Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Japanese Peace Movements #8: Rich Dirty Secrets

During this past research trip to the Tohoku Region of Japan with the Popoki Peace Project there was one visual constant as we traveled the most significantly affected disaster areas. In Chamorro, odda', in English, dirt.

On March 11, 2011 a huge earthquake struck Japan and caused a meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, causing radiation to blanket areas even one hundred miles away. Although the areas of compulsory evacuation were much smaller than the areas that were significantly affected, you could still see signs, even four years later of how the radiation have infected the land and threatened populations.  Some areas the Japanese government says it will try to move people back to within the next few months, others a few years, other areas may take decades or centuries before they are "safe" for human habitation again. The earthquake also led to a huge tsunami which battered hundreds of miles of coast and destroyed the coastal areas of several cities and towns. Tens of thousands more were displaced and some still live in temporary housing, as prefectural and national governments go about building sea walls and raising the sea level of their towns.

As our research trip wove in and out of these communities, who in the minds of nearly everyone are clearly different and dissimilar with the exception of both having tragic experiences originating from the same natural disaster and fact of their geography. Even the activists and refugees that we spoke to didn't really see much of a connection between their experience other than that they were terrible and that they experienced hardship. In the landscape of trauma in Tohoku, there are hierarchies, there are opposing ways of seeing the hardship of one and the hardship of another. Those who received mandatory, forced evacuation orders from the government due to radiation contamination receive a sizable amount of compensation for having to leave their homes. Those who were displaced or forcibly evacuated because of tsunami destruction receive far less compensation and some have been living in small, partially subsidized temporary housing for four years.

But the one way in which these tragedies continue to be connected, is in the way that they have created a huge windfall for construction companies. As part of the "cleanup" of Fukushima prefecture, large chunks of earth around homes, in parks, beneath playgrounds, baseball fields and schools are being excavated, stored in large plastic bags and then either reburied in the ground or taken to temporary storage areas. These areas are considered to be decontaminated because the radiation exposure is much lower from the soil with the plastic covering and also the soil that is around it and covering it once it is reburied. Around Fukushima city, we visited several of the temporary storage sites where giant black trash bags are piled up several rows high. All the signs around these storage facilities say they are only for temporary use. We visited the oldest of these sites, started just a few months after the Fukushima disaster. It has long been closed and no new dirt is added to the pile. A huge concrete wall has been built around the facility, which was once a baseball field. You can still see the batting cage peeking through the fences. As my friend Ronni Alexander, a professor at Kobe University, and my guide and translator for the trip joke, "nothing says temporary like tall, thick concrete walls."

This doesn't even tough on the earth-moving that is taking place in the far more contaminated areas. Huge areas, such as farmlands are being excavated and their earthy contents shoved into giant trash bags. They are then stacked and lined along the road or along the fields, like nuclear gargoyles, standing watch over the destruction they have wrought.

In the coastal areas, the earth-moving is far more prominent. There it is not just a matter of moving earth, but also building. The depopulation from the tsunami, due to the damage, death but also displacement has led to a huge swell in the population due to construction workers and earth-moving equipment. From the hill above the local government office in Otsuchi, you could barely see any people on the coastal plain below. But what you could see where dozens of dump trucks and excavators. The day I visited there, the workers and their machines had the day off because of the Obon holiday. The vehicles were parked in rows, resting, but making clear it seemed, their dominance over the earth around them. These machines could make a conquistador's claim to the village they work in. The land that they bring in comes from other areas in Japan, some from places that I will write about later. It is being piled up to increase the sea level of the town in preparation for any future tsunamis. The machine could claim this new territory as theirs, when you stand in what was the middle of Otsuchi, there doesn't seem to be many people around to challenge them.

But this is only part of the construction boom, there will be walls. Huge concrete seawalls, some of them more than 40 feet high in different towns. Tragedy and opportunity, for some companies this disaster is a huge chance for profits.

This is my first real introduction to what some call doken kokka or the cement industrial complex, the collection of corporations in Japan that hold a great deal of economic and political power. When I return to Guam I'm looking forward to getting a copy of the book Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr which discusses among other things this industry and its effect on the environment, the politics and everyday life in Japan.


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