Fukushima , a real hero, and autobiographical notes

A good friend of mine pointed out this article to me; it’s really worth reading:

The impacts of the Great East Japan Earthquake on people living in the Tohoku and Kanto districts and on Japanese society in general were, in many ways, beyond description. The earthquake and the accompanying tsunami destroyed many cities along the east coast of the Tohoku and Kanto districts. However, an additional long-lasting disaster was the nuclear pollution caused by the collapse of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). This event was the second worst nuclear accident in the world, next to the Chernobyl accident. At the time of the collapse of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP, Japanese government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) could not evacuate people efficiently from the area around the NPP, in part because they did not want to release information on the disaster. From the outset, it appeared that the Japanese government and TEPCO were making every conceivable effort to save the nuclear industry (but not to help people living in Fukushima and vicinity) and to minimize the financial damage and negative publicity resulting from this accident. To achieve their goals, the authorities concealed information that would have put them in a worse position if it had been released. This governmental behavior is not unexpected; similar behavior was seen in the former Soviet Union at the Chernobyl accident. more

Seriously, read it! The author then described his own efforts to use the wing formation in butterflies as a bioessay to determine the radiation load from the Fukushima accident, and how he was bullied before, during and after that research by radical conformists and government apologists into abandoning this research.

I myself was in Japan during that nuclear accident. Fortunately I was on the other end of the country, so the brunt of the radiation missed me, but I could clearly feel the social repercussions. At the time I was employed at a research institute which was an odd effort at establishing an international institution: it was more Japanese than its top-level administrators wanted to admit, but had more foreigners than most Japanese researchers were comfortable with; It combined Western careerism with Japanese hierarchies and buerocrazy. Unsurprisingly, the community in the institute eagerly adopted the party line when it come to talking about Fukujima.

As Dr. Otaki points out, the official government line was that nothing much happened, there is nothing to see here, and to please just keep doing what you are doing. Any opinion expressed over lunch or at a faculty function that yes, a burning nuclear power plant is a big deal (!!!), would be met with hectic counter-arguments and angry looks. Interestingly, some of my fellow foreigners who really, really wanted to fit in were the most eager to defend the idea that releasing large amounts of radioactive substances into the Pacific ocean is not big deal. “This is an over-reaction of the foreign press” is a phrase I heard quite often. Not a radiation disaster, but talking about it was supposedly the problem. With the zeal of true converts, they brushed aside any criticism of the handling of the disaster. They would glee about any minor factual errors in the foreign media coverage while accepting the Japanese government’s press releases as facts. All critical thinking supposedly acquired during a European or North American high school curriculum evaporated in the burning desire to be a good foreigner.

Facebook was quite a new medium for me at that time, and I had to purge a number of Facebook-”friends” to avoid an irritating steady stream of affirmations how great Japan and TEPCO were doing in the face of the disaster and how biased those nasty foreign experts were who thought this might be a pretty dangerous situation after all.

To quote my mate and fellow gaijin David “You could really see who is an idiot during this affair”. This was an odd time to live in Japan. A nation already tightly bound by a single shared ethnicity moved even closer together. Yes, that caused unselfish acts of help in the areas affected by the catastrophe. But it also led to a boost of ugly racism. Newspapers printed wholly invented stories of foreign crime gangs. A new racial slur was also coined: “flyjin”. That’s a “gaijin”, an already somewhat derogatory term for a foreigner, who decided to fly out of Japan after Fukujima, instead of staying on and showing solidarity to the Japanese people (a solidarity presumably caused by being routinely ostracized?).

I, as a foreign dude who does not give much of a shit what people say, and with no work related to the power plant accident clearly felt the social pressure about Fukujima. For Dr. Otaki to withstand that pressure and to establish his radiation bioessay research program in the face of this pressure tells me that he must truly have balls of steel.

Dr. Otakis are rare in the world. Yes, I have met some other principled people. But a lot of humans are morally no more than a feather detached from just below a chicken’s ass, blowing in the wind of societal trends. That’s especially true when their social and professional status is beyond what it should be, based on their intelligence and character. The truly accomplished and brilliant people in high-up-positions whom I have met were often very nice and considerate; it’s those who have undeservedly made it uphill who think they have much to loose by standing up for what’s right.

Dr. Otaki rightfully points out that science should be driven, at least partly, by “social demands for knowledge” sensu lato. I have not only seen a lack of interest in working for the common good, but also an eagerness to do outright evil things in return for money for their labs. Developing hardware and software to help the military kill people more effectively with drones? What a great idea, if it makes the research funding flow! I’ve seen such eagerness in the US and in Australia. My objections to such questionable research goals were usually brushed aside; not taking advantage of a source of funding was outside the limited mental scope of these scientists.

I have never for a second believed the defeated “culture wars” notion that scientific truth is a purely subjective, social construct. Properly done science leads us closer to understanding reality. But why people do science, and what science they do is very much a cultural issue. For Japanese scientists, as a community, to critically question their government’s “information” about a nuclear accident would take a societal change in Japan which makes critical thinking a virtue. For Western scientists to not do everything and anything for funding and to reject money from morally questionable sources would need Western society to defeat the ugly materialism which has taken a hold of it.