Archives for : japan society

High radiation levels detected on school grounds near Tokyo

Reports emerged yesterday that radiation levels exceeding the safety limits set by the Japanese government were recorded at school playgrounds near Tokyo.

Schoolchildren walk across the playground at Oyama Primary School in Otama Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2011. New government regulations regarding the acceptable radiation doses for children led to the school removing the top soil of the playground and burying it around 1 meter below the surface. Photo: Rob Gilhooly

Schoolchildren walk across the playground at Oyama Primary School in Otama Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2011. New government regulations regarding the acceptable radiation doses for children led to the school removing the top soil of the playground and burying it around 1 meter below the surface. Photo: Rob Gilhooly

Officials of the educational board in Chiba Prefecture, which neighbours Tokyo, reported that five schools in the Chiba city of Kashiwa had detected radiation levels of up to 0.72 microsieverts per hour in areas of the schools, including playgrounds and near swimming pools, more than triple the government-set limit.

Meanwhile, the man who headed the parliamentary investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has voiced criticisms of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration’s policies on restarting reactors, saying that proper evacuation plans are still to be effectuated at plants that have been restarted or where restarts are imminent.

You can find more information on these stories here (http://www.yoshidas-dilemma.com/blog/high-radiation-levels-found-on-school-grounds-near-tokyo)

More thyroid cancers found in Fukushima

Last week the Fukushima prefectural government announced that seven more cases of thyroid cancer had been discovered among residents who had lived near the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant at the time of  the multiple explosions and meltdowns there in March 2011.

The new cases were announced during a meeting of an expert panel, and brought the total of confirmed thyroid cases to 152, it was reported. However, the panel, which is headed by Hokuto Hoshi, vice-chair of Fukushima’s medical association, believed it was “unlikely” that the new cases were connected to the radiation that spewed from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the air and sea for weeks and months after the disaster.

A nuclear plant worker, one of the so-called "Fukushima 50," is scanned for radiation at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 2011. Rob Gilhooly photo

A nuclear plant worker, one of the so-called “Fukushima 50,” is scanned for radiation at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 2011. Rob Gilhooly photo

To quote one famous US baseball player, it was like déjà vu all over again, and it is worth revisiting the issue to understand why panelists and other scientists are unwilling to state categorically why cancers can or cannot be tied to radiation exposure.

According to some experts it is almost impossible to prove the medical relation between radiation exposure and cancers. Geraldine Thomas, a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, says that proving a nuclear accident such as Fukushima will categorically not cause cancers or other illnesses “is incredibly difficult.”  However, she adds that while it is easy to blame radiation exposure, it is almost impossible to prove there is a connection, either, as there are no biomarkers that can be used to distinguish between different aetiologies.

“There’s no way of distinguishing between the radiation from nuclear power plants and radiation in the background (i.e. naturally occurring in the environment),” says Thomas, who also runs the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, which analyzes samples of tissue from people exposed to radiation after Chernobyl in order to monitor the impact of iodine exposure in children. “Everyone hoped we would find … a (genetic) marker for radiation-induced cancer, but there isn’t one.”

Other experts, such as Hisako Kakiyama, a medical doctor who is also a former head researcher at Japan’s national radiological research institute, disagrees, saying research has shown that even low levels of radiation have led directly to cancers such as thyroid cancer.

The debate over the impact of radiation on health is discussed at length in “Yoshida’s Dilemma,” as indeed is the issue of the credibility of Fukushima’s surveys and studies examining the thyroid cancer issue.

In the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, the Fukushima Prefectural government in cooperation with Fukushima Medical University (FMU) began monitoring the health of residents who were under 18 at the time of the incident at the plant. FMU has since been is overseeing thyroid-cancer all screening and surgeries. By April 2014, 380,000 children, including those who were in utero on 11 March 2011, had been tested in the prefectural government checks, of which around 75 were confirmed as having malignant nodules, while a similar number were suspected of having nodules, but malignancy had yet to be confirmed – high compared to other known international statistics.

However, the lead researcher at FMU at the time, Shunichi Yamashita, a former president of the Japan Thyroid Association,  claimed (you guessed it) that it was highly unlikely that the cancers uncovered in Fukushima were connected to radiation.

Yet, shortly after, Yamashita, along with three other leading researchers, resigned from the study after it was revealed in a Mainichi Shimbun investigation that lengthy secret meetings had been instigated among researchers and prefectural officials to pre-determine a line of argument during official deliberation sessions that would emphasize the view of a non-causal relationship between cancer cases and the nuclear disaster.

Shortly after it came to light that the data required to confirm this assertion was not available and that one scientist, Hirosaki University’s Shinji Tokonami, who had tried to obtain independent verification of how much radiation residents had been exposed to in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, was prevented from completing his research by prefectural officials.

According to radiation expert Sakiyama, without such data it becomes impossible to say conclusively that any cancers discovered among residents was caused by radiation from the nuclear power plant.

Still more problems with the FMU study have since come to light.  On March 31, 2017, Sakiyama  who is also a representative of the 3.11 Fund for Children With Thyroid Cancer, announced that a 4-year-old child who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer after the Fukushima nuclear accident was missing from government checkup records. The toddler’s case was omitted from data taken by FMU, which had treated the child. This seeming clerical error raised still more questions about the thoroughness and transparency of the thyroid screenings. Sakiyama stated that any missing case was “a problem” and brought about suspicions that there could be still more such cases missing from the data.

Katsutaka Idogawa, who was the mayor of Futaba, one of the two towns hosting the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, believes this was the outcome of a deliberate and carefully planned strategy by the government to prevent accurate information about radiation doses being disseminated.

The reason, he says, is clear: To ensure compensation claims are kept to an absolute minimum. “That was a deliberate policy by the government because if they had [provided accurate data] it would have caused a massive problem to the extent of national economic collapse. So right from the start, they made the radiation problem a non-problem.”

With regard to the surveys of residents undertaken by the FMU, Imperial College’s Thomas said such a practice of screening for thyroid or any other cancers is highly debatable. “Although it has the obvious advantage of finding cancers early, it also finds more of them when testing on such an unusually large scale using high-tech equipment to look for them,” she said, adding that such an outcome is often  referred to as the “screening effect”.

Many cancers found are too small to require the treatment they almost certainly will get, whether or not such treatment at that stage is actually necessary, she adds. “If you operate on these, there is always a danger, so there is a risk and a benefit of doing these kinds of survey.”

Yet, Idogawa is among those who are critical of the likes of Thomas who, he says, have a microscopic perspective when it comes to the health impacts of radiation exposure. Indeed, Idogawa believes there are almost certainly many many more cancer cases that have yet to come to light quite simply because of the stigma that is still associated with radiation-induced cancers and other illnesses. This was prevalent following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where hibakusha (literally “nuked person”) would conceal their condition — where possible — for fear of being ostracised. That fear not only applied to them, but their children and other relatives. Even today, there are hibakusha and relatives of hibakusha who will not speak to journalists on the record — if at all.

This has already been shown to be a problem in Fukushima.  Children who were forced to relocate to other parts of the country have been subjected to bullying purely because they are from Fukushima. A couple I interviewed for Yoshida’s Dilemma told of how on a 2012 coach trip to western Japan they had decided not to tell fellow travellers they were from Fukushima. When their identity was eventually betrayed, those same fellow travellers would not talk to them or sit near them.

Another unusual situation that did not make it into the book involved one young Fukushima man having his engagement nullified by his future parents-in-law purely because he was from Fukushima. The irony was — so were his bride-to-be and her parents.

“My guess is there are dozens, maybe hundreds more Fukushima residents who have been diagnosed with cancer,” says Idogawa. “But they won’t risk coming forward for fear of similar treatment to themselves and their families.”

If that is the case, there seems to be an even greater need to get them to come forward, but also for there to be greater transparency with the data being collected.  Without such accurate monitoring and dissemination of results scientists will be unable to reach a clear consensus about the connection between radiation  and various cancers.

You can find out more about this and other issues at my blog site dedicated to my book Yoshida’s Dilemma, which contains many entries relating to the Fukushima nuclear accident and nuclear and other types of energy. It also includes a sample chapter from the book and information about where to order it. Please take a look: www.yoshidas-dilemma.com

The true cost of nuclear power

The photo shows pages of a 2001 report purportedly outlining a breakdown of the cost of nuclear power. It was provided by Kenichi Oshima, a

PHOTO shows documents relating to the calculations made in 2001 by the Japanese government's cost analysis committee regarding  the cost efficiency of nuclear power. Almost the entire document has been blacked out. The figures, which were originally submitted to the committee by the Federation of Electric Utilities, simply show that nuclear power is cheap. Nonetheless, the committee approved the report as an official report about the cost of generating electricity by nuclear power.

PHOTO shows documents relating to the calculations made in 2001 by the Japanese government’s cost analysis committee regarding the cost efficiency of nuclear power. Almost the entire document has been redacted. The figures, which were originally submitted to the committee by the Federation of Electric Utilities, simply show that nuclear power is cheap. Nonetheless, the committee approved the report as an official report about the cost of generating electricity by nuclear power. PHOTO COURTESY OF KENICHI OSHIMA

Ritsumeikan University professor of environmental economics, who was among lawmakers and researchers who had requested from the government a breakdown of how the cost of nuclear power had been calculated.

Clearly, even after being furnished with the report they would have been none the wiser. Oshima says that a similarly redacted dossier was released following the original assessment of the costs of various energy over 50 years ago. The popular PR slogan used in the early days was that nuclear power was “too cheap to meter,” perhaps because the meters, too, had been covered in black ink.

The Japanese government has always said that nuclear was the cheapest power, it was a method used to sell nuclear power right from the start,” Oshima told me. “But the figures submitted were accepted without question and were the subject of huge criticism. Nobody was allowed to access the actual data, not even Parliament members.”

According to Oshima, the figures submitted to the government’s cost analysis committee by the federation of electric utilities placed nuclear energy at ¥5.3 per kilowatt hour (kWh) compared with ¥13.6 per kWh for hydro; ¥10.2 per kWh for oil; ¥6.5 per kWh for coal; and ¥6.4 per kWh for LNG.

Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, however, the data was reappraised by a governmental “cost verification committee” that included Oshima among its expert analysts. The committee revealed that in addition to the much-publicized “safety myth” attached to nuclear power, there was a “cost myth” that had been covered up for decades, Oshima says.

The committee determined that nuclear power had two related costs: first, the cost incurred by generating electricity and back-end fuel cycle costs, such as costs incurred by the disposal of radioactive waste; and second, societal costs, such as research and development and accident costs.

They used a model power plant representing the Japanese average for nuclear power plants to calculate a new Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE). The results were revealing. When societal costs were included, nuclear rose to ¥9 (based on accident costs of ¥5 trillion) as opposed to coal (¥9.4); LNG (¥10.7) and hydro (¥10.6).

Oshima was still doubtful that this was a true reflection of the cost of nuclear power, especially as a far greater proportion of public expenditure, such as R&D, goes to nuclear. Indeed, according to some reports, nuclear receives 64 percent of Japan’s total energy R&D budget, compared to renewables’ 8 percent.

Oshima also believes that the final cost of the Fukushima accident could be upwards of ¥15 trillion. Taking those factors into account, his final calculations put nuclear at ¥12.5 per kWh, though he insists that other “invisible” societal costs, such as damage to the environment and loss of human dignity associated with loss of homes and jobs, if calculable, would up the unit price further.

Interestingly, other researchers and industry officials think even this figure is conservative. One of them is Masayoshi Son, CEO and founder of telecommunications giant SoftBank. Admittedly, Son’s company has invested heavily in solar power both in both Japan and India since the 2011 disasters, which may influence his perspective. But using Oshima’s data and other research undertaken by the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies as a base, Son’s research led to the conclusion that the real cost of nuclear could be as high as ¥15 per kWh.

The cost of energies is covered in more detail in my book, “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear Catastrophe. Fukushima – March 2011.”

For more information visit www.yoshidas-dilemma.com

My book on the Fukushima nuclear crisis is now available

Following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in northern Japan I began researching a book. The focus was on the meltdowns and YOSHIDA COVERexplosions that had occurred at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and in particular the people who had battled to ensure an even bigger catastrophe was averted.

That research culminated in a book titled “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear catastrophe – Fukushima, March 2011” and I am delighted to announce that on March 11, 2017 — exactly six years since the day of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, that book was published.

There is a website about the book here. It includes an overview of the book and an eight-page extract.

The book is now available through the publisher’s website here and also on Amazon here

It was never my intention to offer my own personal views on the important issue regarding nuclear power, only to try and find out what exactly had caused the triple meltdowns and to try and find an answer to a fundamental question: Should a country like Japan, which experiences one-tenth of the world’s biggest quakes, really be housing so many nuclear reactors.

Below are some comments about the book. I hope they will inspire you to check it out.

“Rob Gilhooly has written what is probably the most comprehensive English-language account yet of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.  Gilhooly is among the best-informed foreign reporters on this issue in Japan, having travelled to Fukushima several dozen times since being one of the first journalists to arrive in the prefecture on a freezing night in March 2011.  He gives the story of Masao Yoshida, perhaps the key figure in the disaster, all the detail, sympathy and pathos it demands.  His remarkable pictures throughout the book are a bonus.  Highly recommended. “

— David McNeil, The Economist.

“A powerful synthesis of the technical and the personal, Gilhooly succeeds in conveying the events of March 2011, its aftermath and the dramatic impact on the people of Fukushima and wider Japan. Six years after the start of the accident, Yoshida’s Dilemma is a necessary reminder of how through the actions of heroic individuals and luck Japan avoided an even greater catastrophe.”  
— S. David  Freeman, former Tennessee Valley Authority chairman, engineer, energy expert and author of Energy: The New Era and Winning Our Energy Independence

“As one of the few journalists to have covered the Fukushima story from the very start, Rob Gilhooly is perfectly placed to discuss the disaster’s causes and aftermath, and its wider ramifications for the future of nuclear power. From the chaotic scenes as the plant went into triple meltdown, to the plight of evacuated residents and Japan’s long and troubled relationship with atomic energy, Gilhooly combines fine story-telling with journalistic integrity to produce a book that is admirably free of hyperbole.” 
— Justin McCurry, The Guardian.

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:

yagi

 

“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!

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.”

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