The traditional inn nestled amid the mountainous countryside offered all the luxurious comforts for which these old-style hotels are famous. An elegant and eye-pleasing eight-course dinner was served in our room. The outdoor hot-spring bath had a view of lush foliage covering a steep cliff, lit up to highlight the diverse shades of green. A soothing sound emanated from a river flowing below. I could have been anywhere in Japan enjoying the typically understated royal treatment.
Only this time, when I checked out, instead of a parting gift of a box of local confectionaries or a hand towel with the hotel’s name on it, the owner handed me a plastic bag containing a vinyl raincoat, cotton gloves and a gauze mask. “Just in case you need it,” he said. “Sometimes when it rains, the numbers are high.” He was referring to measurements of radiation.
On a recent visit to Fukushima Prefecture, I encountered a surreal situation where residents lived and worked with impressive calm and normalcy amid daunting circumstances: an ongoing struggle to decommission the nuclear plants damaged last year by earthquakes and a tsunami, questions about the health effects of exposure to radiation, and what seem like endless revelations of negligence and misjudgment by government and power company officials that contributed to the disaster.
The rice paddies that appear to take up every patch of flat land amid the hilly terrain glistened with well-tended plants, even though local crop prices remain low and at the mercy of consumer perceptions of radiation contamination. Tourists admired the views from the tower of the landmark Tsurugajo castle, where signs were promoting the area as the site of an upcoming TV series. “Except for near the nuclear plants, we are promoting tourism,” said a friend who served as my guide.
Such stoicism has been lauded for helping to maintain order during the calamity. But that same quality was recently criticized as being partially responsible for the catastrophe.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of a Parliament-appointed commission that issued its report this month on the nuclear accident, laid blame upon “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” He was referring to how these cultural traits allowed Tokyo Electric Power and government regulators to get away with neglecting safety standards because people both within and outside the organizations were reluctant to disrupt the status quo.
The Kurokawa report is one of four major investigation accounts released by different bodies in the past year, each exploring what went wrong at Fukushima and revealing in varying degree the risks of nuclear power in a quake-prone nation. Japan is currently surveying the existence of active faults beneath or near plants and conducting public hearings on the future of nuclear energy. So I was surprised when, amid the ongoing debate, the government approved the restart this month of the first of the country’s nuclear power plants.
I was even more surprised that tens of thousands of Japanese took to the streets to protest that decision. Since March, people have been gathering every Friday evening at the prime minister’s official residence to oppose nuclear power and the restart. On a recent rainy Friday, protesters jammed the sidewalks in the government district, shouting as they made their way to the residence, all the while carefully shifting their umbrellas so as not to poke anyone. The people were polite, but they are no longer “reflexively obedient” or “reluctant to question authority.”
“The Town that Announces the Arrival of Spring to the Northeast: Welcome,” says the billboard at the entrance to Hirono, located just south of the evacuated 20-kilometer radius around the Fukushima plants. People are allowed to live in Hirono, but most residents have moved elsewhere and return just on weekends to air out and clean their homes. The massive J-Village soccer training complex has been converted to a way station with dormitories for people working on the plants. Signs like “Temporary Site for Contaminated Waste” dot the silent streets.
But when we pull into a gas station, two attendants in neat uniforms approach swiftly and efficiently bestow us with full service as if we are part of a steady flow of customers. The office and bathrooms are spotless. At the equally sparkling 7-Eleven convenience store, friendly clerks marvel over the quality of the latest shipment of red bean cakes. A nearby café has reopened, offering visitors home-baked cookies on the house.
The challenge this nation now faces is how to nurture healthy skepticism alongside such admirable perseverance.
Kumiko Makihara is a writer and translator.