“IS Niseko safe from radiation?". The international media coverage of March 11 and its aftermath may have fuelled doubts abroad.
Japanese tourists, however, know Hokkaido is safe. The combined average figures from July and August show a massive surge in domestic visitors with a 65 per cent increase in people coming from outside Hokkaido compared to last year. While thousands of Japanese flocked to Niseko over the summer, overseas visitors have been hesitant to book a ticket. The strong yen and faltering global economy are only some of the factors.
International media has fuelled doubts that Japan is not as safe as has been said. Powderlife spoke to Prof. Philip Seaton from Hokkaido University about the aftermath of March 11 and the media coverage of the disaster.
How was Hokkaido affected by the 11 March earthquake?
Seaton: From the earthquake itself there was virtually no damage. The tsunami affected a number of fishing villages quite badly and the centre of Hakodate city was flooded. As an island, Hokkaido has its own transportation infrastructure and the major ports and airports were basically unaffected. So, beyond a few shortages of various items in the shops immediately after the quake (mainly due to transportation disruptions further south), life has continued “as normal”. If anything, the biggest effect on Hokkaido has been the devastating knock-on effect on the local economy. Many domestic and international travelers cancelled their trips, leaving hotels empty and some businesses in danger of collapse.
What is the latest on the radiation issue, and how has Hokkaido been affected?
Seaton: This is obviously the biggest concern now for people considering a trip to Hokkaido. I am not a medical specialist, but there is plenty of data being issued in English that should reassure people who want to come here. The Hokkaido Institute of Public Health is publishing daily monitoring reports on its website. Check this link.
Air radiation levels show no abnormalities and certainly nothing that we need to worry about in terms of health effects. There have been no traces of radioactive cesium or radioactive iodine found in tap water.
The Hokkaido Government is also reporting that radiation levels are normal.
There is a lot of distrust about the way the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company have handled information about the nuclear crisis. What is your response to that?
Seaton: A lot of that criticism is deserved and the crisis in Fukushima is clearly a lot worse than was initially thought immediately after the earthquake. But the key thing to bear in mind if you are planning a visit to Hokkaido is this. The Japanese government and TEPCO have been criticized for being “less than forthright” on the amount of radiation released, but the issue in Hokkaido is how much radiation has made it here. The answer, according to local monitoring sites, is “negligible”. It’s certainly nothing that is leading to any kind of health warnings within Hokkaido.
Could local government be being “less than forthright”?
Seaton: I think that is most unlikely. No, virtually impossible. It would be impossible to carry on a nationwide conspiracy of covering up radiation levels with so many international and domestic experts monitoring the situation. Pretty much anyone in the academic community involved in nuclear power or the effects of radiation on health has been called on to give comments about the health effects in their local area. In April at Hokkaido University we held an event to reassure our international students. There are comprehensive lectures on the effects of radiation on the human body and possible effects of radiation on the food chain. I would encourage all concerned people to see these videos/lectures given by independent experts.
Your research area is in media. What did you make of the media’s handling of the issue?
Seaton: There were many problems with the way that the international media covered the crisis. Some were extremely quick to sensationalize the nuclear crisis, but then when the Arab Spring caught their attention again they quickly moved on to the next global crisis. Also, the international media probably created the impression that Hokkaido was badly affected by constantly referring to the earthquake in “Northeast Japan” (Northeast is the literal translation of Tohoku, the area hit hardest by the quake and tsunami). This made it sound as if Hokkaido was part of the disaster zone. Japan looks small on the world map, but Hokkaido is hundreds of kilometres from Fukushima.
The Japanese media, meanwhile, has been criticized in some quarters for downplaying the nuclear crisis or parroting the government’s line. But, having a mass panic generated by the domestic media would have been extremely damaging. Lives may be destroyed through fear and economic meltdown, too. I think the Japanese people have done a remarkably good job of staying calm while trying to pick themselves up again.
So what is your message to people considering a holiday in Niseko this year?
Seaton: I would not recommend others to do anything that I will not do myself. I will be in Niseko at some stage during the season! I have a young family. At no time have I heard anything to give me the slightest concern that my family’s health is in danger here in Hokkaido because of what happened in Fukushima. The secret here is proper risk assessment. The biggest doses of radiation that anyone will get on a skiing holiday to Hokkaido is in the plane coming over here: and that would have happened with or without Fukushima. Eat local Hokkaido food (an essential part of the experience anyway!) and I would say there is nothing to worry about.
Actually, I would even go further than that. If you were deeply moved by the images on your TV screens in March of the destruction caused by the tsunami and want to do something to help, then take a holiday in Japan. There is a second, silent tsunami sweeping across the country, which is the economic destruction caused by people cancelling trips in the wake of the nuclear crisis. This “second tsunami” is not making many international headlines, but it is real enough when you speak to people here.
Philip Seaton is an Associate Professor in the Research Faculty of Media and Communication, Hokkaido University. His website is www.philipseaton.net