Things are getting worse for Japanese children

This essay was contributed by Alexis Dudden, a scholar on Japan in the CLAS History Department, who was in Japan with her young son when the earthquake hit on March 11. She returned to the U.S. via Osaka on March 18. Here she gives her view about Japan’s handling of the crisis, particularly as it relates to children.

Unfortunately, things are getting worse in Japan.

On Friday, March 25 Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced he had no idea when the nuclear nightmare plaguing much of Japan might end. At the same time, Japanese and international press reports are describing new leaks, newly damaged parts, neutron beams shooting into the sky, sickened workers, sickened people, and a wholly contaminated national food supply.

Worse, the government of Japan is only today suggesting that Japanese within 20 miles of the plant “voluntarily” remove themselves from the area.

The idea that these people have the means to “remove themselves” is frankly preposterous. They are already devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, and are trapped without the money or transportation necessary to “voluntarily” move themselves or their families. In many cases, their cars were washed away, and the public transportation that has been only partially restored to stricken regions remains — as it was before March 11th’s natural disasters — very expensive.

I really hope that Connecticut and the United States have better plans for such an emergency.

What should Japan be doing to minimize this disaster’s effect on its people? Let’s start with the children. No matter what one thinks about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone has learned from those histories that children suffer much more from radiation than adults, as do generations yet unborn.

The Japanese school calendar follows the old British system, and the spring term is now ending. The government, however, hasn’t cancelled school in areas afflicted by the radioactive clouds. Children are still walking to school every day.

Certainly it makes sense for children and adults to try to get on with life as usual following a natural disaster — it would have been great in New Orleans if schools had been able to function so shortly after Katrina. Yet this is a man-made horror that is continuing to unfold. What is the point of final exams or graduation ceremonies in areas where the water and milk are not safe to drink?

With help from the United States military and humanitarian forces in Japan, the Japanese government should act fast to temporarily move all people — beginning with the children — from the areas most threatened by the dangerous radiation leaked by the Fukushima plant. Better yet, parents within 300 miles of the plant should have the choice and financial assistance to move children temporarily to safe areas in Japan, including using U.S. bases in the southern part of the country for such relief work.

Many governments, including the U.S., have issued significantly stricter restrictions on their citizens near the nuclear site than Japan has for its people. Japan’s leaders should be erring similarly on the side of caution, not of risk.

With the proper funding and coordination, Japan still has time to shelter its children from this tragedy. But they will need to act fast if they are to have any appreciable influence.

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