From where I sit - A life still far from normal

October 27, 2011

"The effects of radiation do not come to people who are happy and laughing. They come to people who are weak-spirited, who brood and fret."

Those were the words of Yamashita Shunichi, adviser to Fukushima prefecture on health risk management. We're doing our best, but for academics in Japan the laughter is ringing a little hollow these days.

We have had another abortive start to a semester. On the first day back, classes were cancelled when Typhoon Roke roared up the mainland, knocking out electricity cables and halting the Tokyo subway system again.

On the plus side, Roke has brought cooler weather. And the setsuden (conservation of electricity) policy officially ended last week. After the Tokyo earthquake, with 38 of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors shut down, the government instituted a drive to save power. Instant savings were made when households were told to turn off their heated toilet seats. Then the lights began to go out on advertising hoardings and vending machines. On campus, as temperatures breached 30 degC, the drinking fountains were shut off and lighting strips were removed from offices and corridors. With classroom air conditioning limited to 28 degC, heatstroke became a regular event and my legs swelled up so much I had to teach sitting down with my feet up on a chair.

Our campus sustained little major damage in the earthquake: walls cracked, window frames warped and bookshelves were toppled, with their contents hurled over the floor. Quake nausea caused by continual aftershocks soon subsided. Now when we feel sick we assume it is caesium in the food chain.

The area around the university has joined the list of Tokyo's radiation hotspots. Compost made from fallen leaves at a nearby elementary school was found to contain nearly four times the state limit of radioactive caesium for agricultural products. Since the compost was to be used for local flower gardens, however, it was not subject to government restrictions and has simply been "covered up for safety".

During the summer vacation, an enthusiastic busload of 40 of our students travelled north to help out. Some cleared tsunami debris while others scanned salvaged photographs, a necessary task because pictures are sometimes the only way to prove that the missing ever existed.

One student who volunteered echoed the sentiments of many when she expressed surprise at the scale of repair work still to do. "We (have) got usual life now and don't care about the disaster so much," she wrote on her Facebook page.

Perhaps that's not the case for all our students. Those from Fukushima have just received their "Basic Medical Examination by Interview" forms, asking if they have eaten any homegrown food, drunk milk from local cows, taken their iodine tablets or attended a radiation screening. They will be monitored long term.

Now it is autumn and the lights are coming back on. Earthquakes have always been common in Tokyo and when we feel a tremor in class, we pause then return to our work. Nevertheless, the events of March continue to impinge on our daily lives. That month, many university graduation ceremonies were cancelled and students drifted off into work or recession-led unemployment without collecting their certificates - or returning their library books.

The library committee has just met to discuss how to get the books back. "Do we really want them?" I asked, envisioning a radioactive primer lurking in the stacks.

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