In 2011 a tandem earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, becoming the world's costliest natural disaster. Three years later, with a death toll at nearly 20,000, the need for international relief still plagues their economy. But perhaps the most concerning fallout facing the country today is the possibility of radioactive contamination.
Twenty-four hours after the tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant broke open, releasing lethal amounts of radioactive material. TEPCO, the company that owns the plant, has since worked with the Japanese government to report on the levels of radiation, but the validity of these figures is heavily contested. Many have likened TEPCO’s reports to BP's original assessment of their massive oil spill, meaning the effects of radiation may be much worse than expected.
In hopes of suffocating the issue, the Japanese government and media conglomerates have largely ignored the plausibility of radioactive contamination. I discussed the taboo topic with Shigeru Mita, a Tokyo physician who has taken matters into his own hands.
VICE: What types of tests have you conducted?
Shigeru Mita: I’ve done examinations on more than 1,500 patients. Many of these were children whose parents were worried about their health since the Fukushima meltdown. I asked the patients how they felt, if there are any abnormalities with their health, and then I carried out some inspections. I run blood work and conduct thyroid ultrasound examinations.
What were the results?
I’ve mostly tested patients living in Tokyo, and I’ve found a lot of harmful symptoms in children, especially in kindergarten students or elementary school students. I’ve also seen some serious effects in the elderly.
There have been abnormalities in their differential white-blood-cell count. Blood is produced in the bone marrow, which is one of the organs that is most vulnerable to radiation. I’ve seen a decline in the neutrophil component in white blood cells. In severe instances, this can lead to fatal conditions like septicemia.
Have these effects been getting better or worse since the meltdown?
I conducted the first tests in December 2011, so I cannot compare the result with any from before the meltdown. But I can say the threat has seemed to be spreading into Tokyo since then.
What are the worst symptoms you've seen?
There was a baby with a serious illness. She had far fewer neutrophils in her blood than there should be for a healthy baby. After my inspection, she had another test in a bigger hospital.
At that time she had no neutrophils. It means that she could easily have caught a serious disease. And had that happened, she would have been in grave danger of dying. Thankfully, she recovered after moving to the Kyushu area.
What do you prescribe in instances such as this?
I can’t prescribe anything to these patients, because there aren't any medicines to help. But as was the case with the baby, and with many others who have these figures, it seems they recover when they spend time away from eastern Japan, so I’m definitely encouraging this.
Do the effects go away when the patients move away from the high risk areas?
Yes. I’ve seen a lot of patients from Tokyo who are badly affected, but when they move to other places like Osaka, Kyoto, or Shikoku, they get better. After they come back to Tokyo, it gets worse again.
Do you know of any other doctors who are doing similar examinations?
There are virtually no other doctors I know of doing these tests. I know of one doctor from the Mitakanomori clinic who conducts the same kind of inspections, but his office has much fewer patients coming in than my clinic.
I have tried to encourage other doctors to take the tests, but none of them have agreed. We need to be taking these tests for at least 20 years to know the true effects, and there hasn’t been nearly enough done in the time since the meltdown.
Would you say you have enough results to publish a conclusive study? If not, what needs to be done before you can?
I don’t think so, because I didn’t control the location of the patients. The data wasn’t from patients living in one specific area. They came from various areas such as Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa. In addition, some of the patients had been moving around before came to my clinic. I think I would need to collaborate with other doctors who are conducting the same tests. I presently don’t have adequate data for a conclusive study. Not yet, anyway.
People are claiming that TEPCO’s reporting on the radiation has been false. What are your thoughts on this?
I believe these reports must be false. That said, discussing this is a waste of time. We need to use this time to help patients rather than discussing the validity of these statements. That’s the most pressing concern.
What are your thoughts on food contamination? Do you think there are any dietary precautions that people should be taking?
In Japan, commercial distribution is prosperous, so some of the contaminated food is definitely coming to Tokyo. A lot of people claim that we have to eat all of the local products to sustain the economy, but I think that we should be testing everything thoroughly, and that at least children should be spared from eating food with any risk of contamination.
Do you think the media have been neglecting to cover the effects of radiation?
They are definitely not focusing on this particular concern. I believe the Japanese media have taken side with a small number of powerful people. I think the government has the responsibility of helping the patients to do so, but they aren't.
Do you think the Japanese public are showing enough concern about the risk of radiation?
People living in eastern Japan are definitely concerned, so they are trying to look away from the dangers of radioactivity. Hence they avoid taking the matter seriously. People living in western Japan are being more rational, and many of them are helping these people migrate from eastern Japan.
What do you think is the best plan for people living in Japan?
I can think only about the area around Tokyo. I worry about the children, their parents, and the children who will be born in the future. I want the patients to move to the safer place, but most people don’t want to move. I strongly recommend that anyone living in the area head to a safer place one or two months out of the year. I encourage everyone living in Tokyo to take blood tests as frequently as possible. In the meantime, there's nothing I can do but support the patients on a private-sector level.