It has been several weeks since my last note on Japan. Since then I’ve spent two weeks in Thailand resting a bit and offering the first Art of Hosting Social Innovation in the Southeast Asia region. I’ve been back home in Spokane for a week. I’ll be working from here during the summer months and likely return to Japan for a short visit at the end of August and then a longer period of additional work in the fall. This summer, notes from mewill be less frequent and more focused on integrating learning so far and looking at what comes next.
Recently there was a powerful piece of writing on the nuclear situation in Japan: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/06/201161664828302638.html. The article’s title is “Fukushima: It Is Much Worse Than You Think.” While the particular details of what is happening in terms of nuclear breakdowns described in this article are horrific, there is nothing terribly new or surprising in the overall picture that’s presented. Twenty years ago I spent 6 year’s on the Governor’s Nuclear Waste Board in Washington State where we considered proposal after proposal for disposal of the nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. My own conclusion was a simple one — WE DON’T KNOW. We just really don’t know how to deal with the mess we’ve created through our use of nuclear materials. I’m glad some continue to deal with the scientific end of this because we must to continue looking for the least unsatisfactory solution. Even with new technical solutions, at the end of the day we and many generations which follow us will bear the consequences for our hubris.
While the particulars unveiled in this article are a surprise, the fact that it is worse than we think is not. The blame game is really pointless. TEPCO, Japanese governmental agencies, US scientists and engineers? They’re easy targets. But it doesn’t stop there. In early May I was in a conversation with one of Japan’s spiritual leaders. She looked me in the eye and said “we caused this.” And I knew exactly what she meant. We caused this with our overconsumption of the planet’s resources and with our belief that we can control the rest of the natural world. Einstein once pointed out that one cannot be part of the solution if one is not part of the problem. Until we start to understand that we caused the disasters at Fukushima nothing will change. We can be shocked at increasing evidence of deeper disaster and we can try to identify those who should have done things differently. But nothing really changes until we find our own culpability. Nothing will change until we begin to remember we are part of natural systems, not apart from them.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their future in Japan. How can we stand with them and support them in creating what comes next?
In the Tohoku region of Japan where the disasters occurred, 200,000 people have lost both their homes and jobs and another 300,000 people have lost either their home or their job. This loss is obvious when one stands in the areas where there is total destruction from the tsunamis where the wreckage and debris are endless. It is much less obvious, and much more sinister, when one goes to Fukushima.
In Miyagi Prefecture, which has the worst tsunami damage, there’s something that can be done. Setting aside the important issues about what is debris and what is actually recoverable resource, in Miyaki people can go in and begin clearing away and begin rebuilding. Land and lives can be reclaimed. What is currently thought of as debris can be recognized as recoverable resources. There is someplace to start.
Not so in Fukushima Prefecture. Everyone who lived within 30 kilometers, about 18 miles, of the reactors was evacuated. Earlier, even a month ago, there was a tidy classification scheme: Those who lived within 20 kilometers cannot return home for more than 100 years. Their land, and their old lives are completely gone. Those who lived within the 20-30 kilometer band would be able to return sometime, perhaps even by the end of the year. Even those nice lines are becoming blurred, and whole towns outside the 30 kilometer area are being evacuated as well. And it is becoming more clear that it is uncertain when anyone can return home.
Those who have been evacuated are living side-by-side in emergency shelters. Most still can’t talk about their experience and there’s an almost invisible wall which divides people based on whether and when they might be able to return to their homes. They have no jobs or work they can do; unlike those in Miyaki, they can’t return home and begin setting their life in order again. In isolation, they try to figure how how to get on with their lives. One shelter in the City of Koriyama, about 100 kilometers from the reactors, is a sports complex. One of the nicest shelters in the area, it once house more than 3000 people and currently houses 2500. Day after day after day, the people living there don’t know what to do.
The phrase “gambaro” — do your best — has become a curse. They notice that people in other parts of Japan are talking about them as if they are things rather than people. “They should just be moved elsewhere.” others say with the best of intention. One of the things missed in such statements is that while just about all people in Japan are deeply connected to the place where they live — usually families have lived in the same place for hundreds of years — it is even more true in the Tohoku. This are was Japan’s last frontier. Even during the Tokugawa feudal period of from the early 1600s to the mid 1800’s troops were sent out into the Tohoku to suppress the Ainu tribes who were concentrated in the region. Ainu were the major indigenous race in the islands that are now Japan and were deeply connected to the land. Many who live in the region today are of Ainu ancestry. It is commonly said that people of the Tohoku region are more rooted on their land than those anywhere else in Japan. They can’t leave. This is their home and the soil is in their bones.
From a scientific point of view, one can say that one hundred years isn’t much time. But for the people who live there, it means that for the next seven generations their descendants can’t return home.
Work to create a new future is just beginning. A month ago I had the honor of co-hosting a gathering of 60 youth leaders from across Japan. Fifteen were from Fukushima. It was the first time this kind of a diverse group gathered since the disasters. Connected and in conversation with each other, they began to see that there is a future. What it will be is still very uncertain. But we can create it together.