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Human Stories

Food Safety and Fukushima | Rebuilding Trust After a Nuclear Disaster

It’s been over a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, but the devastation left in its wake continues to impact the Japanese public and its relationship with the government. As Japan seeks to revitalise the region’s rural economy, the task of reassuring sceptical consumers presents a formidable challenge.

On the 11th of March 2011, Japan was struck by a magnitude-9 earthquake, followed shortly after by a powerful tsunami. This led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant breaking down and releasing radioactive waste into the environment. The seawater off the coast of Fukushima and the soil in this agricultural region were exposed to radioactive contaminants, leading to concerns from the public over the safety of produce grown or harvested in the region. I spoke to Science and Technology Studies scholar Dr Makoto Takahashi to understand the challenges of regaining public trust in food safety in the wake of this catastrophic event.

What caused the Japanese public to distrust the government and its scientific authority?

One aspect is the Japanese state’s pre-disaster confidence in its technological prowess. Japan very much took the attitude that a nuclear disaster would not happen in the country. This is sometimes called the “myth of safety” (anzen shinwa) and resulted in a “zero-risk culture”. The irony is that this overconfidence led the authorities to ignore the lessons that could have been learnt from incidents elsewhere.

In the years that followed [the Fukushima disaster], there were a series of inquiries into the causes of the disaster. And many of them lay the blame on Japan’s regulatory culture. There is a report by the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee (NAIIC), which concluded that the ultimate cause of the disaster could be found in Japanese regulatory culture - a culture of cosy collusion between regulators, industry, and government, who were bound together by their shared interest in promoting nuclear power. This being brought to light had serious consequences for public trust.

Police officers wearing radiation protective gears search the area surrounding Fukushima Nuclear Plant on April 15, 2011. Japan raised the nuclear accident severity level to 7, the highest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale and the same level a
Police officers wearing radiation protective gear search an agricultural area surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Plant on April 15, 2011. Japan raised the nuclear accident severity level to 7, the highest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale and the same level as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. (Photo by Toshifumi Taniuchi/Getty Images)

What has the government been doing to assure the public regarding food safety from Fukushima?

There have been many large public information campaigns. But for the campaign to be effective, it's also important that the content of the campaign and the messenger are trusted by the audience. One of the things that we've seen politicians do to convince the public about the safety of Fukushima-grown food is to eat it publically; a gesture that we've seen repeated very recently as well. The most famous example is from 2011, when former politician Yasuhiro Sonoda ended up standing before reporters, drinking a glass of water that had been taken from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and then treated. It was supposed to be used, I think, to spray ash off nearby trees to prevent forest fires. He'd been challenged by an independent journalist, who said that he should drink the water if it really was as safe as he claimed it was. Sonoda ended up acquiescing and the media captured footage of him looking quite tense as he raised the glass to his lips. And therefore, the perception was of someone who was nervous, and had been pressured into drinking the water, rather than it being a triumphant, confident gesture.

Many public officials and politicians have since consumed fruits, seafood, and other produce from Fukushima in public as a planned act, so they don’t have to do it under pressure like Sonoda had to. In a recently published paper, I discuss how this performance of offering one’s own body to regain the public’s trust has been central to repairing the emotional damage caused by the Fukushima disaster.

This political theatre also has an international variant, in which foreign delegates are offered foods from Fukushima as diplomatic gifts or at conference dinners. Getting someone from another country to vouch for the safety of the food by eating it gives you a different kind of authority—an authority based on their objectivity. A sceptical audience might read the Japanese state as being invested in the reconstruction of Fukushima and, therefore, prone to emphasising the safety of its produce. But someone foreign does not need to do that.

What has science communication on this subject been like?

Broadly speaking, the Japanese state has used two overlapping ideas to frame its science communication efforts. At first, the state mainly framed science communication as a mental health issue. The argument was that the anxiety caused by the fear of radiation - sometimes dubbed “radiophobia” - posed a greater threat to public health than low doses of radiation exposure. The focus, then, was on trying to placate the public in and around Fukushima, who were afraid of coming into contact with radiation or contaminated products. But over time, there has been a shift in the government’s approach to science communication.

Now, the state mainly frames it as an economic issue. This allows the state to position itself on the side of the ‘real victims’, that is, the farmers and business owners whose livelihoods are affected by the rejection of Fukushima produce. The narrative here is that it's not just that people who avoid Fukushima produce don't understand the science; it's that they don't understand the harm they’re causing to the real victims. This narrative gets couched in the language of “reputational damage”.

In both instances, there's been a lot of science communication that is very top-down and tries to educate people about comparisons of risks. Often, we have campaigns trying to say ‘oh, well, the risk associated with this is very small compared to this other risk that you're taking’. This slightly misses the point. People are often objecting to why they've been put at risk. It's the meaning of the risk that makes it salient.

South Korean protesters participate in a rally against the Japanese government's decision to release treated radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, on August 24, 2023 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung
South Korean protesters participate in a rally against the Japanese government's decision to release treated radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, on August 24, 2023 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

What can we learn about the public’s trust in science from this?

Perhaps the key lesson is that trust in science is always trust in an institution. It is always an act of delegation: we ask others to know on our behalf. There's a temptation to think that trust in science is about understanding science. One of the features of this way of thinking is that you blame the public’s scientific literacy. And so, if you diagnose it as a problem of people being ignorant, then your solution is to raise public scientific literacy. I think promoting scientific literacy, like promoting any form of literacy, is a good thing in and of itself. But it's not a solution to the problem of trust. Besides this, the idea that a poster campaign or public information film will dramatically affect the public's understanding of basic science is a bit optimistic. If you’re complaining that the public isn’t scientifically literate after 14 years of compulsory education, then your problem may lie elsewhere.

And so, I think that when we talk about Fukushima and the politics of food safety, we have to think about what people aren't trusting and why. What does it say about the Japanese public’s relationship with the state? There are always these deeper political interrelations which determine how the public understands risk. When communicating science as experts, as people that work with universities and public institutions, I think it's incumbent on us not to reach for that old and self-soothing narrative: ‘people just don't understand; if only they had studied like we studied, they'd agree with us’.

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