Tuesday, 22 March 2011

How are people in Aizu coping with the crisis in Japan?

Kaneyama-machi: a community that will bend but not break

My wife has been in daily contact with friends and family back up in Kaneyama-machi, a long way from us now but very much in our minds. Everyone of course feels differently and will have their own particular view of things and ways of coping, but here are some of the things we have heard about.

People are of course getting on with their normal lives as best they can. Many, though not young themselves, continue to care for elderly relatives at home.

There have been repeated earthquakes in Aizu, as across all of Tohoku which while lower in magnitude than the worst areas, are frightening and unsettling, and the combination of that and the nuclear crisis is very stressful.

People do not seem to trust the official information they are being given, partly because of delays at the beginning. They are confused by the difference between the 80km evacuation zone recommended by America, and the 30km Japanese zone. One said "Why is 80km good for Americans, but Japanese people only get 30km?"  Initially, the township was told to prepare for 100 evacuees, but then this was cancelled, and they aren't coming, but no reason was given. Was this because of the supply logistics in a snowy area, or for a more worrying reason? They urgently need trustworthy independent information, and information specific to their area would be invaluable.

Apparently, according to prefectural governments, areas outside the official evacuation zones cannot organise their own official moving of people, though they have no objection to individuals doing so, so mayors and schools, for example, have their hands tied. So far, it seems to be mainly foreigners and temporary residents who have left, a picture that is probably repeated in most crisis situations across the world. They are more likely to have somewhere to go to, may be less likely to have permanent jobs, and are more likely to have friends and family urging them to leave. Everyone we know who has left feels very sad and unhappy about it, finding it a very difficult decision, and wants to go back soon if possible. Oku-aizu is a difficult place to leave and is never forgotten, as the people who have left comments on recent posts here show. 

Some who have moved to Kaneyama-machi from places much nearer the accident like Fukushima City are said to feel much safer, breathing the air deeply and saying "Ah, that lovely clean mountain air." Perhaps some of the older people worry less, or notice less, whereas younger people are perhaps more informed and wary, so there may be a bit of an age divide in that respect. Some people with children are of course particularly worried, but really trying to make the best of it. Others are confident there is no appreciable risk and are happily getting on with things.

The area, which has suffered from the gradual moving away of young people and families to the cities, has paradoxically seen a sudden reversal of that. People who had moved to cities where the earthquake and tsunamis hit hard, or where there is no power or food, or a greater fear of radiation, are moving back. People's big "ie's" the symbolic central home, the physical heart of the family, are full again, as they used to be, as are most of the guest-houses and onsen hotels, which have reduced their prices a lot to help people escaping. The council is providing food outside the council offices, as many of these people not staying with their families don't have access to much.

There isn't enough fuel to plough the roads, though it is still snowing regularly and there is little or no fuel available, so getting around is difficult, and some of the teachers may soon not be able to get to work in the schools. The main roads are reported to be still negotiable, though the smaller mountain roads that were previously ploughed must be getting difficult. There is no heating oil left, though people who managed to stock up before the crisis have enough for now. The general approach to winter in the area has always been to prepare for the long haul, as winters are pretty tough in any case, and the same applies to food. It is unlikely that local people will run out of basic food for quite some time.

It is a worry that milk in some areas of Fukushima-ken has been found to contain harmful levels of Iodine already - but not in Kaneyama-machi or Oku Aizu. The government has not banned produce from affected areas here and elsewhere, but suggested that people should be wary of buying it, which comes to the same thing. In the end, public perception will determine whether people will buy produce, even though testing has been instituted. For example the TV tonight showed a dairy farmer in Aizubange with his uncontaminated milk, which was perfectly fine - however his customers had cancelled their orders. It is to be hoped that transparent and credible testing in the longer term succeeds in reassuring people sufficiently. Very small amounts of Iodine, said not to pose any risk at all, have been found in drinking water as far south as Tokyo and west in Niigata.

If anyone can cope well with all this, and find a way to bounce back, it is people like those in Kanayama-machi, with their immense vitality and community cohesion.

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