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Japan: Fukushima water release worries local community

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
August 28, 2023

Japan's Fukushima region faces renewed scrutiny as treated radioactive water is released into the Pacific. Amid global attention, local residents express concerns about the potential impact on their lives.

Fishermen handle lines on a boat
Fishermen in Fukushima prepare to set off for workImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

Twelve years ago, the fears that gripped the already traumatized people of northeastern Japan were rooted in the danger of invisible, insidious radiation escaping from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Today, fears directly associated with the second-worst nuclear accident in history have largely dissipated as they have rebuilt their lives and livelihoods after the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. But when the Japanese government confirmed that it was going ahead with the release of 1.25 million tons of treated radioactive water from the plant, new worries bubbled to the surface.  

Engineers at the plant, where three of the six nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns, opened the valves last week to allow the initial batch of treated water to flow through pipes and out into the Pacific Ocean.  

Fukushima has been trying hard to rehabilitate a name that has become synonymous with nuclear tragedy, and residents of the region say they have been slowly regaining their feet. Now, the discharge of water from the power station has once again put Fukushima back in the headlines worldwide for all the wrong reasons.  

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What are the fishermen's fears? 

"It has been really difficult," said Tadaki Sawada, a member of the Fukushima Fisheries Federation. "We have been fighting against this for a long time, but now it has happened, and we are not sure what happens now. 

"We have around 1,200 members in the prefecture, and I don't think that many of them have any plans to leave the business, but we all know it is going to be really hard going forward," he said. "For most of us, we have no choice. We just have to continue and hope for the best." 

Immediately after Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) confirmed that water was being released, the Chinese government imposed a blanket ban on all seafood imports from Japan. The cities of Hong Kong and Macau, critical export markets for Japanese fishermen, were also covered by the ban. 

The South Korean government has said that it concurs with the scientific evidence provided by the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency showing that Japanese seafood imports are safe. However, the country'sopposition has criticized President Yoon Suk-yeol's administration for this stance. Should tests indicate an increase in radiation in water anywhere off the Korean Peninsula, it could force Yoon to impose a similar ban. 

In a statement provided to DW, Tetsu Nozaki, chairman of the Fukushima fishermen's association, reiterated his opposition to ocean discharges "that do not have the understanding of fishermen and the public." 

"Our only hope is that we fishermen can continue fishing … where we were born and raised, with peace of mind and as we did before the accident," he said.

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Government promises support

The government has announced that it is preparing to provide additional support for fishermen whose catches can no longer be sold due to the damage to their reputation as a result of the water being released.

While the fishing industry may bear the brunt of the international pushback, other sectors will inevitably also feel the impact of the decision.  

"At the moment, we are collecting information about the water that is being released and checking with the government about the situation," said Yusuke Kimura, an official at the Fukushima Prefectural Government's tourism division.  

The immediate impact is difficult to ascertain, he said, as travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong and South Korea have all been refusing to visit the prefecture since the initial accident.

Tourists from other parts of the world, including Thailand, Taiwan and Europe, are less concerned and soon returned. New negative headlines might affect the inbound sector, Kimura admitted.  

"Most of our tourists in recent years have been from other parts of Japan, and many people wanted to show their support for the people of Fukushima," he said.  

"All we can do is hope that people listen to the official information about safety here and that things slowly get better," the official added.  

Chinese media have reported that "many" Chinese who had signed up for group tours to other parts of Japan have been canceling their vacations since the water discharge commenced.

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An employee of one of the largest hotels in Ishinmaki, a little over 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the nuclear power plant and in neighboring Miyagi prefecture, said there have been no cancelations in recent days. 

"The local fishermen are talking about how it is going to affect their businesses, but I don't think that most of the general public is thinking about it very much," said the hotel worker, who declined to be named as they were not authorized to speak with the media.  

"Most of our guests are Japanese travelers, so there has been no effect on their plans and no cancelations, but it is possible that could change." 

Reminder of a tragic event 

For others, the sudden increase in media coverage of the events of 2011 has reawakened traumatic memories they have been trying to put behind them.  

"All of the plaintiffs are obviously strongly against this decision, and many of them have said that this is just making them relive some of the most difficult times of their lives," said Kenjiro Kitamura, a lawyer with the Sakura Kyodo law firm.

He is supporting legal cases brought by a group of people who were children when the radiation plume from the wrecked plant passed over their homes and subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  

"They tell me that they feel sad again, and it brings back all the trauma," he said. "It is a difficult time for them." 

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea