Tourists and the People of Fukushima Deserve Better

Japan Travel is finally readying its package tours business and I have been busy contacting major travel agencies around the world to set up bilateral relationships.

© Japan Travel (Lauren Jade Hill): Lake Inawashiro in Fukushima — so where’s the radiation?

You might think that with the likes of, TripAdvisor, and Expedia that the days of real world travel agencies are numbered. While it is true that the rise of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) has killed traditional business targeting couples and FIT travelers, the market for Group Inclusive Tours (GIT) of 6 or more, special interest FIT travelers, special needs guests, and luxury tourists is still very much alive and well. Traditional travel agents are also learning to go online and pitch themselves as boutiques to differentiate from the supermarket approach of the big OTAs.

I was introduced to one entity in China and we were discussing the best places to run adventure tours. Mostly the conversation was about remote regions that have very few domestic let alone foreign tourists. Places like Miyazaki (Kyushu), Kochi and Tokushima (Shikoku), and Akita and Aomori (Honshu). Then I mentioned a really great cycling trip that I did personally last year, running from Nikko up Route 121 (a delightfully wooded and not-so-trafficked road) to Inawashiro Lake in Fukushima. At the mention of the final destination, Fukushima, the gentleman at the other end simply responded, “Chinese tourists are still very sensitive to that name.” Meaning of course, that they fear radiation contamination from the Daiichi power plant.

This was a big reminder to me that Fukushima and its nuclear legacy is still very much on the minds of people around the world even after six years and billions of dollars of containment and remediation. Most likely this impression, and avoidance by foreigners of all things “Fukushiman” will last another generation — certainly well past the Olympic Games in 2020. It doesn’t help that there are numerous fake news and sensationalist almost-news sites around the world are trading in Fukushima conspiracy theories. They are prominent in any Google search and represent the same reputation management challenge that online slander presents to individuals and companies.

© “Who ya gonna trust in a nuclear meltdown — why, we the people!”

The reality is that while there is indeed an ongoing catastrophe locally at the Daiichi power plant site, based on independent and trustworthy sources such as the crowdsourced and the US’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, an intelligent person can use critical thinking to deduce that things are not nearly as bad as they were. In fact, emissions from the site (versus in the reactor buildings) are the lowest they’ve been since 2011. The ice wall is starting to have a slowing effect on seepage, and decontamination efforts are reducing soil radiation levels in surrounding areas to what can be considered safe.

Yes, I’ll be the first to agree that melted coria in at least two of the reactors is not a desirable situation and in the end TEPCO may never be able to extract the molten fuel and instead will be forced to bury the site — similar to Chernobyl. So let’s not ignore the obvious. And elsewhere in the prefecture there are indeed bands of persistent environmental contamination, especially in forested gulleys and streams. But you can be reasonably sure, thanks to data, that as a visitor to Fukushima you are highly unlikely to come into contact with any significant radioactivity so long as you stay away from the Daiichi plant. Which leaves you with a huge swathe of territory across Fukushima relatively untouched and perfectly safe to visit.

So why aren’t tourists visiting the safe parts? Well I mostly blame the government for not doing more to alter non-Japanese peoples’ perception of Fukushima. The government is all about “hardware” (dirt and concrete) and forgets that “software” (people’s opinions and impressions) also needs investment. If even in Japan Tokyoites are reluctant to buy produce from Fukushima, then what chance does the prefecture have with the rest of the world? So the government’s moves to invest about JPY4bn in promoting fresh produce in Tokyo is a step in the right direction. But it’s too little too late, and in particular does nothing to address foreign perceptions. Given that the Olympics is just 3 years away, it seems that the government’s strategy is to sweep the Daiichi mess under the rug and hope that people don’t notice. This is why they are not making an issue of the reactor restarts. However, you can be sure that resumption of those 48 off-line reactors will be rammed through, right after the Olympics.

What the government needs to do is three things:
* To co-opt independent but trustworthy public entities to provide ongoing daily prefecture-wide radiation reports that would be disseminated online internationally, for the widest reach possible. These reports should be constant and unbiased, and boring.
* TEPCO should be forced to engage a professional western PR agency, so that when it gives out its monthly reports and other data, those reports are fully pre-analyzed and stories developed so that the data is not misinterpreted and sensationalized.
* Just like individuals/company reputation management, the government needs to employ an online agency to start putting out accurate web stories about what is going on at Fukushima and change the perception that they are covering something up.

Failure to do these three basic PR exercises has meant that Japan and TEPCO are unable to gain control of the narrative about Fukushima and thus it continues to scare away tourists who might otherwise discover what a great location this is.

For example, a recent report from TEPCO about the stable and much-reduced flow of contamination into the Pacific from ground water overflow was so dry and bereft of commentary that no journalists picked it up and you’ll barely find it on the web. In contrast, just a month earlier (start of February) reports popped up all over the world about the “highest” radiation ever measured in the plant — and how it was bad enough to kill a human in less than one minute. The fact that the radiation being measured was high because the newer robots used by TEPCO could get closer to the melted coria was missed by most international journalists. Instead, the real message should have been that the radiation levels were NORMAL — for a measurement being taken inside (or near to) a reactor fuel source.

Apart from PR, if the government is really serious about rehabilitating the Fukushima area, it also needs to start allocating more funds to small business owners rather than dumping money into “Big Concrete”. While some businesses have apparently benefited from recovery funds, I have had numerous small business owners tell me of their struggle to survive and having no funds to invest in staff and infrastructure. You may recall that over the last 3–4 years much of the JPY19trn earmarked for Fukushima has unfortunately found its way into pet projects outside the prefecture. For example: whaling expedition financing, prisons in Saitama and Hokkaido, and new transport aircraft and fighter pilot training (in the USA) for the Self Defense Force.

Come on Kasumigaseki, METI, and MLIT. You guys can do better than this.

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