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Regaining Trust in Japan

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Trust between the people and government in Japan has been severely damaged since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of March 11, 2011. Inaccuracies in information flow and communication mistakes are largely to blame. In this article, I will argue that mistrust can be repaired if a collaborative effort between the mothers of Japan and the government of Japan is initiated.

Before I discuss this idea below, let me provide you with a bit of background. The nuclear accident at the Daiichi Nuclear facility near Fukushima on March 11th exposed a crisis preparation and communication plan that failed miserably. It is now clear that precautions to protect the plant were known but not implemented.

Safety measures were routinely bypassed as a result of cozy ties between government and industry. Information coming from the operator of the plant, TEPCO, were often inaccurate.

The size of the tsunami waves, the amount of radiation released in to the air, and the amount of radiation released in to the sea were all underestimated. Efforts to minimize risk to exposure to iodine 131 were too late in coming. Evacuation plans were insufficient. Food safety procedures were poorly implemented leading to contaminated beef (and other food) being sold throughout Japan.

In short, whatever trust existed prior to the March 11th accident has largely been lost due to what the New York Times calls a "Culture of Complicity." What should have been a well-coordinated and managed effort by industry and government has failed again and again. The sacrosanct bond that formed the basis of trust between the people of Japan and those who govern Japan has been dramatically weakened.

No society can function smoothly without a populace that trusts its government. We have seen that this year with the "Arab Spring" and increasingly in American cities through the "Anti-Wall Street" protestors. That is why I am calling for a concerted effort by both the people of Japan and the government of Japan to heal the rift through a collaborative effort to build bonds of trust via the mothers of Japan. Why the mothers of Japan?

In early August, I started a Facebook page called "Japan.Food.Safety". The idea behind this effort was to offer anyone (but mainly the foreign community in Japan) a place where they could come and gain balanced news and opinion insights in one place. Since launching on August 9th, the site has received more than 550,000 post hits. Interestingly, 61% of those accessing the site women between the ages of 20-40 years old who come from 19 countries and speak 14 languages. In other words, women of child bearing age are concerned for the safety of their children and families. Since mothers form a strong basis for trust in society, trust can and must be re-established through this link. So, how to do it?

The need for food testing has been clearly advocated and efforts are clearly being made to initiate national decontamination of affected areas.

Yet one of my concerns in how testing of the food chain occurs. There is a lack of transparency in a) how tests are conducted, b) what types of devices are used to measure radionuclides and who is doing the testing, and c) how many samples are being done to reach conclusions of safety. When I read that rice is deemed at safe levels for consumption, questions appear as to who is doing the testing. If it is someone paid by the rice industry, suspicions of accuracy arise. In addition, I wonder how sophisticated are the measuring devices? Given that sophisticated scintillators can cost tens of thousands of dollars and budgets are squeezed, doubts easily come to light. Also, given that less than one percent of all food in Japan is tested for radiation, it is the size of the sampling that becomes important. So if 200-300 samples are taken and show acceptable levels of radiation present, then those samples are likely representative of the remaining 99% that are not tested. But how can the public know this?

Here is my plan: Organize mothers throughout the country to go with government officials to measure food stuffs together. Seeing is believing. If mothers give the green light, then this can be an important part of the trust rebuilding process.

There are already dozens of well-organized mothers' groups throughout the country. It would not be that difficult to form these groups nationally under one banner and work closely with local and national officials to create a reporting process that both sides feel will work.

This needs to happen... and it needs to happen now.

David Wagner has worked and lived in Japan for 25 years. He is the founder and administrator of www.facebook.com/Japan.Food.Safety