Almost four months ago, I started sharing my thoughts on the horrific earthquake and tsunami with readers of HuffPost. My first piece appeared on March 15, in which I chronicled my decision-making process leading up to my departure from Japan. At the time, my gut told me to shoot first and ask questions later. It turns out I was right on the money. Friends here have asked me how I "knew" there would be a meltdown, as if to imply I had some insider knowledge. The truth is, it was just experience and intuition. That was all. But I do feel vindicated.
Getting the truth has been my main focus in my "Report from Tokyo" series. Over the past four months, I have touched on just about every area related to the reactor meltdowns including the plight of the homeless in the Tohoku area, radiation exposure in children, contamination of the food chain, food mislabeling and transparency of information in general. Indeed, my goal has been to raise the awareness level of readers in order to spread knowledge and alert people to the challenges we face in Japan. But I am not a journalist or even an activist. I am simply a concerned citizen who is using social media to make my case. My case had been made and now it is time for me to step back. I have achieved my goal.
While I may have been ahead of the curve on many ideas shared, the good news is that growing numbers of concerned citizens are joining the call. I have cited a few of the real heroes in this crisis. Their voices are now being joined by larger numbers of specialists such as the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ). The AESJ has gone so far as to say this past week that "... there is the possibility that damage to people's health from radiation exposure has increased because the government, TEPCO and other related institutions did not properly disclose information on the status of the nuclear accidents and the environmental contamination by radioactive substances." This is rather remarkable given that the AESJ promotes the use of nuclear energy. In my mind, when pro-nuclear groups are criticizing "the government, TEPCO and other related institutions," there is no longer a need for me to say much. If they can't institute change, who can?
Change is coming in Japan and I have touched on this point in recent discussions. In addition to formal and respected groups like the AESJ, change will also come from the grassroots level and my guess is it will be the mothers of Japan who will lead the charge. They have the most to lose (children) and the time to do it. But it will take time.
In the meantime, I have a list of my own remaining concerns I share here along with my take on how things may play out:
1) Food Chain: I have talked about this issue numerous times and just the past week further evidence of radiation's spread in to the food chain was confirmed. This will grow in magnitude as time goes on, leading to pressure to establish an effective food monitoring system. Currently, less than 1 percent of all food in Japan is tested for radiation.
2) Child Safety: As I have written in the past, it is the children of Japan that are in harm's way near the plant. Faced with the dilemma of staying (mortgage, job, family) or leaving (safety, peace of mind), I suspect more and more families will leave affected regions.
3) Hot Spots: The explosions in two nuclear reactors in March created many "hot spots" where radiation gathered and remains. Mapping these, determining who has had exposure to them, and cleaning them up will be a top priority. Recent reports confirm that the clean up process from the mess in Fukushima will take decades. That sounds about right.
4) Brain Drain: Rising numbers of non-Japanese and Japanese alike will leave Japan. The result will be a notable loss in human talent and creativity, both of which Japan needs to remain competitive. Not a good sign for the future for a country I love.
5) Responsibility: A well-known book by Karel Van Wolferen, written in 1989, highlighted the lack of responsibility taken in decision-making in Japan. Nothing has changed since then. I would not count on much movement in this area. If anything, count on more manipulation of public opinion.
One final story -- I overheard a discussion the other day centering around "Collateral Damage." Here is what they said -- A government, experiencing a nuclear accident of monumental proportions, realizes that if they tell the entire truth about what has happened that the general populace will panic. The panic initially leads to hoarding of essentials including food, water and fuel. In a matter of days, that panic moves to a level where foreigners leave the country and the native population begins to consider leaving themselves as the future looks uncertain or even bleak.
Sound like fantasy? Well, it has already happened in Japan. The initial days after the earthquake saw mass hoarding of essentials as well as a large exodus of non-Japanese and even many Japanese as well. During this time, they were not told that three reactors had melted down. They were not told a plume of radiation was coming to Tokyo on March 15 and again on March 21.
So, according to the "Collateral Damage" folks, the population is being told "partial truths" because "the whole truth and nothing but the truth" could result in massive disruption to the society and economy as a whole. And that would spell dire consequences for Japan, both short-term and long-term. Even so, partial truths lead to some semblance of trust and "faith in the system." If it's not broken, they reason, why fix it?
So, where does "Collateral Damage" come in? As a result of the releases of radiation into the air, land, sea and ground water, some people up North are being exposed to high levels of radiation via hot spots, which some people think increases the likelihood of developing cancer in the future. People "in the know" are aware of this, but let it happen anyway. Thus, the folks in harm's way become collateral damage for the greater good of the country. Sacrificial lambs, for lack of a better term.
I certainly hope this theory is not the case. In fact, I would counter that because two million people are being tested for radiation exposure in Fukushima prefecture, that the authorities are taking action. Whew... I was worried there for a minute.
Thank you for reading my thoughts these past few months. Who knows... I may be back.
David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.