In Japan, rice is life. The word for “life” is also the word for “meal” or “food.” The importance of rice to the Japanese people cannot be overstated. Damage to Japan’s rice crops as a result of irradiation goes beyond damage to the diet—it extends even to damage to religious rituals, to Buddhism. The word for rice has been called “emotive”. To be confronted with a shortage of rice calls forth powerful feeling of deprivation in Japanese.
And there is no way yet to determine if this damage can be reversed.
FUKUSHIMA AND 3/11
And Japanese rice, irradiated by “3/11”, is in peril.
“3/11” is what the Japanese call the series of deadly disasters which struck northern Japan in March of 2011; the earthquake, tsunami, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown. Northern Japan was and still is devastated, and the impact of the nuclear meltdown continues to be felt well beyond Fukushima itself to the shores of the Pacific Northwest in the US and Canada..
Therefore, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility was badly damaged by irradiation, batches of rice grown in Fukushima and contaminated by radioactive cesium from the meltdown were swiftly removed from the market and remained off for three years until the end of August, 2014.
Of the halted rice shipments bound for Hong Kong, Fukushima Governor of Fukushima Yuhei Sato said “I can tell you that you don’t have to worry at all about rice that has already been shipped.”
However, bans have also been placed on shipments of Fukushima vegetables and milk, and elevated levels of radiation have also been found in green tea grown 250 miles from Fukushima Daiichi. Moreover, at the time of writing only 5 supermarket chains in Tokyo were willing to sell Fukushima grown rice.
Indeed, when one goes to a supermarket in Tokyo, one is confronted by tight packages of food with exhaustive pedigrees of origin inscribed on each, so that the buyer won’t be misled into purchasing food from Fukushima unaware. Beef from Australia, vegetables from China, but nothing from northern Japan, which used to be the prime growing region for foodstuffs such as peaches…
With remarkable frankness, a spokesman from the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh), a major wholesaler of Japanese agricultural product, recently said “Despite our efforts at explaining the safety of Fukushima-made farm products, up until now we have not been able to find retailers who wished to trade rice grown in Fukushima.”
The federation said it aims to export more Fukushima rice. The origins of the rice will be marked on bags and the rice will not be mixed with other produce, an official said.
RICE EXPORTS RESUME BUT THE DAMAGE IS DONE
As of August 20 2014 Japan has resumed exporting rice grown in Fukushima for the first time since foreign sales were halted two years ago over fears of radioactive contamination, officials said. It will be the first time rice grown in Fukushima prefecture has been sold abroad since rice was exported to Hong Kong in 2012, an official was quoted as saying.
Zen-Noh said it will send an initial 300-kilogram batch to Singapore, where it will be sold at local supermarkets. The federation said it aims to export more Fukushima rice, including more to Singapore. The origins of the rice will be marked on containers and the rice will not be mixed with other produce, an official said. This rice was grown 60-80 kilometers west of the devastated Fukushima nuclear plant.
“All rice grown in Fukushima is being checked for radioactivity before being shipped to market,” another Fukushima official said.
“Our rice is proved to have passed the government safety standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram, and is mostly below detection levels” of measuring instruments, he added, referring to a measure of radioactive contamination.
Nevertheless, rice contamination continues to be an issue of concern to the entire country and beyond. Officials have sought to calm consumers’ fears of continued contamination through testing of the rice before shipments are sent to market.
The issue of rice contamination has also driven farmers to go to great lengths in their efforts to reassure consumers. Farmers have applied to their fields cosmetic treatments such as powdered scallop shell, liquid potassium and the mineral Zeolite, which can absorb radioactive cesium— with mixed results.
But these efforts have not been effective. Unfortunately, recent studies have showed that rice plants exposed to low level radiation like that emitted by the Fukushima nuclear plant a full year after the disasters, have exhibited a powerful negative response in rice seedlings. The tips of exposed plant leaves, unlike those of the control plants, have dried and withered. Damage continued even after the plants were removed from the studied farm– often culminating in cell death.
Cell death in a food staple which for centuries has been the core of the country’s diet? And a staple in Asia as a whole? This poses a core issue of great concern to the entire country and to Asia at large. .
If there were no other issue rending Japan apart as a result of the 3/11 damages, this would be sufficient. A country which for the past 40 years was supremely confident in its culture and its leadership has lost its confidence and is registering fear, rage, and disbelief.
A strong economic incentive exists for the country’s leadership to resume a semblance of normality. But there is no knowing when and how the consumer can expect this to return. Meanwhile, consumers are grimly measuring packaged foods with portable Geiger counters in an effort to avoid risk at the table. Perhaps this is the wave of the future.
After “3/11” Claire began to follow the news of Japan very closely.In July 2011, she attended and wrote a report on a Japan Society NY discussion featuring Japanese NGOs, academics and commentators, on the aftereffects of the triple disaster and the world’s response.She has been reporting on Fukushima events ever since through IPD and at meetings in Tokyo, Oxford (UK), and Rochester Institute of Technology, (RIT), New York.
A resident of New York, NY, Claire has an M.A. in History from New York University.
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