The Lessons of Fukushima symposium held at Willamette ended Saturday afternoon and I will be heading home.
There was a diverse group of participants at the symposium, including people from Japan, Canada, and the US.
Although I learned much at the conference, what struck me most forcefully was the power of denial and the optimism of youth.
I discussed the power of denial yesterday when expressing my outrage over Mercy Corp's oblivious attitude toward the radiation contamination in the area of Northern Japan they were assisting.
I learned more about the power of denial today. A thoughtful professor from Japan described the horrors of children forced to stay inside for fear of radiation contamination, day in and day out.
Yet, this same thoughtful professor who was so genuinely concerned about the welfare of his nation's children simultaneously claimed, without hesitation, that the Japanese government is testing ALL food and drinking water thoroughly, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
I also learned about denial when an "independent researcher" from Fukushima claimed that radioactive Iodine-131 is gone in 8 days and therefore children in the area are now free from any risk of thyroid cancer.
This misunderstanding of what a half-life represents (in 8 days 1/2 of the Iodine-131 has decayed; in another 8 days 1/2 of that is left, etc.), as well as the isotope's health effects, seemed deliberate, as was the failure to acknowledge my power point slide that demonstrated Iodine-131 was found in snow in Tokyo on Jan 20th of 2012.
Maybe denial is necessary to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape?
Maybe denial is an ubiquitous, human survival mechanism, hard-wired into our neural networks?
But, what happens if Chernobyl's toxic legacy of terribly damaged children is repeated in Japan?
Can denial salve the unfathomable depths of despair experienced by a parent of a suffering child?
I am at a loss at how to even begin to understand....
On another note, a strange aspect of denial at the symposium was its transmutation into optimism.
The optimism of the young Americans who had visited post-crisis Japan was as striking as the stoic efforts at normalcy (through denial) among the older Japanese adults.
The threat of radiation contamination was not real for these early 20-something students.
Their energy and desire to help "reconstruct" northern Japan was simultaneously refreshing and troubling.
Might their very presence reinforce the capacity to deny the invisible toxicity?
Or will their youthful care and optimism operate as a salve for people who have been essentially abandoned by default since no viable alternatives have been made available for their relocation?
I do not know the answers to these questions.
I do not know what is right. I am troubled.