The bGeigie Diaries: Fukushima’s Christian Connection to Safecast

Heiwa Kataoka (front right) brings the bGeigie with him almost everywhere he travels, including this boating trip.

Heiwa Kataoka could be called Safecast’s divine connection. He is a member of a Christian congregation, and through his work with churches and NGOs has become one of the world’s most prolific bGeigie-builders. Here he shares his Safecast memories and experiences, which began with a visit to his father’s house back in 2011.

Your connection with Safecast began with a house visit, didn’t it?

Yes, my introduction to Safecast was through Pieter Franken, who visited my family’s house in Aizuwakamatsu city in Fukushima prefecture back in 2011. My father was – and is – a pastor, and our family has been involved with NGO work for a long time. Religious groups are meant to serve communities that have suffered and/or are suffering. And, that is one of the reasons why we became increasingly involved with radiation issues after the Daiichi disaster. Since Pieter’s visit, we have been involved with Safecast and collaborated in different ways.

One of Heiwa’s own maps showing Christian churches and kindergartens in Japan in relation to nuclear facilities

One example is that I made a map of Japan that visualizes the distance between nuclear facilities and Christian churches, as well as kindergartens and nursery schools that are run by those churches. My dream is to deploy Solarcast devices to the churches and institutions near the facilities. I can’t wait to see this perfect combination of Safecast and the Bible verse, John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

What are your memories of the early days of collaborating with Safecast?

I think that my memories are tied to the way that Safecast had created a solution that people could build and use in their own areas. For example, my brother attended an early Safecast workshop in Aizuwakamatsu and built his own bGeigie Nano. I remember him coming back to the house with it afterwards and showing it to me. My first thought was, ‘Wow, cool. I want one too.’ For a while I borrowed his to take radiation measurements in and around the house, our neighborhood and town, and later I built my own at a Safecast workshop in Shibuya, 2013. The way of generating information about what the situation was actually in and around the place we lived was something that helped create clarity for both my family and myself. I think that many people in Japan, and especially in and around Fukushima prefecture, felt that the time after the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and Daiichi accident, was made a lot harder by the lack of information we could trust or compare to other sources.

Were you and your family in Aizuwakamatsu at the time of the earthquake?

Part of my family was, yes. I was in my workplace at Waseda Hoshien in Tokyo.

The earthquake prediction device went off, and the initial message was that a small earthquake was coming. When the quake came, it started slowly, but then it just kept going and going and building up power. I guess I sort of panicked because I found myself trying to hold up a shelf full of kitchen utensils like it was the most important thing I could do. After what felt like a very long time, I realised what I was doing was wrong and gave up blocking the shelf. I then went out of the building and into the inner yard.

My workplace includes the offices of a number of NGO organizations and there were about 100 of us gathered there. Around us, the trees were shaking back and forth; it was like a big hand was pushing them. One of the buildings was built to counter earthquakes, and you could easily see the effect. Each floor was swinging counter to the ones around it to balance out the shaking. On the street, I saw a car that was bouncing around like a tennis ball.

Someone told me that the epicenter of the earthquake was near Sendai, and that made me worry about what was happening in my hometown. At the time, my grandparents were on a bus on their way to see me, and I knew they would be close to Tokyo. I couldn’t get through to them because the phone network wasn’t working. Luckily text messages worked, and I found out that they had made it safely to Shinjuku station. When we could finally meet, the first thing my grandmother said was something about Hairo Action Fukushima, a citizens group working toward decommissioning of local nuclear power plants (NPPs), because she was a member and had been preparing for events like this since 2010; she regretted that they hadn’t been able to stop the NPPs before the catastrophe happened.

Not long after, you went back to Fukushima prefecture. Can you tell me a bit about the time right after the quake and your first experience when going back?

After the quake subsided, we all gathered in a building and watched TV. We wanted to know what was going on. Twitter was also a good place to get more information. It was also through Twitter and the TV that we learned about and saw images of the tsunami. We were all shocked. For me, it felt a lot like watching a movie, except part of your brain realizes that what you are watching is real. It was very disconcerting. For example, I still remember watching a car speeding away from the tsunami, and in the end not knowing if it was going to make it. Realizing what that must be like for the very real people from an area not far from your hometown inside the car is hard to describe.

As time went by, many people tweeted about the power plants.  I have known about the many active nuclear power plants on the seacoasts of Miyagi, Fukushima, and Niigata prefectures since I was an elementary school student. One of my teachers taught us how to use a compass to measure distance on a map. He pointed out the power plants in Niigata and Fukushima and drew circles to show that our hometown was located about 100 km away from each power plant. As I watched coverage of the disaster on TV, curiously, this old memory came to mind.

My father went to Sendai right after the earthquake to contact the community and check the situation at the churches and congregations in Tohoku parish. He is a founding member of a disaster relief center. My mother welcomed evacuees to our house.  After the explosion of reactor number three, she too, decided to evacuate. The thought of leaving our hometown and the church and its congregation was very difficult for us. We also have many friends in the area with whom we have been working on local social issues for a long time. I rented a car not long after the accident to drive my grandparents back home. It was like driving through a movie, like a sci-fi movie set of a dark future when a catastrophe has destroyed everything. Except that it was the real world.

The whole experience, including what happened later, shifted who I am. I think the earthquake and nuclear accident changed my life. And, I think many Japanese people feel the same way.

After the disaster, your family relocated for a while before moving back to the area. Once back home, your family helped organize the Aizu Radiation Information Center. Could you describe some of the ways you have worked with Safecast?

Living in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima, when the nuclear disaster happened, my parents and their co-workers in the peace movement were struggling to find reliable data about radiation levels. Actually, things were chaotic. Then Pieter visited and provided them with bGeigies. They were so happy to be connected with Safecast. Yet actually, it was a scary experience to measure the radiation levels and find out what the true situation was. However, the bGeigies helped them to find out the facts and make informed decisions, like whether they should let their children play in a park or not. This experience has created one of the actions pillars of the Aizu Radiation Information Center which is run by my mother, namely, “It is we who decide what is safe or not.” The cumulative total of measurements made by the center as of September 2017 are 841 uploads and over 3,070,000 data points

Participants at The International Youth Conference in Kyoto, hosted by the United Church of Christ in Japan.

In connection with my NGO and church work, I often attend meetings, go to seminars, and attend conferences. Wherever I go, I bring my bGeigies. I also try to encourage my colleagues in the congregation, as well as friends and connections outside, to consider investing in bGeigies. I also offer to help them assemble the devices, and I estimate I have helped people build about 20 bGeigies by now. Last March, we assembled 5 bGeigies in “The International Youth Conference in Kyoto” hosted by the United Church of Christ in Japan.

What are some of the favorite memories of collecting data with the bGeigie?

I once climbed Mt. Fuji while taking measurements. It was the second time someone had done that, and it was a good experience. One of the interesting things when doing something like that with the bGeigie is that you have a saved record of the exact route you followed. Once I flew to Germany with one. The readings due to cosmic radiation were very high, and that was something I had not been aware of before.

Another favorite memory would actually be a series of memories. I help organize a field trip to Okinawa for international students at Waseda. Every year we go there to study subjects including the history of WWII and current social issues. Introducing the students to the Geiger counter and exploring some places in Okinawa is something I have enjoyed immensely. I also really enjoy collecting data from new places, like Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia. Before I travel, I always look at the Safecast online tilemap to check whether I can collect the first data from that location. It is like a game for me. Perhaps you could say it is a bit like Pokemon Go meets radiation data collection.

It is now close to seven years since the earthquake and subsequent disaster. What are some of the things that keep you motivated with regards to gathering data with the Safecast bGegige, as well as involved in radiation work?

From our experience, any kind of data from government or municipalities is not always good enough. Sometimes they make some tricky decisions or only release the data that suits the way they want people to see an issue. One example was that the Japanese government at one point after the disaster released data that was supposed to prove that certain areas were safe. It turned out that that only applied to the areas just around where the data had been collected. Whether that was an accident or done on purpose is hard to say.

Citizen science, like Safecast has enabled, continues to be important to me, because it allows us to evaluate and judge for ourselves if we can live in the Fukushima area or have to leave. From our experience, it’s always best if people have the tools to make judgments about their surrounding environment. To do that, we need the raw data. That is the basic idea why citizen science is important.

My city, Aizu-Wakamatsu, used to be a sightseeing destination. Famous TV dramas were filmed there. After the disaster, the city mayor decided not to decontaminate the area, because if the city did that, it would be like admitting that there is a problem, which would keep tourists away. Based on that, as well as government data, many people thought that it was safe everywhere in the city. However, measurements made by Safecast and others showed that there were many hotspots where the contamination had concentrated and where it was definitely not safe for people to spend a long time.

The slide that had to be removed.

One place we found a hotspot was in our church. We had a slide for children in a playground in our church’s nursery school. Of course, my brothers and I used to play there. That slide, for a lot of people, has a lot of good memories tied to it. We found that there was an unsafe concentration of radiation there, and the slide had to be taken away. So, in a way, our memories have been contaminated by not only the disaster, but also TEPCO and the Government’s reaction to it. This is something that makes me very sad and angry.

This is not to say that we are against the Government, but oppose the way that they handled the situation. It feels like that there is little respect or concern for the ordinary people in Fukushima. As a family of religious believers, we have a basic philosophy about how life should be centered on helping one another. When working with NGOs and an organization like Safecast, we encounter people that we can share that kind of feeling with. That is something that gives us hope. 

About the Author

Marc Prosser

Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. He started volunteering for Safecast after writing articles about their work following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami - and because he believes that data and technology should be open and readily available.