Thursday, December 08, 2011

Another New Beginning

Almost 2 months since my daughter and I arrived in Japan. Actually, returned to Japan. In the week following the Great East Japan Earthquake, we had returned to India due to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear plant. While my husband returned to Japan within a few weeks, we stayed back, mainly due to the concerns of radiation exposure, mainly for kids. With the situation improving, we decided to return to Japan in October.

Fukushima prefecture, where we live, is perhaps the worst affected area in the March 11 disaster. The nuclear fallout changed the life of people living in the prefecture, overnight. Many places continue to remain radiation hot spots and a 20 km zone surrounding the nuclear plants remains a no entry zone.

Life has not changed much here, especially in Iwaki city. People continue to lead a normal life. The city has now become home to about 300,000 migrants from elsewhere in the prefecture. Many people from the evacuation zone near the plant have now moved to Iwaki city, which is about 50 kms from the troubled plant. Many erstwhile vacant spots of land are now filled with temporary housing for these migrant families. It is difficult to find rented apartments or houses in the city, due to the large number of people who have migrated here.

Many families, especially those with infants and young children have moved out of the prefecture to other parts of Japan. In few cases, the male members who are working in Iwaki city or nearby have stayed back, while their families have shifted to other places in the country. Everywhere in the city, we now see banners of “Ganbappe Iwaki” , “Ganbatte Fukushima”,  “Fight for Fukushima”. 

When we returned in October it was in the middle of the academic year. One of our major concerns on returning was being able to secure admission in the kindergarten for our now 4 year old daughter. Kuhonji kindergarten in Iwaki city’s Taira area, was kind enough to accept her even in the middle of the academic year. The kindergarten has an international course and our daughter is happy attending the kindergarten.

Radiation remains to be the concern in most people’s minds in almost all of eastern Japan.
The maximum permissible limit of exposure has been set at 1 millisevert/year  by the Japanese authorities. While the permissible limit remains debatable, the radiation levels are continuously falling. The natural radiation levels in some other countries are higher than the current levels in certain parts of Fukushima prefecture. The radiation levels in Iwaki city are comparatively lesser than many other places in the prefecture. We checked the radiation levels for ourselves with the dosimeter/Geiger which we borrowed from my husband’s company. Some localities have slightly higher radiation levels while others have surprisingly low radiation levels. Since grass and soil seem to have higher radiation levels, kindergartens have been asked to stop all outdoor activity. They compensate for the lack of outdoor activity by teaching the children more indoor activities, games etc. The government is continuously monitoring radiation levels and the city wise radiation levels are telecast alongwith the weather report on national television NHK everyday.

Fukushima prefecture is also conducting a health investigation for all citizens and all people residing in the prefecture. The main aim is to reduce the anxiety over radiation concerns. People who have been in Fukushima prefecture since March 2011 1ill be included in this investigation. As part of the investigation, questionnaires will be mailed to residents. We received our copies in the last week of October. The questionnaire is entirely in Japanese and as such we had to get it filled in with help from our friend. The questions focus on where the residents were since the time the earthquake took place on March 11th and how much time they have spent outdoors especially during the period March 11th to March 25th. Based on the answers, estimate of the possible amount of radiation which the resident’s body has been exposed to will be made. The results will be notified to the residents. School children will also be additionally monitored for the radiation exposure. As the first step, municipalities in Fukushima prefecture have begun handing out dosimeters which the children are required to wear on their body, especially when they go outdoors. This kind of monitoring will be done for about 3 months. Our daughter received her this week.

Additionally certain municipalities are also renting out Digital Dosimeters to expecting parents and parents having children under the age of 3.

 Food and water are being closely monitored too and items which do not pass the safety limit is not allowed to be sold. When we returned to Japan, my friend took us out shopping and showed us what to purchase and what to avoid. She also gave us a sheet with guidelines from the government agency to reduce radiation in food and foods to avoid. Since the website is in Japanese, she took pains to translate it in English for us. I intend to write a separate post on it, so will not include it here.

Apart from the few changes that I have mentioned before, we hardly see any difference in life since the earthquake and nuclear fallout. Like they say, Life goes on. 

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