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Sunday, March 11, 2012

BIG IN JAPAN

The power of bad news


Weekly Playboy magazine discerns among young people a rising interest in Buddhism. This is surprising, given Japan's well-known "religion allergy" — or not, given that troubled times often inspire spiritual quests.

"Buddhism is often considered a doctrine of resignation, but it isn't," explains Masaru Sato, a writer on religious themes. True, the notion of karma ascribes present circumstances to past actions in this life or previous ones, but "by the same token," says Sato, "your present actions will determine your future, so don't resign yourself to present suffering but do good now with an eye to creating a happy future."

Conspicuously absent in Playboy's six-page feature is mention of the catastrophe that shattered so much of Japan one year ago today. Sato is thinking instead of the shriveled economy in which young men and women are fated to make their start in life. Economies rise and fall, and religion perhaps can teach us happiness in poverty, but radiation is a different matter — a different karma, so to speak. Is there such a thing as a happiness that transcends radiation?

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano — comedian, actor, director and evidently something of a philosopher — gave possibly the best thumbnail sketch of what 3/11 is all about. "This is not one incident in which 20,000 people died," he told the weekly Shukan Post last year. "It is 20,000 incidents, in each of which one person died."

Or, you could say it is 127.5 million incidents, in each of which one person was affected, for no one in Japan was unaffected.

Death is naturally what first comes to mind, but there were births too last March 11. More than 100 babies were born in the three Tohoku prefectures (Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima) that bore the brunt of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. The Asahi Shimbun last week celebrated the babies' first birthdays by recalling their tumultuous births. Mayumi Hoshiyama, 31, wonders if she will ever find the words to tell her daughter Runa about it. The family's hometown of Futaba is 4 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. From her bed in the maternity wing of the local hospital Mayumi could see the plant's chimneys. Runa was born at 6:49 p.m., four hours and three minutes into a state of chaos.

First thing next morning, says the Asahi, police officers burst into the hospital: "The nuclear plant is in danger. Emergency evacuation." Dazed, Mayumi wrapped the infant in towels and boarded a bus. It was evening before she was settled in a hospital in Fukushima City. There on TV she saw Fukushima No. 1 exploding. She thought at first she was watching a computer graphic.

It's an impression many people must have had off and on over the past year. Catastrophe so extreme always seems unreal, even when everyone involved tells the truth as they know it, which rarely happens and certainly didn't in this case, says Shukan Post. "Lies, cover-ups and blunders" is its characterization of what the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company has been up to.

That's deplorable but predictable, which is no doubt why the magazine aims its sharpest barbs not at Tepco but at the media and some expert commentators who, in its view, relentlessly exposed official misinformation while spreading plenty of their own — "mischievously stirring up fears of radiation," says Shukan Post, because "grim forecasts get more attention than optimistic ones," and everyone wants attention. Where, then, can the public go for truth? Nowhere, and in its absence "computer graphic" is as good a description as any of what Japan is living through.

Radiation is finitely dangerous but infinitely terrifying. At what minimum dosage does it begin to be harmful? What harm does it cause — cancer? Birth defects? Brain damage? The data is ambiguous, experts disagree among themselves, and nonexperts, in their ignorance, fear the worst — not unreasonably. That is the climate in which the media abuses enumerated by Shukan Post have allegedly unfolded.

Exhibit A is an NHK investigation, aired Dec. 28, of the effects of low-level radiation. Among the program's claims are a 34-percent rise in cancer cases in a certain area of Sweden exposed to Chernobyl radiation in 1986; a 30-percent increase in brain tumors and leukemia among people living near a nuclear power plant in Illinois; and complicity, under industry pressure, by the Canada-based International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) in playing down radiation's harmful effects.

"If true, this is appalling," Shukan Post remarks before proceeding to debunk the claims point by point. Quoting experts, it says the Swedish cancer data was collected years before a cancer proliferation would have been measurable. The Illinois increases, it says, are explicable purely in terms of a local population increase. The ICRP, meanwhile, insists NHK misquoted, mistranslated and misleadingly edited its comments, and threatens to lodge a complaint with Japan's Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO).

In June, an earless rabbit born near Fukushima No. 1 enjoyed a brief vogue as a nuclear-crisis mascot. Subsequent sober reflection brought reminders that deformities occur even where radiation is not present, and one deformity proves nothing — nor, of course, does sober reflection disprove anything. This is what life in the unknown is like.

Last month, the Yomiuri Shimbun cited University of Tokyo seismologists estimating a 70-percent chance of a major earthquake striking Tokyo within four years. A chorus of rebuttals ensued, the university issued a disclaimer, and that seemed to be that. But the monthly Nikkei Trendy reports an unabated surge in sales of emergency and disaster goods. This seems to confirm Shukan Post's observation on the power of bad news, credible or otherwise. Emergency supplies can't hurt. Neither can religion. Happy birthday, Runa-chan.



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