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An American Doctor in Fukushima

April 21, 2011

Last week, Yasuhiro Hashimoto and I were having a late dinner at Harunoya, where two journalists found us. One was based in Tokyo; the other had just arrived in Japan. Both represented a French-language European publication. They were traveling around Fukushima, in search of stories. Let's call them Mich and Kris.

Kris, perhaps jet-lagged, was glad to drink beer. Mich was driving, so he had tea. They took notes as we talked. Native French speakers might be annoyed that English is today's lingua franca, even in Asia, but it didn't show. They seemed glad that Professor Hashimoto – a biochemist – was fluent in English. As for Mich and Kris, their Japanese included arigatou (thank you), oishii (tasty), and keitai (cell phone).

It certainly felt more like a conversation than a press conference. Kris talked about being in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and made some comparisons quite complimentary to Japan. Mich sketched out a tall, V-shaped sea wall, which, had it been erected in front of Fukushima Daiichi, may have averted our nuclear power plant crisis.

Next day, some Internet searching convinced me that Mich was a prolific writer. Or, as the joke goes about the works of Homer, if he wasn't the author, it was someone of exactly the same name. What I could not find was any pre-earthquake article advocating a sea wall in front of a nuclear plant. In conversation, Mich said it would surely be expensive to build, but cheaper than worst-case disaster mitigation, and in any case, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) made ####### in profits last year. Sorry, I don't remember the number he gave.

Keeping house in Tokyo makes Mich and his Chinese wife TEPCO consumers. Perceiving a threat from TEPCO's crippled reactors, Mich's wife took their new baby to Shanghai. With or without relatives to host an extended visit, I imagine this is a costly undertaking, and surely more trouble than paying higher rates or conserving electricity. But no one I know in Fukushima wants to accuse TEPCO consumers of not caring. All of us are living with new, shared awareness of some hard realities.

Would a sea wall have been the right choice? Earthquake and tsunami evidence from the first millennium – well before modern seismology – is earning fresh scrutiny. In the modern era, however, an earthquake- and tsunami-proof facility might still be crippled by a rogue missile or air strike. One thing is certain. Journalists will report after the fact what should have been done.

The person who guided Kris and Mich to Harunoya was mentioned in their article. She was described as a petite, female pharmacist, 39 years old. Readers might find this engaging, or even endearing. Attention to detail is implied, but they got the age wrong, on the high side, without ever asking her.

Months before the earthquake, an American friend at another university commented on the enthusiasm with which our Japanese colleagues quantify things. This can frustrate citizens in two ways. First, vast quantities of radiation-related data are available online and in print, but meaningful interpretation of the data doesn't always earn journalistic attention. Second, people may hesitate to release data in some circumstances. Are they hiding something? A reporter has to ask. But the other reality is that people want to release accurate data, and accuracy takes time. Maybe Mich and Kris can invent numbers and disregard the feelings of a helpful young pharmacist, but in proper Japanese circles, this is scientifically and socially unsound.