Aya Hirata Kimura: Radiation brain moms and citizen scientists: the gender politics of food contamination after Fukushima
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Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists is a deftly constructed analysis of the ways in which gender expectations and neoliberalism shaped citizen, government and industry responses to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. In its pages, Kimura illustrates how the Japanese government abandoned its citizens primarily by concealing and mispresenting contamination-related information. Mistrusting government claims of food safety, everyday citizens chose to measure radiation contamination at citizen-run measuring sites (CRMOs). In particular, mothers arose to fill this vacuum of knowledge and help their families avoid contamination. Rather than being applauded for their prevention and monitoring care, they were condemned as irrational and shamed as hysterical “radiation brain moms” spreading “harmful rumors” (pp. 28, 38) that hurt the national economy. This discourse deflected guilt from the true perpetrators of the disaster: “it framed the suffering of farmers and fishermen as caused more by consumer panic than by the nuclear accident itself” (p. 36). Kimura uses the lens of food to reveal how postfeminist gender norms and neoliberal citizenship shape the possible set of responses (primarily) women can take on as they determine what to feed their families in a post-Fukushima world. It is not a book seeking the “truth” of food contamination. Rather, it is a nuanced account of how individuals and organizations navigated the contradictory terrain of truth claims made by the government and the nuclear industry regarding the safety of their food.
While citizen responses to the disaster tended to fall within the expectations of neoliberal citizenship and a postfeminist order, Kimura provides a careful analysis that allows for an interpretation outside of neoliberalism and a failed feminism. She concludes that measuring contamination was an act of “self-defense,” an effort to survive under the conditions of abandonment (p. 147). Her ethnographic observations also provide compelling evidence for a new framework for understanding citizen science as political (rather than neoliberally apolitical). The book is conceptually dense but provides enough ethnographic grounding to be accessible for upper-level undergraduates and beyond. It should be a very fruitful read for scholars across the fields of food, gender, risk, and science and technology studies.
Chapter one, “Moms with Radiation Brain” is critical to understanding the impact of the Fukushima nuclear accident on Japan’s agricultural production and economy as well as the uncertain relationship between contaminated food consumption and health effects. As well, the sensory experience of consuming potentially contaminated food and the experience of being shamed for worrying about contamination emerges most strongly in this chapter’s ethnographic narrative. Chapter two, the least compelling “Engineering Citizens,” was her least ethnographic where she explores the roles women take on as risk communicators in the age of neoliberal governmentality. Kimura describes this seemingly feminist focus on women as a cooptation of feminism wherein women become handmaidens of capitalism as they argue for continued reliance on nuclear power.
I found the book’s strongest chapter to be “School Lunches, Science, Motherhood, and Joshi Power,” in particular because of its ethnographic acuity in describing the ways women navigated layers of tension. The efforts of mothers to monitor lunches falls within the expectations of feminine citizen-subjects who frame “their concerns around science, maternal devotion, and joshi (women power)” to help them “authenticate their voices in order to get some concessions from authorities” (p. 97). This representation is a “double-edged sword” because “more structural and radical demands might have been muted under the weight of these specific framings” (p. 97). The chapter also illustrates the potential danger of food contamination because of Japan’s successful push for local food in school lunches, complicating the typically celebratory stance towards the movement for local foods.
In the following equally-compelling chapter “Citizen Radiation-Measuring Organizations” there is a significant shift in Kimura’s analysis as she incorporates the concept of “measuring from the margins.” Kimura characterizes the work of the 74 CRMOs as an effort to make the invisible visible. By providing different contamination data, citizen testing sites instantiate an alternative reality to that which was authorized by the nuclear village. Thus, while CRMO participants do not call themselves activists, their work is in fact already political action: “Testing makes the invisible visible, enabling a different kind of conversation to take place, which might have consequences for policy” (p. 124).
The final chapter “The Temporality of Contaminants” evaluates the impact and length of time CRMOs will remain functioning. The concept of “care work” (the highly feminized sector that women take on) frames the challenge that women, as citizen science food monitors, will become overwhelmed with other duties, leaving behind their food contamination monitoring. Continued monitoring is necessary, however, given that contamination will remain for decades, as with Chernobyl (Glaser 2016). This reality is forgotten, however, as we live within a “regime of anticipation” which leads to an understanding of the nuclear disaster as a “single, contained event, which belongs increasingly to the past” (p. 133) rather than something which will continue to recontaminate the environment.
For those unfamiliar with Japan, Radiation Brain Moms gives an extensive historical memory of Japan and its complex relationship to nuclear power. Additionally, it provides the history of Chernobyl that is necessary to understanding contemporary responses to nuclear disaster. I was initially drawn to the book in order to contrast it with the experiences of indigenous Sámi, who found their traditional foodways contaminated post-Chernobyl. I anticipated that women’s risk assessments would reflect patterns seen amongst Sámi who were forced to choose whether to consume their traditional, potentially more contaminated foods or to join the industrial food system to reduce their exposure (Stephens 1995; Beach 1990). Yet the shape of these nations’ food systems generated different risk management: Kimura’s research participants had little choice in managing their risk except through testing because contamination was pervasive throughout Japan’s food system. Unlike the Sámi whose consumption formed an important cultural resistance and unlike Japanese organic farmers whose consumption is part of their livelihood (Rosenberger 2016), Kimura makes visible the weak power and interest of individuals as consumers and citizens to determine the safety of foods within global food systems.
- Glaser, A. 2016. Radioactive reindeer roam Norway 30 years after Chernobyl. Wired. https://www.wired.com/2016/04/amos-chapple-radioactive-reindeer/. Accessed 24 Jan 2016.
- Stephens, S. 1995. The “Cultural Fallout” of Chernobyl radiation in Norwegian Sami Regions: Implications for children. In Children and the Politics of Culture, ed. S. Stephens, 292–318. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar