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Can the cool heads prevail in the vast sea of Tokyo to help Tohoku

Cool Heads Must Prevail To Help Cool The Rods Updated Response to This Is Not Chernobyl

Note: I decided to revise yesterday’s article, which I wrote in a state of anger.  As the comments rightly guessed, I found it hard to disassociate myself from this situation and write objectively.  The small contingent who haven’t left Tokyo feel the same, I think, and those who are beginning to trickle back from Osaka and other areas have left their fear behind for enthusiasm and a kind of patriotism. For both the Japanese public’s and their sakes, I want to clear a few things up.

Californians buying up iodine. British citizens “starving” in Tokyo. French residents “swamped” by a “toxic cloud of radiation”. Foreigners urged by their embassies to escape.

In reality, everyone in Tokyo is fine. I’ve stopped worrying about filling my bathtub up with water to draw on in case the tap water is contaminated, or wearing a mask for those invisible dregs of iodine and cesium floating through the sky. The level of radiation in the atmosphere today in the capital is 0.15 microsieverts, while normal levels for cities worldwide is 0.2. The only thing I’m worried about getting “exposed” to is the sensationalism in the foreign press that is causing widespread panic.

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

There’s a fine line between reassuring our families and friends abroad that we’re all well, and appearing blithely impervious to the suffering 150 miles away. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds triviality awkward at the moment, or who feels guilty for laughing or enjoying themselves. I do want to stress, however, that life in Tokyo is going on almost as normal. I know from my friends and colleagues battling to convey this to their families that it is difficult to parse this image with the reports on American and European television. The masks are to ward off hayfever, not to protect against radiation. Children are playing in the streets, the shops have re-stocked, and the “ghost town” is a consequence of  the train disruptions introduced to conserve electricity for diversion to the stricken areas.

Looking towards Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures, no one in Tokyo–other than those who have lost relatives and friends–has the right to complain about the inconvenient consequences of the quake, such as blackouts, empty shelves in shops, and disrupted train services. People aren’t exactly having the time of their life in the capital, but they feel extremely lucky to be there rather than in the northeast.

There are two main things I want to make clear. Firstly, while the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) plant is still not stable, there are several reasons why there will not be a spread of radioactive material significant enough to have health impacts beyond the 30km radius evacuation zone.

Secondly, people have complained that both the Japanese government and TEPCO have refused to discuss a “worst case scenario,” whereas the American and European press have been all too happy to oblige. The supposed lack of information in Japan (or rather the typically Japanese vague manner of speech and expression) has created a vacuum, into which the dark sludge of paranoia from the foreign press has poured. We need to evaluate the opinions of experts who actually have a grasp on the numbers and understand what different levels of radiation imply for human health, rather than meaningless figures such as “20 times higher than normal.”

The general public, of course, is rarely rational in its response to such intense and hysterical media coverage. For every event, whether it be a natural disaster or a political crisis, and there is always an extreme dislocation between actual events and the “angle” given by journalists weary of the string of disasters they are made to report on.

In this case, the baseless scaremongering of the foreign press about the risk of radiation poisoning has had significant consequences. Firstly, on an emotional level, it detracted attention away from those really suffering, and made this tragedy about the suffering of Americans who are apparently going to get irradiated because of Japanese incompetence. Secondly, on an economic level, it has put both foreign residents in Japan and the Japanese economy out of pocket, thanks to the astronomical airfares they paid to get out, and the struggling unstaffed companies they left in their wake. Thirdly, on a personal level, it has caused a lot of stress and worry to the families of foreign residents in Japan, who beg their loved ones to come home. As previous Tokyo resident Craig Mod tweeted yesterday, “The inability for the foreign media to differentiate between northern Japan and the rest of the country is deeply troubling my mother.”

I know a lot of my friends have to sedate their relatives over Skype every day, brandishing statistics and rational articles, before their fears are freshly inflamed the next morning by the hysterical TV presenters. I even find myself defending the Japanese government, a body I’ve never had much faith in before, partly as a defensive reaction to the battering they are taking from governments and journalists overseas. Despite the multitude of articles claiming that Japanese citizens are becoming increasingly angry at their government, I can sense no more frustration from the Japanese populace than is normal. Most of those getting “angry” are expatriates.

The few of us who refuse to believe the reports are comforted by the assurances of a few experts. Everyone was relieved to read a discussion with the British government’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor John Beddington that was posted on the British Embassy’s website:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word ‘meltdown’.”

But what does “meltdown” actually mean?

He explained that the worst case scenario was one in which the reactors could not be cooled and pressure in the containment vessel could not be controlled. This is what is referred to as a “meltdown.” If that happened, the reactor core would melt and drop down to the floor of the container. It would then explode, releasing radioactive material that could go up to 500m in the air. But he emphasizes that even this worst case scenario “the problems are within 30km of the reactor.” Even if you had prevailing weather carrying radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo, with rain, there would be “absolutely no issue”.

It should be noted that this man has no connection to either the Japanese government or TEPCO, and likely has the interests of British nationals at heart more than he cares about offending anyone in Japan.

When Chernobyl went into meltdown, material was going up not to 500 meters, but 10 kilometers, and it lasted months. But even then, the exclusion zone was only 30 km, and there is no evidence to suggest that those outside of that zone suffered health problems. The problem was that people continued to drink water and vegetables that had been contaminated through the soil around the site.

In contrast to Chernobyl, where the explosion was nuclear because the fission process ran out of control, the explosions we have seen at Fukushima have been caused by vented hydrogen steam being “sparked” by something. The nuclear fission process was halted as soon as the earthquake hit Fukushima. The problems started with the tsunami, which damaged the power supply that was necessary to cool the fuel rods. Without power, it has been a race to continue cooling the fuel rods and to keep them submerged in water so that they do not heat up and produce too much steam. The first explosion at reactor no.1 happened when both heat and pressure built up inside the primary containment vessel, and TEPCO decided to release some of the steam to avoid damaging the vessel. The hydrogen in the steam escaped into the secondary vessel and was sparked by something, causing a blast.

Once electricity is reestablished and there is a steady supply of water to submerge the cores, we will be out of the danger zone.

(If you want to read a concise explanation of what happened at Fukushima, go here.)

So why has the French and American embassy begun to evacuate their nationals? I would suggest that they are mainly doing it in response to the fears ignited by the media. They want to evade criticism that they are not sufficiently protecting their citizens. France perhaps has reason to feel jumpy, since there were widespread suspicions that increases in thyroid cancer after 1986 were due to radiation from Chernobyl. However, in a 2006 report the French Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety said that no clear link had been made, and that other kinds of thyroid cancer, unconnected to radiation, had also increased threefold in the same period. This case illustrates the kind of fear and paranoia that surrounds radiation.

Nevertheless, this week the French embassy organized two Air France flights from Narita and one from Kansai airport to fly home any French nationals who wished to leave. The United States’ offer was less generous, seemingly designed to dissuade all but the most desperate, since they would be flown to a “safe haven” in Asia where they would have to organize their own accommodation and also pay for the flight themselves. The embassy have stated that they do not believe that current radiation levels pose a threat to public health, but that they will assist people in leaving if they wish.

The British press also claimed on Thursday that the British Embassy was “urging” its citizens to leave because of concerns about the health risks of increased radiation levels, but their actual statement said nothing of the sort. They said: “Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

Although they did refer to the “evolving situation,” they stopped short of connecting it to any health risks posed to British citizens. Instead, they seemed mostly concerned with logistical problems, such as the trains cancellations and blackouts.

What has probably caused some of the confusion and fear is that it has been implicitly acknowledged that the radiation levels at the Fukushima plant will have some impact on the health of the workers who have remained working there. Nicknamed the “Fukushima 50,” from the number of workers on a shift at any one time, 200 workers have bravely volunteered to remain in the plant to cool the reactors. Already recognized as heroes, everyone in Japan is incredibly grateful for their sacrifice. Five workers have died since the quake (none of radiation poisoning, however) and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing.

The government also rushed through a quick change to the regulations, which now allows workers to be exposed to 250 millisieverts from 100 millisieverts per year. The highest level measured so far was 400 millisieverts per hour on Tuesday morning, which can produce symptoms of radiation sickness in a few hours. But levels at the gate dropped later that day to between 0.6 to 11.9 millisieverts per hour, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and down to 0.2794 on Friday March 18, after the Self Defense Forces cooled reactors by spraying water from a truck.

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation Exposure Levels

Radiation is cumulative, meaning that a level of 400 millisieverts per hour would give you a dose of 800 over two hours. People who lived near Chernobyl when it went into meltdown got a dose of 450 millisieverts over several days. To have a 50% likelihood of death within a month, however, you need a dose of 5,000 millisieverts.

The panic in Tokyo was caused by the announcement on Tuesday that radiation levels were 20 times higher than usual. But not only was it still a miniscule amount- 0.000809 millisieverts per hour, or the equivalent of smoking one cigarette an hour- it went down by a factor of 8 to reach 0.000151 one hour later. Since Thursday, radiation levels in Tokyo have remained at normal levels, giving the equivalent of 0.2 millisieverts per year. A single x-ray would deliver a dose of 0.2 millisieverts at once.

Radiation levels at the gate of the plant were just 0.271 millisieverts on Friday morning at 8am per hour, which is very good news for the Fukushima 50 and everyone in the vicinity. Ironically, those who “escaped” Tokyo to go to New York received almost the same- an average of 0.2 millisieverts- just passing through airport security and traveling on a plane.

It may be basic science, but people seem to forget that radioactive material decays and becomes inactive. The two radioactive chemicals that have been detected in Fukushima are iodine and cesium. The amount of time it takes for half of the chemicals to decay is known as a “half-life”. Iodine has a half life of just eight days, while cesium has a half-life of 30 years. Iodine has been associated with thyroid cancer, and cesium has been linked to cancer of the liver, kidneys and the pancreas.

However, the impact of radiation on health, or the correlation with cancer rates, depends entirely on dosage. We are all exposed to a certain amount of background radiation from various sources, including outer space, cigarettes, and even bananas. Like any substance, including salt, vitamin C or even water, it is only in excess that it is dangerous. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, everyone in the United States is exposed to very small amounts of cesium in soil and water because of atmospheric fallout from the nuclear detonations of the cold war. It is odd to see smokers getting panicked about ”carcinogenic” radiation from Fukushima as they puff away on little sticks that are far more likely to give them cancer.

Both iodine and cesium are heavier than air, so even with strong winds blowing from Fukushima towards Tokyo, they will not adversely affect Tokyo, as Geiger counters in the capital have shown in the past few days. It should be pointed out that Three Mile Island, an incident that is being compared to Fukushima, was located just 100 miles from New York, where no health problems were reported. Tokyo, the city from which several countries are moving heaven and earth to “rescue” their citizens from, is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

I have explained why I think the fear of radiation poisoning is irrational and baseless. It is understandable that one feels scared when even embassies begin evacuations, and allows one’s self-preservation instinct to kick in. But where we must turn our attentions is to those who are actually dying at the moment. Four people froze to death in a gymnasium in Miyagi on Thursday night, because they had neither kerosene heaters nor blankets and it was snowing outside. Rescue crews have given up, since they say there’s little chance of finding someone alive in the ice. There are reports of five people sharing a fist-sized rice ball because supplies are not getting through. They now expect the death toll to rise to above 20,000, maybe even more, as the bodies float in on the tide. The shock and suffering is multi-dimensional, and enormous: they’re grieving, starving, and freezing.

I may not be Japanese, but I feel fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country right now. I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.


About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

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This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident


Creative Ways to Donate to Tohoku Quake Tsunami Relief Effort


  1. Nicho

    thank you Sophie for writing down in words exactly how I feel towards the way the foreign media has been covering this disaster. disturbing to think that News Corp is profiting from such a tragic event. I’m just praying that more people will realize, as you mentioned, that the real news is at Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Ibaraki where 290,000 homeless citizens are taking refuge at public spaces, battling hunger, sub-zero temperature, and the lack of basic everyday supplies.

  2. Rei Samantha

    Thank you so much for this clear-headed, logical essay.
    And I absolutely agree that the media frenzy over the nuclear situation has detracted many from other highly serious areas of concern such as the plight of those currently suffering.
    Like you, I really wish more countries would use the energy/money on the mass evacuations elsewhere.

  3. Goran

    Someone linked me here – apparently we had very similar thoughts. http://udon.stacken.kth.se/~goran/nopanic.en.html

  4. Anonymous

    Yes! Thank you for putting together such a detailed article! I agree that the real problem is elsewhere.. up north. I wrote about it at http://sandorinjapan.com/japan-humanitarian-situation-update-march-19t (picked up by the BBC, LOL)

  5. John Treat

    I would add another reason for the panicky response: Libya. Since France, the US and the UK are largely incapable of doing anything in north Africa, they are over-compensating by trying to look “pro-active” when it comes to Japan. It’s politics– not science.

  6. Maven

    Great, common sence article, that the shallow media should read.

  7. Rob

    Everyone is scared. “nuclear meltdown” or any related nuclear accident in which we are not in control of is scary to everyone. So fear comes first, this is innate. Then we need to respond to the fear, this is fight or flight. Flight is easy, but fight is more complex. To fight with you fear basically you need hope and in this instance it is hope and trust in experts and science. However science is not truth and can never be.
    No fighter or flighter is right or wrong or better or worse its just as we behave as animals.
    These are really core human traits which have manifested themselves in this instance.
    The only way to alleviate this innate response it to fight fear at it’s root cause. Krishnamuri has written a good book about this entitled “fear”.

    That being said I could not agree more that the media has blown this out of proportion. But again the root cause of this is because people are attracted to fear and the alleviation of it.
    If we as individuals can not deal with the root cause this kind of situation will be repeated for an eternity.

    While our environment drastically changes around us we can not deny the fact that we are animals, animals with instincts and that fact is never going to change unless each separate individual stiles it at the root!!

  8. Droog

    One thing that is very annoying is that the Japanese government offices have no idea about current radiation level. For instance, on I believe March 15 I went to the city office and asked them about current radiation level in the city where I live. They did not know.

    After Chernobyl accident, in my home town in Russia (Moscow region) we had public Geiger counter — at any given time you could see the current radiation level (it was maybe 10-15 microrentgen/hour as I remember. maybe even less, below 10).

    I hope that Japanese officials will draw the necessary conclusions and install Geiger counters in public places in all towns in Japan.

  9. Adam from Japan

    Fantastic piece. This will be added to the plethora of links that I have been posting to keep myself, those around me here in Tokyo, and abroad calm. I wish that CNN and other newstertainment agnecies would pick this up, post it, and say, ‘…we’re sorry…’ for what they have portrayed and what it could possibly do to Japan (economically, politically, etc.)

  10. Daninthepan

    Do any of you have kids?

    My daughter is 4 months old – “But not only was it still a miniscule amount- 0.000809 millisieverts per hour, or the equivalent of smoking one cigarette an hour”. I don’t really want to subject her to the radiation levels of smoking 1 cigarette an hour. I don’t know what effect it woud have on a kid but I don’t imagine Mr Cool Head does either.

    I think you can get the jist of what I’m saying. I don’t mind playing russian roulette with my life based on the bits and peices of information I can get on the situation from such reputable sources as my mate’s facebook and hesomagazine, but I’m not going to take the risk with my kids just to prove how “protective and proud of my adopted country” I am right now.

    Are any of you essential?

    Are you really providing any benefit to the country by staying there? I run a small conversation school, my students have mostly cancelled their lessons because of train disruptions, power cuts, and just a general sense of guilt at studying English in such a climate. The students that continue coming are doing so mostly out of a sense of worry for my personal financial situation, or this Japanese stoicism that life must go on, I’m not sure either are appropriate when it comes to English lessons.

    If you are searching for missing people, an experienced journalist trying to get information to people, or working for an embassy trying deal with the mountain of red tape that’s needed to get get non-essential people out of a country then please stay. If on the other hand you would rather stay in the country than use that holiday time you have been saving up to go to Laos at the end of the year then please by all means stay but don’t turn on your lights at night, stop using the microwave to heat your bento that had to wake up at 6:00 in the morning to find and thereby depriving an elderly Japanese citizen of, and please use your gas to make a cup of tea that you can drink while while contemplating how cool headed you are.

    Rob – people are not attracted to fear, they are attracted to saftey, I put it to you that it is braver to walk out on your business of 10 years, have your wife take a holiday and possibly lose her job as a result, and get your kids back to safety than it is to stand your ground and beat your chest.

  11. Daninthepan

    Sorry about spelling and general incoherence, I have horrible get lag

  12. Tiffany

    It seems many of us share the same idea. (http://gu-choki-pa.blogspot.com/2011/03/no-we-are-not-leaving-japan.html) Of course, I am further south in Nagoya but I have to consider my kids, just as Daninthepan does. What is interesting is how many people are suddenly concerned about being contaminated. Living in an urban situation brings a host of contaminates that could be blamed for health problems and ecological damage. How many of us eat food that was doused in petrochemicals, transported hundreds or thousands of miles in CO2 producing vehicles? How many of us cover all of our skin from the warm sun and its UV rays, walk alongside cars emitting gasoline fumes, heat our homes with kerosene, microwave our bentos wrapped in plastic that leeches into our bodies? City dwellers are hardly living a pure life as it is. I am not trying to dismiss the dangers of nuclear fallout; I am just suggesting we expand our focus a bit to include the whole picture of our modern urban lives. Considering that it is due in part to the excessive consumption of electricity in places like Tokyo (and Nagoya) that more rural areas must host nuclear power plants, perhaps we should take the opportunity to consider a new Japan with sustainable urban centers. This crisis has revealed just how vulnerable the sprawling capital really is and that, not radiation, is the true danger.

  13. Tiffany

    edit: contaminates –>contaminants
    the dangers from typing on your ipad in a hurry. also my own post:

  14. Sophie Knight

    I don’t have any kids, and I realise that I would have been much more hasty to leave if I had done. I panicked for about a day when I heard the “20 times higher than usual” figure, and had a lot of friends urging me to leave, but then I calmed down.

    I wouldn’t want a four month old coming into contact with anything equivalent to smoking a cigarette either. But as I stated, that rate was maintained for just an hour. Staying indoors would have protected against it. If you live in a city and are not surrounded by forests and trees I daresay that average pollution in Tokyo has a very similar effect. Not to mention that when you get on a plane or have an xray you are exposed to the same dosage- 0.2 mSv. And after that one day of elevated levels Tokyo returned to 0.2mSv per year, which is the standard for cities. Some places, like Cornwall in England, have much higher background radiation.

    When the situation is so fluid and uncertain I absolutely do not blame you for taking your kids as far away as possible from potential danger. I am not blaming anyone for leaving. I merely wanted to point out that with the current levels of radiation and even the “worst case scenario,” there was very very little chance of any negative consequences on health. I just hope that this helped to cool fears and panic a little by putting radiation levels in perspective.

  15. Sophie Knight

    Thank you Tiffany! This is what I was getting at.

  16. Juliaaugusta

    while i’m sure you make some compelling arguments about the current situation and i would probably in general agree about the “scaremongering” tactics of the global mainstream media, your anger is misdirected at best and grossly generalizing and ignorant. if you make the base assumption that global mainstream media in any way reflects the attitudes of the “americans”, or other “purely self interested western peoples” [my words & interpretation of your tone], or that all foreign press is only interested in selling ‘papers’ and we’re all just sitting around our tv’s gobbling it up and worrying only about ourselves, you are dangerously deluded.

    that we all have been drawn into the unfolding dramas, this is true. how could one not? with japan and so much immediate real time coverage that our modern electronic age offers us, how could we, especially here on the west coast of america, not watch with horror and massive empathy, the 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami and the subsequent nuclear reactor crisis, all of which for us is also very very real. not only did we also experience the effects of the tsunami, [albeit nothing compared to japan, of course], that very situation could very well and easily play out here in california, for example, at any time, if not right now, for example. we’re also on the pacific plate that chile, new zealand and japan are on. we’re also due a massive earthquake and we also have two nuclear power plants built on fault lines with similar shoddy and shady construction. but most importantly, i would venture to say that most peoples concerns, that i know of anyways, have been primarily with the japanese people and situation.

    personally, i don’t sit around watch CNN for 20 hrs a day and personally i don’t know anyone that does. i actively collect my news information from a variety of independent sources. and i do feel that following the nuclear situation is not just a matter of paranoia for my personal health but a much larger concern for the politics and misinformation about nuclear power and plants. your article reads like an apologist for the nuclear industry. i don’t believe there is any safe or sustainable nuclear option. our ‘scaremongering’ media just reported high levels of radiation in some foods and milk products. once in the food chain, this becomes a very dangerous and uncontrollable situation.

    i too have been horrified to see the suffering of japanese people, in shelters with no food or heat. why is this? i have been asking. if you’re safe and all is well, why aren’t you out delivering food and helping out? why is the japanese government or rescue teams not there in these hospitals with no food and heat? the media seems to have made it there to film these situations . . . ? these are the questions i ask myself every day. if it’s so safe? people here are holding fund raisers but we can’t exactly get food to those who need it.

    we would all do well to compost our frustrations into real and practical solutions both for the people of japan in the present and for the future of a sustainable global environment. just a thought.

  17. Shojipoji

    A radiation levels in Italy is higher than Tokyo.

  18. Cindy

    I think I made the comment on FB that I still feel I would be more likely to have health issues from the passive smoking than Fukushima clouds.

  19. Todd

    really excellent article with great chart showing the meanings of radiation levels. great analysis of sensationalist media

  20. Ichifish

    Great piece. Thanks for writing it.

  21. Hannibal

    Excellent piece! Actually there is lots of information available, if one understands some written Japanese. Many agencies are monitoring radiation, geiger-counters in ustream, etc. I know that it is not always easy to understand, not just because of language but because some competence of what the technical jargon means is required.

    But to be honest, I am highly disappointed of the foreign media or newstertainment (great term Adam). But I am also disappointed of many expats, especially those far enough from the disaster areas. Where is the sense of loyalty? Fair enough if they want to abandon ship, but to bad-mouth this country at this time, is just too much. Just as the writer of this article, I also feel protective and proud of Japan! I am glad that I can see there are many of us! I think the expat community has lots of face-saving to do!

  22. SO are you saying, because “Radiation is cumulative” that if Tokyo is over 0.1 millisieverts, that would mean 2 Chest Xrays an hour??

  23. Andrew Mcdonald

    Sophie you are spot on with your observations, everyone likes to err on the safe side, howver the hysteric misreporting put everyone in an unescessary state of panic in unaffected areas like Saitama and Tokyo not to mention family back home overseas.

    The problem was further compounded when people took the foreign news of doom and gloom literally without asking any hard questions, the disapointing aspect was seeing many CEOs fllee Tokyo (which was unaffected by radiation and or earthquake damage) leaving their employees to fend for themselves many turning up for work only to find a message later from their bosses telling them to stay home because they had already left the country.

    In a time where sense of strong community was needed and many Japanese seeing foreign execs abandon them and their country, was quite demoralising and embarassing.

    Im not including those with young children or babies as I realsie that family pressure in the state of panic the media put everyone in has to be weighed accordingly.

    Howvere in and around Tokyo the image of Japan made weathy foreigners fleeing without a care in the world for their Japanese comrades is something many are talking about now, quite often in a tone of disappointmenyt and disgust.

    I really feel sorry for the quake and Tsunami victims in Fukushima and the reactor plant workers, these are the indivuiduals that were affected, however the rest in Tokyo that fleed en masse without even looking into the situation with perspective and intelligence is extremely sad and the image of foreigners make a living in Japan now has unfortunately taken a resemblance of that of parasites only feeding of a host when its healthy.

  24. Sophie Knight

    Sorry if I didn’t make it clear. Levels of radiation in the air are measured on a scale that gives the overall dosage you would receive if you stayed for a year in that environment. Living in the majority of cities, Tokyo included, would give you 0.2 millisieverts a year, actually the same as a single x-ray gives you in one go.

  25. Tokyo Food File

    Hello Sophie,
    Thank you very much for writing this. It is very concise and well written.
    Not only does it echo my perception of the situation here in Tokyo, it has also been a great help for my friends, family and colleagues abroad, giving them a much clearer picture of the situation here.
    I have posted links to both your original piece and this revised version on my FB page.
    best wishes

  26. Scot in Yokohama

    This is a great article, thank you. I hope it helps to put things in perspective for a lot of people and reassure their families and loved ones. Sadly some teachers I know have also used the situation as a good excuse to stay off work or take a vacation which puts added strain on those left behind.

  27. Joanne

    Thank you for so eloquently expressing my thoughts. I have been very annoyed with the sensationalization in the press and trying very hard to help others here in Tokyo have perspective. You said it all very well.

  28. Funintokyo29

    I agree Sophie. Especially your last comment about wishing they could spend their money and time on helping the Japanese instead of helping their citizens leave the country. I lived in Tokyo for two years but am know back in Australia and am getting sick of the reports that are coming out of Japan

  29. corknuts

    The really interesting story here from a psycho-sociological point of view is not the “hysteria” drummed up by the media but the way that non-Japanese people who chose to stay in Tokyo (this is just anecdotal, but it doesn’t seem to apply to Japanese people who wanted to leave but couldn’t) have taken on this group identity of being “cool, calm and collected” and really let it solidify around them. No matter how bad the news gets, they continue to respond in a positive, optimistic (but not necessarily clear-eyed) manner and to reinforce each other’s commitment to the identity in what seems to be verging on an almost cult-like manner.

    The heartbreaking tragedy is that because they see themselves as people who coolly weigh up the data and make calm and rational assessments of the situation (i.e., putting themselves in a positive light), they cast a negative light upon the people who decided to remove themselves and their loved ones from any possible or potential danger (the words “panicking” and “cowards” have been spotted), which then further reinforces the “stayers” determination to stay longer — no matter how bad the situation gets — so as not to be tarred with the same brush and “outcast” by their peers, the other “stayers.” Remember, as human beings we at least party define ourselves by the groups — both short- and long-term — that we belong to. This tendency and all its repercussions seems to be playing itself out here writ large. It would be a great dissertation for someone one day.

    The big and unmistakeable tip-off to all this is the fact that in 6 years of living in Japan I have never heard any expat say that they prefer the Japanese media over the foreign media. In fact, a month ago saying something like that would probably have got you laughed out of the pub. Now all of a sudden, as far as everybody still in Tokyo is concerned, the Japanese media can do no wrong, while the foreign media are nothing but a bunch of filthy swine.

    And if by “the foreign media” you *only* mean the Daily Suns and the Fox networks of the world, well, you might as well bang your head against the wall. We’ve all known forever that there are certain news sources that like to exaggerate in order to get some attention. We even have a disparaging name for them – tabloids. Complaining about their coverage of this particular disaster/crisis is neither here nor there as no one in their right minds is paying them the slightest bit of notice. If you think your family and friends back home are getting their information solely from these sources and at the same time not applying any critical thinking whatsoever then you might want to give them a bit more credit. (Or look into the possibility of adult adoption.)

    On the other hand, if you generally trust the Guardian, why stop now? Trust me, they haven’t suddenly changed their style of reporting or ethics codes just for this particular story.

    And then there’s all of the fun graphics and what-not that people who are have little understanding of the actual science have been pulling out in order to unhelpfully (but oh-so-optimistically) explain that eating a banana entails a certain amount of radiation exposure. And?

    While we’re on the subject, it might just be worth remembering that the global nuclear industry is huge and, like the oil, tobacco, meat and any other industry that as a consequence of its profit-making activities harms the environment or human health, it has dedicated teams of people whose only job is to spread disinformation and seed confusion. I’m not saying that the various experts who have been bandied about are receiving funding from the nuclear industry in the form of grants or something else, but it wouldn’t surprise me if at least a few of them were, let’s say, somewhat compromised.

    Sorry to be blunt, but I must agree with the poster who says this piece — especially the bits questioning the links between Chernobyl and increased cancer rates — reads like an apologia (or more like damage control) from the nuclear lobby.

    I take my hat off to the reporters at the BBC, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the New York Times and many others who have consistently provided much needed updates at all hours of the day and night on what’s actually been going on with the reactors, despite the possible (considering the ongoing radiation leakage and the potential for another massive earthquake) substantial personal danger.

  30. Beth Hillerstrom

    Articles like these (link below) – and there are more – lead the reader to confusion about what to really believe. One thing’s for sure. The Japanese government has warned against children ingesting the water. There’s probably more happening than anyone wants to believe. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/as_japan_earthquake

  31. Mark Weitzman

    The media coverage has misrepresented much about Fukushima, the reaction by Japanese, and Japan in general. Trust only Chris Hogge on BBC World. He lives in Tokyo. I have written a detailed response to the melodramatic reports by foreign media, the “parachute journailsts”. Please have a look:

    Op-Ed: Tokyo OK, foreign media’s sensational coverage shameful

  32. Sophie

    This was a great response, and one that I can actually agree with on some levels. I too have noticed the sense from those of us who have stayed that we are somehow hardcore warriors who have ‘stuck it out’ to the end, while those ‘cowards’ who fled to Osaka have somehow let the team down. However. I don’t feel like this, and nowhere in my article did I suggest that I did. I noted that the leaving of thousands of foreign nationals has had a negative impact on the economy. Furthermore, from an anecotal stance, not one- not ONE- person I spoke to had any idea of the current radiation levels in Tokyo, nor those in Fukushima, nor even the current situation. They fled because currents of fear were circulating around their friends, the foreign media, and as a consequence, their family overseas.

    I cannot deny that for about 36 hours, I was petrified, and ready to go. I had about a dozen messages from friends urging me to follow them to Kobe, Fukuoka, Thailand. I don’t blame those who went, and particularly those with children, given the unpredictable and terrifying nature of the situation. I very nearly left myself. But as I looked more into it, and read the opinions of more unbias (and yes, unpaid) experts in the nuclear industry, I found that there was another side that the media were not fully reporting on.

    As for finding the Guardian disappointing, when I had relied on them in the past, I suppose I could say that I’ve never been close enough to such a big news story to realise the holes in the foreign media’s reports. The Japanese media is indeed dry, fact-obsessed, and largely self-censored, but the foreign press has been sensationalist to the same degree. The discovery of elevated radiation levels in the sea/tap water, milk and vegetables since I wrote this article is worrying, to say the least. But tellingly, coverage in the foreign media has decreased, even though the dangers for those living near the plant have seemingly increased. It just shows how shallow their actual interest in the reality is.

    I did not mean to write an apologia for the nuclear industry. I did mean, however, to provide a counterbalance to the hysteria in the foreign press that was causing bewildered and uninformed foreign nationals to flee Japan or Tokyo without a second thought, sparked by meaningless figures such as “20 times higher than usual”. TEPCO have been far from helpful in all of this, and Japanese people are not blameless either. The panic buying of bottled water even though levels of iodine have fallen to well below normal levels is infuriating, to be honest. As you pointed out, perhaps the more interesting topic of this whole crisis is the psycho-analytic one. Feed people a little bit of information, and they will run wild with it.

  33. Cardenas_alonso

    Sophie, saludos desde Lima Perù….espero que estès bien, las noticias que llegan acà son apocalìpticas…my prayers are with you alll..

  34. Corknuts

    Although the author claims that “there is no evidence to suggest that those outside of that zone [around Chernobyl] suffered health problems,” she fails to address the fact that the reason there is little evidence is because of the difficulty of conducting research regarding cancers other than thyroid cancer.

    As nuclear radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos explains in today’s Age newspaper (from Melbourne):

    “Thyroid cancer is easy to detect because it is normally a rare cancer. Most other cancers caused by radiation are not that easy to detect above the high background natural rates of cancer. It is the proverbial needle in a haystack scenario – but in this case the needles (radiation-induced cancer) look the same as the hay (other cancers).”


    Nature magazine also recently published an informative piece on the possible health effects of low levels of radiation by David Brenner (who studies the risks of low level radiation from medical scans, nuclear power plants etc):

    “Even if we knew the final extent of the releases and the extent of the population exposures, we do not know enough about the possible effects of low-dose radiation on health to be able to make rational decisions regarding evacuations. We don’t know the risks for an ‘average’ person, and we certainly don’t know the risks for more radiation-sensitive populations such as children.”


  35. 1234

    What a ridiculously inaccurate article from 5 months ago.  You couldn’t have been more wrong in this article if you tried. Can you say FAIL?

  36. Alex James

    I know its two years later but I happened upon this post and wanted to stand up for Japanese media. It is far far better than western media (in Japan). NHK, Nikkei press (Nikkei weekly in English is very good for business), Asahi Shinbun (the most circulated newspaper in the world) combined with a variety of small independent publications will keep you very very well informed. Japanese TV also gives earthquake warnings. Compare that to Japan Times and a bunch of drunk lazy expat reporters who I assume cant speak Japanese – the Japanese press looks very good.

    And retrospectively (on 3/11) the Japanese reporting was level headed. The western reporting was crap. Thats fact.

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