Contaminative crises: coronavirus and radiation

My longread on the social and personal consequences of the Fukushima disaster came out this week: Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers.

When I arrived in Japan, televisions were blaring news of spreading infections in a cruise ship moored off the coast of Yokohama. Japanese nationals were being repatriated via emergency flights from Wuhan. Everyone I spoke to mentioned the eerie parallels between the virus and the radioactive release from the Fukushima plant. One night at 1am, I walked into the dining room of an inn I was staying at near the evacuation zone. The owner was still up, squinting at her laptop under fluorescent strip lights.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said, and sighed. “A Chinese student wants to come and stay in a couple of days. I don’t want our guests to be infected, but then again, they said we were contagious too. I know how that feels.”

Indeed, evacuees fleeing the plume in Fukushima back in March 2011 were turned away from hotels, petrol stations, even the homes of relatives. “Some friends said we were still contaminated. I wasn’t offended, I think they were right,” Mizue Kanno, a 67-year-old woman I interviewed for the article, told me. “In Osaka, I felt like a mouldy orange. You know when an orange rots in a cardboard box, it spreads the mould around? That was me… I thought a mouldy orange should stay put and not spread the contamination around.”

Some who’ve contracted coronavirus have had the same sense of shame and internal stigma: they feel embarrassed for having contracted it, for not having taken sufficient precautions, for having potentially passed it on. The inherent shame in having contracted it seemed to nudge some people into self-denial. In March, I heard from two acquaintances who said they were suffering from coughing, fever, and had lost their sense of taste, and yet, even though these symptoms are highly indicative, they texted: “Not sure if it’s the virus; maybe it’s just the flu?” One was still sending their children to school; the other’s partner was still going to work. Perhaps it was denial or disbelief that this “foreign” flu had come to them.

Another similarity: the fury at the (perceived) incompetence of governments. As the virus spread, I found the craving for an authoritarian government response — both in Japan and elsewhere — fascinating. In March, the British public was begging for a crackdown that the government seemed reluctant to give, for fear of reducing liberties. People were scared of dying, or losing those they loved. They were prepared to make sacrifices, but scientists guessed — wrongly — that the public “wouldn’t accept such restrictions.”

After the triple disaster in Japan, the public wanted protection: promises; assurances; compensation. While in the course of ordinary life many people want less interference from the government, at times of crisis we look to our leaders in expectation. People everywhere are furious at the (perceived) incompetence of the government. Either because they didn’t react quickly enough. Or they were too draconian. Or their rules too arbitrary. Their advice too vague. Japanese activists I spoke to were scathing of their government response’s to COVID-19. “It’s just like after the disaster… they’re not listening to scientists, they’re not taking action, they’re not protecting people,” one woman told me.

Then there’s the way that health concerns have been pitched against the economic imperative. Just as Shinzo Abe and co have battled to get the rest of Japan’s nuclear reactors back online, governments everywhere are contradicting their previous heuristics for defining regulations, or introducing contradictory guidelines. In the UK, children can go and see a lion in a zoo, but can’t go to school; in the Netherlands, brothels are re-opening while nightclubs remain shut. The U.S. is a case unto itself; Trump has been vowing to ‘re-open the economy’ since before cases even peaked.


Both health crises have changed the way we look at the world. We look at people differently. Objects. Plants seem to seethe with radiation; a cardboard delivery box bristles with virus cells.

In a landscape contaminated by radiation, you think, all the time: “Can I touch it?” “Can I eat it?”. It’s the same with the virus. We have this idea that we have to be hyper-vigilant around cardboard and steel. Plastic too. Wearing latex gloves in public is no longer all that strange. (Although, an emerging body of research suggests that it’s shared airspace, not surfaces, that are the main vector of transmission).

But whereas worrying about irradiated people being contagious is unfounded hysteria, the fear of catching the virus from someone else — anyone — is very real. Extremely rational. Those who sneer at what they see as hypersensitivity — who bellow ‘Oh, come on!’ when people ask them to keep their distance — are actually, in this case, the irrational ones.

There’s the conflicts between people with differing attitudes towards risk. In Fukushima, people who are concerned about radiation are sometimes hesitant to express it, for fear of being judged as over-sensitive. I’ve heard the same about people in certain U.S. states. On the other side — some people who are less concerned about transmission of the virus are offended by those who dart out of their way and yell at them to keep their distance. “All the fear, man. It’s so… aggressive,” someone told me.

The same old lie about crises and disasters being great levellers has also been bandied around. It’s not true, of course: the rich mostly have the resources to insulate themselves from it, or escape it, while the poor bear the brunt. Those with less money and resources (not to mention social support) in Fukushima have struggled to build a new life for themselves, or else struggled to manage large sums of compensation money, while wealthier people were able to settle elsewhere. In the UK and elsewhere, there is a truly shocking racial and social disparity between those who die of COVID-19. And all those losing their low-wage jobs, or simply not being able to work and being ineligible for support are suffering far more than the middle-class knowledge workers who have been furloughed, or who have sufficient safety nets to help them through.

The last similarity I can see is the parallel crises complicating recovery: tsunami damage and energy shortage in Fukushima; global recession and climate change for coronavirus. What will governments prioritise in the recovery? In Japan, sadly, the opportunity for an energy transition was squandered, and old coal plants were hauled back online. In spite of the calls for a green recovery, the fear is that governments will point to their empty pockets as they bury their climate ambitions.

One of the saddest stories I found in Fukushima is of people moving back to their old hometowns, only to find them so completely transfigured that it’s not home any more. The virus has echoes of this: life will creep back, but it will be different.

Monsters on bikes

I recently wrote for CityLab about the conflict between cyclists and pedestrians in Amsterdam. I found fascinating that this city’s cycling culture is so often held up as an ideal for other cities to emulate — and yet pedestrians are so often forgotten in the equation.

Our picture of an aggressive cyclist is also often that of a middle-aged man in lycra, but in Amsterdam it can also be teenagers in jeans, young women in heels, businesspeople in suits. Amsterdammers are highly individualistic and extremely direct, which is fuel to the flames when added to the implicit power that comes with cycling. It’s a blessing that few foreign visitors understand Dutch’s idiosyncratic insults — ‘I hope you get cancer/typhoid/syphilus’, because they would probably keel over in the bike lane.

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On pain

Recently I thought I might like to write about pain. It’s a state I’m often in, thanks to myriad overlapping conditions. If I’m writing to explain and describe my existence, then pain is primary.

But the thing about pain is that it shrinks the mind. Consciousness is reduced to a stabbing, thudding, pulsing, sensation that screams its primacy through the brambles of everything else. And it’s entirely subjective. Empaths can transport themselves inside someone’s emotional pain, but barely anyone can truly recall physical pain, other than its intensity or their despair at experiencing it.

That’s why writing about pain is uninteresting. We find it hard to imagine — it’s a sensation locked inside ourselves. All we see is a grimace, which we don’t enjoy looking at for too long. We see the tears on the face of people we love, but we don’t know how to help. We wish for stronger injections, some kind of relief, but we have no idea of how it feels.

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White apologies are almost as bad as the crimes that sparked them

If Liam Neeson could admit murderous feelings for black men, then he should be brave enough to admit that he is  — or was  —  racist.

Throughout February 2019, Black History Month, multiple high-profile white people defended themselves against accusations of racism by insisting they were not racist.

There was Liam Neeson, who, amidst the uproar after his admission that he wanted to kill a black man  —  any black man  —  to avenge his friend’s rape, denied that his rage was racially motivated: “If she had said an Irish, or a Scot, or a Brit, or a Lithuanian, I know it would have had the same effect.”

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Nature confounds logic


Nature sometimes seems to confound logic.

The forest fires we’re now seeing could have been prevented, or limited, if small-scale fires had been allowed to break out more regularly. These small fires, which are a forest’s own way of keeping its ecosystem in check, burn up the brush and undergrowth on the forest floor, which would otherwise act as connecting fuel for a larger fire.

But modern forestries are eager not to let any potentially saleable wood go to waste, so they extinguish these fires quickly when they do break out. That allows the undergrowth to grow unchecked. After a period of no rain, it dehydrates and crisps up, becoming a tinderbox that allows a forest fire to spread rapidly.

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Football as stress relief

DhGlallXkAIXGsT.jpg-largeWatching England play has always been an excruciating experience for my generation. It’s bum-clenching, temple-pounding, teeth-grinding kind of stuff. I watch games between my fingers, or from behind cushions, as if it were the Blair Witch Project. Apart from the repeated trauma and particular sting of lost penalty shoot-outs, there lingers always a terrible feeling that something is going to go wrong: the captain will get sent off for savagely kicking a member of opposition, the defence will fall apart like a badly packed kebab, a country with a tiny population of whale hunters will beat us.

Which is why, last weekend, I entered the England match as ‘WATCH ENGLAND LOSE’ on our weekend to-do list. My husband, somehow deceived into believing England are a good side because it hosts the Premier League, couldn’t understand my pessimism. ‘Because they always lose,’ I explained. ‘Even if the other team are crap. But especially if they’re half-good.’

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Against Convenience

It started four years ago, walking the sodden streets of London with a Japanese friend. Forced to wind around an interminable diversion at London Bridge, I moaned to him about the inconvenience of London compared to Tokyo, expecting him to empathise. Instead, he said, “What are you complaining about? A bit of inconvenience is good for you. It makes us human.”

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what convenience means — what it is, who it’s for, and what it’s doing to us. The definition of convenience is something that saves time and/or energy, but it’s manifested in extremely diverse ways, from ready-meals to sensor-led traffic lights to longer opening hours to lifts to good service and tear-open packaging. Convenience is patently wonderful and liberating.

But it isn’t all good. Convenience saves us from making an effort, or rather, expending mental, social or physical energy, and in doing so, seems to be making us stupider, less empathetic, less patient, more unfit, and fatter. And as most things that save humans energy require energy from somewhere else (an escalator instead of the stairs; a Deliveroo instead of a walk to the supermarket) and more packaging, it’s also doing damage to the environment.

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Back in Japan

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When I walk around the city I feel like all semblance of nature has been scrubbed away and replaced with a simulacra of reality.

Coming back to Tokyo after just six months away after seven years of living here is surreal. Instead of feeling “natsukashii”, recalling all the things I’ve forgotten, it feels weirdly over-familiar, as if I was here yesterday but just have no specific recent memories. Amsterdam and all that has elapsed since I left seems like a dream that occurred at a non-specific point in time. Tokyo, meanwhile, is exactly how I left it, as if just before I hit my head and fell into an amnesiac six-month sleep.

There are some things that I notice now that feel different, however. The fug of thick humidity and the way my body swells in it, making my rings fit again. The bright, bright, white lights and the way maps of restaurants and menus are backlit with a piercing, blinding illumination. Walking the city at 10pm but feeling wired because all the lights are on and my pineal gland is pinging like crazy, sending spurts of adrenaline and cortisol and whatever other hormones do not go the fuck to sleep at night. Continue reading “Back in Japan”