17 May 2011

Rokkasho Rhapsody (六ヶ所村ラプソディー, 2006)


In his famous poem “Ame ni mo Makezu”, Kenji Miyazawa writes of wandering bewildered in the summer cold. One does not normally apply the word “cold” to Japan in the summer, but in Tohoku and eastern Hokkaido a cold, wet wind known as Yamase blows in the summer months when a high pressure system comes down from Okhotsk in the north, bringing rain and fog with it.

The Yamase winds make the region ideal for the harvesting of wind power and while some wind mills do dot the landscape, their owners encounter problems with selling the energy to the grid because of the tight relationship between the big electricity companies and nuclear power. In Rokkasho Rhapsody (Rokkasho-mura Rhapsody, 2006), director Hitomi Kamanaka takes her documentary camera north in order to investigate the grassroots protests against the building of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant for spent nuclear fuel.  She interviews a cross-section of the community including people for, against, and unsure.

As the recent disaster in Fukushima has made clear, the nuclear industry in Japan has used its enormous power with government officials at local and national levels to push ahead with the building and maintaining of nuclear facilities in spite of the risks. They deliberately target remote communities with high unemployment in order to curry support from people desperate for any kind of work in order to support their families.

The handful of people who were willing to talk to Hitomi Kamanaka about in-depth about their reservations about the safety of building a nuclear reprocessing plant find themselves labeled as kooks who are standing in the way of progress. In actuality, they are kind-hearted, concerned citizens who fear that their local community won’t realize the mistake they have made acquiescing to the nuclear industry until it is too late. 


Keiko Kikukawa (read more about her) expresses herself through her love of the environment. Her parents resettled in Rokkasho during the war after their home on Sakhalin was burned to the ground. She runs a garden that she calls the Village of Flowers and Herbs and she regularly holds a Tulip Festival as a kind of peaceful protest against the nuclear reprocessing plant. Kikukawa speaks of trying to live her life in the open so that her community can see that she is an honest woman. In spite of her unthreatening appearance, she has endured police surveillance and she has heard that some believe that she is being paid by communists to spread propaganda.

Another voice of protest is the former squid fisherman Mr. Sakai in the Tomari District of Aomori. In the 1980s the local people became bitterly divided on the issue of bringing nuclear energy to the region. Sakai featured prominently in a documentary film that was made at the time called “Tomari is not losing the fight!” Although he is now getting on in years, he continues to hold fast in his anti-nuclear stance and he talks about the extreme pressures put upon his fellow protestors when plans for building went ahead anyway. Those who had been against the proposals lost their jobs. Many of them keep quiet about their beliefs today so that their children won’t lose their jobs. He had to move away. The bottom line was that power and money quashed local protests.

The people supporting the reprocessing plant are not depicted as some kind of evil force, but rather business owners and workers who are putting their practical present concerns ahead of the possibilities that the future may bring. People like the local dry cleaner who hopes to secure a contract with the company cleaning their uniforms, despite the obvious safety concern that he and his workers could come into contact with nuclear residues on the clothes.  The most dangerous opinions expressed by people in this film are the ambivalent ones - like the middle-aged couple who just shrugs and say that they don't care because they are old.

In order to investigate the long-term consequences of living with a nuclear reprocessing plant, Kamanaka travels to Sellafield in Cumbria, England. Here she meets with a local fisherman and a Scottish scientist on the Isle of Man, who talk about the problems of radiation in the Irish Sea. Most striking is Kamanaka’s interview with Janine Allis-Smith, a local activist against nuclear energy. Allis-Smith is of a similar age to Kikukawa-san – and even seems to have the same chubby black-and-white patchwork cat! She speaks about the serious effects the Sellafield plant has had on the health of the locals – particularly those with family working at the plant. Allis-Smith’s son was one of an alarming number of children to develop leukemia. Many of these children did not survive the illness and one common thread that most of them had was a parent working at Sellafield.
Rokkasho Mura Rhapsody (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie

The information about Sellafield forms an important part of the documentary’s message: not only to inform communities like the village of Rokkasho of the realities of living with a nuclear facility, but also that a reminder that this is not just a local but a global issue. Watching this film only five years after it was made I wondered how many disasters like Fukushima do we need to have before people wake up to the fact that we need to look to sustainable resources in order to provide a safe and successful future for the human race? The irony is that the same Yamase winds that make this coastal region ideal for environmentally friendly, sustainable energies such as wind power, will be the same winds that will spread radiation inland if/when disaster strikes.  As one of the scientists points out, it really is just a question of when not if, and sadly we learned in March in Fukushima that he was right.

This film ought to be picked up by public broadcasters around the world so that people can be better informed about the way in which the nuclear industry operates.  It is available on DVD (JP only). Order now from cdjapan.  UPDATE: Now available with English subs from Zakka Films
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