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Two Years After Fukushima, a Culture of Mistrust Grows in Japan

Filmmaker Itai Keshet's new short documentary looks at the fallout of Fukushima two years later. Motherboard has the exclusive, and an interview with the director.
March 11, 2013, 8:35pm

A new documentary sheds light on the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis.

Fukushima is the new shorthand for 'nuclear crisis.' Two years ago, it displaced Chernobyl as the most visceral example of a real-world meltdown, and it introduced nuclear catastrophe to a generation too young to remember the Soviet Union. But Fukushima wasn't as bad. It didn't blanket the entire nation in radiation like Chernobyl did. It claimed far, far fewer lives. It has, according to World Health Organization estimates, increased cancer risks in the region very slightly. Food grown in the region is said to be safe to eat, and is carefully monitored.

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Instead of spawning outright horrified outrage, Fukushima has given rise to forces far more nuanced, and perhaps even thornier: uncertainty and mistrust. After Chernobyl, the case was closed: nuclear power was a ticking time bomb that had to be shut down. Most of the world stopped building new plants pretty quickly afterwards. Fukushima is more complicated. Instead of leading to the immediate disavowal of nuclear power, it has become the centerpiece in a globe-spanning debate: Keep low-carbon nuclear power humming, despite the evident risks, or switch off the plants—at the potential cost of turning to fossil fuels like coal or gas, which contribute to climate change.

Many see fit to weigh in on the dilemma, arguing that carbon-free power is important above all, and that to stop climate change, it is worth living with the specter of another Fukushima. But many have not lived in its shadow. So Itai Keshet decided to spend some time with those who have. Keshet is an Israeli filmmaker and video journalist who lives in Berlin. His girlfriend is from Ibaraki, a prefecture between Tokyo and Fukushima, so Keshet spent ample time in the region after the crisis. Nearly two years later, he put together this short film about ordinary Japanese citizens coping with the fallout from the nuclear event. Mistrust has sprouted—mistrust of the government, of the food farmers grow, or institutions in general—and we see a portrait not of the $25 billion in hard damage the meltdown caused, but the tear in the social fabric that persists years later.

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This is a risk that should be remembered, too, as economists and climatologists crunch the numbers—this culture of uncertainty and mistrust that infects the lives ordinary citizens, whose lives will never be the same. Keshet gave Motherboard the exclusive for his film's American debut, so check it out.

Note: After the initial debut here, Keshet has given the NY Times a 30-day exclusive on the video—we'll re-embed after the time's up.

Below, we speak with the director about making the short, and about his experiences in Fukushima.

Motherboard: What were your personal impressions of Fukushima? What are people's biggest fears: is it radiation in general? Or high levels in the food? Or that if they restart the reactors they might face another tragedy?

Itai Keshet: Altogether I spent some weeks in Ibaraki, Fukushima and the area. Having spent time there before, I really had a feeling that people have became very suspicious and cynical about everything official. After what happened they really don’t know what it means when their government says that something is ‘safe.'

My girlfriend’s family, for example, won’t eat anything coming from central Japan, and quite honestly I haven’t met anyone who is 100 percent comfortable eating something coming from Fukushima. At best, some people prefer not to know. I think that all the people in the video have their own take on things–the farmers and residents of Fukushima want to believe that it is safe to be there, those from the evacuation zone who had to leave feel more comfortable with the notion that you have to stay away and citizens and consumers decide independently what level of caution they want to take. What was common to everyone is a deep feeling of mistrust in authority, confusion, and doubt. I think that in general there is this stereotype of Japanese people being conformist and obedient. I don’t know whether this was ever completely true but this was certainly not the feeling I got during this time. It is possible that this disaster is causing a deeper cultural change.

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In the aftermath of Fukushima, how do people feel about the government and its handling of emergencies?

I haven’t met anybody that had something good to say about the way the government handled the crisis. After the meltdown, the US government told everyone within 80 km to leave, but the Japanese government decided 30 km is enough.

The people from Motomiya, which is 60 km away, all told me their government put them and their families at risk so that they wouldn't cause chaos in traffic. They believe they have been exposed to serious amounts of radiation because of that. They all told me the same thing without exception. Yet they now have to believe the same people saying that everything is safe and as you can see they are not convinced themselves.

Does anyone think Fukushima will ever return to normal?

The evacuation zone will not be inhabitable for at least the next 50 years. They’ve just started decommissioning the reactor, which is still active by the way, and if everything goes according to plan it will take 40 years. Hopefully, things are beginning to improve around the area. Although many people have already left the region and I suppose that not many people are moving there to start a family.

What do you think your film says about nuclear power in general?

My video doesn't try to claim that the food is actually dangerous because like everybody else, I really don’t know. Japan does have strict standards on paper. I personally ate the strawberries that the farmer in the video handed to me and I haven’t grown a third eye so far, but I will keep you posted about it.

What I was really trying to capture is the deep feeling of mistrust, which is another byproduct of this disaster and i think that we have not yet seen all the long term consequences of this. I think that mistrust towards authority is one such issue, and I do hope that more cases of cancer is not another.

Top image via Bloomberg