How are families raising healthy children in post-nuclear Japan?

When a disaster happens it quickly makes the news but just as quickly can disappear from mainstream media. When Fukushima happened in 2011 the world paused and took notice but what about the aftermath? How were people coping and particularly, how were parents raising children after such a disaster? What were the risks of an unhealthy environment due to radiation? Living in the ruins of nuclear risk is a demoralizing situation for all parents involved.

Jieun Cho, Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Duke University is researching the connection between children’s health, everyday life, and the ethical and political imagination in post-nuclear Japan. Her dissertation project focuses on what she calls ‘anxious care’ in looking at tension between official governance and everyday life. Tracing caring practices in and beyond the child-raising families living in Fukushima, her ethnographic research explores how families choose to raise children living in environments exposed to high levels of radiation.

Cho is a non-traditional graduate student from South Korea. She attended Yonsei University with a major in sociology but was able to learn and work with cultural anthropologists who were also a part of the program (there was no dedicated anthropology program). This unique interdisciplinary approach enabled Cho to work on various ethnographic research projects instead of a standard thesis.

“I was very interested in sociology theoretically, but in terms of methodology, I realized that ethnography really moved me. The kinds of questions anthropology as a discipline asks were transformative for me as an undergraduate student. In sociology, when you design questionnaires and define populations in terms of their differences, you have certain assumptions which reveals as much about you as it does about the population. In anthropology, you still have those assumptions but it takes your experience back to the theoretical questions and makes the results bear on both sides,” said Cho.

Before committing to a graduate program in the United States, Cho worked as a Japanese/Korean interpreter mostly for Japanese engineers and entrepreneurs in tech industry. After studying in a two-year vocational graduate program in South Korea specifically dedicated to simultaneous translation, Cho accepted a position at a trading and investment company where she was assigned to the energy department and became interested in nuclear energy.

Although Cho had job security, the lack of vision in her career was taking its toll on her mental health. Cho’s mentor encouraged her to follow her passion and if she didn’t see herself working in the industry in the next 10 years, she should make a change.

Cho explained, “I was always interested in social justice, so I thought academia was a good fit for me.”

In her free time Cho began reading various ethnographies including her current advisor, Anne Allison, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, whose research focuses on post-industrial Japan. In the application process, the graduate program of cultural anthropology at Duke University became her top choice from all aspects; for the vibrant publications by the faculty members in cultural anthropology, the theoretical and regional diversity among the graduate students, and the strong presence of interdisciplinary programs (Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies, Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, Kenan Institute for Ethics). The program’s dedication to supporting graduate students from coursework to long-term fieldwork and write-up stage was also crucial for Cho who was away from academia for multiple years.

Cho’s research hits close to home. About two years after the disaster, one of Cho’s friends decided to evacuate after she gradually realized that the environment might be harmful to her child. Radioactive materials were detected on the playgrounds of kindergartens in Tokyo and people were becoming concerned.

“If people here in Tokyo are so worried about radiation, then how are the families living in Fukushima actually raising their children? It was kind of unimaginable for me,” Cho wondered.

Many families evacuated themselves without any official support and it was usually mother and child. This encouraged Cho to design her dissertation project when she applied to Duke around what she called ‘mother-child evacuation’ and then morphed into a focus on families that returned to Fukushima.

It’s been almost a decade since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, yet there is still much debate on the effects of radiation. The Fukushima disaster is required coursework for students in Japan, however it’s also a sensitive subject to be discussed in public. This can be problematic for researchers trying to connect with families to learn more about their experiences.

Cho’s fieldwork with families living with lingering post-Fukushima radiation has taken her back to Japan as a researcher multiple times since 2017, including a long-term dissertation research in 2019. Ethnographic research requires face-to-face meetings where Cho can establish relationships and connections to learn more about the lives of families affected by radiation concerns. She relies on connections with lawyers, activists, and doctors to get access to families who feel comfortable talking to her about their experiences in Fukushima. It’s an ongoing subject and often brings on feelings of stress and trauma.

The COVID pandemic has definitely impacted her ability to conduct her research. The pandemic forced her to cut her last trip short and also canceled her Visa since foreigners were banned. Cho is continuing her research and writing and is eager to finish her dissertation in the next two years. Although the pandemic has slowed down the research process, she is still on track to write an ethnography about the experiences of a prolonged and much contested nuclear disaster, from the perspective of child-raising families.

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