This post is by Missing in the Mission blogger Suguru Mizunoya.
Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.
The Great Binding Law, Iroquois Nations
“Voicing for the voiceless” is a phrase that I liked and used frequently during my service with UNICEF in Africa. I was (and am) so proud to work for children. I had been giving voice to children in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, many of whom still suffer from lack of access to education, clean water, shelter, and nutrition. But I didn’t know that children in my own hometown in Fukushima, Japan, were also voiceless. The day the Great East Japan Earthquake hit our hometown—and three nuclear power plants in Fukushima started to meltdown—they too needed a voice.
* * * *
March 11, 2011. Morning in Kenya. My mobile phone rang. But I turned it off, as I was working. It rang again. Again, I turned it off.
It was a nice morning in Nairobi, and I was attending a workshop. The workshop just started and I did not want to be distracted by a call. Then the phone rang a third time. Thinking it must be an emergency, I picked up. “Suguru, a huge earthquake has hit Japan. Somewhere in the north. My parents are away. I just opened all the doors of our house so that we won’t get stuck inside.”
It was my wife in Saitama prefecture in Japan. She delivered our baby boy four months ago and was staying in her parents’ home until the baby grew big enough to travel to Kenya, where I worked.
“I called your mom in Fukushima. I was able to talk with her once. She was fine. But I can’t reach her anymore. Something is wrong with the mobile communication system. I can’t call my mom, either. I am scared.”
I told my wife to stay at home and try to fill the bathtub, just to secure water. And try to collect more information. As soon as we hung up, I told my colleagues that I needed to contact my family in Japan.
I did not return for two months.
I joined UNICEF’s emergency response team so that I could not only help my family, but our friends and neighbors, too. I worked in Iwate and Fukushima Prefecture, where I am from.
* * *
Barely a month after the explosion of the nuclear power plants, Iwaki city government decided to reopen schools. I don’t know how this decision was made as some schools further inland decided to delay their openings, and unlike cities and towns inland of Fukushima, the gas and water pipes in Iwaki city were still damaged and public transportation was not yet restored. Furthermore, the mayor and senior officials announced publicly that the city government was supporting local agriculture and fisheries by promoting the consumption of local food by local people.
This may not sound very special to you. Or even interesting. But I was furious with these decisions.
There was no system in place to monitor the amount of radioactivity in our food supply. It was not yet known how much radioactivity had been released from the power plants. The critical moments to prevent a meltdown had not yet passed. Yet the immediate implication of such an announcement was that all school meals would be prepared using local foods—without even a simple test to detect their levels of radioactivity.
Was the local government considering the implications for children when they made such an announcement? I understood that the mayor wanted to protect local industries and calm worried fishermen and farmers. He responded to the voices of these local adults. But who was giving voice to the children of Fukushima? Who was representing their interests?
I was shocked. I had been giving voice to children in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. Now I realized, for the first time, that children in my own hometown were voiceless, they too needed a voice. Children, no matter how rich or poor the country they live within, need someone to give voice to them when their own voices are silenced or ignored. I learned that the realm of working for children has no national boundaries.
I love my job – I loved working with youth groups as a volunteer in Vanuatu, with officials in the statistics office of Thailand, and friends and colleagues in the UN family. I was inspired, educated, and learned so much from them. I always wished that, in our time together, I was able to offer some small help or support. I loved visiting local primary schools in Kenya. I loved talking with my colleagues working in hazardous duty stations in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many more places. Some of these colleagues died during their missions. I sent an email to my former boss, who died while he was leading the UN mission to eradicate Ebola. I sent it after his death, knowing that I would not receive any reply from him. But I wanted to thank him and tell him how much I respected him. He is my hero and I want to be a part of the efforts to make a change in this world. But now, I don’t know if I should continue to work as an aid worker abroad or if I should return to my hometown – as now the children there also need someone to amplify their voices.
* * *
Fukushima’s experience taught me that we need to change the way we aid workers, ordinary voters, parents, and citizens look at social and economy policies. If I steal money from someone, I will be caught by the police because it is an illegal act. But if we are collectively stealing resources from future generations, we are not going to be caught. I think, on some level, we all know that we are stealing from future generations but we don’t care. Or we care only to an extent far less than what is needed. When I lived in Fukushima, I didn’t care about nuclear power plants. I knew that used nuclear fuels needed to be stored thousands of years, but that was where my imagination stopped. I thought the power plants produced jobs for local communities. That’s it. Only when I witnessed the nuclear accidents, did I realize that we had collectively made a decision to push all the risks and responsibilities onto future generations without realizing the true costs of our decision. My hometown is dead.
Fukushima and all the experiences in developing countries taught me that we need to revisit human rights as operating within two dimensions. One is horizontal: we need to ask whether children’s various rights are being fulfilled in the present. We should care about the realization of their rights to education, survival, protection, and so on. We know that. But we must also think about whether we are creating a society in which future generations of children will be able to realize their rights. Our decisions today will have long-term effects. This is an expansion of the concept of rights along a forward-moving temporal dimension. My next mission is to find a space in my life to promote this concept, although I am trying to figure out how and where to make the first step. Or maybe this is it.