Watch a short clip from BBC that explains the crowd-sourced radiation monitoring efforts in Fukushima prefecture.
Visit the Safecast website to learn more.
” On the eve of his appearance at a Victoria University event in Wellington, comic book author Fumio Obata talks to Guy Somerset about his ongoing project chronicling the aftermath of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster.
At art school, Fumio Obata was taught the importance of “the theme, having something of your own, something only you can do”. The theme that has preoccupied Obata for the past five years is one he has truly made his own. He has been chronicling, through striking comic book reportage, the devastating consequences of the magnitude 9.1 earthquake that struck off the northeast Pacific coast of Japan in March 2011, causing a tsunami and meltdowns and radioactive contamination at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Published in Italian magazine Internazionale and on his website, Obata’s comic strips capture the long-term effects of Fukushima and explore some of the knotty social, political and environmental issues raised by the disaster and its aftermath. The strips are destined to become his second book, his first being 2014’s internationally successful graphic novel Just So Happens, for which The Observer reviewer Rachel Cooke praised his “crazily accomplished” storytelling and described him as “a talent to watch”.
Reviews like that – and there were plenty more where it came from – can bring a writer a lot of opportunities and Obata was no exception, but he laughs: “I haven’t used them very well. Terrible, isn’t it? The good guys who had their debuts the same time as me, they are already on to their third or fourth book. Whereas me, I’m just caught up in this massive theme. Strategy-wise, I’m not very good!”
Obata is at Victoria University of Wellington this week as a visiting scholar in its School of Design. While he’s there, he’s taking part in a four-day international symposium on cultural sustainability, including a free public event with fellow writers Australian Ellen van Neerven and New Zealander Pip Adam.
His trip from the UK, where he has lived since 1991, when his Anglophile parents sent him to boarding school there from Japan, was broken with a stop-off in Tokyo and more reporting from the region around Fukushima, where 19,416 people died as a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There are still 2553 people listed as missing and 123,000 evacuees scattered around the country.
A YouTube video on Obata’s website gives a sense of what such reporting can entail. In it, dressed in a white protective suit, he walks through an eerily desolate ghost town that is about two kilometres from Fukushima and part of the designated exclusion zone.
“If you become friends with a resident, they have a pass and you can go there with them,” he says. He and his friend wore protective suits, but clear-up and other workers don’t. “They don’t become ill. They say it is fine. Even in the exclusion zone, it’s not all equally radioactive. Because particles are not going to be evenly dispersed. When you walk around with the Geiger counter, you notice that sometimes the figure is very low, then you go several feet away from that spot and the figure jumps up. Even outside the exclusion zone, if you go to the bits closest to the zone you find the figures are very high.”
Obata’s reporting, which he describes as “a kind of journalism, but I’m more doing my philosophical take on it”, begins with him taking photographs and recording interviews.
“Because I’m trying to structure a narrative, usually it’s the words I start with. I listen to the interviews I did and write down as much as I can. Then I take out the key words, the phrases I think are important, simplifying it. It’s very important simplifying the information. Because what I’m making is a comic strip. It’s not an article, which allows you to have I don’t know how many words: 2000, 3000. I need the space for pictures so I can’t have 3000 words.
“After that, I look at the photographs. Again, I may have about 200 photographs. I have to go through them and use about 10 out of 200. Those photographs are going to be my visual sources. Then I start sketching. All those sketches and rough pictures, they are like pieces of the puzzle. I’ve got a dozen pieces of puzzle with words and phrases and I’ve got the other side of the puzzle with the photographs, and I basically put them together.”
One of the most affecting stories Obata tells is that of Norio Kimura, whose father, wife and seven-year-old youngest daughter Yūna were lost in the tsunami. While the bodies of his father and wife were found in April 2011, Yūna’s remained missing. After the official search for her ended, Kimura continued looking, taking 1000km round trips to do so. After five years and nine months, a piece of bone was discovered that DNA testing proved was one of Yūna’s.
“Yūna was torn apart into small pieces, taken away with contaminated debris, now stored around anonymously,” reads one of the story’s panels. “Had they done the search longer and more carefully from the start, she could have been found a lot earlier, with her body almost intact too.”
The story ends with a panel reading: “A child has been left out alone in the shadow of the reconstruction. And her presence now poses a lot of questions to us.”
This is emotionally momentous material, very different to some of Obata’s other work, be it his 2004 anime of Duran Duran’s song Careless Memories for their then stage show or the short comic about the art of pencil sharpening you’ll find on his website.
Getting it right must weigh upon him, one imagines: these are hugely significant events and he’s almost certainly the only person who’s going to approach them in this form.
“Yeah, big pressure,” he says. “It’s very difficult to do. I appreciate people allow me to talk to them. Some say no, of course. I’ve heard tragic stories but they’ve asked me not to write about it. It’s interesting because they wanted to share that with somebody, somebody who’s not shared the same experience they have.
“The father I met is very vocal because he’s angry. He’s just full of anger. He’s trying to change something about the law, for the love of his daughter. It’s very moving. That’s why he basically opened up to me. His story is still developing and he’s still searching for the remains of his daughter.”
Another panel in the same story is of a city skyline at night and reads: “The nuclear plant was built to provide electricity to the capital region. By knowing Fukushima today, Tokyo could look arrogant, with all the excess of lights and luxury.”
It’s a point elegantly distilled – even poetically so.
But Obata is not one to cast simplistic blame. “It is something I have to tell people, especially my students [at the University of Gloucester and other universities around the UK where he teaches as a guest lecturer] when they try to do something about the world. They are angry young men, angry young people, but there are layers to things. There’s no right or wrong; the people are goodies and the people are baddies as well.
“When a tragedy happens, we tend to think there’s a victim and there’s an offender. There’s going to be people who get accused and there are victims who get all the sympathy from the public. But sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes you can’t make things black and white.
“What’s happening with nuclear is one of these things. If you start reading just a short history of the nuclear industry, or nuclear technology, you see a lot of people believe in the technology and I can’t blame them, because I can’t prove them wrong. They get accused and the people who accuse them have right things to say and I can’t blame them either.
“So basically there are no answers to it and it’s very uncomfortable for the human mind not to have answers. You need a bit of patience and courage to accept that. This is one of the things I am going to say at the end, I think: it’s difficult to accept an open ending but you’ve got to have the courage.”
As for Tokyo: “The consumption of energy really helped to establish today’s Japan’s reputation. And I’m part of it. I can’t really criticise it. I just have to take in the contradiction and try to respond.”
Responding to this and the other contradictions he’s encountered in the past five years still has a way to run for Obata. Asked if he’s going to make the 2018 publication date his website gives for his book, he laughs: “Nah, of course not. I just have to put a lot of energy into it and hope the pictures can deliver the intensity of what I’ve seen.” “
by Guy Somerset, The Spinoff
source with comic strip photos
” As other Tokyo office workers poured into restaurants and bars at quitting time one recent evening, Kohei Matsushita went to the eighth floor of a high-rise for an unusual after-hours activity: learning how to assemble his own Geiger counter from a kit.
Hunched over a circuit board, the 37-year-old practiced his soldering technique as Joe Moross, a former L.A. resident with a background in radiation detection, explained how to fit together about $500 worth of components – including a sensor, circuit board, digital display, GPS module, battery and case.
“My family has a house near a nuclear power plant,” Matsushita said, explaining his motivation. “I want to take this there and collect data, and contribute to this pool of information.”
“This pool” is a stunning set of data – 50 million readings and counting, all logged and mapped on a website anyone can see – collected by volunteers with self-built equipment. Known as Safecast, the group was founded just days after the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that shocked Japan in March 2011.
Though the immediate threat of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has waned, interest in Safecast’s data has not. The organization, which takes no position on nuclear power, is supported by foundations, grants and individual donations.
Part of the growing movement known as citizen science, the idea is to give people the knowledge and the tools to better understand their environment, and make more informed decisions based on accurate information.
Trust in both nuclear power plant operators and the government has not fully recovered since the disaster. As authorities push ahead with the contentious process of restarting dozens of nuclear reactors taken off-line in wake of the disaster, Japanese like Matsushita say a network of monitors controlled by ordinary people could serve as an early warning system in the event of another disaster.
Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration continues with its extensive effort to decontaminate areas around Fukushima Daiichi and reopen evacuated towns and villages, potential returnees say they want a way to verify official numbers that indicate radiation really has dropped to safe levels.
“They want people to come back, but there’s no decontamination in the forest areas and those cover 75% of this village,” says retired engineer Nobuyoshi Ito, 72, who in 2010 opened an eco-farm retreat in Iitate, about 20 miles northwest of the nuclear power plant. Recently, he had Safecast install a radiation monitor at the retreat, which is still in a restricted zone. “We have to check ourselves.”
Joe Moross straps a GPS-enabled Geiger counter the size of a small brick to the back window of his red station wagon on the outskirts of Tokyo and begins a 16-hour day driving north through the most contaminated areas around the Fukushima nuclear plant. In the last five years, he calculates he’s driven 90,000 miles gathering data for Safecast.
Through a Bluetooth connection, he can monitor the Geiger counter’s readings on his cellphone as he goes. But he also keeps a mental log of more qualitative signs of the region’s transformation.
“That 7-Eleven reopened in 2014,” he notes as he nears the town of Tomioka. “That Family Mart came back in 2015.” In the town of Naraha, he gasps. “That’s the first rice growing in the fields here in five years!”
Along the way, he passes several dozen fixed-point radiation monitors installed by the government along the roadsides. Their solar-powered, digital displays provide readouts in microsieverts per hour (μSv/hr); today’s show relatively low readings from 0.1 to 3.8 between the towns of Hirono and Minamisoma. That is less than what one would be exposed to on a long flight, although that exposure lasts only as long as the flight.
Moross’ much more granular, mobile data, recorded every five seconds and uploaded to the Web the next day, generally matches the government signs, though when passing near the Fukushima plant, Moross’ counter produces readings above 4 μSv/hr. (Not long after the disaster, Safecast found readings higher than 30 in the region).
In the town of Iwaki, Moross drops in on Brett Waterman, a 51-year-old Australian who’s been teaching English in the area for 11 years and was having some technical issues with a Safecast monitor.
“Like most people, I knew nothing about radiation” when the disaster hit, says Waterman, who acquired an early Safecast Geiger counter through Kickstarter and has since upgraded to more sophisticated models as the group has refined its designs. Waterman says the data indicate Iwaki is now safe, but it’s important to keep generating frequent readings to provide a reference of what’s “normal” in case circumstances change.
Safecast holds regular sessions for adults to teach them to assemble their own devices and is planning a kids’ workshop as well. Plans and directions for building the devices are also available online for free. Organizers say that people who build their own monitors are much more motivated to use them.
“If they just buy one, they may use it once, throw it in a drawer and never upload any data,” says Moross. “If they make it themselves, they’re more invested.”
Safecast’s tiny Tokyo office feels like a combination tech start-up, old-school shop class, and comedy club for middle-aged expats. As Moross inspects Matsushita’s soldering progress, English teacher Jonathan Wilder, 59, is busy gathering switches, resistors, batteries, and sensors and parceling them out into plastic bags that will become kits for Safecast’s current workhorse Geiger counter, known as the bGeigie Nano.
Moross and Wilder trade jokes as Azby Brown, 60, an expert on traditional Japanese architecture, sits at another table typing up news for the group’s blog; he has just led Safecast’s efforts to publish its first scientific paper, in the Journal of Radiological Protection. Pieter Franken, a Dutch expatriate and chief technology officer for a large securities firm, looks over some materials for the group’s upcoming kids’ workshop.
“Safecast is an interesting social experiment, in a fairly anarchistic kind of way,” says Franken, one of the group’s founders. “It taps into trends including maker-spaces, the Internet of things and even artists. We attract people who want to break out of the traditional way of solving problems.”
Safecast grew out of an email conversation among Franken, L.A.-based tech entrepreneur Sean Bonner and MIT Media Lab director Joichi “Joi” Ito immediately after the March 11, 2011, disaster. As the Fukushima crisis unfolded, Safecast’s effort to produce and distribute Geiger counters and collect data snowballed, drawing in more expertise and volunteers. The group has successively iterated smaller and smaller Geiger counters with more functionality for data collection.
In the last five years, Safecast volunteers have taken radiation readings all over the world, from Brisbane, Australia, to Santa Monica. The group is also working on monitoring air quality in Los Angeles and elsewhere; recently, volunteers took methane readings around Porter Ranch during the gas leak there. Now, Safecast is trying to figure out how to depict that kind of data meaningfully online.
Moross says the potential applications for citizen-based environmental monitoring are vast, pointing to incidents such as the recent scandal over the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Mich., as an example of where deeper community-based scientific knowledge could have improved debate and policymaking.
“Flint and Fukushima have parallels,” says Moross. “Democracy should start from facts, and we need to give citizens facts to understand what’s happening.”
Safecast has taken heat from both pro- and anti-nuclear activists, Brown says. “But if people spend some time with us, they find we are valuable.” Even Japan’s postal service has cooperated with Safecast, putting its monitors on carriers’ motorbikes in some towns and gathering data.
Safecast’s goal now is, essentially, “base-lining the world,” says Franken, crowdsourcing environmental data from every corner of the Earth.
“We should start with measuring our environments,” he says. “Then we can talk about things like global warming and air pollution; from there, activism can start. Once you know, for example, that your street is polluted, you can start to make a change. That’s where we can make a difference.” ”
by Julie Makinen
source with video