“Take Science Seriously and Value Ethics Greatly”: Health Effects of Fukushima Nuclear Disaster via The Asia-Pacific Journal/Japan Focus

Interview with Hisako Sakiyama, M.D. & Ph.D.

By Katsuya Hirano & Hirotaka Kasai

Translated by Akiko Anson


Hisako Sakiyama has a PhD in Medicine and is a Member of the Takagi School of Alternative Scientists, a Japanese NGO established in 1998 to study the environment, nuclear issues, human rights, and other issues in modern society from the perspective of citizens. The School seeks to create ways that scientists and prospective scientists can link their specialized expertise and capabilities with citizen movements. She has been a Research Associate at MIT and worked on cancer cell biology as Former Senior Researcher at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) in Japan. Sakiyama served as a member of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), a commission established by the Japanese Diet in 2011. She subsequently co-established the 3.11 Fund for Children with Thyroid Cancer with Ruiko Muto in 2016. As a former member of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigative Commission, Dr Sakiyama continues to be active in sharing her findings, which often contradict those of the Japanese government and its associated scientists’ in terms of their evalution of the health effects of the nuclear disaster, with media and citizens around the world (K.H.).


Cover-up Culture and Social Pressure

Hirano: I see. There are two things to note here; one is the systematic cover-up practices of the government, and the other is the so-called social pressure that makes victims unwilling to talk about radiation concerns in public. When you think of Fukushima’s current situation and the possible health consequences of the incident, which of those do you think poses a more serious problem to society?

In other words, is it more important to build a society where people can say well, I may be seen as strange for this, but I am worried about my child’s health, so they can be open about discussing ways to protect children’s health? Or is it more crucial to try to change the cover-up practices of the government — which, honestly, I don’t really know is possible? Of course, both of these things should change.

Which change should come first in your opinion?

Sakiyama: Well, it is citizens who can change the government. For example, the Education Ministry initially did not even acknowledge the recuperation program for children in Fukushima, but as more private individuals got involved through NGOs and other means, and people in Fukushima petitioned for financial assistance, the government finally had no choice but to agree to fund the program.

There is no way that the Education Ministry would have changed right away without pressure from citizens. And there is no way that the Ministry of the Environment will change without pressure from citizens. We need to make it happen. We are the ones who elect public officials.

So, I think that citizens will have to change and initiate movement in politics and government. I agree with you that change will not start with the government; it will not abandon the cover-up by itself. For example, can you even imagine the possibility of the International Nuclear Power Village ( changing its course? Maybe if they were broken there may be a change, but I don’t think it’s possible considering how powerful the organization is.11 The only possibility left is that we, citizens, change politics through our own actions.

The Japanese public now favors phasing out nuclear power. And Japan’s renewable energy industry has been growing rapidly.

Have you heard about an organization called Genjiren (原自連)? It’s an antinuclear, pro-natural energy confederation. The ‘ji’ 自actually refers to natural energy (自然エネルギー).

Kasai: It must be named to contrast with Denjiren (電事連), the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.

Sakiyama: Exactly. Genjiren is headed by Mr. Kawai Hiroyuki, a lawyer; former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro; and Mr. Yoshiwara Tsuyoshi, a former president of Jonan Shinkin Bank. Indeed, the renewable energy market in Japan has been growing very vigorously over the past decade.

There are various sites throughout Japan that generate electricity on a small scale. I heard that altogether there are more than 500 of these nationwide. If we continue to promote and invest in renewable energy, there is a chance to create a largely non-nuclear and fossil fuel-free future.

Running nuclear energy is almost too expensive considering capital costs for building nuclear plants, the challenges of disposal of nuclear waste, and the risk of meltdown. So we have to keep spending money in order to sustain nuclear power, not to mention the cost of decontamination after the accident. It would be a disaster to discontinue the decontamination work due to lack of money. It’s time to just end the whole nuclear business – you know, like they say, “when poverty knocks at the door, love flies out of the window.” (laughs)

Right now the government seems to have money and keeps throwing it at general contractors. The thing is, though, these construction companies have made so much profit building the nuclear power plants, and after the accident they have made huge profit through decontamination work. How terrible is that?

Hirano: I agree. In English, it is called Disaster Capitalism.

Kasai: It is 災害便乗資本主義 (saigai binjō shihonshugi) in Japanese.

Sakiyama: That’s right. Exactly.

Hirano: They can fail and still make a profit.

Sakiyama: Actually, I believe that it is badly poisoning Fukushima. The decontamination work keeps some tiny share of money flowing into the prefecture, and it also provides employment opportunities for those who are over 18 years old. Considering how scarce jobs are in that area, the decontamination work has been giving them plenty of steady job opportunities.

A friend who is a physician told me once that young people, after graduating from high school, come to her clinic seeking health screening. They want documentation to prove they are healthy enough to work at the decontamination sites. My friend tells them that it’s a bad idea, but they say there’s no work, so they end up working there anyway.

Scientists and Civic Engagement

Hirano: I would like to move on to the next question. What kind of role do you think a scientist with specialized knowledge should play in civil society? This has to do with what you have been doing through the Takagi School.12

Mr. Kasai and I were talking about this before this interview – until recently neither of us have read through scientific journals. At first, they seemed to be rather difficult for people like us, with so little science background. But after the nuclear disaster, it seems that some scientists who have strong social and civic consciousness started to publish very accessible papers in science-related journals. As we moved forward with this Fukushima interview project, we came to realize how important the role of these scientists has been in providing their knowledge to the general public in order to build a democratic civil society going forward. What kind of social role do you think those who have expertise in medicine and science should play in the future?

Sakiyama: The most important thing for us, in my opinion, is education. Education is the top priority. However, the Education Ministry is in charge of education, and they promote myths about nuclear power safety right from elementary school. We really need to figure out how to deal with that.

The anti-nuclear movement has simply have not been involved in doing something about education. There are a few teachers who are interested in nuclear energy education, but they are an absolute minority. Still, we decided to team up with some educators and formed an organization called the Committee for Nuclear Power Education 原子力教育を考える会, and in around 2005 we created a website “Understanding Nuclear Power”「よくわかる原子力」.

The Takagi School hosted some public lectures about nuclear energy and environmental education, and teachers from all over the country made presentations. We decided to form a group, the Committee for Nuclear Power Education.

We wanted to counter the Ministry of Education, for example by writing our own textbook, but then we realized that we didn’t have enough financial resources to do so successfully. It can get very expensive when we consider the expenses associated with publishing textbooks, such as printing costs and so on.

Then we agreed that the best way would be to create our own webpage, and, actually, my daughter helped get it started.

We also needed to figure out a way to make our information available for lessons at school, so I gave some suggestions to teachers as to what information we’d like them to introduce in classrooms. But they said that they couldn’t use it, since what they can teach during lessons is pretty restricted due to educational guidelines, and they know those restrictions very well.

They are required to write lesson plans, and they said their principals would not approve the plans if the teachers put it in the plans, so the only way to get our information or messages across for them is to walk that fine line somehow.

Then we decided to produce a set of educational DVDs called “What’s REAL about Radiation” (放射線のホントのこと) for classroom use for junior high and high school students. The first volume, ‘What is Radiation?’ covers the scientific aspects, including what exactly happened in Fukushima, how radioactive materials spread in the air, what kinds of effects radiation can cause to living things, and what we should do to protect ourselves from radiation exposure.

The second volume, ‘What is going on in Fukushima now?’ focuses more on social consequences of the disaster in local communities and social issues faced in Fukushima. In order to introduce ‘real voices’ from Fukushima, we visited various places throughout the prefecture, conducted interviews, and compiled them, along with some photos of the current situation in the evacuation areas, as well as of the millions of bulk bags full of radioactive soil stacked in huge piles.

As you know, even seven years after the Fukushima disaster, people are still being exposed to radiation from radioactive fallout. The victims are still suffering, but these struggles have been largely neglected. We have less and less r media coverage on Fukushima. So, it is our hope that the DVDs will give children a chance to learn about not only what has happened and what is happening in Fukushima, but also what radiation really is and what they should and can do to protect themselves.

Children don’t know about these things. In order for teachers to use these DVDs in the classroom, we managed to make each of them about 20 minutes long. They come with supplemental worksheets that help teachers give more detailed explanations and encourage classroom discussions. But the reality is that very few teachers use them in the classroom.

The video created by the Education Ministry is up online, so anyone can watch it. Have you seen it? It’s awful. I have to question if it is even okay to teach the things it claims.

One member of the Committee for Nuclear Power Education had an opportunity to visit Belarus and learn about how children learn about radiation after Chernobyl. I believe the school he visited was one of the more liberal institutions, but according to him, preschoolers were taught through a kind of a fairy tale.

The story goes like this. There was a castle. One day the fireplace at the castle was broken and a radiation queen popped up and ran outside of the castle. Her henchmen also got out and are hiding inside food. So do not eat such food. Or wash the food before eating it, or cook the food before eating it.

That’s how they teach small children to protect themselves from radiation. They seem to focus on training children from a young age to be able to protect themselves without parental help and give them the knowledge they need to keep healthy.

When I went to Ukraine as a member of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, I noticed that they don’t really treat radiation as something special. Instead, they talk about radiation along with other dangers in daily life. What do you do if there is a burglar, or what do you do if there is a car accident, and, right along with that, what do you do about radiation. They teach it as a normal part of protecting your body.

From that perspective Japanese children are totally vulnerable when it comes to protecting themselves. All they have heard about radiation is that no one can avoid it since radiation is everywhere, and is useful in various fields including industries and medicine. They are also taught that the risk of radiation less than 100mSv is equivalent to lack of vegetables or exercise — without showing any evidence for such claims. The message is that a low dose is okay and there is no need to worry about radiation anymore.

Have you heard about a new information and learning facility, called “Comyutan Fukushima” コミュタン福島? The Fukushima prefectural government opened it in Miharu town as a part of the Center for Environmental Creation in 2016.

They claim that the facility teaches visitors about radiation and Fukushima’s environmental restoration activities through interactive fun activities, such as games, crafts, and a simple science experimenta.

In my opinion, however, what they are trying to do is to instill inaccurate knowledge about radiation. Their main message is that we are all surrounded by naturally occurring radioactive materials on a daily basis, and we are also exposed to man-made radiation such as X-rays; therefore, there is no need to worry about what happened in Fukushima. This is nothing but brainwashing, which is making people, especially children and young people, defenseless against radiation. It is very dangerous. The young will not know how to protect themselves from radiation, and in the end, they will suffer health effects if something happens.

Hirano: It sounds as if safety is being abandoned to a myth of safety. This has to be the most serious adverse effect of the safety myth on individuals.

Sakiyama: Absolutely.

Hirano: So, contrary to Comyutan Fukushima, Belarus has successfully created an educational program that teaches children the risks of radiation very clearly, so they will learn how to protect their own safety.

Sakiyama: Yes.

Hirano: Where do you think such differences are coming from?

I don’t want to draw a conclusion just on the basis of cultural comparison. But as you mentioned earlier, in Japan, in particular among mothers with young children, it has become almost taboo to talk about concerns about the effect of radiation on their children’s health.13 I have to wonder why this kind of social phenomenon is happening.

Do you think it has something to do with a low level of awareness of rights to wellbeing in Japan? In other words, do you think the problem comes from a lack of public awareness that we have right in order to protect our livelihood or ourselves?

Sakiyama: I think so. In general, Japanese people have a low awareness of human rights.

Kasai: I agree. It’s indicated just in the word itself, Okami お上,14 we are not used to critically examining what the authorities say and then making our own judgments. That is one thing that is lacking in our education system. This has been a problem in Japan even before the nuclear power accident. I feel that more people ought to be angry with the current political situation in Japan. You know, if a burglar broke into your house and stole things, you’d be upset, wouldn’t you? But even though it’s widely discussed that the taxes you paid have been misused, a lot of people are not upset about it. In some sense, I feel that people’s engagement with public affairs is weak. So it seems to me, as you pointed out earlier, that this is the result of something that has been perpetuated in society through our education over the years, rather than coming from some essentialist notion about Japanese culture.

When we asked earlier what kind of role scientists should play in civil society, you answered that it should be in education. As an educator myself, I totally agree. I feel that the problem is serious and there is a need for change.

Sakiyama: By and large the people who have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer do not seem to be angry with the central government or TEPCO, who are responsible for the nuclear disaster. Instead, they have been trying to hide from the public.

The other day some members of FOE (Friends of the Earth International) from Germany came to visit us, so I asked what they thought of this. They said if it were in Germany, the thyroid cancer patients would be very angry for sure, and file a suit to get compensation.

I would really like to tell them that they are the victims, and that they should not feel ashamed at all for having gotten thyroid cancer. It is the central government and TEPCO that should be ashamed and held accountable. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite of that, since most victims are still living in the shadow of the nuclear disaster.

Hirano: That is what I have been very concerned about. Really, society should be supporting these socially vulnerable people, but that is not the society we have in Japan. Instead, they have to face the stigma attached to radiation exposure, and the victims fear becoming the targets of social opprobrium if they speak out. This is causing them to suffer from fear and psychological trauma. All these factors have led to a situation where the victims are pushed into a corner and forced into hiding. That’s what most worries me.

These massive cover-ups from the government are not new or uncommon, especially as relates to nuclear power, even outside Japan. But the fact that citizens are creating social pressure against the victims means that citizens are taking the side of the government without even realizing it, and is building a structure of discrimination and oppression.

Kasai: As you mentioned earlier about Ukraine and Belarus, we should have a more active debate regarding both social issues and scientific subjects such as radiation. We only have one interpretation that is widely circulated and shared. What we need, at a minimum, is to introduce other views on the same footing, and then listen to and discuss them thoroughly before making a judgment.

If we don’t exercise a process like that, we won’t be able to break our patterns of uncritically accepting whatever teachers say, or whatever the government or other authorities say, and we’ll have no other recourse even if we think something is troubling. I think this is a very important issue we Japanese face.

Sakiyama: I agree with you. In that sense, it is imperative that scientists work very hard not to just get on the good side of the government and authorities, but to convey scientific facts and disseminate truth to citizens.

Hirano & Kasai: Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

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