11 December 2017
I am currently in Japan, on a one-month visit, following up on last year’s research study here as a JSPS postdoctoral fellow. I’m working again with Prof Aya Goto at Fukushima Medical University (FMU), who invited me to lead a series of seminars on sociological approaches to disasters and participatory methods in research, as well as speaking about the work we have been doing with young people here on community resilience building in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster.

These seminars have given me the opportunity to share what we have learned from UK Children, Young People and Flooding and EU CUIDAR projects, talking about some of the creative methods we used and how these supported the children we worked with to articulate their experiences and knowledge of disaster. Staff and students from across FMU have attended, including departments of psychiatry and disaster psychiatry, nursing, community medicine, linguistics, radiation and medical education. One seminar participant commented that it has helped her to think of disasters not just as ‘natural’ and that she will ‘pay more attention’ to issues of social injustice, disadvantage and vulnerability, aspects that she said ‘require us to be proactive, rather than responsive’ to disasters.  

Alongside these seminars, I have attended workshops for public health nurses that Prof Goto regularly runs in the local community. In one workshop Prof Goto was training nurses to develop and manage their own projects, including with evacuee communities where ongoing health concerns remain a priority for those affected by the 2011 disaster, especially older people. I also attended a lecture for nurses on understanding radiation. Risk communication remains an important issue for health sector workers, especially as communities return to areas formerly evacuated because of the high levels of radiation. 

Photo: Professor Aya Goto working with the nurses

The town of Yamakiya is one such area – the evacuation order was only lifted at the end of March this year and it was therefore chosen as the location for the latest Fukushima Dialogue Meeting, organised by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Dialogue and it provided a rich opportunity to learn more about people’s experiences of recovery. A major theme was the value placed on cultural heritage. The area is primarily rural and people talked about the importance – and joy – found in the landscape, as well as the problems of ‘waste management.’ Fields are still full of plastic bags of contaminated soil, which, as several local people described, both despoil the landscape for those returning to live there and contribute to outsiders’ fears about the region. There was also much discussion about the lack of young people returning to the area. The mayor explained that so far, only 270 out of 1000 people have returned and two thirds of these are over 65. As he pointed out, the issue of an ageing population is a national trend so he suggested that communities such as Yamakiya are ‘ahead’ of other places in having to address the challenges this creates and exploring how to make their town a place where younger generations want to live. 

During this visit I have been able to work with some of Fukushima’s young people, running several follow-up workshops with the children who took part in our research project last year, as well as groups from other local schools. I have been struck, as before, by these young people’s optimism about the future and their ability to reflect on their experiences and insights in thinking about community development. I hope that more work can be done to include children and young people in discussions about the ongoing recovery process here. They have much to contribute and, as has been noted, it is they who must shape the future of Fukushima.