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Lessons from Edo Japan can help Fukushima recover

After two and a half years, the embattled Japanese government and Tepco, the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear power plant, have sought the world’s assistance in tackling the three damaged…

After centuries of war, Japan’s well-attuned environmental practices spurred rapid growth. mharrsch/Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

After two and a half years, the embattled Japanese government and Tepco, the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear power plant, have sought the world’s assistance in tackling the three damaged reactors. But Japan’s own not-too-distant past includes many examples of disaster recovery that might be instructional.

One of the outstanding characteristics of pre-industrial Japan was a highly developed practical understanding of the natural environment. It’s difficult to call this knowledge “scientific” in the modern sense. Rather, it was a body of lore derived from centuries of experience. This emphasised the natural relationships between forest, watercourse, wildlife and soil, and comprised both advice, rules and taboos.

Underlying this traditional approach to forest management was an acute concern for the water system. It recommended villagers make frequent forays into the forest to gather fuel and food and observe the condition of streams, marshes and ponds, understood as necessary for “harmonious coexistence”.

Rice crops depended on efficient irrigation systems, and while creating new paddies usually meant clearing forests and constructing waterworks, they were designed to use the area’s natural features and interfere with watercourses as little as possible. Ocean resources were carefully maintained too, with the monitoring of species, seasonal change, and water conditions understood as necessary to maintain the quality and abundance of fish, shellfish and seaweed.

But understanding is often not enough to prevent abuse. Two centuries of war in Japan which ended towards the close of the 16th century had left many mountainsides deforested, with the trees cut down to build and rebuild towns and defences. This over-cutting triggered a cascade of serious consequences. Deforested hillsides were unable to modulate rain runoff and snow melt which resulted in disastrous flooding. Riverbanks and irrigation systems, carefully tuned to accommodate typical flows, were frequently washed away, and with them the means of food production. Most goods including food, fuel, and building materials were transported by river, and this was also disrupted. It was an environmental catastrophe.

In the following decades the newly centralised government enforced traditional methods, and issued guidelines that trees should be planted wherever they were cut. New riverbank earthworks were designed to better cope with periodic floods. Agricultural techniques were refined in regards to water consumption, soil management, and fertiliser use.

Into Azby Brown

Environmental degradation can never be reversed quickly, but by the end of the 17th century these well-integrated practices had supported significant population growth while also improving food production, housing quality, clothing, health, and access to education - all measures usually associated with a rising quality of life.

Fukushima the success story

If it seems too good to be true, in a way it was. While this extremely sustainable culture continued for more than 250 years, the practices were gradually abandoned after industrialisation and the development of a large import-export economy. What the Japanese accomplished economically in a short time - twice; once after US gunboats opened the country to the outside world in the 1850s, and again after 1945 - is a remarkable success story. These changes need not have meant abandoning the old sustainable ways, but that’s what happened.

From the 1970s, concerted efforts were made to address industrial pollution and the effects of agrochemical use on the country’s rivers. By the eve of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, many rural communities in Japan were able to boast that they were reviving and adapting traditional, sustainable forestry, watercourse and agriculture practices to contemporary needs. Fukushima Prefecture led the way, and the village of Iitate - now in the abandoned contaminated zone - was a notable success story held up as a model to others.

While we should not dismiss entirely the health effects of breathing soot from wood-burning fires, the pre-industrial Japanese simply did not create large-scale pollution. Even major rivers, such as the Sumida which served the capital city of Edo (now Tokyo), remained clean enough to drink, or at least brew tea, until the mid-19th century. While the contaminants released by the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant were unknown to Edo-era Japanese, they may well have been able to grasp the role of the waterways in collecting and transporting them.

The same cycle carries a new threat

Numerous radionuclides have been released by the accident, with caesium Cs134 and Cs137 of greatest concern. The forest canopy captured much of what was dispersed by air, from where it will drop with leaves to the forest floor, enter the soil and into the roots of plants, and be passed on into new leaves, flowers and fruit. Radionuclides in nuts, fruits and berries eaten regularly by animals can persist in their flesh for decades, while the proportion excreted reenters the soil to rejoin the cycle.

Caesium-contaminated soil or plants that ends up in forest streams is distributed somewhat unpredictably. Some will seep through the riverbed into nearby plants, some is consumed by insects or fish, and most is carried to the ocean where it is eventually dispersed by currents or falls to the seabed. Contaminants are constantly washed downstream, so that ocean fish may consume caesium washed down from mountains dozens or even hundreds of miles inland.

The same interdependence of trees, water, plants, and animals that the pre-industrial Japanese understood so well is now the delivery mechanism of many potential long-term poisons. The severity of this environmental disaster lies not so much in the quantity of contaminants, but the fact that they have essentially hijacked the country’s life-support system.

Scientists, engineers and volunteer groups like Safecast (of which I am a member) locate and remove these widely dispersed radionuclides. While there have been successes and cause for optimism, most of us look at the forests and despair. It has been seriously suggested that Fukushima’s forests be cut down in a controlled manner, the forest floor remediated, and new forests planted. If this seems excessive, it’s essentially what Japan’s Edo-period forebears did.

As then, the benefits would not be seen for generations. Does Japan have the patience and long-term vision necessary to see through this kind of plan? Possibly not. But the radioactive contamination problems will be with us for decades at least. And until we can heal the forests we can’t heal the watercourse, and until we do that, the environmental hijacking will continue.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article, these issues have been opaque in every nuclear industry statement. As they have been crafted to give only positive news, as media is overseen by the IAEA. The article does not offer solutions to the contamination to the pacific ocean and all the affected fish humans particularly the Japaneses eat.
    Azby Brown wrote; " It has been seriously suggested that Fukushima’s forests be cut down in a controlled manner" Good point. This was understood in the first six months when it…

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    1. Azby Brown

      Director of Future Design Institute at Kanazawa Institute of Technology

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul,

      Thanks for the comments. The link in the text above at "the forest canopy" is to a paper that describes the uptake mechanism of trees very well; it may be difficult to access the full article, though, and even if you do it's very technical. But most of the cesium uptake will be happening in the first few centimeters of soil initially, and only gradually at deeper levels. It takes time for cesium to migrate downward, but eventually it does. That's why one of the most common remediation methods…

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    2. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Azby Brown

      Appreciate the reply, this is a very emotive subject with a large weight of capital at risk and groups unwilling to admit failure.
      Has there been any long term independent medical studies of the children affected in the areas of known contamination? From this worldview this incident appears to be a great opportunity. A chance to establish a baseline and database for their life conditions around nuclear energy processing.

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    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Just to reiterate my question to Azby Brown; "Has there been any long term independent medical studies of the children affected in the areas of known contamination?" No answer after 24 hours. Totally understandable, it is a very sensitive issue and outside your area of study.
      What is interesting is the pro nuclear lobby are absent on this thread - as of 12:20 hrs 17/10/2013 - approximately 24 hrs after Azby Brown's article publication.
      Most people would rather deny a hard truth than face it, looks like this is verified from this worldview.

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    4. Azby Brown

      Director of Future Design Institute at Kanazawa Institute of Technology

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Paul,

      Yes, sorry if I can't always answer as quickly as the first time. Usually my response time is measured in days.

      About medical studies, I think they could be divided into ones run by the central gov't, ones run by Fukushima Prefecture, ones run by local governments, and ones which can be considered "independent."

      There is a large-scale screening program for thyroid problems in Fukushima, including everyone who was under 18 at the time of the accident. It's run by the prefecture, and…

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    5. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Azby Brown

      Azby, appreciate reply and the perspective. A pair of feet on the ground works well.
      It will be very interesting to follow these studies through, particularly the thyroid study by the Fukushima Prefecture. The long term genome study will be the most value, we can only hope efficiency driven accounting leaves this one alone. Understanding of any DNA damage throughout a growing body body has far wider implications. Even if contamination from iodine-131 concentrates in the thyroid and becomes the…

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    6. Azby Brown

      Director of Future Design Institute at Kanazawa Institute of Technology

      In reply to Paul Richards

      Glad you like the Safecast app! A lot of work has gone into it, and it's being constantly improved. Can't beat the price either (free).

      I neglected to mention that some mental health screening is being done as part of the overall Fukushima Pref. health survey. But it will probably not be enough. Diasater-related mental health, specifically what's known as "psychosocial" effects, are also subject of controversy here. They are very real and may be extremely significant, as they were after Chernobyl, but the notion is often used to minimize the possibility of other health effects, and so discussing them has become something of a taboo in many (anti-nuclear) circles.

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