Post-disaster, Japanese are less trusting of authority


Hajime Shiraishi’s moment of truth came when her online video news show, at the time relatively unknown, decided to buck the government line and call a story as it saw it.

On March 11, after an earthquake-driven tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world waited anxiously to see how its fragile reactors would fare.

Later that day, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, announced on national TV that all was well: The utility was on top of the accident. No radiation had been released into the atmosphere. Return to regular programming.


Mainstream media dutifully reported that story. But not Shiraishi’s “Our Planet TV,” which soon broadcast a live interview with five Japanese reporters in Futaba City, a community near the stricken plant. The reporters, who had covered the Chernobyl disaster, told a very different tale.

“They held up Geiger counters showing the level of radiation was almost beyond calculation,” said Shiraishi, a former network TV journalist who co-founded the Internet venture in 2001, hosts the show and reports many of its stories. “They’d never seen anything like it.”

For Shiraishi and others, that broadcast was a turning point, a moment many see as marking a profound shift in the trust younger Japanese place in government and media. Since that show, “Our Planet TV” viewership has shot up from about 1,000 to more than 100,000 as people have begun to seek alternative sources of information.

The change appears to be largely generational. For many older Japanese, the government remains a trusted, paternal overseer. But younger Japanese are now consulting the Internet and other information sources, rather than depending on major media.

Many people also have become more vocal in their criticism of how Tokyo bureaucrats -- many with ties to the nation’s powerful nuclear power industry -- withheld information in the early days of the disaster. Officials now say they did so to avoid a public panic.

One Internet site has featured 600,000 comments by people describing how they no longer believe the reassurances issued by either the central government or Tepco about nuclear safety.


Such skepticism is considered rare in a nation where citizens from an early age are taught to respect authority. As a rule, Japanese don’t wage noisy public protests like their South Korean neighbors. Most people observe rules and expect others to do so as well: They don’t jaywalk, preferring to obediently wait -- often in large groups -- for the traffic light to change even on an empty street. They carefully line up for public transportation and rarely talk on their cellphones while riding buses or trains.

But when it comes to radiation, residents have decided to take matters into their own hands. In what has become known as the “measurement movement,” young families in this nation long known for safety and hygiene have acquired their own Geiger counters and dosimeters to gauge radiation exposure. Many of the devices can be purchased at DVD rental stories, where they are stocked next to the latest blockbuster movies.

Others check the Internet for daily radiation updates.

As the central government has relaxed radiation limits for food, nuclear workers and even school playgrounds, residents have established community groups to take collective action to ensure that the levels remain safe.

The Radiation Defense Project, for instance, which grew out of a Facebook discussion page, has taken steps such as collecting money to take soil samples on school grounds in Tokyo and elsewhere and have them analyzed at private testing facilities.

Even after the Tokyo city government tried to reassure residents, announcing that it would conduct radiation tests on samples of store-bought food, consumers remain doubtful. Some independent groups have established free, on-the-spot analysis of radioactive isotopes in food products at stores in Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear meltdown took place.

Once nearly ignored by the public, nuclear physicist Ryugo Hayano is amazed by the attention he’s been receiving. Since 2008, the 59-year-old Tokyo-based scholar has made regular Twitter posts about his research, attracting about 3,000 followers before the March disaster.

But after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, Hayano took an interest in radioactive fallout. He tweeted that foreign news reports of radioactive cesium spilling into the atmosphere were a dangerous sign for public health. Within three days, his following soared to more than 150,000.

Hayano explains his sudden popularity by noting that many Japanese, including himself, believe they’re not being told the whole story by the nation’s traditional information outlets.

“Whether TV news or the government, people are now criticizing authority in fundamental ways they didn’t before,” said Hayano, a graying, dapper man with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his maroon blazer. “They’re making accusations about ministers hiding information, or not releasing it quickly enough. They’ve come to learn that they cannot trust the government like they did before March 11.”

Hayano said he doesn’t know how far the distrust will reach, or whether Japanese, young and old, will return to their conformist ways once the radiation danger has passed. But for now he’s working hard to fill the information gap.

These days he regularly posts links on Twitter to interpretive charts that break down statistics released by the government and utilities. “It’s analysis they’re not getting anywhere else,” he said.

Shiraishi’s “Our Planet TV” also strives to keep independent information flowing. The weekly broadcast features stories on Japanese conducting their own radiation tests on breast milk, food and even the piles of rubble that still remain across northeastern Japan.

Viewer response has been overwhelming. Many send notes of praise, along with unsolicited donations, explaining that they want to help keep this information source open. Since March, “Our Planet TV,” which relies solely on viewer contributions, has seen such support increase tenfold.

In one recent show, Shiraishi interviewed officials at a charity that has set up free medical consultations for mothers and schoolchildren in the Fukushima area.

Another guest was a cancer researcher who emphasized that no matter what assurances the government has made about public safety, children were showing up with “new clinical symptoms of low-dose radiation exposure.”

That show brought the highest-ever number of viewers.

“As soon as we broadcast anything about radiation, viewership just goes through the roof,” Shiraishi said. “People tell us that they’re now just learning that what the government has been telling them all along might just be a fairy tale.”