Is It Possible to Fear Properly?

Gen'yū Sōkyū

Photograph by Sherman Ong

On the eruption of Mt. Asama in 1932, physicist and essayist Terada Torahiko wrote the following words.

      To fear too much or too little is easy, but it is no mean feat to fear properly.

Terada was an expert on radiation, and conducted research and wrote papers on X-rays, though here he is talking about the terrors of a volcanic eruption, not about radiation. However, ever since the great Tohoku earthquake, and especially after the hydrogen and steam explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, I cannot help but recall these words all the time.

It is a sad fact that due to the spread of radioactive particles resulting from the accidents, approximately 10,000 children have taken refuge outside of Fukushima Prefecture. The children who stayed behind, or more accurately their parents, are afraid—inordinately so. On the other hand, the children whose parents are not that afraid are (to give an extreme example) playing soccer in running clothes. Children wearing hats, masks, and even armband-like things shuffle by rapidly. It might be the case that the running clothes group fears too little, but the hat-mask group clearly fears too much.

According to a researcher at Tohoku University, it seems that out of all the radioactive caesium scattered on the 15th of March, the particles that landed on the ground, rubber, plastic, concrete etc. have undergone some kind of chemical synthesis and adhered to those surfaces, such that they will not scatter or run off in wind and rain. In the case of asphalt, almost all of the caesium runs off without adhering, and eventually enters sewage or sludge, leaving nothing at the original point of landing. It is in the forests, where there is no exposed soil, that there is the possibility of radioactive particles spreading further.

So, unlike during the initial spread, masks or armbands or hats or whatever would be of no help at all now, because even if they did protect you from radioactive particles, they cannot block out radiation (gamma rays). Furthermore, because many of the children reuse the same masks and armbands day after day, it's not unlikely that they are instead exposed to continued radiation from adhered matter. If not frequently changed, these accessories may themselves become hazards. That is to say, those children going to school in heavy armour are at great risk of being irradiated and also, given the current weather, at increased risk of suffering heat strokes.

I was talking to a parent who had attended a classroom observation the other day, and she told me that the windows were completely shut, while two fans stirred up the broiling air within the classroom. Both mother and child were drenched in sweat, and, unable to bear any more of this, they rushed out as soon as the session was over. When she asked her child about it afterwards, she was dumbfounded to hear that "Usually, the windows are always open." In other words, the teacher, anxiously aware of the mask-wearing parents, had apparently closed the windows out of concern for them.

It's difficult somehow to contradict those who fear too much. Because they are so incredibly earnest, their actions can easily be taken as examples of right behaviour. This is quite the problem.

Incidentally, I wonder what those people who fled Fukushima, fearing radiation, are doing now. According to the statistics, they are scattered all over the country's 44 prefectures. I am unable to criticise them offhand for fearing too much, but when I think of the people who fled in fear to somewhere as unfamiliar as Okinawa, I'm sure there must be many "fearsome" unknowns there too. In my case, my father is hospitalised, and I have many obligations to my temple benefactors, so it was absolutely impossible for me to leave. I remember how after I made peace with that fact, I became afraid of nothing—mysteriously so. That is precisely why I can imagine the anxieties felt by the people who fled their homes.

When Tokyo residents talked about removing the surface soil in schools, however, of course I had to say, "Now wait just a minute." It's entirely arbitrary, but the impression I get is of people in regular clothes with heads hung low in mourning for lost family members, in front of whom distant acquaintances suddenly appear in full funeral black. For Fukushima residents enduring the present situation, this borders on the intolerable. At the very least it must be said that the level of radiation in Tokyo's schools is surely less than a few percent of the level in Fukushima's schools. I know that fear is arbitrary, but I couldn't quite suppress the hope for a little restraint and consideration.

In response to citizens' demands, MEXT finally declared nationwide that it would ratify and fund topsoil removals conducted by local governments. Parents and guardians who thought that 20 millisieverts per year was too high negotiated with schools, and local leaders were given the authority to decide whether or not to undertake such removals. The permissible radiation dose has been set at 1 millisievert per year, but parental worries, instead of being allayed, are only steadily growing. It's as if everyone were under the delusion that we used to live in a zero-radiation environment before the disaster.

I humbly ask that we try to remain calm and think. Flying just once from Tokyo to New York exposes us to 250 microsieverts of radiation. Two round-trip flights and you're already at 1 millisievert. A single banana contains about 40 becquerels of radioactive potassium. Or you might have consumed lots of dried konbu to avoid absorbing radioactive iodine, but there are about 2,000 becquerels of that in every kilogramme. However I think about it, people in Tokyo seem to fear too much. In order to fear properly, we require adequate knowledge and information, whereas at present a certain strain of hyper-pessimism is afoot in the world, to which parents who desire to fear too much are flocking in droves.

In contrast, people living near the power plant have until now been governed by hyper-optimism (as it were); they too have been unable to fear properly. Without any knowledge or information regarding the crisis at hand, they were simply told from on high that they "provisionally ought to evacuate." This is already a tragedy.

Directly after the explosion of the reactor housing, for example, 80 or so residents of a welfare facility in the coastal region of Fukushima were put on a bus and evacuated. However, several people died on the bus and in the end, 20 elderly out of the 80 passengers lost their lives during the 5-hour long journey. In this instance, they probably should have evacuated less hastily while paying attention to the condition of the residents, even if it entailed some irradiation. It cannot be denied however, that it was a difficult decision to make in an emergency, when terrifying words like "explosion" and "meltdown" keep surfacing in your mind.

Tiger at the front door, wolf in the back—fearing the tiger too much, one lets one's guard down against the wolf.

Of course, they were many people who, well aware of the terrors of both tiger and wolf, could not move despite being urged to flee. There was a grandfather who said, "I'm going to die if I move to some evacuation centre." The details may differ, but in all these cases it becomes distinctly harder to live away from "here." To these people, the act itself of moving and living in a shelter puts their life in danger.

Or perhaps it is because they fear properly that they do not flee. For people who have experienced some kind of crisis, be it a volcanic eruption or tsunami or radiation, the most pressing question in the aftermath may be: "where do I die?" Depending on the person, a condition such as "with this dog" might be more important than location. Ways of living such as these must also be duly respected. The decision of where and with whom to die is everyone's right, of course, and so there are people who have decided to die "here, with this cow" and continue to live even now within the 20 kilometre evacuation zone. They may be thought of as fearing too little, but to me their intent to die, in a peculiar place, in a self-realising way, appears to be a proper kind of fear. Anxiety, terror, such emotions cannot be properly understood unless you look at them from the comprehensive perspective of lived life.

I wonder, however, if the evacuees had enough time to make such a comprehensive decision in this case. It would be less problematic if the decision to evacuate had been carefully made after weighing the dangers of radiation against the losses incurred by leaving "here," but there was absolutely no time. The priority was to get away from the tsunami; there were people who got to the shelters and directly boarded buses still wearing their aprons. They left their hometowns fully intending to return soon. There was no need to change. Those people, now living a temporary life in evacuation centres and temporary housing, share with me, a complete stranger, the cause of their distress: that "this is no place to die." They were given neither the time nor the chance to fear properly—a sight most pitiable indeed.

Having written all this, when I stop to think about it, are human beings really capable of fearing properly after all?

I don't know how much one should fear the current situation, but at least I, writing this essay, am not afraid. This room measures roughly 0.3 microsieverts right now. Pulse, blood pressure, perspiration are also normal, probably. If it were considered "proper" to continue to fear in an unchanging mode (without any significant increases in radiation levels), then I could never fear properly. Who indeed could be so incessantly afraid of the future, day after day, worrying about, for example, an increased risk of developing cancer 10 years later?

The recently increased number of suicidal people might have been that afraid. This May there were 500 more suicides across the country compared to last year. Although the numbers were the same for Iwate and Miyagi, Fukushima alone saw a 40% increase in cases. Perhaps those people feared too much and I still fear too little. What would it be then, to fear a thing properly?

Perhaps the ordinary human imagination is unable to properly fear such phenomena related to nuclear energy as the 2,700°C internal temperature of a reactor, a 30-year half-life, a 24,000-year half-life. Otherwise, it would be impossible for anyone to remain at or send others to clean up the site. People who fear too little groom more people who fear too little in turn, and have in this way kept and maintained it up until now. Perhaps it is a concrete symbol of this country's failure to recognise what it means to "fear properly."

In short, it has never been treated with what Terada Torahiko calls a scientific attitude. No matter what measures they take against future earthquakes or tsunami, it will likely be received in the same old way: a source of continued terror for those who fear too much, and a non-issue for those who fear too little, as long as they (and we) remain unchanged.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang