A MAN’S PLACE IS OUTSIDE THE HOUSE,
A WOMAN’S PLACE IS WITHIN
When I was living in southern Japan 30 years ago, even though I was foreign, single and had a job, my neighbors were determined to teach me how to be a good woman—a good Japanese housewife, actually, an “oku-san” (literally, “Mrs. Inside [the House”]. They expected that I would learn – at their hands– the correct ways of cooking, preparing the bath, and preparing the bedding for my nonexistent family.
And they were dismayed at the failure of their efforts, feeling that my errant behavior brought unwanted attention to my school and to the whole neighborhood. Only a remove to another, more relaxed neighborhood which boasted a few working women relieved a little of the tension I felt as a foreigner in Nagasaki.
Overall, it was a very traditional society and the rules for women’s behavior, even foreigners’ behavior, were on the rigid side. “Mrs. Inside” remained inside except to do the shopping and take the kids to school. The wide outer world of business and commerce and politics—well, that was men’s business. If a woman wanted to understand it she could read a paper or watch TV. Participation was never in question.
But the role of Japanese women is changing, even in relatively remote corners of Japan. Women are leaving the household—leaving the cooking, bath, bedding—and going out into the public arena. Even those who have not formally taken paying jobs have assumed positions of public responsibility, protesting the actions of government and corporations in a ways that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. They are becoming activists—and not just local activists, but visible, vocal, angry protesters caught on the video cameras parked in tents in front of the Japanese consulates or embassies around the world. .
In particular, the women of Fukushima—those most directly affected—have become powerful advocates. They are expressing what used to be inexpressible, especially by women- their outrage against the overwhelming and terrible damage done to Japan’s air, water and earth by the meltdown of the Daiichi Power Plant. And now to people, especially to babies via their mother’s contaminated breast milk.
These Fukushima women are protesting against the actions—or failures to act—of the Japanese government and of the nuclear power company TEPCO.
Fukushima is Ground Zero, the site of the Great March 11, 2011 Earthquake, which spawned a massive tsunami, and which in turn, caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown. And which, finally, has created massive contamination noted not only in Fukushima but also as far north as Hokkaido and over land and by sea, to the west, a huge floating mass of cesium contaminated waste. To Hawaii and beyond.
The Great Earthquake has caused another earthquake in the roles of Japanese women in society. David H. Slater of Japan’s Sophia University has remarked that this is the largest and most effective set of demonstrations in Japan since the U.S.-Japan treaty protests of the 1960s and 1970s. It has brought together a disparate group of activists, young families, women, office workers, and union protestors. He notes that for the first time, women have consistently been in the forefront of protest.
Slater astutely remarks that the group, “Woman of Fukushima Against Nukes,” has skillfully exploited the privileged position of women. As child bearers and nurturers, women are at the core of Japanese society, thus, despite the proverb quoted in the title, their influence is far stronger than one might expect.
And Japanese women are both invested and justified in their protests here, in a way one might not expect: Japanese women and children have been proven to be at much greater risk of cancer, 50 percent higher, from the fallout than men. Furthermore, many families were unable or unwilling to evacuate from the disaster sites in Fukushima and the children of those families have then been exposed to more and more radiation.
The Setting for Protest
Several scholars of modern Japan have remarked that this time of nuclear crisis is a time when radical change, previously unthinkable in Japan, may happen. A population typically referred to as passive, docile, and obedient, with the powerful energy of anger and outrage, can push through crucial changes in a world almost literally glowing in the dark.
And as to outrage—there is much about the measures taken within the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and the Japanese ministry responsible for the Japanese nuclear power plants to fuel an activist’s outrage.
NGO worker, Yukie Tokura, is protesting the Japanese government’s plans to “dump potentially contaminated food products from Fukushima on developing countries as food aid.” Many other activists are protesting the Japanese government’s plans to distribute contaminated gravel from the reactor area to outlying prefectures, including Tokyo and Tokyo Bay.
The question is: will this groundswell of outrage provide enough pressure to force change at the ministerial level?
How It All Happened
On May 20, 2011, an article that went to the heart of the matter appeared in Asahi Shimbun, a large and influential Japanese newspaper. Two days after the article was translated into English and published, it disappeared from the Internet.
This is what was reported in the Asahi Shimbun article:
On March 12, two hours before Reactor 1 had a hydrogen explosion, the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) was carried out by Nuclear Safety Technology Center under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Science. Although the simulation showed radioactive materials flowing toward Tsushima District (in Namie-machi), the national government didn’t tell the residents. Residents were evacuated from Tsushima District on March 15, but it was not until May 20 that they were informed of the SPEEDI result.
Fukushima mothers have been mobilizing to protect their families, not wanting to see their children die of contamination. They are demanding a wider evacuation effort and compensation for the homes they have had to abandon. Armed with Geiger Counters, the women are reporting on radioactive levels in their neighborhoods. One mother even challenged Japanese officials to eat the bag of contaminated soil she had brought, Geiger counter clicking, from a schoolyard where her children play.
In addition to a September 22 demonstration at the American Friends Center in New York, a series of anti-nuclear demonstrations in Tokyo and in New York have their roots in or links to Fukushima.
The largest demonstration was on September 19, 2011 when 60,000 people protested against nuclear energy in Tokyo. On October 29th, and again on November 11, 2011, the “Woman of Fukushima Against Nukes” held a sit-in in Tokyo calling for the permanent evacuation of at-risk children in areas of high radiation and also the permanent shut down of nuclear reactors in Japan. They set up camp outside the METI in Tokyo on October 27th to stage a protest about the effects of radiation on children and to criticize METI’s dealings with TEPCO.
“Our protests are aimed at achieving a rebirth in Japanese society,” said Chieko Shina, a grandmother from Fukushima. “There is a need to change the way the authorities have run the country by putting econommic growth ahead of protecting the lives of people.”
And despite all historical precedent, this group of oku-sans—“Mrs. Inside’s—won!
Eleven months after the disasters, Fukushima Governor Sato made the decision that Japan will lose its last nuclear-generated power in April. The country now has just three of its 54 nuclear reactors producing electricity with another unit shut down earlier this week for scheduled checks. With one exception, no reactors taken off-line since the March 11 disaster have been allowed to restart.
Japan’s shedding its nuclear power plants within three months may have a psychologically positive effect on the population, according to Yuji Nishiyama, an analyst with Credit Suisse Group AG. But to say that Japan is losing its last reactor does not mean that Japan is converting to a nuclear-free power. Quoted in Bloomberg on January 26, 2012, Nishiyama said: “We cannot live without nuclear power. We may not need 50 reactors, but we do need about 10 or 20.”
Taking down the reactors, although critical, is only a stop gap. It is the aftermath that greatly concerns the people of Japan. So much devastation has already been done and no remedies have been proposed to deal with the contamination.
More than one commentator has noted that the comments made by Japanese government officials, in its denial of the facts about radioactivity in Fukushima, are strongly reminiscent of the American government’s commentary after the atomic bombings of Japan.
The U.K.‘s Commoner noted in even stronger terms that many Japanese believe that those responsible ought to be tried as though they were war criminals. “There are many in Japan who now believe that TEPCO, the Government officers who ignored safety standards, and all those responsible for the disaster and for withholding information should be tried for crimes against humanity, in fact, for crimes against all living things.”
Finally, women and public protest have come to stay in Japan. And their determination to halt nuclear power remains strong.
Parliamentarian Mizuho Fukushima, one of Japan’s leading female politicians, chair of the Social Democratic Party since 2003, and an active participant in the anti-nuclear demonstrations, told the Inter Press Service that the protests against nuclear power are not going to die down. She added: “Forcing changes to stop nuclear power in Japan is very possible.”