In Japan, Radiation Fears Reshape Lives

Japanese shoppers remain concerned about radiation levels in food following the country's nuclear accident in March. Shoppers are shown here in a Tokyo supermarket.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Japan's government says the damaged reactors at the Fukushima are finally under control. Now begins the long and difficult effort of dismantling the reactors and decontaminating the complex - a process that could take as long as 40 years. But many frightened residents the real repercussions of the March nuclear accident are only just beginning.

Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Nine months after the worst tragedy to befall Japan since World War II, life in Tokyo seems to have snapped back to normal, with a vengeance. The talk shows are back to their usual mindless trivia about pop stars and baseball contracts. March 11 - known here as just 3/11, with all the resonance that 9/11 has, for Americans - has faded into the background.

But while the horror of 3/11 has receded, for many of us, particularly women with families, things will never be the same. There's no getting past the fact that the triple meltdown dumped radioactive particles into the atmosphere, soil and sea.

While Fukushima Prefecture was hardest-hit, radiation hot spots keep turning up in neighborhoods far from the accident. The latest was at a school, minutes from where I live in Tokyo.

What's more, figuring out what's safe to consume has become all but impossible.

Here in my local supermarket the familiar ritual of shopping has changed drastically. Instead of just tapping fruit or checking for spots, now I scrutinize the place of origin. Made in Japan used to be the gold standard, but now domestic foods are suspect, as is anything on sale. I obsessively search for produce grown as far from Fukushima as possible.

There's a never-ending series of warnings about radioactive cesium in beef, tea, rice, even baby formula.

There simply aren't enough radiation-detection machines to check every cargo of fish, every rice harvest, the contents of every school lunch. By next spring, the government is supposed to tighten standards for radiation in food, but any credibility the Japanese government once had has been obliterated by 3/11. No one trusts the government anymore.

And who in good conscience would feed babies and young children food with even trace amounts of contamination? Some terrified moms now cook only with bottled water and ingredients sourced from distant regions of Japan or overseas.

While many are scared, some are downright paranoid. Kaori Umezu is a young white collar worker. Since 3/11, she has become a virtual recluse, leaving her house only for work.

KAORI UMEZU: Most of my friends or co-workers see me kind of strange person. Some people apparently look down on me. Some said I'm idiot, or yeah, I'm too sensitive.

CRAFT: As for my children - distracted by school, job and social lives - they don't talk about radiation much, but in their own ways, they are just as uneasy as I am. My 18-year-old son has an especially stark perspective, shaped by his front-row seat on the disaster. When the biggest earthquake in Japanese history struck, Kohei was a mere 80 miles away, in his school gym. He and his classmates narrowly escaped as the walls began to collapse on them.

My son says when he confronted his own mortality that day, something in him changed forever. He's become more fatalistic, more resigned. What would you suggest, he asks rhetorically - that the Japanese just pack up and leave their country?

My friend Yoko Okazaki, a translator in her 50s, has the same attitude.

YOKO OKAZAKI: For us, those people who have been living here for many, many years, and then we already have a job here, and then we establish our life here in Tokyo or Japan, then what can we do? We cannot really leave here, unless something really, really bad happens. But until then, we just have to lead a regular life.

CRAFT: The bottom line is that no one really knows how much this ongoing exposure to Fukushima's fallout is going to raise our risk of cancer. The true impact of Fukushima is still unknown, yet to be learned as the world watches us. The legacy of 3/11 is to turn us all into a nation of guinea pigs.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.