Abuse against women in Japan

The Japan Times recently published a story of mine about domestic violence in Japan. You can find an online version of the story here.

The main reason for writing this piece was the inauguration (more like a second coming really) of the Japan chapter of the international movement “White Ribbon Campaign,” which started in Canada in 1991. The following is from the WRCC’s website.

“White Ribbon is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.

Starting in 1991, we asked men to wear white ribbons as a pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Since then the White Ribbon has spread to over 60 countries around the world.”

Taiji drops anchor on dolphin hunts despite increasing pressure

This post was originally created in late 2015, but due to problems with Word Press I was unable to publish it til mid-2016.

Earlier this month I made another trip to Taiji, the town in Wakayama Prefecture that has become notorious worldwide for its dolphin hunts, largely by virtue of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.” 

Last weekend the Japan Times published a story about that trip, which can be found online here. I am grateful to the JT for giving me ample space for this story, but as always there are details that had to be cut, partly to fit the JT on Sunday format, but also because I was unable to verify the validity of some of them.

I thought I would write down a couple of those omitted points here, but before I do I also wanted to thank the JT readers who took time to comment on the Taiji issue. Almost all of them were not commentary on the story itself, but were from readers who wanted to make their own feelings known about this very controversial issue. Some of the comments provoked some (heated) debate, which is always healthy. But it struck me that one or two of those comments may have benefitted from information that sadly was self-edited from my original draft for the above-mentioned reasons, thus prompting me to write this post.

One of the comments made on the JT online site was: “Why single out dolphins? And why Taiji when several other small communities such as the Faroe Islands practice the same thing?” Another said: “The Faroe Islands should get as much press as Taiji, but because of ulterior and suspect motives Taiji gets all the attention.”

Indeed, Taiji is not the only place that caries out dolphin drives. In fact, even within Japan there are other places that take or have taken a far more significant number of cetaceans in their drives, but do so far out to sea where they are less conspicuous and easy to scrutinize. The hunts in the Faroes date back far longer than those in Taiji, but if former dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric O’Barry is to believed that is all about to end.

According to O’Barry, the Faroes has agreed to end its dolphin culls in exchange for $30,000 per annum. He should know: the person who apparently brokered that deal is his son. But there’s a hitch: “All we need to do is find that money,” says O’Barry.

As mentioned in the JT story, some people in Taiji believe that activist groups (especially Sea Shepherd) are motivated by nothing else but money, and that by emphasizing what they see as the bloody/cruel/barbaric nature of the dolphin drives, they can play the sympathy card far more effectively and attract more funding. “Look at the people who support (the activists)” said one employee at a whale processing company who I interviewed. “There’s Hollywood stars and others with the financial clout to keep these protests going for a long time. The way to their wallets is blood, blood, blood.”

And it’s not just the activists. Simon Wearne, a former Sea Shepherd cinematographer-turned Taiji researcher, says he was surprised during his time filming the TV series “Whale Wars” to learn of the time and resources expended on issues such as whaling and dolphin hunting when the “real issue” – melting ice caps — was being pretty much ignored.

Unrelated to this is a comment that was made by a friend who questioned my lack of a voice from the Taiji government in the JT story. I did interview an official at the town offices (and in a way regret not reinstating this into the story), but the information that was forthcoming from that quarter was sadly lacking in any real substance.

Which was not unexpected, but nonetheless frustrating. I had written up a letter in Japanese explaining my purpose for researching the JT story, and had it vetted and stamped by the editors at the paper, but it made little difference with this official. Ignoring my first question, his first comment related to the use of the phrase iruka-ryo” (“dolphin fishing”) in the letter when there was an “officially recognized” term (“oikomi-ryo”) for the hunts that take place from September each year. I replied that perhaps rather than splitting hairs over semantics it would be more fruitful to look at the wider intention of the letter and therefore the purpose of my proposed research (to try and offer readers of the JT a more balanced perspective that took in the opinions of residents and officials in Taiji). He replied that it was semantics that had caused misunderstandings about Taiji in the first place.

And in one sense, he is not wrong. Semantics, and individual’s interpretations of letters, emails (and as some JT readers will know, comments posted about stories), can lead to misunderstandings, even if they are unintentional and/or not even the key issue at hand.

Yet, the town official and other people I spoke with there are never afraid of using those same semantics when they serve their own purposes. The best known of these is the statement often put forward that the dolphin hunters are doing nothing illegal and that the methods employed are in line with Japan’s fisheries laws. Better still is a sentiment (also voiced by prime minister Shinzo Abe) that Japan has a long tradition of dolphin hunting. This is simply not true.

There is also the view that the method employed to kill the dolphins is short and swift and well within the internationally accepted standards for immediacy to prevent suffering (a claim that was disputed by a group of international researchers in 2013). 

Activists, such as Yukari Sugisaka of Help Animals argue that if all of this is in fact true, then why do the fishermen insist on hiding the culls from view by stretching tens of meters of tarpaulin over so-called “killer Cove”? (One official told me that the purpose of the tarpaulin was to stop the animals from bashing themselves on the cove’s rocks when they writhe around.)

I suspect that the real purpose of this official speak is to deflect attention/avoid answering the difficult/unwanted questions in favour of towing the official line. I am not sure that it is a coincidence that the person who has gained a modicum  of cooperation in Taiji recently is a female film director who recently released what could only roughly be termed a “documentary” titled “Behind the Cove” — a riposte to the 2009 Oscar-winning “The Cove,” in which O’Barry played a lead role. Few who have seen it would deny that “The Cove” has some problematic points, but Keiko Yagi’s supposedly “more balanced” (her words) view in “Behind the Cove” stinks of a sympathetic bias.  

Even when I interviewed her (which I did via Skype from Taiji) those biases were clear. Despite admitting that she had never actually witnessed the culls herself, she was happy to echo the Taiji fishermen’s line that the culling method used in recent years does not cause any suffering to the dolphins and certainly did not induce the massacre-like bloody mess of years gone by. “There is no blood,” she told me, claiming that photographers photoshopped their images to change the colour of the water in “Killer Cove” and that Youtube videos claiming to show the slaughters at Taiji are in fact showing footage from the Faroes (in one case this is/was true).

I received some criticism regarding the JT article for not delving deeper into Yagi’s motivations, which one person I interviewed described as being a sad reflection of the “near nationalistic” feelings that the dolphin issue stirs in some Japanese. However, I felt the comments from Yagi that were included in the story were more than sufficient to establish her stance.

I should add that at the point when I interviewed Yagi I had not seen her film (only a short preview), though it was not for want of trying. Yogi had promised to send me a copy of the film to preview, but delayed delivery until just before story deadline she sent me a terse email rescinding her original promise:



“The other day it was my intention to send you a DVD, but after reviewing a number of related articles previously published by your company (sic) we* have concluded it would be inappropriate to send the DVD.”)

*I have been unable to establish exactly who “we” refers to.

I hope that this additional information will add a degree of clarity. I will update and complete this post shortly.

Japan and Suicide: Still no simple explanation

The recent suicide aboard a shinkansen bullet train in Japan was shocking, but not entirely unexpected.

That the man who took his own life did it by self-immolation and that it happened aboard a high-speed train system that has been remarkably incident-free during its 50 years in operation, was the shocking part. That Japan experiences around 80 suicides per day – the highest in the developed world – and has done so each year for almost two decades is the less surprising element.

In the aftermath of the incident, interviews with neighbors by local media revealed that the 71-year-old “victim,” Haruo Hayashizaki, had complained of financial difficulties, in particular the limitations of his pension. Just minutes before he doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze, Hayashizaki reportedly called his local city office in Suginami, Tokyo, and informed officials there that he was making his final journey aboard a bullet train with the intention of taking his own life. Financially, he was simply unable to keep himself afloat, he told them.

Monetary problems are often seen as the easy scapegoat for Japan’s startlingly high suicide rate, which, until last year, consistently exceeded the 30,000 mark each year since 1997. Signs erected outside Japan’s infamous suicide forest in Yamanashi to dissuade visitors from taking their lives there were erected not by the municipal government but by an NGO specialising in financial advice.

But the picture is rarely so clear cut. Back in 1999 I wrote a story in the Japan Times following the announcement by the Health and Welfare Ministry that suicide numbers during the previous fiscal year had topped almost 32,000 — a record figure that represented a 30 percent increase over 1997 and equating to more than three times the number of deaths from automobile accidents.

Experts interviewed, such as Yoshitomo Takahashi, who was then deputy head of the Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry’s Department of Psychopathology, were critical of this pigeon-holing, insisting that numerous other factors, cultural and medical among them, could and do influence such a drastic course of action. “Suicide is never that simple,” Takahashi said. “It is invariably multifactorial.”

According to national police reports, a major suicide motive is depression. More than half of suicide victims are out of work when they died, which experts say were as likely to suggest a depression trigger as a financial one. Among them, men in their 50s were most numerous, though men in their 30s and 40s has been the demographic showing the biggest percentage increase in the past few years.

This generation has a lot of difficulty finding permanent jobs, and instead take on temping work that is unstable and causes great anxiety,” said Yukio Saito, a former executive director of Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline), a volunteer telephone counselling service that fields around 70,000 calls annually from people contemplating suicide.Callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide.  Behind that there are other issues, such as financial problems or losing a job.”

A stigma attached to depression means that men – who are 14 times more likely to take their lives than women – are unlikely to seek help, said Shizuo Machizawa, a former professor at Rikkyo University who runs the Machizawa Mental Health Clinic in Tokyo.

There was also a “generation factor” to take into consideration, with post-war boom generation men who are tied to the lifetime employment mentality, likely to feel the pressure of work more acutely than the more care-free generations below them.

A look into Haruo Hayashizaki’s life through the eyes of the local media indicates little more than plain old financial dissatisfaction. As a young man he had moved from his hometown in Iwate Prefecture to Tokyo to fulfill his dream of becoming a singer. One neighbor interviewed by local TV said Hayashizaki was generally well-liked – he had even started up a local baseball team.

According to one report, when Hayashizaki was about 30 he had fallen for a younger woman who worked at a local bar he frequented and who had become pregnant by an abusive partner. Hyashizaki had offered to support the woman, but she and the baby had died during labor.

Some reports have painted a picture of an unemployed elderly man who was single and increasingly isolated, venting his frustrations by breaking windows. But others say he had continued to work until his late 60s and had never caused a stir at previous places of employment, which included a steel factory and kindergarten bus driver.

In fact, it had only been in the past month or so that he had started to express satisfaction with his pension, according to one neighbor. Having made contributions over 35 years, this reportedly was 240,000 yen every two months, but after his rent, medical costs and utilities were deducted, little remained, he had claimed.

According to three men I interviewed who have made unsuccessful attempts at taking their lives, financial concerns were often nothing more than a tinderbox, even an excuse, behind other occasionally less tangible problems.

One of them, Hiroyuki Deyama, who twice attempted suicide at the Aokigahara suicide forest, said he had felt a sense of hopelessness after having lost his job when it was discovered he had health problems.

It was a heavy blow not just financially but to my self esteem,” said the 48 year-old former steel factory worker. Several years earlier he had been diagnosed with a heart condition that company officials deemed to place him and other workers at risk.

And with that, he lost sight of the future. His deepening depression, and lack of finances, first led him to sleep inside his rusting car, until it was towed away. Unable to find employment, he took to scrounging and begging to eke out an existence. His friends deserted him. So he went to the forest in the middle of winter armed with booze, prescription pills and bags of ice. After consuming the former two, he removed his clothes and lay down beneath the trees with the bags of ice balanced over his heart.

When two elderly walkers found him the next day his body was blue – but despite his weakened heart and troubled mind, Deyama’s solid frame had refused to give in. “Nobody seemed to care, I felt like an outcast, a liability.”

Another man, who asked to remain anonymous, also said that health issues and a divorce had sent him spiralling into an ever deeper chasm of depression. “There comes a point where something as important as money becomes not just banal but completely irrelevant,” said the man, who was in his 20s. “I wanted to talk it over with someone but had no idea who would listen.” 

Cultural issues weigh heavy. Showzen Yamashita, a priest who conducts Buddhist rites in Aokigahara forest to pray for the repose of the thousands of people who have died there over the years, says the lack of support networks in Japan is a main cause of the ever-increasing suicide rate.

They have no one to talk to, no one to share the pain, the suffering,” he said. “So they think, ‘If I take my life I can escape this misery.’ ”

And they can do so without the reservations imposed in some countries courtesy of religious and/or cultural behavioral codes, according to Yoshinori Cho, director of the psychiatry department at Teikyo University, and author of the book “Hito wa naze Jisatsu Suru no ka” (“Why do People Commit Suicide?”). “Throughout Japanese history, suicide has never been prohibited on religious or moral grounds,” Cho said. “Apart from on two specific occasions in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), suicide has never been declared illegal.”

Lifeline’s Saito concurred, saying: “Suicide is quite permissible in Japanese society, something honorable that is even glorified.”

Details of the shinkansen suicide also seem to point to this factor. A fellow traveller is said to have attempted to placate Hayashizaki, offering him money as he roamed distractedly through the front car of the express train, a canister of gasoline in his backpack. “I don’t need your money,” he reportedly replied, before dousing himself in the liquid, and, lighter in hand, standing at the front of the carriage for all to witness his grand exit.

Japan Bans Aquariums from Buying Dolphins caught in Taiji Hunts


By Rob Gilhooly

In an unexpected move, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) has confirmed it will stop its members from buying dolphins caught by drive fisheries in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as "killer cove" just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji,  a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September  2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as “killer cove” just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji, a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September 2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

JAZA was facing possible expulsion from the the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) after being suspended by the global body for allowing its members to take dolphins caught in Taiji, whose drive fisheries are renowned for what activists believe are inhumane hunting methods.

In an announcement May 20, JAZA said that during an emergency meeting all but three of its 152 members had voted on the issue of whether to stay in WAZA. Of those, 99 voted in favor of the motion, while 43 voted against it.

The statement added that the JAZA board had made the decision to “prohibit members from acquiring dolphins caught in the wild by drive fishing in Taiji” in order to ensure its WAZA membership remained intact. It also announced the banning the export and sale of dolphins caught in the hunts.

However, JAZA chairman Kazutoshi Arai was adamant that this announcement was far from being a condemnation of the Taiji drive fisheries. “The drive fisheries in Taiji are certainly not the brutal affairs indicated by WAZA,” he said in press conference. Right wing daily Sankei Shimbun referred to the drives as a “Japanese tradition.”

The decision was made in light of a WAZA announcement on April 23 that it had suspended JAZA from its membership roster after the two organizations had been unable to reach an agreement on issues involving JAZA member zoos and aquariums taking dolphins from the annual drives in Taiji, a coastal town in Wakayama Prefecture.

Also known as “killer cove,” the town was brought to international attention in 2009 following the release of The Cove, a documentary about the dolphin culls that went on to win an Oscar for best documentary in 2010.

According to WAZA executive director Gerald Dick shortly before the JAZA announcement, the Gland, Switzerland-based world body had made numerous attempts to stop Japanese aquariums from taking cetaceans from the Taiji drives, which are undertaken for several months each fall and frequently garner international criticism.

WAZA officials made an appeal in Tokyo as recently as last summer and again in November during WAZA’s annual international conference in New Delhi.

WAZA asserted that taking from the drives went against the organization’s codes regarding animal welfare.

According to a WAZA official Hyatt Antognini Amin, WAZA bylaws state that in the case of a suspension “the affected member may provide further information on the issues raised to the President within 30 days.”

After that, “the council must decide to lift the suspension or to expel the member concerned prior to the next administrative session,” she said. “This is when the final decision will be made to either expel them, in which case they will be removed from our website.”

Dick denied that WAZA had given Japan an ultimatum whereby it would have to cease purchasing dolphins caught in Taiji by May 21 or face expulsion. “There is a grace period which is between 30 days (after the suspension) and the next (WAZA) council meeting, which is in October,” he said.

Following the suspension in April, JAZA’s Kensho Nagai said the organization had explained its “circumstances” in some detail, but that WAZA had not been able to fully comprehend them. The method employed in Japan to catch dolphins is recognized by the Japanese government, he said. What’s more, the method used to catch dolphins that are used in Japan’s aquariums and zoos is very different than the one used to catch dolphins that are used for food, he added. “Despite this, the two methods are seen as being one and the same thing.”

Dolphins fished for aquariums “are handled with extreme care” and “are exposed to zero stress” by the Taiji fishermen, Nagai said.

Asked if WAZA had perhaps misunderstood JAZA’s explanation, Dick said: “We can only make a decision based on the info that’s given,” he said.

This is an issue that has garnered attention around the world and we have been looking into the Taiji drive fisheries for 10 years, and concluded it was a violation of our codes regarding the welfare of animals.”

Dick was also critical of certain activist organizations – including one in Australia that is currently filing a lawsuit against Taiji – for spreading “false and misleading” information about the drives to gain attention in the media.

Our focus is rather than going that route to focus on cooperation and building cooperation between all interested parties, he said. “It is much more constructive to do this because in the end we all have the same goal.”

Auckland Festival of Photography

I feel very honoured to have been invited to participate in the 2014 Auckland Festival of Photography. Photos from my suicide forest story are included in the exhibition, a part of which deals with the theme of “Memory.” There was even a write up in L’Oeil de la Photographie magazine — very humbling.

The festival this year includes quite an eclectic array of styles, from Bronek Kozka’s “Auschwitz Revisited” to Ayala Gazit’s “Was It A Dream”, the latter centering around a portrait of a brother the photographer never knew.

A noose made from neck ties dangles from a tree

A noose made from neck ties dangles from a tree. Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

This from the review: “One of the most profound exhibitions in this year’s Festival is British photographer Rob Gilhooly’s “Suicide Forest”.  This is a beautifully composed photo essay of what may be one of the loneliest places on earth for this forest is where an inordinate number of Japanese people have chosen to end their lives. In the densely populated bush amidst the solitude of nature, men and women who have lost hope make their final communion. This is one of the most powerful and moving exhibitions I’ve seen and points to an unspoken plague of modern life. The suicide rate in Japan is the highest in the world, more than double other developed nations including the US and UK.”

While on the theme of the suicide forest this year has once more seen a massive number of inquiries from students and researchers around the globe — most notably from the US — requesting interview for a project, thesis, and so on. I make it a point to reply to each of these, though there are occasions where I am not sure if I should have done so.

One of the requests came from a US student and partly due to the slightly rude emailed request  and followup mail but mostly because I was genuinely busy, I decided to turn it down (though not before posting a very detailed entry on this blog about the subject, toward which I pointed the student.) Incredibly, I had also been told that I would have to sign and date a form stating that I give the information voluntarily and that I agree that my name not be associated with any information I give in accordance with university requirements (over 100 students have requested information to date and not one has requested I sign such a document).

Of course I said I would not sign it and I forwarded a standard agreement for the student and her professor to sign. That should have been the end of it of course but I them received a pretty rude mail from her professor basically saying I should be ashamed of myself for not seeing “this opportunity as one to help a student learn the ins-and-outs of the research method.” I replied that I thought that was her job, not mine.

In the end I decided that the student herself was actually too industrious and committed and as I had already spent some time scribbling down some answers to her questions during a train journey spent an evening completing those answers and mailed them off to her.

The truth is, I have benefited hugely over the years from some very busy people who just happen to be very decent people as well. So it seems only right that I too should try and pay something back, and I have tried on may occasions.

But, it gets harder when for example a student who you have invited along to a photo shoot never shows up (and doesn’t even bother to call to say he isn’t coming), or another one sends you an interview request like the following: “Hi Rob, Fill out the answers to the following questions …” (in the case of the latter there was not even an indication that the sender was a student or to which university she attends.)

But the clincher for me is that I just remember how I was as a student …. And they ain’t half bad really — relatively speaking!

Groups Take Action Against Taiji Discrimination

Sydney-based organisation Australia for Dolphins has filed a first-ever lawsuit against Taiji, the fishing town in Wakayama Prefecture know for its dolphin hunts.

Visitors enjoy a dolphin show at a dolphinarium inside the grounds of the whaling museum in Taiji, Japan on 10 September  2009. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly.

Visitors enjoy a dolphin show at the dolphinarium inside the  whaling museum grounds in Taiji, Japan on 10 September 2009. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly.

Taiji came under the spotlight globally following the release of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove in 2009. The lawsuit, which is being jointly filed by AFD and Save Japan Dolphins, run by a key figure in The Cove, Ric O’Barry, relates to the “appalling conditions” for dolphins being kept at the Taiji Whale Museum, according to organisers.
What’s more, the museum is denying entrance to law-abiding people based on their appearance, they add. “People of foreign appearance are deemed to be ‘anti-whalers’ and not allowed to enter,” said AFD’s Sarah Lucas. The lawsuit asserts that this is in violation of Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and Article 19 which protects freedom of thought, she added.

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as "killer cove" just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji,  a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September  2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A pod of dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as “killer cove” just after the first dolphin cull of the season  in Taiji, Japan on 10 September 2009. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

Lawyers representing the groups believe they have a strong case, she said. “If we win, it will bring public scrutiny to the museum, and hopefully help improve the conditions of the dolphins.”

One of the dolphins causing particular concern for the organisations is an albino calf that O’Barry has named Angel. “As Angel has become a symbol for all the dolphins caught in Taiji, hopefully shining a spotlight on her will bring another wave of interest in the issue,” Lucas said.

O’Barry says he is determined to one day return Angel to a more natural habitat.

“They don’t want people like me to go into the Taiji Whale Museum to monitor Angel,” O’Barry said during an interview Thursday in Tokyo following a trip to Taiji, made a protest to the aquarium but was denied entry — an lambasts on discriminatory grounds.

According to news reports, the facility frequently denies access to foreign activists, such as O’Barry and Sea Shepherd.

O’Barry is among many protestors, dolphin protection groups and researchers worldwide that have long been calling for an end to the culling method employed by fishermen at Taiji, calling it inhumane and against international codes governing the capture of the cetaceans. The method employed involves impaling the dolphins behind the blowhole to sever the spinal cord. While this  seems barbaric, Japanese researchers claim it is more humane than the more random hurling of harpoons from boats employed previously in Taiji’s drive hunts.

A study by scientists in Britain and the U.S. last year refuted those claims, saying that analysis had indicated the method does not “fulfill the internationally recognized requirement for immediacy.” “It would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world,” said University of Bristol Veterinary School professor Andrew Butterworth, lead author of the paper. The culls have continued regardless, causing outrage among concerned groups. “From a scientific, humane and ethical perspective, the treatment of dolphins in the (Taiji) drive hunts sharply contradict current animal welfare standards employed in most modern and technologically advanced societies,” said Diana Reiss of Hunter College at the City University of New York.

Japan Suicide Forest

By Rob Gilhooly
I am walking through Aokigahara Jukai forest, the light rapidly fading on a mid-winter afternoon, when I am stopped dead in my tracks by a blood-curdling scream. The natural reaction would be to run, but the forest floor is a maze of roots and slippery rocks and, truth be told, I am lost in this vast woodland whose name, in part, translates as “Sea of Trees.”
Inexplicably, I find myself moving toward the sound, searching for signs of life.
Instead, I find death.
The source of that scream remains a mystery as, across a clearing, I see what looks like a pile of clothes. But as I approach, it becomes apparent it’s more than just clothes I’ve spotted.
In a small hollow, just below a tree, and curled up like a baby on a thick bed of dead leaves, lies a man, his thinning gray hair matted across his balding cranium. His pasty upper torso is shirtless, while his legs are covered only by black long johns — with blue-striped boxers sticking out above the waistband — and a pair of woolly socks.
Under his bent legs a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a jacket have been spread out as a cushion at his final resting place. Scattered around are innumerable documents, a briefcase and other remnants of a former life. Nearer to him are items more closely related to his demise: empty packets of prescription pills, beer cans and bottles of liquor.
Seemingly this man, who looks to be in his 50s, had drawn his last breath before I heard that unsourced, chilling cry.
That I came across a body in this forest was a shock, but not a surprise. For over half a century, thousands of life-weary Japanese have made one-way trips to this sprawling, 30-sq.-km tract of woodland on the northwest flank of Mount Fuji, at 3,776-meters the nation’s highest peak. It’s a dark place of stark beauty, long associated with demons in Japanese mythology — and one that has earned itself the unfortunate appellation of “Suicide Forest.”

Continue Reading >>

Renewable village offers lifeline to Fukushima farmers

I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.


By Rob Gilhooly

Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.

Kenro Okumura stands by the PV panels that form part of the Renewable Energy Village in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. ©Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.

One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.

The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”

Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.

Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”

Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.

That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.

Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”

The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.

Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”


Thin fault zone, slippery clay behind gravity distorting quake

Had a story published in New Scientist about research at the quake subduction zone revealing weak geological factors at the fault zone being behind the massive quake that hit Japan’s northeast in 2011. It sounds as though this is one of those “duh” moments, but methods used to come to this conclusion are truly groundbreaking, involving deep-sea drilling more than

Photo shows the Chikyu (Earth) deep sea research vessel docked at Shimizu port in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on 11 Sept. 2013. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly. All rights reserved.

800 meters below the seabed at the subduction site, which itself is over 7 km below the water.

The research was conducted aboard the Chikyu deep-sea research vessel (pictured right), which I recently boarded when it docked a couple of months ago — a fascinating experience in itself and one I shall be writing about.


Using the data collected from the site during research that began in early 2012, three papers were published in the peer-reviewed Science journal by a team of international scientists.

The first is about the geology of the fault zone and the main result found there is that the fault zone is only about 5 meters or less thick. “That’s fairly unusual and different from what we have observed in other subduction zones. Usually in the 10s of meters or more,” researcher James Mori told me.

The second paper is about measuring the friction of the fault using the core sample of the fault zone material and putting it in a machine that simulates an earthquake and measures the friction. The main result from that paper is the friction is very low due to a huge presence of called smectite — a a slippery clay that is often found to be at the centre of large landslides in Europe. “That means the fault slips very easily during the big earthquake,” Mori added. “Essentially this is the first time such material has been taken from a big subduction zone earthquake so it’s really a brand new result.”

The third paper relates to temperature measurement taken using devices that were placed in the boreholes earlier this year. This too was designed to measure friction. Essentially the same results were found as from other core sample experiment, meaning researchers had two very different ways of estimating the friction. Both  gave about the same level of what is called the “coefficient of friction”. In this case the COF was about 0.1, which is very low — most rocks slip at a COF of about 0.5 or 0.6.

“So one of the ways of applying this is to say that subduction zones that have especially thin fault zones with a lot of smectite potentially can produce these very large slips of 50 meters and potentially could produce very large tsunamis,” said Mori. “That’s not to say that … if there is no smectite there is not going to be big tsunamis — that’s not a good conclusion.”

A separate report utilised data taken from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite that showed the March 2011 quake had been “felt” in space and distorted gravity over time.

6000 demonstrators voice disapproval of Japan state secrets bill

By Rob Gilhooly

Over 6,000 people gathered to form a human chain around Japan’s National Diet in Tokyo Wednesday to protest against the controversial state secrets protection bill that is expected to become law this Friday.

Despite the inevitability of the bill being rubber stamped before the 185th extraordinary session of the Diet comes to a close on Dec. 6, opponents continue to voice their concerns that the bill is being unnecessarily rushed through Parliament.

If passed, the bill could  impose hefty penalties on leaks of any information deemed sensitive, opponents say. It will also inhibit media coverage and be used to conceal official wrongdoings, they add.

If ratified the law would give ministries the freedom to declare as classified just about anything they want, said Upper House member Takashi Esaki.

The longer (the bill’s enactment) can be delayed, the bigger public opinion will grow and can be heard,” he said. “If that were allowed to happen, the bill could be repealed. (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe knows that, which is why he’s pushing the bill through so quickly.”

This has led some leading figures to question Abe’s true intentions, with a group of academics headed by Nobel Prize winners Toshihide Masakawa and Hideki Shirakawa stating that the issue was the “biggest threat to democracy since World War II.”

During Wednesday’s demonstrations, banners accused Abe of “steamrollering,” while chants from spirited demonstrators referred to the prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Shigeru Ishiba as “terrorists” and “facists.”

Ishiba has incited vitriolic criticism since writing in his blog last Friday that citizens who demonstrate against the state secrets bill are committing “an act of terrorism”.

Even though the bill enactment is pretty much a done deal, I decided to come out here today to voice my objection, but also to take a look at what a terrorist looks like,” said Hiroshi Satomi. “What I have seen is ordinary people shouting and singing about something they are wholeheartedly against. The real terrorists are inside that building over there,” he added pointing at parliament across the road.

People like Ishiba are not interested in democracy, said another protestor, Toshiko Miwa. “They call their party the Liberal Democratic Party, but there is nothing liberal or democratic about Ishiba or Abe,” she said. “I have started to see posters and so on showing Abe’s face superimposed over those of Nazis. I think that’s absolutely true.”

Another protestor, Naoki Takahashi expressed fear of a bill that by its nature is given excessive leeway when it comes to transparency. “It seems almost unconstitutional that lawmakers should be able to rush through a secrecy bill that does not clearly define what constitutes sensitive state secrets or even what acts would be deemed punishable” under the bill, he said.

The bill also does not bode well for the media industry, said a Tokyo union organiser and journalist Chie Matsumoto during a separate rally held by around 600 Japan newspapers’ union members. “It could mean information is less easy to obtain and even information that is not even sensitive may not be given out by officials due to a fear that it might land them in trouble,” she said.

Upper House member Esaki said the bill is a flashback to a pre-war, Imperial times and undemocratic laws that gave authorities the right to arrest anyone who voiced disapproval of the government.

We are now a step closer to Abe’s ultimate plan, which is constitutional amendment and in particular an amendment to article 9 (which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state),” the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker said. “He is targeting the right of self defence … this is part of Abe’s life work, something that he started in his first stint as Prime Minister.

He is a politician who wants to return to the way things were before the war — a stronger nation, a nation that worships the emperor, a nation that above civilian rights to know demands a unified, national commitment. In other words, a country that is some distance away from being either liberal or democratic.”



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