Fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Fukushi (that's Fukushima minus alternatives)

by Alfred Birnbaum

Chaque fois que quelqu'un meurt, c'est la faute de Jules Verne.

                                           —Salvador Dalí


"Sorry, sir, no can do," the clerk rebuffs me flat out. "You've barely got enough fuku points for one teenager. Two kindergarteners, maybe. No way can you save a family of four with your rating. Look here." He pushes a standard blue file across the desk and points to a column of figures on a printout, then flips over to my Hello Worth application. "With all due respect, sir, your community values could be better."

My community values, a euphemism for my ostensible worth to society. An index of my taxable income bracket factored by my health and age, projected on the mean national curve. Education and job skills—my "productivity quotient"—must bear in there somewhere too. The objective assay of my replacement cost, or rather my trade-in potential as a person.

"But all I want is to hand off to my son and grandchildren, so they can make use of my consumer share," I protest, "and preferably before the next quake. What could be so difficult about that? It's not like I'm asking the Prime Minister for special favours, dunderhead! I don't see you giving up your damn desk for anyone!"

My fireworks fizzle on the expressionless functionary. Irate remonstrations are his daily fare. "You're not making this any easier, sir. Please. I do understand and I do want to help, but I can only proceed as authorised. It seems you no longer qualify for preferred volunteer alternate status."

"How can that be? I filed right after the disaster. I'm ready. I'm expendable. The paperwork has been in process since this whole confounded fukushi program began. You can't just retroactively ..."

"Apparently, sir, you submitted your request under the provisional guidelines laid out by the JDP Administration in October '11," he explains, gesturing at my application again. "Which have since been superseded by the Second Emergency Relief Act voted in by the New LDP Coalition during the final session of the Diet last December and enacted as of this April. They did announce these changes well in advance, you know. Regrettably, the requirements have changed. Now given the differential in regional demand versus the per annum population continuity coefficient ..."

Regional differential? Continuity coefficient? Lamebrained statistical nonsense! Whose welfare state is this anyhow? It's getting hard for a person to go with any dignity these days.

Japan Democratic Party, Liberal Democratic Party, what's the difference? They make announcements all the time, flip-flopping every other week, who can keep track? What the hell do I know about policy anyway? I'm an electrician. I just know I'm out of a job is what I know. My shop is gone. Ever since the quake, there've been no houses to wire, no appliances worth overhauling, nothing to even short thanks to the shortages.

I remember when fukushi meant something else. For one thing, they used to write it with different kanji characters: fuku and shi, "fortune" and "providence," implying share-the-wealth togetherness. In a word, "welfare." Not the current fuku meaning "alternate" and shi for "aspiration"—certainly not the other shi that spells "death" outright. Clearly an affront to public sensibilities, though of course every bloggart and chatroom pundit knows we're talking "substitute fatalities" here. Fukushi, they text, is death-by-proxy. Die now and get a free bag of groceries to give away, even if the goods were yours to begin with. Confused? I sure am.

By now it's hard to think back to when the government's interventionary "life-for-life" exchange scheme was still a temporary measure. The multiple disasters were bad enough—a massive off-the-charts earthquake followed by killer tsunami inundations followed by reactor failures, grid outages and real fears about invisible radiation—but the foundering official response and corporate condescension were even worse. Dazed and stonewalled, what were we to believe? The papers and television weren't about to pull the plug on the power brokers. They all shared the same fusebox. In the absence of any real options, nothing they could have proposed under the circumstances would have struck us as especially radical. Nothing shocks people in aftershock.

It all started out relatively simply, as bureaucratic muddles do. When the power company was found to be assigning unskilled part-timers to mop up at Number 2 during the first few weeks (in full knowledge, it later emerged, that a meltdown had already occurred) foreign commentators were already trumping up body counts. "70% of the personnel are gonners. They won't last two weeks." Russian experts pronounced with cheerless Chernobyl candour that the plant staff should just go in there and get the job done knowing they wouldn't be coming back. A lot to ask from local hires, it seemed at the time, kids barely out of high school who'd signed on because the company was the only employer around.

Enter the so-called "Silver Servers"—or "Kamikaze Pensioners" as roving Western stringers chose to conflate issues—retired science teachers and technicians who volunteered to brave the radiation and make good on their otherwise sidelined years of expertise. What was a little caesium bombardment and risk of cancer in a decade or two, the septuagenarians reasoned, if they'd be dead by then anyway? Better to serve the country as twilight heroes than fade to grey. "Better us than those misguided young fools," one Eiji Murata, a former electrical engineer from Tochigi was quoted as saying. "Appreciated or not, I'd gladly trade in my last breath if it means saving another of my community."

That was the beginning of the end. If tireless work is the Japanese national religion (agnostic youth excepted), then self-sacrifice for the sake of the group is the martyrdom of choice. The media played up the ninjo melodrama with tearful human interest stories and op-eds touting spiritual fortitude. Not to be mocked, the national government flexed its inertial mass and strongly recommended that remedial efforts be left to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority. The Governor of Fukushima, in a belated show of bravado autonomy aimed at winning back his constituency who had been herded off to the safety of other voting districts, countered by rubber stamping entry permits into the 20km evacuation zone—though he later pleaded "no recollection" of a leaked comment urging former power company employees to take "first crack" at the reactors. Then the Mayors of Iwaki and Minami Soma near the devastated plant got into the act, each posting appeals on YouTube for other municipalities with nuclear facilities to join them in bucking the sizeable subsidies they received from the respective plant operators and petitioning for surer safeguards. Mixed messages buzzed back and forth, as their best intentions soured into vying for leadership in this "solidarity" movement. It was a circus.

Needless to say, 70% of the personnel didn't die, nor did Murata's Marauders make much headway through the political minefield. Disaster relief and decontamination efforts had become too important to be left to volunteers. It was big business now, too big even for the Police or Fire Brigades or Self Defence Forces. Despite all the interim economic setbacks—market shares plummeting, banks scraped of holdings, underwriters defaulting on countless simultaneous insurance claims, quake-struck industries folding, immigrant labourers beating a mass exit back to Pernambuco—reconstruction was booming. With so much to be infrastructured from the ground up, engineers and contractors were suddenly smiling after nearly two decades of recession. Granted, the enthusiasm was more about leverage than salvage. Contracts were awarded behind closed doors, as expected, to the very same folks who built and fuelled the faulty mega-furnace in the first place, but who were we to complain? Criticism is not the Japanese way. Jobs and livelihood are sacred to us and, as a people, we've always been collectively adept at looking the other way. We were assured that what was good for the construction industry was good for us all.

"Listen, I come here once a week to check my Hello Worth status," I insist, "and all I get is the same old run-around. If someone reminds me one more time that 'crisis' and 'opportunity' are written with the same kanji, I swear I'll ..."

"I'm sorry you feel misled, sir," the clerk commiserates, "but we're all doing the best we can. I didn't write the rules."

"Well who did?" I demand, as if knowing that would improve anything. "And now you tell me someone's gone and rewritten them? Who's in charge here?"

That September, six months after the disaster, respected Professor Akito Konoike of the Hitotsubashi University Policy Studies Centre held forth in a primetime NHK Close-Up Gendai interview that the "new austerity" brought on by the triple threat crises quake, tsunami and meltdown was not necessarily a bad thing. A lean and hungry Japan, he argued, was a healthy Japan. Productivity had been more robust before we overextended our resource base. Japan's star had shone brightest back in 1960, right at the start of the Era of Rapid Economic Growth, when our total population of only 94 million was far less dependent on electricity and imported fuel. It was our own drive and initiative that carried us through the '64 Tokyo Olympics and Expo '70 to an optimum sustainable level of prosperity per capita. We were just under a hundred million then, some twenty-nine million—or 22.7% percent—less than now, a figure which curiously corresponded to the percentage above 65 years of age who no longer actively contributed to the workforce. In fact, Konoike argued, it would be in Japan's best interest to trim back even more of our present unproductive consumption of resources. Tigers growled at our doors, other Asian economies sharpened their fangs, eager to devour our markets. We shouldn't allow our competitive edge to be blunted by "imprudent" welfare spending. We must reverse debilitating social trends and reassert our manufacturing ascendancy. While he stopped judiciously short of spelling out how exactly he proposed to prune the greying population (especially so close to Respect the Aged Day), he did suggest we might even do with a few more earthquakes, natural or otherwise.

Amidst the ensuing furor, a phalanx of seismologists warned his vision would come to pass soon enough anyway. It seems the entire Kanto Region, teetering precariously on the abutment of three tectonic plates, had always been prone to tremors, but this last big jolt had surely hastened the inevitability of a disaster even worse than the Great Earthquake of 1923. The probability was upwards of 80% within the next thirty years, they calculated. Or no, make that within the next five years, and right underneath central Tokyo, with upwards of six-hundred thousand dead. Previous seismic predictions were simply wrong; new findings had come in from robo-sonar surveys of offshore faultlines showing the government's simulations assumed outmoded geodynamic models, whatever that meant. Once again, mainstream media stammered and stayed comment on such dire new predictions, but this time the scientists would not be silenced. Rather than wait around in denial, they reasoned, better to thin out the millions before it was too late. Gaming establishments started taking bets on the date of the "Big Event" as it came to be called.

What happened next is a little sketchy to me, but all these ingredients got mashed together and an intoxicating new national scheme began to ferment. Ministries set about co-opting the original Silver Servers' self-sacrifice and blending it with tax rebates and other financial incentives to be served up as a cure-all for our present sorry state. Touted as a return to a "strong young Japan," in theory at least, the idea was to pre-empt the grim grey future by reviving the pure potency of our past. Do your part to make Japan great again, reduce your load for the greater gain. Some favoured a lottery system tiered by age group; others held that volunteering was the noble way. Some thought we ought to downsize all the way back to 1952 right after the American Occupation; still others insisted that just before the booming 1980s Bubble was the ideal image of a world-leader Japan. Yet just about everyone, not only those elder percentiles given to sweet memories, opted into the nostalgia appeal.

Nostalgia in the form of a society-wide reduction program, a regimen to bring the nation somewhere closer to the good old hundred million mark that would enable us to share more among fewer. Nice idea, but how to achieve it? Proportionally we needed to reduce the 65+ upper end of the scale, though senior statesmen and elder amakudari cronies still managed to hedge the age criteria by proposing qualifications based on "contributions to society," the usual incumbent-weighted rationale. Right-wing goons in sound trucks blared gunka marches and shouted slogans—Once and forever Showa!—saluting the plan as a bold step toward reclaiming our imperial glory. Loud fanfare, not much in the way of actual policy. Left-leaning intellectuals waffled over the wisdom of staging surrogate doom scenarios, but allowed that we probably could do with concerted "personal divestment" to curb our monstrous energy habit. Shouldn't we, ahem, be conducting more impact studies before instituting sweeping reforms?

Whatever, the general direction was clear, if not the means. We needed to come up with drastic measures and quickly. Through all this, the major political parties fumbled with the exact wording for an apologetic yet harsh, conciliatory though not especially comforting decree: someone's got to go before anyone, let alone a loved one, gets a ticket to a sustainable future. Most regrettable (they always say that).

"So now, after how many months, you see fit to inform me my application's no good?" I raise my voice. I'm furious. Feet start shuffling in the queue behind me. "I thought we had an emergency here, I thought Japan was in a hurry to get back on course. What's so damn urgent about keeping us waiting? Why all this 'sink or swim' nonsense if you keep weighting us down with more paper?"

"Please don't misunderstand, sir. Your application is perfectly good, just not as good as it could be." Semantic smarm, followed by more grief. "There are others with significantly higher fuku cumulatives ahead of you, and we can only process a few requests at a time. If you'll just be patient, it may take a little longer, but you'll get your turn. Everyone gets equal consideration. Everyone's in the same boat, all rowing together." Nothing but pep talks and platitudes.

"Yeah, yeah, don't rock the crew. You'd just as soon throw me back down in the hold. Make less work for you."

"Please don't think like that, sir," says the clerk for what must be the twentieth time today. He hands me yet another print-out. "If you wish to register a complaint, here are the steps. We'll be sure to forward it ..."

"To somebody else's in-box," I grumble. "Rising sun, ha! If the new dawn's so damn bright, why are all you people half-all asleep? Forget the fourteen months you've already been fukuing me over, now you're telling me to re-apply so you can wipe the log clean again in another year or two. Why can't you people just stick to one set of rules like you promised?"

In due course, again predictably, bureaucrats were called in to hash out the logistics of "safe passage," the official paraphrase for downsizing Japanese society to life raft proportions. Our politicians, no professionals when it comes to practical details, delegated grey-suited swabs to shore up holes in the hull and man the bilge pumps. Census bureau statisticians conferred with life insurance auditors regarding the finer points of triage. Tax comptrollers took hints on rebates and rewards from frequent flier programs and retail loyalty schemes. Social security administrators consulted the mutual support teachings of various "new religions" and self-help gurus. Section heads channelled feudal samurai for tough inspiration about compulsory service. But mostly, I suspect, the clerks did as clerks do: they sat at their desks and did as little as possible for as long as possible. Until finally, came the thirteenth hour, they merely pooled every conceivable contingency in a sop of requisite forms, cross-referenced conditions and pursuant procedures only they could pretend to understand—thus cementing that institutionalised impasse we now know (and endure) as the Fukushi program. At least the desk jockeys guaranteed themselves jobs. Thankless unending routine, just the way they like it.

Not surprisingly, their 425-page perfect-bound ballast block proved too dense for even the most dedicated reader, which must be why the proposed measures were adopted by the National Diet without a referendum. The overriding imperative was, I gather, to make things more efficient "like America." They reshuffled ministries: Health, Labour and Welfare was subsumed under Economy, Trade and Industry, whose Agency for Resources and Energy now incorporated the newly established Fukushi Authority to proactively balance "consumer supply and demand"—that is, to make our well-being accountable in terms of societal "dues" and thus eliminate wasteful living. The whole thing smacked of a circuit-breaker socialism, if you ask me. Each citizen now had a utility rating, a quantifiable trade-in value.

With numbing bureaucratic tact, they ranked us in a "deposit/return table" appendix to the initial report: an exhaustive ranking of educational levels, occupations, memberships, activities and, in certain cases, caesium toxicity counts, minutely prorated to standardised values applicable toward tax credits, goods, services, even property, all theoretically transferrable to any individual(s) of our choosing. The more fuku points you accrue, the better the chances of your Hello Worth application being approved quickly so that your appointed "alternate" is guaranteed your share of consumables. No points, no exchange—everything of yours reverts to public domain. You get the picture.

So here I am, simply trying to get a square deal for my life, a decent trade-in for my own demise. Only it's no longer a matter of just dying. Accidents don't count and forget "ordinary" suicide. Inheritance has become a thing of the past. Though maybe that's a non-issue, since nobody wants Fukushima hand-me-downs anyway. Maybe it's a good thing for Japan to have fewer people, so nobody has to live up there in the dark. They've weaned us off nuclear onto unclear power.

Unclear to me at least. What's going to happen with us? What am I good for now? Give them three minutes, and they'll do the tabulations. What's left of my life is easier to crunch than numbers. Like I said, I'm an electrician by trade. By blood actually, having taken on my father's electrical repair business, something my son was smart enough to avoid. So OK, I understand diagrams and how to follow instructions, if and when I see any point to it. I also know all about electrocution, as if that would get me anywhere now. My life in three digits is meagre collateral.

Look at my occupational rating: Electrician - 470. That's crap compared to Police Officer - 8560 or even Garbage Collector - 2890. The ratings for Town Counsellor or Mayor aren't subject to general scrutiny, but they're five and six figures. It's as if anyone involved with electricity has been slammed with all the blame for the disaster. What about the folks who manufactured air conditioners or sold all-electric housing tracts, I ask you, didn't they create the huge demand that justified the nukes? What about those pachinko parlours blazing lumens along every motorway in the country—practically our only excuse for entertainment in the boonies—or the 24-hour convenience stores or the vending machines on every street corner? Did I personally OK them to build a power plant in a quake zone beside a flimsy seawall? Did I flick all the damn switches?

All right, I may not have been the best father or neighbour. I'm hardly what you'd call civic minded, no fuku points in that department. I never attended PTA meetings at my kid's school, but I'd still like to see his family—my daughter-in-law, my grandchildren—get a fair shake. I don't have much to my name but a patch of radioactive ground under a pile of rubble, where they now tell us we can't rebuild for another fifty years. Still, I'm as patriotic as the next guy. I have no qualms about stepping aside to make room for coming generations of my countrymen—if only I didn't need a permit. Their good citizen seal of approval.

"... regrettably, the requirements have changed," the clerk drones on. "With your rating, I can't see an available fukushi opening for another thirty months. And like I said, your points would only go to one teenager, maximum. Do think it over, sir. You may just have to live."

"Well, we can't have that, can we?" I snap at him. "I'd only come bother you jokers every week." Which of course elicits no reaction.

I storm out of the local NTT telephone relay station that serves as our makeshift city hall and find myself wishing my father had moved us to America when he had the chance. Or Brazil, they must need electricians there. If I had any money or my son had any sense, that's what we ought to do, but, no, we're stuck here, unplugged and powerless.

By the time the Hello Worth desk closes, it's getting dark and I'm marooned in a fog. My angry energy goes drifting out to sea.

Maybe now the ground will glow to guide our way at night without generators. Maybe we can burn heaps of government papers to heat our homes and cook our meals. Hell, maybe even North Korea will take pity on us autumn fireflies and let us all defect to their nuclear winter paradise. Will the last person to leave Japan please turn off the energy savings?

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
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All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.