"When the disaster occurred, you can not leave the city. Now I worry about my daughter’s nosebleeds. She has been diagnosed a cervical cyst in her throat. When she cries, it hurts so much that she can not breathe." Makiko, the mother of a six year old girl, despairs to report health problems that continue to suffer his daughter in Koriyama, a city 50 kilometers south of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The testimony of Makiko is just one of many listening every day Naoya Kawakami, a pastor of the United Church of Christ in Japan. He has created an NGO to give economic and psychological support for mothers with children affected by the aftermath of the nuclear catastrophe. Five years after the tsunami that devastated the Fukushima plant, Kawakami has documented the cases of 600 children who have suffered and continue to suffer the grisly effects of radioactivity: thyroid cancer, nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, sunken eyes, black stools...
One morning last February, this reporter accompanied Kawakami while attending to a NGO group of the mothers of Fukushima (3a! Koriyama). At a small room of just 10 tatami mats, full of wooden toys and a small piano, there is the soft, calm voice sounded pastor, a man of little more than 40 years. In front of him there were five or six women aged between thirties and forties sitting, which seemed to become relaxed in their face hearing what Kawakami said to them. After this session, they all had seemed petrified and tense as a natural reflection of five years of hardship and suffering.
"When the accident happened, my son was part of a band and he enjoyed it after school. At the day, he suffered a terrible nosebleed that spent a whole box of Kleenex. Now, when he go to school on foot, he suffers with nose bleeds every day. Nosebleeds are so intense that I asked to leave the band," Makiko, mother of a child of 13 years old in Koriyama, laments. On the other hand, Yukie, mother of another girl six years old testifies "Since 2012, my elder daughter began to suffer from a strange skin disease, it is again in red and purple. It hurts and smarts at the same time. Appears and disappears."
Each time these women tell the story of their children, tears are rolling down her cheeks. Tears which have been contained and suppressed for a long time are falling silently, noiselessly, with thanks to the relief providing them from the pastor. "During the disaster, my husband would not let me leave town with my daughter. Now my daughter has a cyst and I have a cyst and a tumor in the thyroid", says Yuko, mother of a girl of eight years old.
High incidence of cancer in children
Pastor Naoya Kawakami serves several 'mothers of Fukushima' at NGO “3a! Koriyama.” Photo by Makiko Segawa
Among all cities in the Fukushima prefecture, Koriyama city is the largest population of children with confirmed and suspected cases thyroid cancer, according to results of the first and second official follow-up study of thyroid function performed in 2014 and 2015. Each year Fukushima Medical University studied the incidence of thyroid cancer in different municipalities and by the end of last December, 16 new cases confirmed in Koriyama, bringing to 115 the total number of children affected were detected. These patients were aged between 6 and 18 years old when the disaster happened.
There was the report released last February 15 by the university and the regional government of Fukushima Prefecture. The report declares the discussion of the public conference convened by the Committee on Health Study to present the results of recent analysis. According to the report, the authorities rejected a link between the nuclear accident and the incidence of cancer. In fact, Hokuto Hoshi, the Committee chairperson, concluded that "at the moment radiation is unthinkable to relate to cases of thyroid cancer."
At the conference last February 15, there were some 60 families affected, but, again, they felt ignored by the authorities. "During the conference, the mothers of Fukushima were not allowed to ask doctors just a single question; only the mainstream media related to the Government of Japan enjoyed that right. The Government and the Japanese media will ignore us and humiliate us!" Sachiko Sato, 64 years old, exclaimed absolutely outraged after the conference. She is a mother of five children who lives in Fukushima.
After the accident, Sachiko decided to evacuate their children, except for the eldest son (25 years old,) for Yamagata prefecture, 160 kilometers north-west from Fukushima. Until March 11, she lived in a self-sufficient organic farm at Kawamata city, a mountainous area 40 kilometers far from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Because of the fear of radioactivity, she left there. Now she runs an NGO to dedicate to people with mental disabilities at Yamagata prefecture.
The helplessness of mothers.
Themothers of Fukushima is helpless in total, since the authorities have never heard their voices and officially considered them as the nonexistent or irrelevant. "Their situation is extremely overwhelming. We do believe that no one will help them," the pastor Kawakami, who started supporting these women six months after the disaster, in September 2011. "I remember a story listened from a woman with lamentation that a senior leader of local community remonstrated angrily her with these words: 'your son had been beaten by radiation because of you! It was because you worry too much!'"
The city of Koriyama is an important business center in the region, with about 340,000 inhabitants today. With the good performance of the chemical industry in the last five years and the official fanfare of "Fukushima reconstruction campaign" promoted by the Government, they have started to make about 6,600 evacuees return to the city since February 2015. The city of Koriyama is also the city of the largest number of people sent by companies from Tokyo, because many factories and offices of major Japanese companies are concentrated at the Koriyama city. With Shinkansen (the bullet train) you can arrive at Koriyama station just an hour from the central station of Tokyo. At first glance there is nothing to distinguish it from other cities in the Tokyo metropolitan area, with its modern buildings, its advanced shops and wide avenues. At the sight of the city, everyone forgets radioactivity and the important fact is the Japanese city with the highest incidence of thyroid cancer.
A pediatrician scans to check the thyroid cancer of the children. Photo by Makiko Segawa
When the day we visited Koriyama, we saw the words "Smile Fukushima to flourish" at the front page headline of the local newspaper the Fukushima Minpo. Throughout the two-page articles there were all kinds of information related to food and the gourmet from all the cities of the Fukushima prefecture. On Koriyama, the article said, "The Delicious Festival with the full flowering of the city of Koriyama."
"This item is unforgivable! It's unacceptable!" Angrily denounced Tokiko Noguchi, 51 years old a mother, whose eldest son is now 11 years old. The son dropped all the hair at the beginning of the nuclear disaster. But the fact is that most of the Japanese media defend the official opinion of the government, according to which there have been nothing to show any link between the high incidence of the cancer and the nuclear catastrophe.
The strange suicide of a journalist
One of the few Japanese journalists who did attempt to investigate the truth about children affected by the Fukushima disaster was Maki Iwaji, a director of the Asahi television network. His work, however, was interrupted after his death, allegedly by suicide to inhale coal smoke at home. Maki was the first Japanese television reporter who managed to broadcast a video of an interview with a mother whose children had thyroid cancer. The mothers of the city of Koriyama, as Tokiko, Maki fondly remember for its warm and sincere character: "He was a bright, warm, honest journalist and a lovely man. I was trying to identify a child with thyroid cancer who was then six years old and talking to the board of his school and visiting the school itself. But he told me that school officials denied their existence with the excuse that 'We do not have any child who has been operated because of even tonsils or anything. '''
According to pastor Kawakami, many of the mothers who come to the NGO 3a! Koriyama have part-time jobs or are housewives. Every day they go to buy vegetables, water and rice from outside Fukushima because of the fear of radioactivity, and invest an enormous amount of energy to face the criticisms launched against them from their neighbors and even their own families. They have to keep in mind that schools in Fukushima are starting to eat vegetables and rice in the region with the slogan "Let us eat local food!"
But the more intensely mothers are dedicated to defend their children, the more there are the pressure increased, and the more rejection they have to endure, especially from their husbands and close relatives. In fact, most of these women admits that the relationship with their husbands has been worsened; The more they talk about their fears and concerns over, they have to feel the more increasing friction with their husbands.
Demonstration in Tokyo against government inaction in protecting children affected by the disaster, on 5 March. AFP
"My husband does not help me. He's the kind of man who believes and meets blindly what the government and the Japanese media say. No matter how hard others try to persuade with facts, he does not believe what he sees and understands with his five senses. He is so hard, so stubborn. I envy my friend who could go with her husband. Her husband understands the fear of his wife and agreed to emigrate, although they had just bought a new apartment in the city," complains Yuko Muroi, 41 years old.
Not only Yuko, but most other mothers also explained to the pastor with sobbing because of the deterioration of the relationship with their husbands. Their deteriorations have been from the conflicts on how to treat children in areas like Koriyama, affected by radioactivity.
"I have seen many, many cases of couples who have lots of marital problems since the disaster. It seems that there is a great mental difference between husbands and wives. Some of them have even ended in divorce," recounts Kawakami with sad eyes.
"As an example of the recent," recalls the pastor, "one of these women said, 'Pastor, I finally made the decision to divorce because of the comments of my husband'. She said her husband, even before his eyes taking your child with such severe nosebleed which lost consciousness and fell to the ground, said, 'Nothing, nothing, is not because of radioactivity.'"
But many mothers choose to stay with their husbands because they dare to divorce, despite fearing for the health of their children. Yuko, which has an eight year old girl with developmental problems, never forget what she told her husband when she expressed her desire to move to another city after the explosion of Fukushima: "If you want, go away, go you alone, my daughter should stay here with me." With tears in her eyes, Yuko admits to abandon the idea of changing city and says: "If I could get divorced, I would. But I can not, if I move to a strange, lonely place with my daughter diminished, I do not think I could survive." This is the reality of Fukushima after five years from the Radioactive Disaster.
Neither the government nor the company TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), responsible for the Fukushima plant, offer any compensation to women who want to leave the area, because there is no damage obvious and visible radioactivity which has been found at towns located in the circle of 20 kilometers of the rugged plant. The mothers of Fukushima have nothing to rely except that offer them the little help volunteer groups as Kawakami. "Today," Pastor laments, "It might be useless to urge noisily. As much as the mothers of Fukushima shout 'my son nosebleed', people ignore them, saying, 'So what?'"
(Translated by Naoya Kawakami, the pastor of UCCJ)