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Report From Tokyo: Reading the Tea Leaves

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Earlier this month, it was reported that high levels of cesium were found on tea leaves in Shizuoka, south of Tokyo. Shortly thereafter, the Shizuoka Prefectural government asked the tea company that reported this important finding, Radishbo-ya, to refrain from carrying information on its website confirming that radioactive materials were detected as the message could "cause unwarranted harm to Shizuoka tea growers." Correct me if I am wrong, but is it the government's job to protect industry at the expense of the people? I always thought it was the other way around in a democracy.

Last weekend, I was in Usami (Izu) where, outside a supermarket, tea from Shizuoka was being offered for a taste test. When I asked where it was from, I was told "Shizuoka" and I subsequently declined the tempting offer. Should the tea industry blame the media for reporting this story or Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for creating the mess in the first place?

The sad truth is that many industries are being decimated by the disaster at Fukushima. And the issues of trusting the food and drink we consume in Japan is now a real concern. Increasingly, I am finding myself looking at vegetables like spinach and mushrooms (commonly grown in the Tohoku area, including Fukushima) and asking where they come from. I have an American friend here who has gone so far as to eat only imported or canned food instead of trust Japanese-grown vegetables. A rather extreme response, but perhaps he is the smart one.

Worries about food are not eased when more and more stories about spreading contamination appear in the media. But I do not blame the media for doing its job. One that caught my eye of late involves "radioactive sludge" from Fukushima that is being incinerated at various plants in Tokyo. In one location in Ota-ku, highly elevated levels of radiation equaling those in parts of Fukushima Prefecture have been confirmed at the incineration site. And once again, it is the authorities who decided what is best for the public to know.

On top of all this come reports that high levels of strontium 89 and 90, by-products of fission, were discovered near Daiichi Fukushima reactors 1 and 2. This is the first time that strontium has been found in groundwater and increases growing concern for safe water consumption in the future. For now, the government assures the public the water is safe to drink.

Revelations keep coming after the fact. It was not until mid-May that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) disclosed important information including final confirmation that three of the plant's four active reactors had melted down. Why did it take two months to officially confirm what everyone knew? Many people would appreciate real-time reporting of the facts.

Japanese authorities are surely concerned for the well-being of the people of Japan. However, hearing such stories makes me wonder what will be conveyed this summer about what is happening now. So if one reads the tea leaves thus far, it seems easy to say we can expect more surprises down the road.

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.