Japanese mother who took the initiative on testing for radiation

KIYOKO Okoshi had a simple goal when she spent about $625 on a dosimeter: she missed her daughter and grandsons and wanted them to come home.

Local officials kept telling her that their remote village was safe, even though it was less than 20 miles from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, all but destroyed during the earthquake and tsunami in March. But her daughter remained dubious, especially since no-one from the government had taken radiation readings near their home.

So, starting in April, Mrs Okoshi began using her dosimeter to check nearby forest roads and rice paddies. What she found was startling: near one sewage ditch, the meter beeped wildly, and the screen read 67 microsieverts per hour, a potentially harmful level.

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With her simple yet bold act, Mrs Okoshi joined the small but growing number of Japanese who have decided to step in as the government fumbles its reaction to the widespread contamination, which leaders acknowledge is much worse than originally announced.

Some mothers as far away as in Tokyo - 150 miles south of the plant - have begun testing for radioactivity. And when radiation specialists recently offered a seminar in Tokyo on using dosimeters, more than 250 people showed up, forcing organisers to turn some away.

Even some bureaucrats have taken the initiative: officials in several towns in Fukushima Prefecture are cleaning the soil in playgrounds without help from the central government, and a radiation expert with the health ministry who left his job over his bosses' slow response to the nuclear accident is helping city leaders in Fukushima do their own monitoring.

This corrosion of trust, at first aimed at faceless bureaucrats and MPs in distant Tokyo, now includes governors, mayors and city councils. That trust may be hard to restore: under pressure from concerned citizens, bureaucrats in Tokyo have expanded their monitoring, but many people doubt that the government's standards are safe or that officials are testing thoroughly enough.

It did not help that the government recently had to backtrack on the acceptable exposure levels for schoolchildren after a senior government adviser quit in a tearful news conference, saying he did not want children to be exposed to such levels, and parents protested. The recent discovery that radioactive beef made it into shops also raised fresh alarms.

"We need to do strict research to make people feel assured," said Keiichi Miho, the mayor of Nihonmatsu, a city of 60,000 west of the Dai-ichi plant.

The mayor is one of a growing number of local officials who have tackled the issue directly, spending serious money on steps such as creating a radiation map of his city.

"That's the only way to regain credibility." Mrs Okoshi, a farmer, lives with her 85-year-old mother, and one of her daughters.

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After Mrs Okoshi's tests continued to show high levels of radiation locally, her cousin Chuhei Sakai, also a farmer in the area, went with several other villagers to show her data to the mayor. He did not respond, Mr Sakai said.

Since then, she has earned a reputation for her grass-roots monitoring.

"Every time I have mentioned my name at meetings recently, city officials there say, 'Ah, you are the one who measured the radiation,'" she said.

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