- Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima by Aya Hirata Kimura
The nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in March 2011 caused profound uncertainty, fear, and confusion. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Japanese government and nuclear industry attempted to allay public concern about the risks of radioactive contamination with reassurances grounded in scientific language and data. Although these efforts initially led to some degree of communication between citizens, the state, and experts, they ultimately failed to mitigate the public's anxiety about short- and long-term hazards to health and food safety. Where the public perceived an invisible or evolving danger, government and industry attempted to impose their authority through the use of scientific methodology and evidence that created an illusion of control. The effort failed because it disregarded the differences in age, gender, occupation, place of residence, education level, and socioeconomic status of the concerned population, as well as, above all, their diverse subjective experiences of insensible threats.
The Fukushima nuclear crisis posed a dilemma for government, industry, and citizens. The live footage of hydrogen explosions at Units 1 and 3, official government evacuation orders, and measurements indicating a heightened ambient radiation level unambiguously pointed to the presence of radioactive contamination. However, there was no immediate evidence of the presence of radioisotopes, and experts disagreed about whether, even if they were present, radioisotopes would prove harmful to people. Ulrich Beck aptly calls this type of suspended knowledge an "anthropological shock."1 The lack of reliable, agreed-upon interpretative standards surrounding the nuclear meltdowns transformed what might have been a shared reality [End Page 361] into a kaleidoscopic one, destabilizing confidence in both individual experience and expert judgment. The resulting state of utter disorientation led a number of individuals and organizations to attempt to fill the interpretative vacuum by performing their own analyses.
Aya Hirata Kimura's insightful book, Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima, tells stories of the negotiation between individual and societal attempts to recover from the shock of this sensory and cognitive disorientation. Focusing on the intersection of food, women, citizenship, and science in contemporary Japan, she asks who "had power to decide the right way to be concerned, and what shaped the way social institutions and citizens responded to the contamination" (p. 6), as well as why "many resorted to science as a form of political challenge" (p. 20).
Through site visits and interviews, Kimura, a sociologist, responds to these questions by illuminating the forces shaping post-accident food politics: on the one hand, the burgeoning of citizen science (lay citizens, in particular women, engaging with science to determine whether radioactive materials are present in foodstuffs), and on the other, the prevalence of food policing—"the censoring of people's concerns about food safety in the name of science, risk analysis, and economy" (p. 5)—carried out not only by the elite but also by ordinary people. Unpacking the power dynamics involved, Kimura argues that the risks of radiation exposure and the responsibility of understanding and determining contamination have become highly individualized and depoliticized, driven by a neoliberal agenda. Since the disaster, she writes, women in particular have been constrained to the role of "constructive and helpful citizen-subjects who resourcefully take care of themselves" (p. 17). In other words, asserting that the scientific establishment is the main arbiter of risk leads to the silencing of the women Kimura engages with and downplays their unique, situated knowledge of the relationship between food consumption, risk, and safety, as well as their commitment to monitoring and controlling it.
Throughout the book, Kimura offers case studies of citizens who have been grappling with post-Fukushima food safety and security concerns. Most of these stories reflect the perspectives of concerned food consumers, for whom "Fukushima" is not so much the geographical site of the disaster, home to a diverse group of people with nuanced relationships to...