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Oishinbo's impact (2)

May 15, 2014

Yoroku: Ambiguities around nuclear disaster spawn host of harmful rumors



In April 1813, a rumor spread like wildfire around Edo -- present day Tokyo -- that eating soba noodles would kill you. The numbers of people sitting down to a bowl of soba dropped drastically, and many soba restaurants closed for a time. Concerned neighborhood officials finally began moving to quell the rumor that June.

This is one of the anecdotes included in the volume "Edo no fuhyo higai" (Damaging rumors of Edo) by Kozo Suzuki. What started that particular rumor? Did a diner actually die of food poisoning? Or perhaps someone had an allergic reaction. Whatever the case, blaming it on soba was believable enough, and the rumor grew to gargantuan proportions.

It is sometimes said that the more serious and vaguer a problem is, the more rumors that problem will spawn. The deadly noodle rumor that swept through Edo two centuries ago is a reflection of the anxieties of the people who lived there. We have an equivalent problem today, where uncertainty about risk and severity has bred repeated waves of harmful rumors: radioactive contamination from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

And one recent factor being criticized for encouraging this uncertainty and thereby the nasty rumors is the manga "Oishinbo," which sparked controversy with its depiction of a character who gets nosebleeds after visiting the crippled Fukushima plant. Another character also expresses doubts about the effectiveness of decontamination operations and says, "No one should live in Fukushima."

It's common scientific knowledge that the radiation dose absorbed by the main character in the manga will not cause nosebleeds. It's also true, however, that the effects of low radiation doses remain largely unknown. The Ministry of the Environment protested that it has confirmed the effectiveness of its decontamination operation, but the more the government says such things, the more doubtful the public tends to become. Meanwhile, it is the people of Fukushima who are suffering most because of the ambiguity that continues to cling to this issue despite its importance.

It is necessary to overcome this ambiguity that could spawn harmful rumors and deepen common perceptions of risk. In this time of atomic emergency, we call on Japanese society to do its utmost to support the people who have suffered and lost the most to this calamity. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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