If there was a list of unsung Safecast heroes, Kyoko ‘Kiki’ Tanaka would be one of the first names on it. Kiki has been a core member since shortly after Safecast began, running the office side of the operation for a long time, and coordinating our Japanese volunteers. I spoke with her about some of her memories from the early days of Safecast, the Tokhoku earthquake, and why she continues to work with Safecast six years after the Daiichi disaster.
What are some places you have gathered radiation data?
In the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, I surveyed the neighbourhood in Setagaya ward where I was living at that time. I also surveyed areas in Tohoku near Fukushima Daiichi when I was working there as a fixer for journalists.
What is the last place you have gathered radiation data?
Maybe inside Fukushima, including areas like Iitate, Tomioka, Koriyama, and Fukushima-city. I was up there last year with media people.
You were in Tokyo the day of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. What are your memories of that day?
I was working at home that day, and although it might sound strange to people outside of Japan, I was kind of expecting that we were going to have an earthquake. A few days before, there had been one up around Miyagi, and they tend to come in series.
It quickly became clear that this one was different, though. Most of the time, earthquakes start quite strong and then fade out over time. This one just kept building and building – and continued for a long time. As it got stronger, the things in my cupboards started moving around, and some of them fell out. I headed outside, like we are taught to do during a quake. My house is in the middle of a slope, and as I looked up and down the street, I could see the electricity wires and poles dancing back and forth and saw how the road itself was doing a king of snake-like, winding motion from side to side. Finally, after what felt like ten minutes, it subsided. The first thing I noticed was the clouds. I can’t explain it, but I have never seen clouds that looked like they did that day before or since.
In Tokyo, people don’t often talk with their neighbours, but everyone was checking on each other, to make sure that they were OK. Afterwards I went back inside, and found that many of the things from the cupboards, like cups and plates, all over the floor.
It was clear from the beginning that the quake hadn’t been centred around Tokyo – when you’re close to the epicentre, the ground moves up and down, but when you’re further away, the motion is side-to-side, and that was what we had felt. However, I wasn’t sure where it was.
I turned on the TV, and as I remember, there were early reports of there being massive damage, but there was no news about the tsunami yet.
I started getting a lot of messages from friends overseas who wanted to make sure I was OK. They told me to look at links to international news sites and to watch CNN, and it was quickly relatively clear that the news there talked about much more danger than the Japanese media was saying. As I remember, that was also where I got the first news about the tsunami.
From that experience, you ended up heading up north very quickly afterwards, didn’t you?
Yes, I sometimes work as a fixer for media, and an Italian friend, who happens to also be a journalist, convinced me to go there with him. We started out trying to take the Tohoku Expressway, but it was closed. The same turned out to be the case for the Joban Expressway. In the end, we went back to Haneda, flew to Akita and from there drove eastward to Iwate and Miyagi.
What was that experience like?
The first word I think of is “chaotic.” Everything was chaos, including the roads. There were early reports, which turned out to be fake news, that the Onagawa nuclear plant had exploded. There was a sense of uncertainty and not knowing what was happening. I remember my own feeling being that it wasn’t safe. I decided to come back to Tokyo, and ended up hitchhiking all the way back.
How were the people you hitchhiked with? And were there a lot of cases of people helping strangers in the aftermath of the tsunami?
I got rides from five different cars in total on the way to Akita. I actually asked them why they took me in their car, and was especially impressed by one lady, who said:
“It is such a chaotic time, so we have to help each other. I am also being helped by others. In fact, I am on my way home from my relatives’ house. They gave me all the necessities and groceries I need because my area is heavily damaged by the tsunami and we do not have anything left.”
She even offered me some food, but I felt that I couldn’t accept it, as the lady was from Yamada, in Iwate, one of the cites that was hit very, very hard by the big tsunami.
After I got back to Tokyo, I was receiving a lot of offers to go with journalists to the north to help them, but I also started to hear the first reports about Daiichi. Again, these didn’t come from the Japanese media, but from international friends. The message they all gave me was that I should stay away from that area.
So I’m guessing you stayed in Tokyo? What was the situation like in the city at that time?
Tokyo was quite chaotic too. Compared to the Tohoku area, houses and infrastructure had not been damaged, but people were reacting as best they knew how to an uncertain situation. For example, when news spread that some tap water was been found to be contaminated by radioactive Iodine-133. Soon after, all the bottled water sold out all over Tokyo. I was bit surprised at how people behaved a little selfishly in some instances, because I could compare it with how the Tohoku people I had met offered to give me their own food.
No-one knew what was going on. I, and many others, really wanted a Geiger counter to be able to know what the situation was like where I, my friends, and family were. However, we couldn’t find a Geiger counter anywhere. They were all sold out. In April, there was a big meeting at a place called the Digital Garage. It had been planned for a long time, but after the quake, tsunami and Daiichi accident, the purpose was changed to focus on how we can cooperate and get information about what is happening.
That was where I first met other members of what is now called Safecast. At the time, they were called RDTN (short for “Radiation”), and I remember their presentation well. Pieter Franken was there and he showed a Geiger counter that he had made, and how it could take readings and be attached to an iPhone. He was asking for volunteers to help gather data. I said that I was really interested in helping, and that is how I came to meet them.
It was a coming together of a very mixed group of people from many different backgrounds. Everyone did what they could. Some were technical experts. Some were not. I didn’t know anything about computers or technical things like building devices, but I could help connect people, and I speak both English and Japanese. I ended up doing a lot of work with getting in contact with people in and around Fukushima and finding volunteers that could help gather radiation data in and around the Fukushima area.
It must have been a very tumultuous time. I wonder if there is anything that particularly sticks out in your mind about that time?
One of the things that has stuck with me since that meeting was how it changed my view of what we in Japan call “otaku” – which translates into something like “geek” or “nerd” in English. My image had been that they were kind of insular, not part of the world around them, and to some degree lived in a dream world. To put it a bit bluntly, they liked idols, not real girls, preferred science fiction and anime over reality, and computers over people. Things like that. Yet at the meeting I met so many otaku people who came to the meeting, saying ‘This is my background, and my skills – what can I do to help.’ That was incredibly inspiring, and also humbling.
I think it was a great example of how people from many different backgrounds can create amazing things and results when they come together with a joint purpose. I am not saying that everything went smoothly, like in a film, but looking at where Safecast is today…I think it is a good illustration of how much can be achieved.
What were your initial experiences like with the people who were in the Fukushima area?
They all wanted to know how high the readings were. They also had a fear about not knowing what to do. Another general feeling that many I spoke to had was that there wasn’t a solution but they really wanted to talk to someone. Japanese people can be a bit reticent to openly show their emotions. And if you, for example, were a parent – or the head of a family – you couldn’t show what you really felt about that situation. There was no outlet for that uncertainty, fear – and also anger over feeling like no-one would tell them what the situation was truly like.
Once I went on my first trip to the area, I got a much better understanding of just how difficult their situation was.
We also took readings unlike anything I’ve seen any time since. Usually, you can see the radiation measurements go up and then it stabilises. Maybe that’s around one or two microsieverts. We had some readings where it just kept going up and up and up. Usually Geiger counters make a sound like a metronome. A slow click-click. There were places we went to on the early drives where it sounded like a cicada – a loud continuous buzz.
What are some of the things that you have learned during your time with Safecast that you would like to share with other people?
One would be that you as an individual, working with a small group, can have a strong impact on your community.
The second is that you can find out for yourself what is dangerous and how to combat potential dangers. For example, I couldn’t quite believe it early on when one of the Safecast members explained that Caesium contamination could be brushed off your clothes, because it was stuck to dust particles. It’s not that it isn’t dangerous, but that it can generally be combatted by taking basic precautions. At the time, many people in Japan were really concerned about Cesium and didn’t know what to do about it.
I remember how in the first weeks we had already started talking about the food, and how there were risks of rice fields being contaminated. It was clear that there was great concern about this.
It might be considered a little un-Japanese, but I would also say that it is important to not be afraid to keep asking basic questions to gain knowledge, and not be afraid to keep asking again and again.
Gaining knowledge takes us away from the fear. Fear was always created by the fact there was no data, no knowledge. And I think that lack of data caused anger and repulsion.
After more than six years, what keeps you working with Safecast?
One of the reasons is that, if I’m honest, I sometimes think that something similar could happen again. Lately I can’t do as much as I used to, as I have been very, very busy. At the same time, something that I have felt is that the situation is much calmer than before, and people got have gotten back to their own lives after 6 years. That is a good thing.
Another reason is that everybody needs information about radiation as quickly as possible if something was to happen. At the time of Fukushima, the Japanese government’s information wasn’t easy to access or evaluate. I think that this information gathered by people in the areas where they live and work helps provide that.
But the biggest reason, I think, is that is I’ve got real friends in Safecast. They are kind of like family to me now. Those human relationships are the main reason I’m still a part of it.