Nuclear Energy and Reproductive Labor – The Task of Feminism

Photo: the cover page of “実践非暴力直接行動シリーズ3 女と反原発 – Women and Anti-nuclear Movement” (1988)


An Interview with Mari Matsumoto

(June 12, 2011 in Tokyo)

Jfissures = J

J: The 11th of June was the global day of anti-nuke action and there was a large demonstration in Tokyo, in which we participated. Can you talk about other types of actions besides street protests?

M: First of all, keep in mind that I am not aware of all kinds of activities during the past three months. As of today it has been three months since the nuclear accident, and at this point we have a new series of action among women in more invisible fields in comparison to protests in the street and governmental buildings. We can say that this is a new movement of parents who are engaged in reproductive labor. Here in Tokyo even, 250km away from Fukushima, this kind of movement has also begun. During the past three months, we have come to realize that we can no longer rely on our government that has totally neglected in taking adequate safety measures, and that we can no longer trust the safety myths played out by the nuclear industry. So the parents who grew concerned about their environment for raising kids started exchanging information, forming study groups to learn about radiation, buying their own Geiger counters to monitor radioactivities in their neighborhood; parks, kindergartens, sandboxes and so on. They are also negotiating with local schools to start monitoring radioactivities, and for the safety of school lunch, they are appealing to or negotiating with local governments. Learning from Chernobyl it is certain that the effects of radioactivity is several times more harmful to children and youth than to adults. This is even a consensus among such organizations as WHO, but the Japanese government managed to ignore it by setting up lax measures for children.

Their decision was a horrifying one. In April, a grassroots organization took samples of breast milk from nursing mothers in Tokyo metro area, and radioactive materials were detected in some of their milk — even from mothers in Tokyo! This group, based on their experience after Chernobyl accident, immediately tested those mothers with help of physicians. They called for testing: “in order to correctly understand the circumstances in which you and your children are put.”

J: How have the movements like these started in the first place?

M: To my surprise, these movements have grown out of purely autonomous and grassroots activities. Both national and local governments have no appropriate measures to take, for their purpose is to completely cover up the effects of radiation to one’s health. Therefore previously unorganized parents and supporters began working together in order to understand their living environment in detail.

While it is not easy to grasp this kind of grassroots movements engaging themselves in reproduction from the viewpoint of big labor unions, alternative globalization and movements based on street actions, it has been cultivated from the peoples movements against industrial pollutions and the neighborhood movements in the ’70s. Also it is slightly aligned with the practices of anti-nuke movements that flourished in the 80’s following Chernobyl. In fact some activists from that era are working now to support today’s actions. In this sense we can call it a revival of the social, collective experience of the past. We are now witnessing the wisdom and collective memory operate together with “the desire of today’s activism to know accurately their situation caused by the nuclear disaster.”

I was impressed to see how the two factors are developing the actual practices one after another. In Chiba Prefecture next to Tokyo, several ‘hot spots’ – areas randomly irradiated more highly than other — have been found. In the city of Kashiwa, parents have already collected more than 10,000 signatures to petition the city for a better safety measure. I assume in every one of Tokyo 23 wards, there may be at least a few grassroots groups to monitor neighborhood radioactivity. These groups, however, are still isolated from their neighbors and local communities, and even spoken ill of being “too worrisome,” “extremely anxious” and “hysterical” about radiation — notwithstanding the fact that they are contributing to revising safety measures of the local communities by discovering hot spots in sandboxes and swimming pools. In addition some NGOs have started monitoring radioactivity in food, which is difficult for individuals to do. We have seen support groups to help pregnant women, children and single mothers in affected areas; meetings and networks are being built among evacuees from Fukushima and surrounding areas. If you visit any of these meetings, you get to hear in detail and be filled with various personal stories as to how the nuclear disaster affected their ways of living and how it changed their everyday routine.

J: So it is that we are witnessing the way everyday struggles are rising with tremendous importance. How do you see it is viewed through feminist point of view in general?

M: Perhaps the feminism that is based in traditional academism may not be capable of fully embracing the everyday struggles and practices of the present situation. Herein at work is the history that the Japanese feminism has long been dragging. For instance, the anti-nuclear movement first rose up in Japan in the 1950’s, then again from the late 70’s into the 80’s at the time of Chernobyl. During those periods, the main motivation for women to be involved in the anti-nuke and anti-nuclear armament movements was deemed as highly dependent on the standpoint of a mother. Thus the term ‘mother’ was over-represented in the scene. The kind of feminism that stressed the individual independence of women was highly critical of this tendency. In short, the criticism was that it might maintain and reinforce the division of labor by gender role and patriarchal authority, and by making a political claim from the vantage point of “as a mother” and “for our children.”

In fact there is a historical fact that during the 50’s, a part of women’s movements played a favorable role for the development of energy by the state, for the vantage point of simplification and modernization of housework. Also there appeared certain organizations of mothers supporting the peaceful use of atomic energy. If you look further back, there is a historical fact that organizations of ‘mothers’ tended to be led by the state. In the time of WWII, mothers were praised as the “producer of children- soldiers of the future.” And women’s liberationists sometimes endorsed the state policy and were incorporated in the war. Thus generally, feminism in Japan is very cautious of women voicing their opinion and participating in politics from mothers standpoint. Following the current nuclear accident, too, we have observed the similar kind of criticisms by feminists. Many are doubtful of the phrases such as “save children” that put emphasis on mother’s point of view. On my part, I find this very unfortunate. I think that this kind of criticisms is missing the point, considering the particular circumstances after March 11, 2011. Because, for one thing, the state and the government in the meantime are plainly exposing children in danger, let alone not “saving” them from the disaster by giving proper safety measures. Nor are they taking a protective measure for pregnant women in light of reproductive health. On top of that, the authorities are trying to take control over the data collected from children and pregnant women, in order to underrate the effects of radioactive contamination and to maintain the nuclear industry. Basically, the nuclear industry and the state of Japan, even after the Fukushima disaster, have not given up their intention to stay with nuclear energy and continue exporting the nuclear reactors overseas. For this purpose they are desperately seeking to negate and deny the fact that the lives of people in Tohoku and Kanto area are in danger. Accordingly they have not had children and mothers evacuate, but instead raised the maximum allowance of radioactive intake up to 20mSv/year — 20 times higher than the international standard. They also continue to spread propagandas like “there is no immediate health effects” and “worrying about radiation is worse for your health.” This is the situation where the patriarchal state, far from protecting children and mothers, has in fact abandoned them, and is about to coax and tame them. Following the experience of Chernobyl aftereffects, German feminists, Maria Mies and Claudia V. Verhoff wrote a book called Chernobyl Changed Our Lives: Why Women Have Had Enough. I noticed that in this book the same phrases — “no immediate health effects” and “worrying about radiation is worse for your health” — have repeatedly appeared as the catch phrases used by the governments of Germany and other European countries to calm down people’s anxiety over radiation. These are the precise words employed by the driving forces of nuclear power, and as the manual of social control after nuclear disaster. Therefore, to make demands such as ‘save children’ and ‘give priority to evacuate for pregnant women’ is gradually becoming a means of protesting against the state and the nuclear industry, especially in the circumstance inverted by negation. Feminism needs to carefully examine the situation, following the upfront reality.

J: If we regard the ideological and historical context too highly, it is hard for us to grasp what is in front of us. Theorists tend to do this.

M: That’s probably true. I suspect that the feminism in Japan is now under pressure for a great reconsideration and for a drastic change of itself. The present condition we are facing is unexplainable under the lines of social constructivism and counter-essentialism, which have long been mainstream in Japanese feminism. At least, during the last twenty years that I have been involved in feminism, I have never seen such a significant number of parents, mothers to be precise, actively mobilizing themselves.

This situation is something I have never experienced before. Women and mothers are standing up without reason, theory, or even feminism. However in Japanese society, the term ‘mothers’ tends to be implied only as love of and emotional connection to children. Media is eager to depict “desperate mothers fighting to protect their children” sometimes with a little bit of ridicule. But the point I would like to emphasize is that parents are reproductive laborers for their raising children and domestic works.

Since the nuclear accident, people have been spending enormous amount of time for reproductive labor and related obligations. As an easy example, you don’t want your children to drink tap water because it might be contaminated with radiation, so you would have to go and buy 2 or 3 bottles of water per day each of which costs you about 300 yen. This is about the necessary amount in a household with one child. It probably weighs 4-5 kilos; to carry this would be a tough labor. If you want to feed your family with safe food, you’d need to spend a lot of time finding and choosing ingredients. I think this is an issue of ‘labor’ enforced upon people by the nuclear state. Yet I still see some feminists just repeating their theories by ignoring the subtle yet significant changes in reproductive life taking place on daily basis. I must ask: whom are the feminists trying to help, and with whom are they seeking to connect?

J: So there required is an enormous amount of labor and skills for care in everyday life.

M: I think so. To give you an extreme parable, the labor of raising a child is a labor without freedom to strike. In this labor, to let the child live or die is upon your hand. Reproductive labor and care labor consist of ongoing minute labors lasting twenty-four hours. In addition to these labors, parents are working to watch out for radiation, obtaining safe food, collecting information and medical knowledge — they are having to have excessive amount of work needed for well being. There are claims that almost only mothers and women are unfairly carrying the labor on their shoulder — this is understandable. Some suggest that we “demand the governments for social support so that some of the heavy responsibilities of mothers are taken off from their shoulders.” However, without the active voice and initiative by mothers in each community, no public health authorities or medical welfare institutions would start moving. Thus I think the feminists should reconsider ‘mothers’ in the context of gender prejudice and sexism in our society as a whole, instead of defining them as an existence who is “backwards and subservient” and “egoistic and hysteric, being obsessed on their own children only.”

If in a society mothers are in low social status and not liberated, this also means that in the society the status of all women is degraded. Thus this is the time all women must take time to communicate with each other beyond the differences such as mothers/working women and child bearer/non-bearer. Furthermore, after some years of neoliberalism, now reproductive and care works are becoming tougher than ever on the people. Economic gaps among women are widening too. We must note that it was under such circumstances we experienced the nuclear accident. I am emphasizing this because it is very unfortunate to see, even after the nuclear accident, ruptures among women becoming deeper and conflicts among them harsher. Another instance of damages on the reproductive work is that agriculture and fishery have suffered and will continue to suffer from enormous losses due to the radioactive contamination. The primary industry is –pretty much like child-care—having to bear insecure elements under capitalism, which grows faster around science and industry. It is an easy target of cut-offs at times. As it was revealed in the aftermath of the accident, the primary industry is the area that is hardest for recovery once an accident like this occurs. A nuclear accident gives such a fatal damage on the nucleus of the conditions of human lives.

J: In terms of parent’s movement, how was the siege of the Ministry of Education on May 23rd?

M: Many people assembled at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in central Tokyo, demanding withdrawal of “maximum allowance of 20 milli-Sievert per year for children.” Among them were parents from Fukushima, who attempted a direct action by presenting their demand to the minister in person, but he would not meet with them, and the withdrawal of the ’20 milli-Sievert’ did not take place that day. However, the people from Fukushima certainly left a strong impression by having made a trip all the way to Tokyo. Thereafter, the Ministry, even though passively, began considering the cleaning of contaminated areas and revised the maximum allowance of radiation dosage. We saw a progress. And gradually no longer just parents — many supporters started showing up. Fukushima residents and children have since been directly expressing their demands and negotiating with government officials. So the government has no other choice but to hear Fukushima’s voice even in formal manner. I think there has been a bit of change in power dynamics since the May 23rd siege. This all goes back to the initiative of the people; parents, children of Fukushima and NGO supporters, who stood up amidst the severe living situation. A little sad thing is that we didn’t see many from younger activist circles in Tokyo Metropolis join this action. In addition, there seems to be a separation between the movement of the people struggling around reproduction issues, the one mentioned earlier, and demos and protests in the street.

J: Why is that so?

M: You can’t blame anybody for not being able to get involved in all kinds of actions at a time. But one reason, if any, might be that the tasks we have to tackle have expanded so widely that the traditional sense of social movement can no longer embrace them all, as if parallel to the expansion of radiation. In fact, even if you politically appeal for ‘anti-nuke’ and ‘de-nuke’, you aren’t necessarily concerned with or interested in such micro issues as those concerning medical care, body, food contamination or children’s right to live. This is a little unfortunate though, because these issues are also related to your own body. The radioactive contamination after Fukushima nuclear accident will continue for decades, and will expand more widely. So you will have to have a wider scope for your actions. Tokyo is a city that wants to cling on the myth of ‘safety,’ as it tries to maintain the function of capital, to keep the economy alive, and to continue holding onto the real-estate values. It is, as it were, the stronghold of nuclear safety myth. Neither the government nor the residents would want to acknowledge the radioactive contamination too easily. In addition, we will need a spatio-temporal imagination in order to envision how we are going to live in the post-nuclear disaster climate. To do so, we will need a different position and different thinking from the activisms centered on street demos and protests in a traditional sense, those which exist in a shorter span of time. Hereafter the people will have to live with radiation for decades to come. Plus, whether Japan decides to fade out with nuclear energy or shut all nuclear reactors, the effects of the accident on March 11th 2011 will prolong and stay with us a great deal, for a long time. We cannot seal it off as if it had never happened. How do we live with the ‘rupture’ of time and space that was brought up by this event? Although neither Tohoku nor Tokyo would happily admit, we will most likely have to live ‘together with radiation.’ Under such circumstance, we will have to consider how we are going to create resistance from within the aspects of life necessities; food, clothing, shelter, living space, cohabitation space and our own bodies. Three months have passed since the accident, we seem to be at a turning point now, and our tasks will keep changing in harf a year, one year, five years from now. And as time goes, I hope the subject and recognition of the movement will continue to change both internally and externally.

J: With that in mind, do you have any model movements in terms of form of practice and engagement, and what kind?

M: It’s a difficult question. I don’t think I can answer right away and not by myself alone. I imagine that all of us are seeking to find out what model we want. For instance, I find it important for each one of us, from a viewpoint of a person who actually lives in this situation, to carefully analyze and respond to the evaluation of the accident issued by IAEA, and ICRP’s regulation, concerning radioactive dosage, upon which the Japanese government relies to set the current standard. This lax standard based on the safety myth is the very substance that causes the wasteful fissures between those who fear radiation and those who don’t care about it. We do not know of any adequate measures to deal with the presence of ‘internal exposure,’ which has long been concealed by a thick veil of the nuclear industry. All we can do is to avoid and stay as distant as possible from radiation. It is also important to spread awareness that we should not believe in or swallow the medical theories imposed by the power that supports nuclear energy. And we need to continue measuring radiation on community basis, as exemplified earlier, and continue patiently to work together for understandings radiation and ways to protect ourselves from it. Furthermore I think it will be crucial to figure out how to resist the discrimination from radiation-related sickness and resulting changes of appearance. Japan has already experienced many forms of discrimination — caused by sickness from Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Minamata industrial pollution in the past — from which we must learn reflectively.

Personally I remember I got inspired by some of the AIDS activism like ACT-UP in the early 1990s. Of course we need to be careful not to mix up the effects of radiation and HIV virus, but I think we can find important hints in ACT-UP!. While being two different substances, virus and radiation are both the cause of danger that gets enclosed within a society. Under such circumstance, members of the society would strongly oppose the discrimination against people in high-risk groups, but at the same time, they try their best to distance themselves from the HIV virus itself — the cause of danger — along the basis of each community, sexuality and lifestyle. We must prove in practice that there is no contradiction in stating “we accept that we have to live with radiation scattered after the march 11 accident” and “we have to keep ourselves as far away as possible from the radiation.” We also need to make layers of thought and speak out. In order for us to do so, the total disclosure of medical and healthcare information and knowledge is very crucial. The effects of radioactive contamination will bring various changes to human bodies, not limited in Fukushima but in surrounding areas, in different degrees. Hence by acknowledging the radioactive effects to their own body, the adults are going to need to use this knowledge, especially, to protect children who has the most risks in the future. AIDS activism has a very thorough resistance against healthcare authorities and pharmaceutical companies, which is exemplary for us.

Lastly, I would like to stress that no matter how many fissures we create among ourselves, we must not forget that the entire responsibility and the cause of this disaster fall onto the nuclear industry and TEPCO. This short period since March has only been the tiny part of a preface to a long long beginning ‘after’ the Fukushima disaster. Looking at the results of Chernobyl, changes in people’s and children’s health condition became more prominent by 5,10, 20 years sequence, after the accident. A single event of the nuclear accident has made huge changes in conditions of the environment — in soil, air, ocean and food. Plus, tens of thousands of people have had to move out of their homes whether forcefully or voluntarily, by the effect of nuclear disaster. What effects are we to expect on the horizon of human lives, and how do we resist it, and how do women put their creativity into practice in reproductive territory? While the public deem women’s resistance ‘hysterical’ and ‘over sensitive’ I would like to not cast away any anxiety and dilemmas that women are experiencing in the field of reproduction.

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Jfissures = J







M: おそらく従来のアカデミズムに依拠した「フェミニズム」ではこの日常生活領域での実践を充分に捉えられないのではないかな、と思います。そこには日本のフェミニズムのひきずっている過去の歴史も大きく作用しています。たとえば過去に、日本で反核運動が盛り上がったのは1950年代。それから1970年の終りから80年のチェルノブイリ事故の時でした。その折に、女性が反核・反原子力運動にかかわる主な動機は、「母親」の立場に依拠したものだと、とらえられ過度に表象されてきました。それに対して、女性の個人的自立を尊重するフェミニズムはとても批判的でした。単端にいうと「母親として」とか「子供のために」という立場から政治的主張をするのは、かえって性別役割分担と、家父長制を補強し温存してしまうのではないか?という批判です。




J: 思想史的・歴史的な観点を重要視し過ぎて、現状分析ができなくなっている。一般的に理論家はそういう傾向がありますね。




J: 親達の行動という意味では、523日の文部科学省の包囲はどんなだったのですか?






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