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Testimonies reveal discrimination, oppression of Fukushima women after nuclear crisis

Nanako Shimizu appears as a guest speaker at a June 2016 seminar for women raising children, in Utsunomiya, capital of Tochigi Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Nanako Shimizu)
Utsunomiya University associate professor Nanako Shimizu. (Photo courtesy of Nanako Shimizu)

TOKYO -- The triple-meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami took many things from people in the region: homes, jobs, family. But women also faced hardship from a toxic mix of gender and nuclear evacuee discrimination.

    "We don't need brides from Fukushima," and, "Complaining about radiation damage is just female hysteria," are just two examples of attacks female nuclear disaster evacuees have been subjected to either online or in person.

    Nanako Shimizu, an associate professor at Utsunomiya University in Utsunomiya, the capital of Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo, collects testimonies primarily from women who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture. She told the Mainichi Shimbun, "These women have already lost a lot from the disaster itself. Confronted by gender-based discrimination and oppression, they are kept out of decision-making processes in households and communities, and are being driven to a deep loneliness."

    After the nuclear disaster, many relocated from Fukushima Prefecture to Tochigi Prefecture, its southern neighbor. Shimizu, who was already working at Utsunomiya University, along with a colleague, began supporting women who had evacuated to Tochigi with their children.

    Starting in 2013, Shimizu began interviewing around 60 people including some who evacuated to Tochigi Prefecture, those who lived in or evacuated from parts of northern Tochigi Prefecture where radiation levels were high, and individuals in Fukushima Prefecture about their lives and thoughts before and after the disaster. She then compiled some of the testimonies, and has kept in touch with the women she came to know through study sessions and other activities.

    One thing Shimizu noticed was the many women with stories of never being taken seriously just because they were women, and suffering for it. She described her motivation for starting her project, saying:

    "My specialty is international relations theory. I've conducted research on the themes of war and peace, but war or civil war victims rarely actively seek chances to talk about their experiences. It's because they've put every ounce of themselves into just surviving; especially victims of sexual violence, who fear discrimination and stigmatization. Meanwhile, countries don't leave records that might be inconvenient for them, and there are some outright coverups.

    "Nuclear power is Japanese government policy, and to ensure that the same thing didn't happen here after the nuclear incident, I felt that I had to properly record the voices of people affected by the disaster."

    Shimizu continued, "The majority of the women I interviewed were in their 30s and 40s, and I heard story after story of discriminatory treatment. There were people who absolutely had to evacuate, some who chose to flee, and some who stayed living in contaminated areas. Their experiences of damage and suffering were varied. I came to think that the addition of gender-based oppression further complicated the women's victimization and perhaps obscured it."

    The following are some examples of the stories the women told Shimizu. Their ages, places of residence and other personal details were current to the interviews.

    One woman in her 30s hit by the disaster in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, told Shimizu, "There were times when no one would respond to my concerns, even when they were the same as a man's."

    The woman had taken radiation measurements in her children's kindergarten playground and along the route to her children's primary school and found high levels. She brought the data to the attention of the schools, and asked them to devise countermeasures.

    "I told them, 'I think the children's school outing to go potato digging might be a problem,' but my concerns only got as far as the front desk. They didn't respond seriously," she told Shimizu. "But when I took my husband, we were shown right into a meeting room. I was shocked. My husband was making the same requests as I had, but with him, the kindergarten principal appeared, saying 'Yes, yes,' and engaging in a real conversation."

    Just after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, women who worried about the effects of radiation exposure on their children were mocked and savaged with comments like, "It's just female hysterics," and "They're overreacting." The term "hoshano mama," or "radiation-brain moms," began circulating online.

    The concerned mothers "were treated like they were just a small bunch of panic-stricken women incapable of scientific or rational thinking," Shimizu said. "But the aforementioned woman took radiation measurements herself, and asked the kindergarten and others to do something based on evidence she was showing them. I think we can call that a rational course of action."

    Shimizu also saw many cases of wives who gave in to or were forced to accept their husbands' stances or decisions on evacuation. "Even if a couple's children were in poor health after the meltdowns, and the mother -- the person doing all the child care -- was pressing for the family to evacuate, the husband would tell her she was 'worrying too much,' though he spent most of his time at work and rarely dealt with the children," said Shimizu.

    At the same time, men who wanted to evacuate were accused of "lacking masculine courage to protect their hometowns," told, "Don't you dare run away if you're a real man," or otherwise faced demands from those around them to "man up" in the disaster's aftermath.

    Interviewees also told stories of the hurt they felt from hearing people say, "We don't need any brides from Fukushima." Several of the women Shimizu spoke to said they had been subject to some variation of the phrase, and told her, "When my daughter grows up and wants to get married, what will we do if she's discriminated against because of where she's from?"

    Prejudice against marrying women from Fukushima "isn't just about gender discrimination; it's based on eugenics," said Shimizu.

    The idea "puts value only on whether a woman will be a healthy 'bride' and is physically capable of bearing healthy children, and completely discounts her character and her actions. And if she gives birth to an 'unhealthy' baby, then that can lead to the mistaken belief that it's entirely her fault. 'Health' becomes a scale to evaluate the inferiority or superiority of human life."

    Shimizu continued, "The national crisis that is the nuclear disaster has made structures that discriminate against and oppress women -- based on Japan's deep-rooted patriarchy -- more manifest and robust. There are very few women in decision-making centers in politics and local organizations, and this tends to make it very difficult for women to have their views and requests reflected in things like support measures."

    As of 2019, there was not a single female mayor among Fukushima Prefecture's 59 municipalities, and women occupied less than 10% of prefectural and municipal assembly seats -- below the national average. Women also made up just 14.8% of local disaster prevention committee memberships.

    "The coronavirus crisis has once more exposed society's systemic problem of forcing women into very difficult positions," Shimizu told the Mainichi. "A large proportion of non-permanent workers are women, and they have borne the brunt of pandemic job losses. Suicides are also rising. There are still very few women in decision-making positions in politics, and although it's been 10 years since the disasters, we cannot by any measure say that the situation surrounding women has improved."

    Finally, "Of course 'disaster recovery' is important. But is it acceptable to return to a social structure built on the sacrifice of women and others in weak positions?" asked Shimizu. "To ensure society does not slide backwards, we must listen to the weakest among us."

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Makino, Integrated Digital News Center)

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