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Surfrider Japan update - Full-length interview with leader Hiromi Matsubara

June 09 2011 | Coastal development, Waves, Coastal armoring, Water Quality, Surfing,

On March 11th, 2011, a terrible earthquake devastated Japan. The island saw one of the most terrifying hours in its long history. In a country accustomed to earthquakes, the reports are sobering, both in human and environmental losses.

On its official website, Surfrider Japan maintains its optimism in a celebrated Japanese proverb, “Nana KorobiYaoki”: “Fall seven times, rise up eight.” The Japanese people appeared calm to the West. Yet the reality is very different, and as if smiling could overtook the pain, today it is a country in the midst of reconstruction.

This natural disaster brings to the forefront many of the concerns previously raised by Surfrider Japan’s anti-nuclear program. Recall that the Nippon branch has fought for years to stop the discharge from Rokkasho reactor.

The following is an unedited transcript from a recent conversation with Hiromi Matsubara, executive director of Surfrider Japan.

Hiromi, last May 1st you met with the Surfrider community of Sendai, what were your first feelings?

It was very shocking and depressing, even two months after the earthquake and tsunami happened. I’ve never been to a war zone or a refugee camp or any state of that, but it just looked so. It was covered with mud, debris. Houses, trucks, everything was scattered everywhere and it just looked like the end of the world.

I expected it to be like that but just to see it with my own eyes is very hard to express. To hear what the locals had to say, they were very brave to have come over that fear, and all the worries and depression. They were also supportive and welcoming for our visit. Although I was very depressed by the sight, I was very much touched and grateful for the people that had welcomed us there.

Have the events of March profoundly changed the face of Japan? Are these changes nationwide or only regional in affected areas? 

Some changes are definitely profound, at the local beaches up north near Sendai, Fukushima, Miyagi. Nobody knows how fast they can clean-up the beach or if there is any chance to surf at those beaches again. Nobody knows for 4 main reasons.

First the highest priority for people is to survive and maintain their living. Residential areas come first. Clean up beaches where surfing is perceived as a pure pleasure, that’s not the priority for most people, so we have to respect that.

Secondly, there is an important shortage of volunteers, resources and funding to be able to implement any clean-up along the beaches and coastlines.

Thirdly, there have been a lot of debris that are floating or have sunk underwater. I think this is most crucial point for Surfrider. I took some pictures of the beaches, where you see those big tankers that were washed on to the beach. You can see standing from the beach like sharp heavy metals or trucks or cars that probably buried or sunk underwater from the tsunami. Nobody knows unless you go scuba diving and check underwater.

Fourthly, not just the debris, the sewage pipe has been badly damaged so there are a lot of toxic materials and pollution in the water. It is not safe water quality to surf.

These are multiple reasons that have profoundly changed the local beaches that have been affected by the tsunami and earthquake.

Nationwide, because the local beaches up north are in such a situation, even a month and a half after, surfers across the country were in kind of a mourning period. They were hesitant to actually go in the water and surf, just showing some respect for the surfers and the victims of the tsunami. Otherwise surfers would be looked as very stupid, ignorant and disrespectful for going into the water, because we still have traumas and aftershocks of the tsunami. We still do have some small  tremors . Some people are still very cautious about going surfing. Plus, the pollution from the Fukushima nuclear pipe plant is still ongoing. Some people have even tested themselves of the radioactive waste in the water. Others have relied on government or official announcements and they think that it’s safe. So people have started to go back in the water. But there is a nationwide fear and thinking of a conspiracy about is it really safe or how would the radioactive waste affect healthy and body in the long term. So it has raised that awareness and consciousness about the whole nuclear energy policy as well as the radioactive material can damage of course the soil, the sea but the surfers as well. That has become a nationwide concern for many surfers.

The photos are striking, but what solutions can the international community offer today to curb this problem?

Of course we appreciate generous funds and support, not only from Surfrider International but from individual donors and many people have supported us to date. We try to come up with a plan that will somehow help not just the short term but in a long term.

One of the actions that we tried to strategize that is entitled to Surfrider mission is water quality testing which we have been doing for many years. With this crisis, we are now facing the threat of radioactive material, which is very dangerous. If you want to conduct testing either in a laboratory or under the supervision of experts, that will cost a lot of money and a lot of research and negotiations because it’s not like any other toxic material.Surfrider is not on the position or the knowledge or the expertise to say the water quality is safe, that it won’t harm us

But, there is a great demand and need for people for Surfrider to act and continue water quality testing and improve on that system. Our mission has now been trying to investigate and work with experts and other third parties to come up with a program to be able to improve our  water quality testing scheme.

Perhaps the only thing that we can ask for the international community is to support that program in funding. Maybe it’s particular to France, if you have anything related to that because you’re also a nuclear-driven country, any materials, information, programs or creating awareness or lobbying, I think we could leverage that. And in the short term, we still need a lot of help and volunteering and clean-up, and we need funds to do that. All this would be very appreciated. 

The events linked to the central reactor at Fukushima highlight the nuclear problem. In the whole Surfrider international network, Surfrider Japan has the most advanced program tackling nuclear issues (because of what it has done with Rokkasho). Did those events strengthen your antinuclear position?

That’s still an ongoing discussion among the Surfrider Japan activists. Even while we were very active about the Rokkasho campaign, they were people inside our organisation that wondered how far and how deep we want to go into this subject, because we’re not an antinuclear organisation. Although we support that statement, our core activity, our mission is not antinuclear.

The whole nuclear issue is very complex and politically driven, so the more we put our energy into , the more we get confused. The volunteers have devoted a lot of their time and energy but the reactions from the government have been not promising

While so doing, the Fukushima power plant exploded and unfortunately the TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) disposed a large amount of toxic wastewater into the ocean, which caused a lot of tensions.

The government was accused because of its inadequate guidelines and the emergency  processes, in such events as earthquakes and tsunamis, when it does hit a nuclear power plant. As a result, what happened was disposed radioactive waste into the ocean without notifying the international community and the neighboring island of Korea, China and Russia, and if you go further into the Pacific, you can reach west coast of California and Hawaii. Nobody was informed about that. It was a huge debate and a huge accusing of the Japanese government taking such irresponsible actions, destroying the marine diversity and the ocean environment.

Many  surfers have now realized that there are many nuclear power plants in Japan and every single one of them is located near the water because it needs water to cool the reactor. At the moment we have this interesting concern and great demand from a lot of individual surfers that they want to know more about this. And the more they know, the more they want to do something.

But again our core mission is not antinuclear actions. Our position after the tsunami was to create awareness that our country is driving nuclear energy policy and offer responsible sustainable lifestyles.there are ways for people to live not relying upon nuclear, collaborating with other NGOs that are driving renewable energies, just being educated and having a consciousness about where our energies come from. It’s not a direct action that could immediately change policies or anything tangible, but it has become more important for us to educate surfers and be aware and conscious about how we so heavily depend upon nuclear. Education is probably our ongoing strategy for the nuclear issue, not just creating awareness but actually creating educational kits

Why were you upset by the government’s reactions, when you were trying to get more involved in that topic?

The Japanese government leaders don’t take risks, neither have they made a commitment. In everything they say, they kind of get away, just giving very confusing or very technological things, so that we don’t get it. And we are not experts, so we don’t know the details. They rumble on about these laws and policies. They just state that it’s written here so and that’s the way we do it. It’s very difficult for us to approach in an unemotional when they are not willing to even listen or communicate with us. It’s just the political structure in this country that is so corrupt.It’s  not just about this nuclear issue, but most NGO, lobbying, protest has not been successful.  It’s not like France where it has civil rights, protest, lobbying and demonstrations that are very popular. People have that power of voice. Here that’s not the way things work. The more we try, the more we see what’s worth the energy, what’s worth the time. That’s what I mean by depressing but we’d like to change that.

Because of the tsunami and the reaction of the government and the leadership of this country has been proven that it’s just a false issue. Nobody tells the truth, nobody is willing to take the risk, no leardership has been proven. A lot of citizens have realized that we can no longer rely on the government that is not telling us the truth, and mostly it’s government propaganda. The newspapers, the TV, the mass media aren’t always telling the truth.

What we had as information was very vague and even European media tried to contact like European citizens in Japan to get more information. There was a big international debate on how is the information covered and reported to the community. It was widely reported that all the Japanese people was reacting very calmly, which kind of sounded surprising.

I think in general people are very calm compared to the Westerners. You don’t really go on protests or you don’t really raise your voice about certain issues. In a way it’s good because we are very homogeneous country and people have lived that way respecting each other and its cultural beauty. But that’s not the case anymore and what the governments and politicians are trying to push is still nuclear. There’s one clear case that everybody is shocked about is that the exclusion zone of Fukushima plant[1]. A very high amount of radiation has been detected from the vegetables and the soils up north and the government has announced that they are going to use those crops and vegetables for school lunches. It’s just like killing innocent children and a lot of parents and concerned people raised their voice and did lobbying against the Minister of Education. But nobody came outside, nobody seemed to care. most people especially elderly people only  have newspapers and TV to access information. So some of them don’t know that it’s very dangerous to even live there; they’re being told that it won’t have an immediate impact to their health. That’s what they’re being told. But we know that no way it’s safe. Maybe it’s safe for grown-ups, whereas for children and babies and pregnant women, it’s just a matter of life and death now.

But still people are very calm. It’s quite insane, if you hear all these stories and see how people can stand still. It’s a great thing that in this tragic crisis people still can remain calm and be respectful and support each other. They just accept what it is and it’s a force of nature. But it’s about time that we break that calmness.. We need to act and to get people engaged and mobilized, enacting in the right way. But It’s a cultural thing. Japanese people are not used to adapting to changes and it takes time. they want to maintain their business as usual

What challenges must Surfrider Japan have taken on after this event? How did SF Japan organize? What are the priorities to deal with?

In my personal opinion and position as being executive director, we have to continue our mission, which is protecting oceans, waves and beaches and the enjoyment of that. Also we have to be reliable and transparent in everything we do because after this tsunami and earthquake, a lot of people have supported us whether in funding or becoming members or donations. Everyday I get emails asking: “Is it safe to go in the water? Can you do water quality testing? Any way I can help?”

So We have to maintain a very transparent and accountable position and  try to engage and communicate with all the individuals that have shown their energy and will to help and walk with us. We can only do few things at a time, we are very small organization, we have limited funding and resources.

There are a lot of other issues that I’m facing related to being accountable but we’ve just seen tremendous amount of growing membership, funds and donations since the earthquake. We have to be very careful what we announce or strategize, about how we prioritize things.


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