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Weston M. Hill

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A Simple Question for Japan's Leaders

Posted: 07/13/2012 9:51 am

Japan's government has recently announced a proposal to give $12.5 billion to bail out TEPCO, the owner of the failed Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant. This transaction will bring the total amount of public funds provided to TEPCO to almost $44 billion since the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. An additional $12.5 billion in credit will be provided to TEPCO by Japanese banks.

A simple question follows: If the Japanese government can provide billions of dollars to bail out the shareholders and executives of TEPCO, why are Japan's leaders so unwilling to help the innocent victims of the failed Fukushima nuclear plant?

There are almost 80,000 people, former inhabitants of the 20 kilometer "evacuation zone" surrounding the Fukushima reactors, who are still unable to return home. The radiation from the failed plant has made their towns and villages unlivable.

The now ghost town of Namie, which rests in clear sight of Fukushima's reactor towers, embodies the struggle facing the victims of TEPCO's failure. Huge swaths of homes in Namie lie flattened by the tsunami, with smashed ships and cars dotting the surrounding landscape. Commercial buildings lean cracked and crumbling from the earthquake. The skeletal frame of Namie's elementary school stands as an eerie reminder of the frightened children who fled.

Most other towns along the 500 miles of coastline in northeastern Japan that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami have already begun the long process of rebuilding and moving forward with their lives. Although many obstacles lie ahead, their heroic recovery has fueled much of the discussion in Japan and around the world.

The citizens of Namie, however, cannot return home. They are stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward, like the broken clocks in Namie's abandoned school, which lie suspended halfway between 3:37pm and 3:38pm, when all power was lost. Their connection to their land, livelihoods and families has been severed.

A local cattle farmer, Mr. Yukio Yamamoto, returns to the "no live" zone every other day to feed his contaminated cattle, paying for it with the little that remains of his savings and insurance collections. The government has ordered him to euthanize his cattle, but he has refused to do so. His grandfather started breeding his prized wagyu herd decades ago. Before the disaster, each of them could fetch over $10,000 on the open market. But these cattle are worth far more to Mr. Yamamoto; they are a part of his family, and his tie to the land.

Before the tragedy, four generations of Yamamotos lived together under the same roof on his cattle farm. Now, Mr. Yamamoto, his children and grandchildren have been split up, living in temporary shelters that are several hours apart. Like many in Namie, they have been forced to move seven times in the last year because the government keeps placing them in temporary shelters that inevitably become contaminated by wind-blown radiation.

As Japan moves forward, Mr. Yamamoto and his fellow townspeople feel forgotten. Forty years ago, the residents of Namie opposed the construction of the nuclear plant, but were powerless to stop it. Today, they suffer the most from its failure, and they are powerless to reconnect their families and rebuild their lives.

Japan is an extraordinarily wealthy country, and yet it has only given roughly $10,000 to Mr. Yamamoto and each of his fellow townspeople. And yet, TEPCO still charges displaced citizens like Mr. Yamamoto for the utilities they use each month in their temporary housing. And yet, TEPCO proposes to raise Mr. Yamamoto's electricity rates by 10 percent this year. How can Mr. Yamamoto support his family and rebuild his life on a one-time payment of $10,000? Why have TEPCO and the Japanese government forgotten about him and instead, helped each other?

Over 20,000 people were killed as a result of the March 11 tragedy; hundreds of thousands more are survivors. It is a disaster that saddens the entire world. The actions of the Japanese government make us sadder still. History is full of examples of the powerful helping one another at the expense of the powerless. The wiser direction tells us that kindness and generosity towards the vulnerable should guide Japan's leaders. The survivors in Japan are praying that its leaders will reverse course and start helping the innocent victims of the tragedy rather than those whose decisions and actions caused it.

 
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