Exposing the Hidden Dukkha (Disease) of Nuclear Energy: A Buddhist Priest Devoted to Children and Mothers

by Rev. Michinori Sasaki

Rev. Michinori Sasaki is a priest of the Jodo Shin Pure Land Otani denomination and the vice-abbot of Shingyo-ji Temple in Nihonmatsu City, Fukushima Prefecture. Since 3/11, he has established a non-profit organization called Team Nihonmatsu in order to examine radiation levels in food, temporarily evacuate young children, and engage in decontamination work.

Rev. Michinori Sasaki
Rev. Michinori Sasaki

The Specter of Nuclear Contamination & It Effects on Children

Since the nuclear incident took place, radiation has rained upon my town of Nihonmatsu. We are 50 kilometers from the nuclear power plants. The Japanese national government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has said that this place is “safe and there is no problem.” But this town’s rice, water, beef, and so forth are contaminated with nuclear radiation and various people are suffering from it.

As I run a kindergarten here at the temple, there are many children here. Since I have been thinking about how to best protect these children from nuclear radiation, I have engaged in a variety of activities, such as measuring radiation levels in food to decontaminating areas from radiation. In this way, I have been working with Rev. Okochi’s Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy to provide places where there is no nuclear contamination for children to play and recreate.

Children here wear small Geiger counters around their necks to measure the amount of daily exposure to external radiation. The children are being exposed to radiation at a rate 3 times beyond the international standard of one millisievert (mSv) per year. After a year and some eight months since the nuclear incident, various abnormalities have begun to appear in the children. Thyroid examinations were performed by the Fukushima prefectural government, and the results sent to the parents are that 40% of the children have some problem in their thyroid.

When the results of a child’s thyroid test come back, mothers of the kindergarten here come to consult with me every day. The government continues to say, “It’s safe, no problem,” but for the people of Nihonmatsu, nuclear energy has been like a bomb being dropped on our daily lives. As abnormalities have emerged in the children, the mothers, particularly, cannot bear the situation. Last night, the night before, every night, mothers come to my temple to talk. Mothers come every night in tears to seek advice, but I also do not know what to do. I don’t know how to prevent the children from getting thyroid cancer. In the thyroid of one of my own five children, an abnormality has been found, and there is suffering within my own household. Mothers communicate and try to support each other in my community and have created a safe vegetable association called the Blue Sky Market Association. However, there are many who will not mention the word “radiation” and do not want to bring up the situation.

Confronting Structural Barriers to Protecting the Children

The problem is that within Fukushima Prefecture there is hardly anywhere that you can get a thyroid test done. There are places to conduct tests within the prefecture and in every town, but the specific results are not made public. When the mothers come to consult with me every night, they ask why we cannot be told the results. We come to know that there are abnormalities but what kind of abnormalities we are not told. Therefore, we have to go outside the prefecture, and I have done so for my own family. The prefectural medical university has taken data on the thyroid condition of children, but they say, “Please do not get a test done anywhere else.” Therefore, it’s become a situation where we have to go outside the prefecture to get a test done. The situation is now that we have had to ask various doctors here and there in Fukushima Prefecture and neighboring Miyagi Prefecture to conduct regular tests on our childrens’ thyroids. Yesterday, I visited Miyagi Prefecture and talked with a doctor there asking him to help cooperate in protecting the children. Two days ago, I talked to the Nihonmatsu City government and asked them to help in providing tests on the thyroids of the children. However, due to budget constraints and lack of funds, I don’t think they will be able to anything any time soon. Going around like this asking for help is what I can do. We now have a plan to install at the kindergarten a Whole Body Counter and begin in November measuring the level of internal exposure to radiation in the children.

There are other things to do to protect the children, such as performing checks on food, decontamination work, and providing uncontaminated recreational spaces. In checking the food, we cannot examine every piece, so for the time being we are setting a standard. Any 1 kilogram of food that is below 100 Becquerel can be given out. Food that is displayed at stores must be below 100 Becquerel, but we are not sure if food below 100 Becquerel is really OK. Since children in Fukushima are exposed to radiation everyday from various sources, I would like to give to the children food that has zero radiation in it. Less than 100 Becquerel is perhaps OK as a standard for people not exposed to radiation living in Tokyo or Kansai, but for Fukushima children who are exposed to radiation every day, I think it’s a problem to add another 100 Becquerel or so to their bodies. Therefore, I want to give to the children of Fukushima food with no Becquerel to eat. In the meeting hall next to this temple, we are collecting vegetables, rice, and water that we have received from all over Japan, dividing it up, and giving it out to children in this locality. In the many places in Japan where I have travelled to give talks, I made appeals that if anyone had leftover vegetables to please send them to us. In this way, we have little by little been able to get vegetables, rice, and water from all over the country.

In terms of support from the government for these activities, I have nothing. Fundamentally, the government says that my activities like doing food checks and decontamination work and unnecessary. The headquarters of our Jodo Shin Otani Sect has made appeals to the government to end nuclear energy. For the time being, they have also sent individual Geiger counters to each member temple in Fukushima Prefecture and have sent water to the temple. From this past spring, they also started to offer aid to create recreational opportunities for children to visit non-contaminated areas.

The national associations of doctors and university professors have become divided into two groups on this issue: one that says the radiation is not a problem and the other that says it is. The doctors and teachers who emphasize that radiation is dangerous have sent us equipment for checking radiation levels in food and have provided tests for the children’s thyroids and internal exposure to radiation. However, most of the professionals in these fields say that the radiation is not a problem. If the government, academics, and doctors properly protected the children, the kind of work I do would not be necessary. However, most adults do not care to protect the children. Therefore, I have to continue with my work.

Rev. Sasaki and his wife in fron of the main hall of Shingyo-ji temple
Rev. Sasaki and his wife in front of the main hall of Shingyo-ji temple

The Wider Destruction of Families and Communities

Although the children are suffering, their fathers and mothers have become exhausted with dealing with this situation. What now worries me in Fukushima is the problem of suicide and divorce. Here, just in Nihonmatsu, I personally know of some people going through such experiences. In this way, the radiation not only causes damage to the children’s cells and thyroid but also continues to destroy other things that are important to us here in rural Fukushima, like those aspects of family and locality.

A number of people who had been involved in dairy farming and organic farming have committed suicide. Women and children have also evacuated outside of the prefecture, which has created a number of older, single men left behind who have committed suicide. These are so called “deaths related to the disaster” according to the government. Fukushima has the largest percentage of such deaths. I think there are many such deaths that are still unaccounted for, so I don’t think the number of recorded “deaths related to the disaster” is accurate. Still, since the disaster, there are over 1,000 fatalities recorded as “deaths related to the disaster”. Amongst the people who had to become refugees and live in temporary housing, there are farmers who have committed suicide, but I do not know if such figures have been taken. I think that my perspective is pretty common, one that can be heard often at many funerals at temples in Fukushima.

Concerning the divorce problem, it has become really serious. Basically, there is a difference in temperament between fathers and mothers. The mothers want to evacuate [for their children] but the fathers don’t [for their work]. It is the same with my own family. I cannot abandon this temple. For the children who come through this kindergarten, I cannot evacuate. I think that it’s unavoidable that my wife is anxious. Due to the difference in temperaments, the arguments between couples are hard to bear. In this past one year and eight months since the disaster there have been many domestic disputes in Fukushima.

Finding Peace of Mind Through Confronting Denial

In order to decontaminate the premises of the temple, I had to cut down a 100 year old cherry tree located on the kindergarten’s playground. I am continuing to hold meetings in Nihonmatsu for making a temporary storage site for materials that have been contaminated by nuclear radiation, yet still no place has been found. People want to dispose of dangerous materials in far away places, and this kind of thinking is what created the problem of nuclear power. There is no place in the world you can find that is good for such pollution. I have had to bury contaminated materials in one place within the temple grounds and the kindergarten’s playground. Those who have evacuated and those who have remained are both suffering and living their lives while enduring this crime. I cannot forgive the government and TEPCO. I used to be angry inside, but the children saved me from my anger. Seeing these children who can’t freely play outside made me feel as if they were saying, ‘You did this to us.’ I used to think nuclear power had become the norm and was safe. I was indifferent to the Chernobyl and Tokaimura nuclear accidents. Having no feeling for the preciousness of life, I was living as a priest only when convenient for me. I lived like this for 39 years, and in the end it brought suffering to the children. Once I realized that, my mind got clear. I felt relieved and was able to get back on my feet.[1]

The grounds of Shingyo-ji Temple
The grounds of Shingyo-ji Temple

[1] This final paragraph is excerpted from Rev. Sasaki’s talk at the public forum “Protecting Community and Sentient Life” sponsored by the Inter Faith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy in Fukushima City from April 17-19, 2012. Source: Bukkyo Times April 26, 2012.

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