SINGAPORE: Three years ago on March 11, 2011, an earthquake and massive tsunami crippled Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. The closest towns to the stricken plant remain deserted for fear of further radiation leaks.
Is the Fukushima nuclear crisis under control? Is the food in Japan safe to eat?
Living and working in Tokyo, where life hums along, it is easy to forget that the problems spawned by the massive disaster that struck the northern Tohoku region three years ago have mostly yet to be resolved.
While the government plans to decommission the stricken power reactors at the Fukushima No 1 plant, located just over 200km north of Tokyo, exactly how and when that will be achieved remains largely unknown.
Sceptics think that the government and Tokyo Electric, which runs the Fukushima plant, are trying to hide the truth even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tells us that things “are under control”, as he did last year when Tokyo made a successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics.
But even if the Japanese suspect Abe does not have a grip on things, can they believe the other side?
Reports of contamination of fish caught near the plant, for instance, may well have been engineered by anti-nuclear groups in Japan and overseas, as the occasional Western expert has come out to say that the dangers at Fukushima are exaggerated.
The Japanese media is often criticised for not carrying much news of the crisis, save perhaps the odd report of a spike in radiation readings.
But in special reports last week marking the third anniversary of the disaster, the dailies pulled no punches.
The influential Asahi Shimbun reported that even now, opinion is divided as to whether it was the tremors or the tsunami waves that destroyed the Fukushima reactors.
A detailed analysis that would yield the answer could take years, the Asahi said.
It is depressing to hear that Tokyo Electric still does not know the extent of the damage and whether it is feasible to remove all the fuel rods from the radioactive wreck, an operation for which there is no precedent.
It is unnerving to see Abe pushing for the restarting of nuclear reactors and to peddle his nation’s nuclear technology to other countries, even when Fukushima remains a smouldering, radioactive wreck.
So three years on, shutting out negative news about Fukushima seems the only option for the Japanese if they are to live in this country, which is now paying the price for choosing nuclear power without fully considering the deadly consequences.
But for food, which is the concern of both residents and visitors, there should be few worries.
In the months immediately after the disaster, many parents took great pains to avoid feeding small children food grown in Fukushima prefecture, which hosts the damaged plant, and even neighbouring prefectures.
Asked if she still had qualms about the food sold in this country, a Japanese acquaintance, who wished to be known only as Chieko, confided that she still checks the labelling on vegetables and shuns produce from the Fukushima area when shopping for her two young children.
For rice, she chooses a variety grown in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
But there is no reason to doubt the government’s repeated assurances that all foodstuffs are checked and only those with radiation levels within official safety limits are allowed to go to market.
Chieko concedes that her continued misgivings may be unwarranted.
“We go out to eat as a family occasionally, and in such circumstances, we implicitly trust the restaurant.
“So I guess it’s largely a matter of feeling,” she said.
But at the nursery where the office worker drops off her children every morning, the notice board routinely displays information about the food served to the children, including where it comes from.
It never used to do that prior to the Fukushima disaster.
While life goes on in Japan, some things, it seems, have changed.