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Sunday, Sep. 9, 2012

MEDIA MIX

It will take more than a pop group to save Fukushima's reputation


Last March, Tatsuya Yamaguchi of the idol group Tokio told the media that he was determined to someday reopen Dash Village, the farm that he and his bandmates built from scratch as an ongoing project on their long-running Nippon TV series "The Tetsuwan Dash." The farm is in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, which was contaminated by radiation following the nuclear disaster of March 2011. The entire area was evacuated, and Tokio had to abandon the land they had so painstakingly transformed using traditional farming methods.

News photo
Idol hands make right: Tatsuya Yamaguchi (left) and Shigeru Joshima (center) of the pop group Tokio present Fukushima Prefectural Gov. Yuhei Sato (right) with a donation to aid the disaster-stricken prefecture. KYODO

Yamaguchi's dream may never come true. Last week, "Tetsuwan Dash" launched a new project called Dash Island, which will see the quintet turn an uninhabited outcropping into something livable. For the last year, the Dash Village idea was kept on life support with segments called Dash Village Excursions, in which Tokio traveled to farms in other prefectures to learn different cultivation methods. But given the amount of time and money required to make an island habitable, it's doubtful they can devote any more to Dash Village, even if the area is declared safe and reopened, which is not likely to happen any time soon.

So the group has decided to give something back to the prefecture that became its second home. Since July Tokio has been appearing in TV commercials and transportation ads for Fukushima produce. At first, it shilled for peaches. Soon it will be boosting rice. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the prefectural government has set aside ¥242 million for media campaigns to convince the rest of Japan that Fukushima produce is safe. So far it seems to have worked. The price of Fukushima peaches has "recovered" to about 80 percent of its pre-nuclear-crisis level. At one point last year, the price had dropped to half its 2010 peak.

In contrast, the Asahi Shimbun's coverage of the same topic centers less on economics than on perception, and talks about more than peaches. The focus of Asahi's report is that "rumor damage" (fuhyō higai) still affects consumer attitudes toward Fukushima, though not necessarily in ways you might think. The local agricultural cooperative, JA Fukushima, analyzed prices at Tokyo's main wholesale market between April and August and found that for core Fukushima produce prices were not only lower than they were in 2010, but, except for peaches, also lower than they were in 2011.

In April the government introduced new radiation testing standards, and everything from Fukushima passed with flying colors, so why have prices not increased? Last year the media described how negative rumors from the disaster area were making it difficult for producers in the area to sell their wares. As a result while many consumers did avoid produce from the region, and continue to do so despite the encouraging test results, a good number last year also bought Fukushima products simply because they wanted to support the area. This "artificial eagerness" may be cooling down. Now that it seems agricultural products from Fukushima are safe, people don't feel they have to buy them any more. The chairman of JA Fukushima said as much at a recent meeting with the agricultural ministry.

This perception gap was also investigated by the Tokyo University of Agriculture, which surveyed market prices of vegetables from both Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures before and after the nuclear disaster, alongside related media reports. Ibaraki Prefecture was also affected by the disaster and, like Fukushima, is economically reliant on agriculture. TUA found that during 2011 retail prices for Fukushima produce did rise at some point, while Ibaraki prices dropped and remained low. At the same time, the number of news stories about Fukushima, the prefecture most closely identified with the nuclear disaster, was three times the number published about Ibaraki. Regardless of the content of the reports, the researchers concluded that the coverage effectively promoted Fukushima produce.

The agricultural ministry has sent notifications to other ministries, saying that consumers may forget about the disaster. It asks for the ministries' support in helping boost sales of products from Fukushima. Seven and i Holdings has said it will carry out a Tohoku sales promotion project at its stores, and the Tokyo Wholesale Market will set up special Fukushima booths at its October fair. Some retailers have questioned this "intervention," saying it will reinforce the impression that consumers still aren't buying Fukushima produce. Even a representative of the prefecture's publicity division told Asahi that it's time to promote the region's products in terms of quality and not as a bid for sympathy.

The argument obscures another more critical argument: Is the produce really safe? This debate is even more contentious, since it relies on scientific assessments whose reliabilty is not confirmed by consensus. Each side is associated with a side in the related nuclear-power debate. Those who believe Japan should continue with its nuclear-energy policy tend to also believe the fallout from Fukushima is negligible and that the media causes more pain and confusion by reporting it. Those who are against nuclear power tend to think that no level of radiation is safe and that the authorities, abetted by the same media, are not frank about the dangers. What one side calls "rumor damage" the other characterizes as vital information.

Last month the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War held a conference in Hiroshima, and two non-Japanese members talked to Tokyo Shimbun about Fukushima. Though they agree the situation there isn't as serious as it was at Chernobyl, they believe it is natural for residents to be anxious "because they can't get second opinions." All information is important when people are faced with decisions about their health and the health of their children.



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