From March 11 to 14, I had the privilege of attending the International Conference on the East Japan Disaster hosted by the Kyodan at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai. My role was primarily to translate various documents into English prior to the conference and then to help with the simultaneous translation during the conference.
Being the first such international conference the Kyodan has ever sponsored, the staff had to deal with many issues that were “out of their comfort zone,” so to speak. While there were a few minor glitches here and there, overall the conference went very well, and the participants expressed their heartfelt thanks for being able to be a part of it.
The main conference itself focused on presentations related to nuclear power and radiation issues. If the Richter scale 9.0-level (level 7 on the Japanese scale, with level 7 being the most severe) earthquake had been the only disaster, the remaining scars would probably not be very evident three years later, and indeed, I did not see anything in the part of Sendai where we were that gave any indication of such an occurrence. But the tsunami generated by the earthquake devastated the coastline, which not only killed thousands of people and destroyed the homes and businesses of many more but also set off the chain of events that led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors, polluting the neighboring areas and beyond with radioactive contamination. There is still significant danger of further catastrophic contamination as workers struggle to secure the stored fuel rods and contain the ongoing contamination from the destroyed reactors. People even relatively far from the immediate disaster zones are being severely affected by the radiation that has already been released and are living in fear of what might still happen if another strong earthquake or procedural mistake happens.
The conference began at 2 p.m. on March 11 with a memorial service in the chapel of Tohoku Gakuin University. This was open to the public and attended by about 500 people. The service consisted of a sermon by Takahashi Kazuto, pastor of Sendai Higashi Rokubancho Church, and a prayer litany by the moderators of the three heavily affected districts, along with special music. I wondered if there would be a pause for a moment of silence at the 2:46 mark, when people all over the region would be observing a minute of silent prayer for the victims, but that would have entailed pausing in the middle of the sermon and so was not done. Nevertheless, it was a moving experience and an appropriate beginning to this conference.
Following the worship service, there was a “commemorative lecture” by Dr. Kang, Sang-Jung, a professor at Seigakuin University, entitled “Beyond the ‘System’ of Sacrifice—Minamata, Hiroshima, and Fukushima.” As the title suggests, Dr. Kang focused on the common thread of industrial and nationalistic greed by the powerful that results in the sacrifice of the wellbeing of the common people.
Of the 234 registered participants and staff, 44 were from overseas, with the largest contingents being from Taiwan and Korea. Other countries represented were Germany, Switzerland, the U.K., Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Tahiti, and India. In addition to English, simultaneous translation was also provided in Chinese and Korean. Presentations by foreign guests were done in English, with translations into Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.
The two-and-a-half days of the actual conference were filled with lectures and discussions surrounding the effects of radioactive contamination resulting from the reactor meltdowns and the inherent dangers of continuing to operate nuclear power generation facilities. Needless to say, there were no nuclear power advocates downplaying the dangers and extolling the benefits of “cheap” nuclear power. I used to count myself as more or less in that camp, but if Chernobyl gave me initial pause, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster finished the job of changing my mind, along with the minds of a large number of other people.
I was also part of the team working on the resolution statement to be released by the Kyodan as the consensus of the conference. We worked late into the night to incorporate the input from various members of the committee, which was representative of the Japanese and international participants, and then at the final session on Friday morning, after a bit more fine-tuning, the resolution was unanimously adopted. Some minor adjustments to wording remain to be done before the final Japanese and English versions are released in April.
Following the conference, most of the overseas participants joined in a bus tour to the devastated coastal cities of Onagawa and Ishinomaki on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. We visited an elementary school where almost all the children and teachers perished in the tsunami, in spite of being right next to a hillside that could have saved them if they had only known that such a huge tsunami was coming. We also took a tour of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, which unlike Fukushima Daiichi, was able to survive the tsunami by having just enough power to shut down safely and avoid a meltdown. It was quite interesting to listen to the “other side” and see the impressive displays on how electricity is generated. It all looked attractively “safe,” but we knew better.
The last stop prior to lunch and our return to Sendai was in the Kadowaki district of Ishinomaki, which had been completely devastated. One lone steel frame of a building remained one street beyond where the bus was stopped, and within it stood a small prefab building. The owner greeted me as I walked by and invited me in when he discovered that I speak Japanese. As the bus was almost ready to leave, I did not have time to hear much of his story, but he gave me a copy of a newspaper article relating that all the residents thought no tsunami could reach that far inland and had no warning until the giant wall of water came crashing in. He somehow managed to climb up on a floating roof, but his wife was gone, along with everything he owned. He had restarted his restaurant in a van, and I was deeply impressed by his resilience in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
It was a sobering experience indeed to see the devastation and hear the testimonies of those who lived through it and continue to face ongoing challenges. Yet, we came away inspired not only to help those who remain rebuild their lives but also to protect the lives of future generations from the unacceptable risks of the continued use of nuclear energy.
—Timothy Boyle, United Methodist Missionary
Kwansei Gakuin University
KNL Editorial Committee member