Pedalling down the river from Kyoto towards Osaka, a fearsome black wall of cloud began to engulf central Osaka. I arrived in the suburb of Kawachiiwafune with a few hours to spare before the slow moving Typhoon Talas arrived. Ever since the Osakan cyclists I had met in Takayama a couple of days previously warned me about the typhoon, I had followed the storm tracker on the Japan Meterological website and watched as the projection initially shifted to the west but the Kansai region was still in its path. I had contacted Steven and Yuri, family friends who had invited me to stay with them, and they said it was no problem to shelter with them until the weather cleared up. So for six days at the turn of the month, I stayed with Steven and Yuri and their wonderful three year old daughter Juli. Typhoon Talas was moving slowly and dumped a lot of water. While the area I was staying in seemed to miss the worst of the storm, neighbouring areas in Nara and Wakayama prefectures experienced several deaths, lots of flooding, landslides and collapsed bridges, leaving many villages in the mountainous areas accessible only by helicopter. Between earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, it would appear that natural hazards continue to question Japan's right to be here.
It is only six months since the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that caused almost 20,000 deaths and resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, when the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant was overrun by the 15 metre high tsunami wave that ultimately resulted in several of the reactors going into meltdown. The extent of the radiation fallout is still being unravelled. Or ravelled up perhaps. The Japanese government apparently adopted a policy of non-disclosure about the true extent of the damage and only reluctantly moved the accident rating from an initial four to the highest rating of seven, Chernobyl being the only other nuclear accident to warrant such a rating in the history of the nuclear industry. While the radiation fallout levels are much lower at Fukushima than at Chernobly, the accident is much more complex due to the number of reactors involved.
Steven and Yuri are the first people whom I have met in Japan who have been openly really concerned about the impact that the fallout will have, as well as understanding ways that they can ensure a minimum of exposure to the radiation, especially for Juli. Steven has been advocating on other environmental issues in Japan in recent years, including dolphin hunting, and he already had a clear sense of the media's failure to properly cover these issues as well as the government's desire to minimise panic and the economic impact of the nuclear disaster. In the supermarket near their house, we see produce for sale from areas affected by the fallout, accompanied by a smiling photo of the Fukushima prefectural govenor and a comment assuring that all produce is good and people are doing a good thing by supporting those areas affected by the disaster. Yet Steven's Geiger counter regularly gives very high readings of radiation from produce from many of the northern prefectures in Honshu.
After breakfast each day, the family takes grounded iodine pills and apple pectin powder that has been found by some scientists to reduce the levels of radiation in the body. They avoid all produce from the affected areas in northern Honshu, including diary produce, and instead get a weekly delivery of vegetables from Yuri's parents garden west of Osaka. One evening I offered to cook dinner and bought the ingredients from the local shop. Yuri was concerned when I arrived back with mushrooms and garlic from regions further north. I had asked in the shop which prefectures the produce came from, it's written clearly in kanji, but didn't recognise the name. We pulled out the Geiger counter and the readings were fine. While many in Japan might regard such measures and level of caution as over the top, they can remember the recent scandal when primary school children in Yokohama city near Tokyo were fed beef from Fukushima that contained higher than government permitted levels of radioactive cesium.
"In the absence of strong and effective political involvement on the part of the electorate,
the governing elite had always been pretty much left to run the country as they saw fit."
Hans Brinkmann (2008) Showa Japan
Japan's docile political environment is well-known and was arguably helpful in the post-war years of sacrifice and austerity when the country sought to build a globally-important economy. In the post-Showa era however, after Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and the bubble economy burst, the last two decades have seen the country struggle to manage the transition to a very different socio-economic and political environment. A lack of engagement on the part of the electorate, coupled with the conflict averse nature of society, may leave the country ill-equipped to dealing with issues such as the Fukushima disaster, where government attempts to maintain a business-as-usual approach, have left many people feeling frustrated yet unprepared to begin tackling the issues that need to be discussed.
Gohoku, Shikoku, Japan
Pedalled: 49,347 km