#108 Deals with What Comes at Us through the Social Sciences
Associate Professor Yasumasa Igarashi, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Research themes in sociology generally consider and analyze problems and phenomena occurring in societies. Among these, urban sociology comprehensively addresses the social actions and processes that occur in cities. Cities are also the subject of research of such engineering fields as urban engineering and city planning, and the activities of researchers in these fields are prominent in community development in Japan as well as in other spheres. What kind of presence do sociologists have? Prof. Igarashi is conducting research and advancing social activities along the Joban Line on the JR East railway, where he was born and raised.
Ever since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, anxieties concerning food have remained in some quarters. Campaigns and lectures have been organized to assure people that food is safe, but merely conveying scientific information has its limits. Prof. Igarashi notes that one reason for this is the absence of a social science perspective.
Prof. Igarashi is not an expert on nuclear power issues. His life's work has been studying the Ueno area that has been familiar to him since his school years. But the trigger for his interest in Ueno was actually an incident while studying in the U.K. When he introduced Ueno as his subject for an assignment about a town or city he liked, his classmates were surprised to learn about Ueno's peculiar characteristics, for London had nowhere comparable. It was while he was abroad that he came to understand that places like Ueno are rare. Unlike other places, Ueno accommodates various urban elements in a limited area such as cultural facilities, like museums; the colorful Ameyoko shopping strip with vendors loudly hawking discounted goods; a major railway terminal like Ueno Station; and even an entertainment district.
The city of Kashiwa is where Prof. Igarashi was born and raised, and where he currently lives. He is also a member of a social activity group called the "Street Breakers." Founded in 1998 with the aim of invigorating the community of Kashiwa, the group's activities have focused on events that gather together street musicians, and from 2009 they began organizing markets for hand-made goods, with a corner devoted to direct sales of local vegetables. After that, however, the Tohoku earthquake struck in 2011. Due to the nuclear reactor accident, Kashiwa was, for a time, a radioactive material "hot spot." Kashiwa is also important for its suburban agriculture, and the ruckus with the power plant was a major blow to the regional system for local vegetable production and consumption. In order to alleviate residents' concerns and restore the region's reputation, Prof. Igarashi and other members of the Street Breakers formed a Roundtable meeting for "Kashiwan Products for the Kashiwan People" with the participation of local farmers, consumers, distributors, and restaurant owners. Initially the mood was grim and gloomy, but a survey of the parents and guardians of preschoolers revealed that anxieties were greatest among those who had been buying local vegetables for health reasons. Therefore a system whereby consumers could themselves measure the radiation levels of farmland began. It was discovered that there was variances in measured values from place to place, even within the fields of the same farm. Levels were higher where rainwater tended to collect, and were lower for clay-like earth than for sandy earth. Fertilizer also mattered--when potassium levels were low, crops tended to absorb cesium, a radioactive material released by the reactor accident. A self-imposed standard value of 20 becquerels per kilogram was established (versus a government standard value of 100 becquerels), and farms and crop items that cleared this standard were announced online. The approach of having consumers participate in measurements and information dissemination won the acceptance and approval of the consumers themselves. This method conforms to what, in sociopsychology, is called the "salient value similarity hypothesis." Under circumstances in which trust has been impaired, one tends to listen more readily to those who seem to share one's own value system.
Through these activities, bonds were forged with a citizen group in Iwaki, Fukushima, and in November 2013 an Iwaki marine investigative entity,Umi-labo, which means "Ocean Lab," was established with the aim of launching boats into the sea near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where they could measure the radiation levels of the seawater and seabed soil, after which fish would be caught for use as specimens. In a fishing-prohibited zone, even a novice would be able to catch a large fish, such as a flounder, without difficulty. They laid out plans for the specimens to be brought to the "Aquamarine Fukushima" aquarium and subjected to radiation measurements alongside studying the fish ecology, and an event was also planned, at which attendees could sample fish captured in the test operations as Fukushima produce. At that time radiation concentrations for fish in the vicinity of the nuclear plant were already being reported by Tokyo Electric Power Co. It is important, though, for locals to confirm the values themselves. The planners believed that by enabling consumers to look at images on the web and see the joy of participants catching large fish, interest in the ocean ecology would be stimulated, and people would be made to think seriously about radiation levels and whether fish can be eaten. This is in keeping with the "dual process theory" that is related to decision-making. Humans make selective use of intuitive judgment (system 1) and judgment based on careful reasoning (system 2). Using system 2, if the results of food inspection are considered, then it can be concluded that all food that is being distributed is safe. However, for people who usually don't eat foods produced in Fukushima, if there is no motivation to update the impression they formed of such food shortly after the accident, some will continue to avoid such food due to having made a system 1 judgment. It is insufficient to merely tell such people to think things through carefully.
Prof. Igarashi's starting-point for his interest in the Ueno area was during his school years where he assisted in the election campaign of an older friend who was running for a ward councilor position in Taito Ward. The Kashiwa round-table conference was established to address problems that came up during his activities, which he originally started after finding such events interesting. This led to the connection with Iwaki. Prof. Igarashi himself humbly describes such a style of research as merely "dealing with what comes at you." But behind this must be fervent determination to use the social sciences to somehow address society's problems.
Soil sampling at farmland as part of the round-table conference project
Observing and assisting with an investigation lab at "Aquamarine Fukushima" aquarium, in a sociological survey training class
At a meeting to report the results of sociological survey training, Riken Komatsu (right), a local activist, who together with Prof. Igarashi planned "Umi-Labo," also takes to the stage.
Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations