Response: February 2014 Issue

Respite from Radiation

Japanese youth travel to summer camp in California

Respite from Radiation

As Japan continues to struggle with the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a group of youth who live close to the troubled plant escaped for two weeks to the United States, where they met Asian-American youth in a United Methodist summer camp in the mountains of California. The six youth were accompanied by the Rev. Hikari Kokai Chang, a United Methodist Women regional missionary and executive director of the Wesley Foundation in Tokyo.

Ms. Chang said the youth simply needed a break from the stress of living close to what remains an extremely dangerous industrial disaster.

"Physically they are still developing, so they need rest from that radioactivity, they need clean air and clean water. But they also mentally need to be away," she said. "Living in the Fukushima area they are constantly reminded of the radioactive pollution. It affects what they eat and drink; they have to buy special water. They have to search for vegetables from somewhere else. They are constantly living in the shadow of the disaster.

"And if the kids aren't worried about it, their parents are constantly concerned about their children's health. People try to ignore it, saying they don't care much, but deep inside it's a constant worry. That's why I wanted these youth to spend a few days in a completely different place, somewhere where they can eat and drink what they want, experience new things, and forget for a few moments that they are Fukushima kids, and simply be who they want to be."

One Japanese boy said that by leaving the country, he gave his mother a break.

"At home my mother spends a lot of effort to find safe food for me," said Saitaro Otake, a 16-year-old from Yugawa. "She checks where the food is from, and tries to get rid of food that absorbs contamination easily, like mushrooms. While I'm here in the U.S. she doesn't have to worry about that. So I'm happy because it's giving her a rest."

Many Fukushima residents say they've been stigmatized and face rejection elsewhere. Cars with license plates from the troubled prefecture can be targets for rocks in other parts of the country. That's a heavy burden for teenagers already anxious about acceptance.

Some Japanese youth had a trip to Korea cancelled, simply because of where they live. "One of the friends and I were going to Korea on a school trip, but it was cancelled because the Koreans regarded us as contaminated. They rejected us. I really wanted to go because I love K-pop [Korean pop music]. I was very sad," said Minori Hisada, an 18-year old from Aizuwakamatsu.

"Since the tragedy they are 'Fukushima kids,' and they'll forever be Fukushima kids. That label is stuck on them," Ms. Chang said. "Wherever they go, people will worry that they are contaminated. So their future is unknown. Some worry about whether it's safe for the girls to have babies. Or maybe they'll only be able to marry among themselves. We don't know. It's scary. They are constantly reminded that they are Fukushima people."

Coming to America

Ms. Chang said the idea of taking a group of youth to the United States emerged as she and other church workers were reflecting on how to help the Fukushima survivors tell their story to a broader audience. She was particularly concerned for youth, given how Japanese society prioritizes the perspectives of older people. She contacted Asian-American United Methodists in the United States and was invited to the weeklong summer camp for Asian-American youth.

Along with Terumi Kataoka, a Japanese Christian activist in Aizuwakamatsu, they recruited youth through the Internet. Ms. Chang says Japanese youth are very busy with schoolwork, even during their vacations, but they finally identified six "brave youth" who wanted to go, and whose families agreed. The Wesley Foundation, using funds that originated with United Methodist Women, paid for the flights, and the youth's families paid the camp fee.

During visits to San Francisco and Los Angeles before and after the camp, the youth—chaperoned by Ms. Chang and Ms. Kataoka-stayed with Asian-American United Methodist families at night while visiting tourist attractions in the daytime. They went to Fisherman's Wharf, an Oakland A's baseball game and visited Hollywood. They attended a community gathering at a Buddhist temple near San Francisco and worshiped with Asian-American United Methodist congregations.

Although Ms. Chang says she tried to prepare the youth for what they'd experience in the United States, the culture shock set in quickly.

"In their minds, American means Caucasian, blond hair, blue eyes," Ms. Chang said. "We told them Americans aren't all white, and that they'd meet many different kinds of people, including Asians who are American. When we got to the airport in San Francisco, the host families were there to pick us up, and although they looked like us they reached out to shake our hands. We bow in Japan, so the kids didn't know what to do. That was their first encounter.

"At the camp, they were with kids the same age who share a lot of the same culture. Like kids everywhere they're on Facebook and know the same pop culture, and talk a lot about which boys or girls are really cute. Despite some language difficulties, they could really communicate well. And they even started hugging the other kids, something they'd never do in Japan. And they were singing along and clapping with the songs during worship. These kids aren't Christians, but they've seen Christians in Japan, who tend to be very square people, very polite and quiet. The youth came to the United States, and, wow, they discovered that Christians are lots of fun and can be very silly."

Cultures meet

According to Viki Inoye, the camp director, the conversations at the camp were an opportunity for the Japanese youth "to know that people here care about their situation . . . even when U.S. media coverage has disappeared." She said the Fukushima youth also learned about the history of the Japanese in the United States, including the painful stories of internment.

Kelli Yamaguma, an 18-year-old participant from Palo Alto, Calif., said she found a lot of commonality with the Japanese students. "We talked a lot about music and discovered we have a lot of stuff in common. I think they're brave to come to camp, because I'm nervous about going to camp, and I know most of the people. Coming from another country and having English as your second language must be even scarier. It's amazing how well they connected with everyone," said Ms. Yamaguma, who admits that before the camp she knew nothing about the challenges the youth faced in Japan. "I knew about the tsunami but nothing about the power plant explosion. Although my family is originally from there I don't know much about it. I'm pretty Americanized."

None of the six Japanese youth are Christians, still one attends a mission school. Ms. Inoye, who serves as youth director at Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose, Calif., says the camp afforded a good exposure to the Christian faith.

"They were introduced to a God that embraced them with open arms and gave them the opportunity to experience God's spirit and grace firsthand," she said. "Expressions of faith through care, concern, worship, singing, fellowship and warm hugs allowed them to experience the love of Christ. Conveying a love for God and one another through our actions really has no language barriers."

Finding the truth

Ms. Kataoka's husband is a pastor, and the church they serve in Aizuwakamatsu became a refuge following the explosion for people fleeing even more dangerous areas closer to the nuclear plant. People showed up at the church covered with coats and blankets in order to keep the radioactive fallout off their bodies, she says. Ms. Kataoka eventually fled the area herself, taking her youngest child with her to Tokyo and then Nagoya. She admits it was a difficult decision to leave.

"Many who fled felt they were throwing away the people they left behind. They felt guilty. When I left I felt like one of the disciples who left Jesus on the cross," she said.

After two weeks, Ms. Kataoka went back home, and the church continued to function as a refuge for families fleeing the disaster. And it also served as a gathering space for community members asking hard questions about what had happened.

"In an emergency the government doesn't protect its people, it protects itself," Ms. Kataoka said. "Neither the government nor the power company told us the truth. So we had to find the truth by ourselves."

The center served as a safe space to search for answers, and for exchanging information about the availability of safe food and water. Because the group believed that local physicians were in the pocket of the power company, it brought in a doctor from outside the region for periodic health visits. It purchased Geiger counters to detect and measure nuclear radiation and trained local residents how to use them, particularly for screening food. It built an indoor play area, complete with sandbox, where children could play without worrying about falling radiation.

Ms. Kataoka says the center also supports activities that take children out of the area for short periods of time. "After Chernobyl, I went to Belarus and saw programs to get kids to camps outside the fallout zone. They checked the radiation in their bodies when they arrived at the camp and when they left after three weeks of relaxation, good food and safe water. The levels of cesium in their bodies dropped by 20 percent in that short time. That's why there are many new camps for children being started in Japan, and why this opportunity to take the youth to the U.S. was such a blessing," she said.

Ms. Kataoka has long been active in advocating the preservation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution-which outlaws war as a means of resolving international disputes involving the state-in the face of attempts by some in Japan to abrogate it. She says the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is more evident after the disaster, and Japanese citizens, especially young people, are more skeptical of official versions of truth.

"I learned in the weeks after the accident that TEPCO [the plant owner] and the government were lying repeatedly to us. That helped me understand that the government wasn't telling us the truth about other things even before the disaster," said Namiko Saze, a 15-year-old girl from Niigata who participated in the U.S. trip.

"People can find what's really happening on the Internet, but the government and TEPCO keep thinking they can cover up the truth. It's silly. People know what's going on, so it's almost comical that they continue trying to deceive us," said another trip participant, Takuma Yamaguchi, a 16-year-old boy from Aizuwakamatsu.

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is response senior correspondent. His award-winning blog is at

Posted or updated: 1/31/2014 11:00:00 PM