- Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima by Aya Hirata Kimura
By Aya Hirata Kimura. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. $23.95.
After the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, many Japanese mothers turned to testing radiation levels in their food as a means to express their concerns about safety, an alternative to oppositional politics. What did radiation-measuring scintillators offer that engagement with public discourse could not? The timely publication of Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists by Aya Hirata Kimura provides much-needed clarity about how and why women across Japan have engaged with citizen science to manage various social, political, and economic expectations.
This historically sensitive sociological work addresses readers of all disciplinary backgrounds and clears much ground on Japanese women’s use of technology and scientism as a response to postfeminism, or the “pretense of gender equality” (p. 97). As the first English-language monograph on the technical practices of radiation measurement in post-Fukushima, this work should interest anyone who cares about what it means to physically and socially coexist with nuclear power. Here, concerns about radiation in Japan’s food systems, coupled with intense expectations for a compliant, polite, and non-violent citizenry, constitute the scenario that Kimura’s incisive analysis of citizen radiation-measuring organizations (CRMOs) in Japan addresses. Japan, while not exceptional, provides crucial context for understanding how women are both targets and arbiters of technoscientific risk communication in the neoliberal state.
This intersectional work on technoscience, gender, and international food politics advances the concept of postfeminism to bring focus upon the unbalanced gender equality that persists in Japan, where the reality of what it means to perform good female citizenship differs from legal equal rights. Kimura’s research on 74 CMROs and various other organizations shows how pressures to behave properly have yielded at least two kinds of women’s responses in radiation risk discourse. Described first is the historical cultivation of those who have helped dampen communications about radiation risk from foods, and second, those who have questioned safety assurances by directly measuring radiation levels in quiet collectivity—even to the point of curbing their own relevance.
Interviews with various informants facilitate a key analysis of the many intimidating dismissals of public concerns about radiation as harmful rumors (fūhyōhigai) that could damage the food economy. Kimura shows how, in lieu of structural challenges, ordinary people have resorted to collecting their own radiation data as a way to avoid troubling association with such rumors. The first half of the book explains the historical appeal [End Page 194] of nuclear power that once emphasized housewives’ freed time that encouraged women to be better mothers and caregivers. These reinforced expectations about being feminine and caring intriguingly more women to the technological practice of radiation testing as they leveraged ideal forms of care to address their lack of trust in authorities. The gripping third chapter brings postfeminism into play by focusing on the economic value and fragility of the symbolic and compulsory national school lunch system. Kimura shows how mothers tried to prevent their children from eating radiation-tainted school lunches by using the technics of radiation monitoring to contest authorized safety thresholds. A discussion of how mothers debated institutional methods of sampling lunch ingredients in order to adjust the standard “minimal detectable concentration” of 40 Bq/kg offers a fascinating example of how multiple sides used precise measurements and scintillators to question legitimacy.
As scientific work granted women a form of self-protection so that they could pursue “just the facts” and appear nonconfrontational in their pursuits of radiation knowledge, Kimura delivers the case that citizen science in Japan today must be appreciated on fresh sociohistorical terms —without dismissal as second-rate compared to other cases characterized by palpable anger. Alluding to exciting concepts like “measuring in the margins” (p. 129) earlier in the text might have foreshadowed even more how women informed radiation exposure risk communication in the neoliberal state with technology. Yet placement of such discussion in the second half of...