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  • Food Safety after Fukushima: Scientific Citizenship and the Politics of Risk by Nicolas Sternsdorff-Cisterna
  • Margherita Long (bio)
Food Safety after Fukushima: Scientific Citizenship and the Politics of Risk. By Nicolas Sternsdorff-Cisterna. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2019. xviii, 170 pages. $62.00, cloth; $28.00, paper.

This book introduces the structuring debates in post-Fukushima food safety in clearly written ethnographies about "risk communicators" (chapter 3), citizen radiation monitors (chapter 4), farmers (chapter 5), and mothers (chapter 6). Based on two years of fieldwork in Tokyo and nonrestricted areas of Fukushima Prefecture from September 2011 to August 2013, it aims to present a balanced, optimistic view of Japan's nuclear crisis. Chapter 1 offers a theoretical overview of key terms "risk" and "scientific citizenship," and chapter 2 provides an accessible literature review of scholarship on Japanese "housewife activism" and citizen-led environmental movements. The book offers an excellent point of entry for undergraduates who might resist the more explicitly political post–3/11 scholarship of figures like Aya Hirata Kimura, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, and Anne Allison.

Nicolas Sternsdorff-Cisterna proposes that we can think about food safety in two ways: the technical and measurable safety implied by the word anzen, and the more emotional and social safety implied by the word anshin. His key premise is that although national and prefectural agencies have gotten the former largely under control, the latter is taking longer because early governmental mis-steps ("a system that failed and broke down") caused "stress, uncertainty, and damage to the social fabric" (p. 42). His main argument is that restoring anshin can serve as a "catalyst for a transformation in the relationship between the citizens and the state" (p. 13). His ethnographies focus on "[t]hose who sought a sense of trustworthiness (anshin) in the production, consumption and circulation of food [and] created networks of trust where scientific literacy was acquired and scientific citizenship was forged" (p. 13).

Let me focus on two specific chapters to distinguish Sternsdorff-Cisterna's conclusions from those of other scholars. In chapter 3, "Explaining the Crisis," we meet bureaucrats, two from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (Kōsei Rōdōshō) and one from the Food Safety Commission of Japan (Shokuhin Anzen Iinkai). They explain how difficult it was, after March 2011, to disseminate accurate accounts of food risk without creating panic and, after April 2012, to explain why the government transitioned from a "safe" radioactive cesium legal limit of 500 becquerels/kilogram of food to an "even safer" limit of 100 bq/kg. One of the bureaucrats does criticize a campaign by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry [End Page 429] and Fisheries (Nōrin Suisanshō) that prompted people in unaffected areas to aid economic recovery by buying Fukushima produce. Nevertheless, all three are confident "current policies will ensure the health of the population" (p. 60). Next we meet a successful author of natural food cookbooks and childrearing guides who lives 50 kilometers from the triple meltdowns. Although she has a firm grasp of how radioactive strontium and cesium mimic potassium and calcium to take up residence in muscles and bones, Sternsdorff-Cisterna summarizes her main point to be that "the threat of radiation can be handled if enough care is taken" (p. 65). Finally, we meet two Twitter users, a "medical doctor … in radiotherapy at the University of Tokyo" and a "prominent professor of physics." Both gained followers after the disaster by providing answers to common questions, and both are offered as examples of using the Internet to cultivate a scientific citizenship that "g[ives] people the tools to seek and find alternative connections and practices with which they can feel safe" (p. 74).

Already in this mixture of governmental and nongovernmental voices we sense a weakness in the book's claim that scientific citizenship forged new relations between skeptical citizens and an untrustworthy state. How separate are the two groups? Their rhetoric tends to merge in Sternsdorff-Cisterna's ethnographies, with private citizens and employees of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare agreeing that anzen is under control and anshin is a work in progress. On what science do they base...


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pp. 429-433
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