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Dilemmas of AdulthoodJapanese Women and the Nuances of Long-Term Resistance$

Nancy Rosenberger

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780824836962

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824836962.001.0001

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(p.177) Epilogue
Dilemmas of Adulthood

Nancy Rosenberger

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This epilogue discusses the experiences and reactions of some Japanese women in relation to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and the nuclear explosion in Fukushima Prefecture. It considers how the three disasters have impacted the lives of these women and what lifelong lessons they felt they have learned, including the importance of family. It also highlights the women's concerns about the implications of the disasters for Japan's image in the international stage. It shows that the lives of these women have become newly burdened by forms of risk that they had not been previously aware of. It also discusses the ways that the tragedies have affected the thoughts and activities of some and put the personal dilemmas of all in perspective. It suggests that, a year later, most of these women remain aware of risk but confident of their capability to care for families and self adequately even as they contemplate their own futures.

Keywords:   earthquake, Japanese women, tsunami, nuclear explosion, family, Japan, risk, dilemmas

I WAS NOT ABLE to interview these women again until 2012, almost exactly a year after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant explosion of March 2011 in Japan. Although the results are not fully analyzed, I want to share some of the women’s experiences and thoughts connected with these tragedies. This brief report serves as a fitting epilogue to this book, because for many women, the quake, tsunami, and radiation marked a high tide of risk in their lives as individuals, families, and citizens of a nation, revealing their reactions along the continuum of risk and stability in their lives.1

The shaking that women felt from the earthquake in Tokyo was quite pronounced, but other than the destruction of a few books and plates, little damage was done. The single department-store manager in downtown Tokyo walked for more than three hours to a friend’s house, rested there, because “you don’t want to be alone at such a time,” and reached home late at night. An only child, she kept trying to telephone her parents in Tokyo, but it took a long time because they had refused to get mobile phones. Matsui-san, the woman working at Toyota, got a ride home with a friend, and luckily her young son’s friend’s mother had taken him home: “They were playing as if nothing had happened when I walked in at eleven p.m.!” Convenience stores, ubiquitous in Tokyo, as well as supermarkets, soon were running out of tofu, yogurt, bread, and rice, but a few women were well-prepared enough to have a stock of water and rice or lucky enough to have relatives down south who sent them food. Tokyoites had to put up with lack of electricity at first and rolling electricity stoppages throughout the next months. One single woman found the dark subway stations spooky, and her strength was challenged by having to carry water up to her seventh-floor apartment because the water pump did not work. In the following summer’s rolling electricity outages, if she worked during the two hours of electricity she received, she still had to haul up her water.

(p.178) In the Tohoku city of Morioka, the shaking was worse than in Tokyo, although no widespread damage occurred; afterwards people lacked water as well as electricity. Nakajima-san, the medical technician, was giving medical tests to patients who got stuck in MRI machines for a time. Kawai-san at the assisted living home stayed all night and into the next day, piling blankets on the old people who were there on short-and long-term stays, carrying water over from neighbors’ wells, and feeding the elders only twice a day with food on hand and extra rice brought by workers’ relatives. Both of these women learned that in a crisis the true personality of people shines through. Nakajima-san was disappointed in fellow workers who left patients to grab food from the convenience stores. Kawai-san’s boss left her there to help the patients all night without a word of apology or appreciation and then attacked her the next day for dispatching home helpers to continue to check on elders whom their employees served in their homes and who often lived alone. The boss seemed to care more about finances than about helping the elders of the local area, and Kawai-san vowed to quit her job as soon as she could.

The small village also shook fiercely, but the retirement home where Takahashi-san worked stood firm. She had to stay to help with patients until ten p.m., and at first she could not get in touch with her family, but when she did her sister-in-law had picked up her children and taken them home. “That night we all got together at our place, fifteen people or so. Our hearts felt assured (anshin) to have all the family together. We were so relieved. We have bonds with each other now thanks to the quake.”

In Tokyo and the northeast, depending on how long their electricity was out, people did not find out about the tsunami for one or two days. When people in Tohoku realized the enormity of the tsunami, their own woes faded in significance. Because of the closeness of the tsunami-hit coast in Iwate Prefecture where Morioka and the village are located, women lost friends and relatives; they saw refugees flowing into their areas and helped out as best they could. The musician in Morioka lost an aunt and uncle, who were doctors on the coast, in the tsunami, and Nakajima-san lost a doctor friend with whom she had graduated from high school. “He went back to search for his cat and died. Why?” she asked herself. She went to a coastal town to help clean up the mangled debris on the coast where houses had been, feeling less sad when she was there.

One of the “romantics” discussed in Chapter 4, who had married late and moved to live with her husband in a mountain town in Iwate Prefecture only two passes over from the coast, was working in the city hall that became (p.179) the refugee center. With her husband’s permission, she stayed on for several weeks, sleeping in a sleeping bag, making rice balls (tiny, to conserve their small stock of rice), and holding the flashlight at the toilets for old people who lived alone and could not survive without electricity and water. “There was a little girl who made a rice ball bigger and bigger, trying to make it for everyone, saying the names of her parents, grandparents, and siblings. Everyone listened to her and cried.” Over the next days, as refugees from the coast came in, she heard tragic stories of people such as a man who reached out his hand to save his mother but failed to reach her as she got washed away. This woman, always very sensitive to human and animal suffering, felt depressed for many months afterwards.

Japanese heard about the explosion of the nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture, and because of slow government reportage, very gradually came to realize how serious it had been. Negishi-san, the single woman who had played Maria in West Side Story in her youth and had since returned to train nursery-school teachers in Fukushima City, said that they received no official announcement of the explosions and their severity until one month after they had taken place. She said, “Even the kids don’t believe anything the government says anymore. Mothers of young children at our nursery school cry to think that they allowed their children to play outside when the radiation was so high, but they didn’t know.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. However, she was thrilled that all the students she was responsible for survived, and only one of their university students died in the tsunami. She and her sister (who lived nearby with her family) were scared without water, but country people shared from their wells, and the landlord of her apartment building brought Negishi-san water.

Glad to be near her family at such a time, Negishi-san and her sister, who has three children, adopted a resigned point of view. “We live here and we are staying here. We eat the food and drink the water. You can’t worry about everything you eat and drink.” At their home, their mother served me beef from Fukushima and fish from the Pacific coast, and although I admit that I hesitated, I ate it. Negishi-san’s nieces and nephews had played inside all summer after the explosion, wearing radiation counters around their necks and roasting in schoolrooms with no windows open, but when given the chance to spend a week with their school friends away from the radiation, they said they would rather stay home with family. Many friends have left, some families split, with fathers staying on to work and mothers and children fleeing to the next prefecture that has lower counts of cesium.

(p.180) Ever the optimist even when almost defeated by depression and fatigue, Negishi-san encouraged her niece and nephews with the only antidote she had: “Just laugh and eat miso soup and it will be okay!” Indeed, there was a general wisdom, often reported as having come from the Hiroshima experience, that miso and other fermented foods Japanese treasure as part of their culinary heritage are helpful to bodies fighting radiation. Women advised me, “Eat fermented food and get things through your body quickly.”

A single woman working in Tokyo was relieved to hear that her parents, living on the coast just south of the nuclear plant, had survived the tsunami and that the wind from the nuclear explosion had not showered where they were as much as areas to the north and west. Her brother went up to bring her parents to Tokyo soon after the incident, but her parents were not happy staying there with their children. Their main worry was the graves of the ancestors, and when the equinox (o-higan) came in late March, an important time for people to visit and care for the graves, it was all the children could do to convince their parents just to visit an aunt’s grave near to Tokyo to “tell her that everyone had survived” rather than to go home. After Golden Week in May, they did return home, and found their ancestors’ graves on the coast toppled by the tsunami. They raised them and quickly ordered a new Buddhist altar for the house of the eldest son, which had been badly water-damaged. This woman was shocked to find out how important the ancestors and their graves were to the elder generations. “For us, the living are important, but for them it is the dead.”

As of the writing of this epilogue, two nuclear plants are working in Japan, and the debate continues as to whether, to what extent, and how gradually nuclear energy generation will be phased out. The mood when I was there a year after the nuclear explosion was extremely ambiguous, and although many people had serious doubts about nuclear power, they were hesitant to express their points of view publicly. Baba-san, the single interpreter in Tokyo, had gone to an antinuclear demonstration in Hibiya Park (her first such demo) and strongly criticized the Japanese media for not reporting on anything much at all about antinuclear activities. Telling me that a journalist who had expressed an antinuclear sentiment had been sacked, she complained, “I thought Japan was a liberalized country! There is no freedom of the press here!”2 She felt shock that, given what had happened, people were not supporting antinuclear politicians. Like others, she looked around and asked, “Don’t we have enough electricity now without nuclear power?”

(p.181) Oyama-san, a housewife and mother of two in Sendai who grew up in Morioka, was the most expressive in her antinuclear sentiments, influenced, she said, by a friend who was strongly into the movement. Sendai received radiation by wind from the nuclear explosion and part of the city was damaged by the tsunami. “We aren’t sure exactly how bad things are here. We got radiation, but not as much as elsewhere and now in the air we have about .7 microsieverts. I would flee from Fukushima City with my children if the microsieverts were 5 even if my husband didn’t want me to,” she declared.3 In meetings with groups of mothers from her children’s classrooms, Oyama-san has cautiously raised the question of radiation and its effects on school lunches and even on playing outside; she is careful not to take a clear, antinuclear stance, but nevertheless mothers say nothing and shift the topic to something else. Although her husband is not antinuclear, feeling that nuclear energy is necessary for industrial growth, he agrees with her decision to order vegetables from a farm in a southern prefecture with no measurable problem of radiation. The explosion seems to have radicalized her: “People are just going back to their regular lives. They can’t be bothered, but I can’t get used to it!”

However, another housewife and mother of two in Tokyo who also grew up in Morioka took the opposite stance. As we sipped coffee, she broke out into a diatribe against the media that she thought was blatantly antinuclear and began to argue that radiation is not so bad for us, that it is in the air anyway, and that our bodies get used to it. It turned out that her husband worked for a nuclear power plant on the coast of Japan opposite from the Fukushima explosion, and he was enduring strong attacks from antinuclear protestors who came in boats, beating drums and throwing things. He is overstressed trying to defend the nuclear power company in that area to protestors and to the local townspeople around his plant. She explained that he had taken this job because of his mission to save Japan from dependence on oil through using nuclear power, and now he felt that people were ignoring his contributions. “There are always dangers,” she said. “We have to think of the happiness of the whole.”

She was the only woman among the interviewees who argued for nuclear power, but only seven openly expressed feelings or participated in activities against it. Most took the ambiguous middle road of not really being in support of nuclear power but persuaded by government representatives that Japan’s economic stability would suffer in the long run without it.

(p.182) Because I was in Japan a year after the quake and eating food that could have been contaminated by radiation, but also because I was doing research on organic farmers in Japan who were trying to sell their crops, I asked how these women felt about the danger of radiation in food. About two-thirds said that they did not worry much about it in the food that they buy and eat. Some stated firmly, “I don’t worry about it all!” A Tokyo single woman said: “I eat what I want. Japanese women live a long time anyway.” A Tokyo mother who lived in an area in Chiba that was a hot spot for radiation also declared: “I feel I can’t worry much—we are an older couple and our child is in junior high. I buy delicious food and don’t worry about where it comes from, and we drink the regular water.”

Thus, the majority were only slightly hesitant: “I can’t worry about it [the radiation] all the time. If I did, that too would become a source of stress.” “You have to go on living. You have to buy the food or it will disappear.” Yet women were careful, many studying store labels at supermarkets and buying vegetables, meat, and fish from prefectures far from Fukushima, the center of the explosion, if they were available. Shopping in Tokyo, however, I noticed that many vegetables, pork, and chicken came from prefectures north of Tokyo that had received radiation. By this time, women had realized that, according to the wind and the rain at the time of the nuclear explosions, various areas had received different doses of cesium, the main source of radiation in this explosion, so the name of a prefecture did not tell the whole story. In Iwate Prefecture where half the interviewees live, the very southern part was showered with radiation but the north was not, except for an area just below Mount Iwate. In fact, the women living in Iwate Prefecture in the northeast, although closer to the nuclear power plant in Fukushima than Tokyoites, did not worry about their food because they actually had not received as much radiation as Tokyo. The milk sold by the dairy farmer–husband of one of the village women measured below the legal limit for cesium. A few wondered about the fish off the coast where cesium may still be leaking from the damaged nuclear power plant, but most ate what seemed delicious and hoped that “I am being safe by living a regular life.”

Although trust in the government was low, those who were worried turned to the institutions they shopped at to protect their safety. “I am just trusting the Seikyo to have safe food. They measure the radiation in the food.” The Seikyo is a nationwide cooperative market with local member branches that is known for the attention it pays to selling safe, healthy food, although it varies a great deal among its branches and was involved in poisoned food (p.183) incidents in the recent past (Rosenberger 2009). Others simply trusted the system, for spot-monitoring of food was being done and the government’s legal limit on cesium in food was soon to tighten.4 Furthermore, in Tokyo, some women were more concerned about how to protect themselves from the next big quake and tsunami, which are predicted for Tokyo over the next four to five years, than with the present-day danger of radiation.

Two Tokyo mothers were being very vigilant. One, Matsui-san, the Toyota worker, said, “I read about Chernobyl and worry that my thirteen-year-old will get leukemia by thirty, like those children who didn’t flee during the Chernobyl radiation leak.” Distrusting local supermarkets, she paid more for her food from Radish Boya, a company that contracted with farmers to grow safe food in Japan, than she would pay at local supermarkets. The second Tokyo housewife, a part-time family worker, has bought all of her drinking and cooking water from Hawaii ever since the explosion, even sending water with her daughter to day care. “An announcement has come saying the water here [in Chiba near Tokyo] is okay to drink, but I still buy water from Hawaii. Everything is confused.” In addition, she feeds no fish at all to her children.

People sympathized with the plight of people in Fukushima Prefecture where the explosion occurred. Some food companies and nonprofits have taken up the cause of Fukushima farmers and urge people: “Help Fukushima! Buy food from Fukushima!” Three of the single women said, “I feel apologetic to the people of Fukushima, ’cause we also use electricity made there, so I buy Fukushima food.” Two bought it when it was available, but the single from the village, Hasegawa-san, special-ordered it; she was so moved by the plight of people in Fukushima and had such good memories of her time spent there in college, that she hoped to move to a retirement home in Fukushima when she was older. Three other singles, however, refused to buy food from Fukushima, and one in Tokyo commented: “I give my apologies to Fukushima, but I am not going to buy their food. In this situation there is nothing to do but protect one’s self.”

To close, talking with these women revealed that the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear explosion was a turning point for many, who felt that they had learned lifelong lessons. Predictably, the importance of family emerged, with one Tokyo mother saying, “I really want to take good care of my family now—especially my daughter and mother-in-law.” A single teacher in Tokyo said: “Priorities came into clear relief. People learned to care for each person.” Likewise, a Morioka teacher noted, “The students learned that life itself is important (inochi ga daisetsu) and that everyday life is (p.184) valuable.” The pronuclear mother above told me that since the earthquake she and her old friends got together more often than before, attesting to the bonds (kizuna) that became the positive watchword of the whole incident. Several mentioned, “We learned that luxuries are not so important if you have your basic needs met,” and Yamada-san, the Morioka teacher who idealized rural life, recommended that if people would learn the traditional food knowledge of their parents and grandparents, they would survive.

Women also worried about the image of Japan itself. “I feel apologetic to the world for what has happened in Japan. The world must have bad impressions of Japan now,” sighed Baba-san. Another single woman in Tokyo puzzled over what she could do to help Japan become energetic (genki) again. Yet women also had learned to distrust the Japanese government more than before, and Oyama-san from Sendai said: “As a graduating senior from a tsunami-hit town said, we can’t resent this huge disaster sent from heaven. But I do feel resentment about this man-made nuclear explosion.”

In sum, the lives of these women have become newly burdened by forms of risk that they had not been aware of before; the possibility of further earthquakes and tsunami, simulated on Japanese television, are on their minds. These tragedies have deeply affected the thoughts and activities of some and have put the personal dilemmas of all in perspective. But a year later most of these women are finding a fulcrum on the continuum between risk and stability where they remain aware of risk but feel they can still care for families and self adequately, while slowly returning to consideration of their own futures.


(1.) In her study, Okano (2009) also shows how women in her long-term study got on with their lives after the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

(2.) At that time, only the Tokyo Shimbun (Tokyo Newspaper) was giving full coverage to the nuclear demonstrations and was openly antinuclear in its reporting, although the Asahi Shimbun had declared it was against nuclear power.

(3.) Microsievert is the amount of ionizing radiation required to produce the same biological effect as one rad or gray of high-penetration X-rays. This is measured in the air in various places throughout Japan to estimate how much radiation people are receiving.

(4.) On April 1, 2012, the Japanese government tightened restrictions on the amount of cesium allowed in food. For general foodstuffs, the limit is 100 bequerels of radiation per kilogram, down from 500; for milk 50 bq, and for water 10 bq (Japan Today 2012). A bequerel equals one unit of nuclear decay or other nuclear transformation per second and is used to measure the radiation present in things such as food. (p.194)