem to be pressing society as a whole to confront them.

Impose the risks on sparsely populated areas and metropolitan areas will consume the electric power that is produced: this was more or less the urban-oriented plan surrounding the 54 nuclear power reactors that have operated throughout Japan.

Furthermore, until the nuclear power plants were built in Futaba County in Fukushima Prefecture, many of its residents had left the area to find work. People both inside and outside the prefecture cast a cold eye on it. At a meeting of the prefectural assembly even a former governor replied to a question with a comment that openly disparaged the region.

Fukushima Minpo, a local newspaper, has reported that after the accident some people told local officials, “You had it good with nuclear power, so don’t act like victims.”

Futaba County has an urgent need to find a locality willing to accept an interim storage facility for the contaminated waste that resulted from the accident. In fact-to-face negotiations with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the mayor of the town of Futaba said, “Do you regard those of us who are citizens of Futaba County as citizens of Japan? Are we equal under the law?” Can’t the prime minister even empathize with them?

As for the origin of pollution, I am reminded of the serious lesson of Minamata: It’s not a question of discrimination arising because pollution occurred. Pollution occurs where there is prejudice and discrimination.

There are Minamata disease sufferers who have been strong and worked to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. “You can’t change others, so you must change,” they believe. Because it wants to tell of the experiences of these sufferers, the Minamata Disease Municipal Museum continues to issue its message.

Were there times in Japan’s past when basic human values were violated? While calling TEPCO and the government to account, we must not forget to ask this question.

At a meeting of the Reconstruction Design Council, philosopher Takeshi Umehara suggested regarding the disaster as a “disaster of civilization.” “The civilization that has used nuclear power to enrich people’s lives and make them more convenient is being judged,” he said. “We must become an altruistic civilization.”

What should we learn from the Fukushima experience? How should we rebuild our lives and work? We must deepen the debate from the bottom up.

(Originally published on March 1, 2012)