May 22, 2012 Iwaki City, Fukushima, Japan—Colorless, odorless, intangible, and almost impossible to contain; "harmful rumors," as Iwaki City Mayor Takao Watanabe calls them, clamped the city shut from outside relief for many days after the triple threat tragedies of March 11, 2011.
Iwaki was essentially cut off from the outside world after international journalists including Al Jazeera announced to the world that the nuclear accident at the Daiichi Fukushima Power Plant was equal to, or greater than the Chernobyl meltdown that happened in 1986. After those media reports, very few in Japan were willing to deliver products and services to Iwaki City, over 50 kilometers away from the damaged power plant. More than a year later, health and nuclear experts still argue about the severity of the radiation released by the nuclear reactors at the Daiichi Fukushima plant. From news story to news story, supporting radiation statistics vary depending on the angle of the reporter or the publication. Some of the numbers are so obviously "spun" in a positive or a negative direction that they insult the intelligence of the reader.
Apparently picking the accurate information is difficult to do even for "the experts." As a result, many consumers both inside and outside of Japan have adhered to the adage, "When in doubt, leave it out." Rightly or wrongly, the economy of Iwaki has suffered through no fault of its own. "The prevention of goods distribution due to damage to infrastructure and harmful rumors with nuclear power station accidents caused tremendous difficulties in citizens' lives. We had to wait in a long line to purchase daily necessities and petrol," said an Iwaki City publication entitled 'One Year from the Great East Japan Earthquake: Documentary Record of Iwaki City'. The report showed photos of nearly empty shelves in Iwaki stores and long queues of citizens waiting to buy what little remained in the stores that could be bought in order to feed their families.
Ultimately getting supplies into Iwaki required the intervention of the central government and then only after Mayor Watanabe pleaded with them. The Iwaki City government hosted "All Nippon Caravan" events in over 50 venues starting with events that displayed Iwaki agricultural products in front of Shimbashi Station in April. The city "is striving to convey 'accurate information' to consumers via various media" including newsletters, postcards, websites and PR films. "Iwaki is still progressing towards the elimination of harmful rumors and restoration of production , shipment and business trading to the level before the earthquake, as the second largest industrial city in the Tokoku region," the Iwaki City report says. Mayor Watanabe told Pacific Island journalists that tourism to Iwaki City has decreased by 30 percent but that Spa Resort Hawaiian, a local tourist resort has seen a three percent increase. Spa Resort Hawaiian, Manager Toshihiro Shimoyamada said that many of the resort's current guests report that they came because they want to support the disaster stricken areas of Japan.
Hula girls lead resort guests in a hula dance
The "Hula Girls" who perform daily shows at the Spa Resort Hawaiian may have had something to do with that. The Japanese "Hula dancers" demonstrated the opposite of "harmful rumors" when they took their show on the road for a five month tour of Japan in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 disaster. They performed on 247 stages in 125 locations and in 26 prefectures as well as in Seoul, South Korea. The dance troupe became something of an icon of Japanese reconstruction. Many say they were a source of encouragement for the Japanese people who saw them perform and that they brought the Iwaki Supporters' message to the nation. "Ganbappe!" We can do it! "Everywhere we went we were really accepted. We delivered smiles and we cheered each other up through our dance performances," said Rie Ohmori, sub-leader of the "Hula Girls." The "Hula Girls" have only carried that name since the award winning movie of 2006 of the same name that documented a much earlier triumph of the dancers. It's actually a misnomer because there are men in the troupe as well.
Craft time for residents of Joaban temporary housing
In the 1960's Iwaki was a coal mining town during a time when coal was no longer in demand. The town's economy was in serious jeopardy. The town's residents banded together to "build a Hawaii in Japan." In 1966 the resort, which was then called the Joban Hawaiian Center opened its doors with 18 Japanese "hula" dancers as their centerpiece. The "Hula Girls" are still the centerpiece of what is now the Spa Resort Hawaiian. They recently represented Japan as the Goodwill Ambassadors to the PALM 6 summit held in Okinawa. But the good will won't last forever. Mr. Shimoyamada says that the future of the resort is hard to foresee. Half of the resort hotel rooms are still under reconstruction due to the April 14 aftershock that measured 6.0 on the Japanese scale. Before that time the Spa Resort Hawaiian had suffered very little structural damage and opened its doors to refugees primarily from Hirona, Fukushima; a town that was inside the nuclear exclusion zone. Even after the damage the resort was open to refugees while it rebuilt. 61 year old, Igari Mitsuo was one of the Hirono refugees who stayed at the Spa Resort Hawaiian along with his wife and one grandchild. He currently manages Joaban temporary housing project in Iwaki. He and his family live in three tiny rooms. They have no more space than any of the other residents of the Joaban temporary houses. Mitsuo said that before the evacuation of Hirono, 5000 people lived in his town. He claims that only 300 live there now. He says that the Japanese central government has told Hirono residents to go back home as soon as possible, but Mitsuo, like many other Japanese, has a deep mistrust of the government's instruction and he's not ready to go back. "We can't just go back home," he exclaimed. "The decontamination should be completed," and he reminisced about the clear mountain streams, the edible plants, and the fish in the countryside around his home town. "Even if we go back there are no jobs," he lamented.
In Iwaki City, Mayor Watanabe and his staff members are not ignoring the potential threat of nuclear contamination. It is a high priority in the city's rebuilding plan. Fukushima newspapers publish daily sievert level maps. Sieverts are a measure of radiation. Masato Takahagi, Manager of Iwaki City's Nuclear Hazard Countermeasure Division told visiting Pacific Islands Journalists that the city has 40 Becquerel monitoring machines at 21 monitoring locations for measuring radiation levels in locally grown foods for private consumption. The machines which each cost approximately $27,000 US were purchased because of local concern about possible radiation contamination in the foods people had grown in their own gardens for their own consumption. The service is free of charge to Iwaki residents. If a home grown sample tests high on the smaller machines it will be sent on to a much more sophisticated machine, one that has a purchase price ten times as much as the smaller machines. While testing of locally grown food for private consumption is not compulsory, food intended for market and for export is required to be tested on the "high dollar" machines and it undergoes stringent testing before being released to the market. Takahagi said that Iwaki City has three 'whole body' machines to measure radiation contamination.
According to the Iwaki report, whole body testing of citizens began on the 13th of March, 2011. By the end of October 2011 city health workers had tested a total of 39,046 citizens; over a tenth of the population. None of the citizens required decontamination treatments. Handheld dosimeters are available to residents. One employee demonstrated the meter and after the result was displayed said that the result was no more than every day common background radiation. Despite the "harmful rumors" Iwaki, Fukushima wants everyone to know that it is open for business and it welcomes all comers.