The Ministry Of Sickness And Death: An unpublished chapter of Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American On The Police Beat In Japanmy first book, hit the bookstores five years ago today on October 15th, 2009. Today is also the day I’m turning in the second draft of my second book, which will be released next year. The book’s title may have changed, the book will still be a narrative about the last 70 years of Japanese history told through the lives of yakuza and the cops that sometimes befriended them and sometimes brought them to justice.

The first book wasn’t just about yakuza, although it is often remembered primarily for those things. It’s also a book about serial killers, ATM robberies, the police in Japan, learning to be a reporter, the value of investigative journalism, hubris, and a compendium of everything I ever learned worth knowing.  Five years is a long time. I’m older and not much wiser. Some things have changed. Japan’s much better at dealing with human trafficking issues and the grey zone which allowed the underworld to easily prey on foreign women brought to Japan is much narrower. However, the stream of vice, lies and corruption that flows beneath the shadows of the rising sun is still there. Some things never change.

If I seem skeptical of the Japanese government, the nuclear industry or TEPCO in particular, it’s only because I’ve had more than 20 years as a reporter in Japan and have watched these entities mislead the press and the public, twist statistics to suit their ends, and blatantly, unashamedly lie.

“We have Fukushima completely under control.” Can you guess who made that statement and when? Special prize to the person who gets it right.

This chapter never made the final cut of Tokyo Vice because it’s not about crime or the underworld. It is about the battle to tell the truth when it is inconvenient for the powers that be to have it known.  It could probably use some more editing but for those who feel like the Japanese government isn’t telling you the whole truth about the actual environmental damage coming from the Fukushima meltdown–which is still going on–because if they stop pumping in water, nuclear fission will start again, this should help make you even a little more paranoid.  Enjoy.

It has a happy ending of sorts. Sometimes, truth wins out. Rare but it happens.

 

This is what happens to someone poisoned with Dioxin. President Viktor Yushchenko was one victim.  He became very ill but didn't die. Dioxin is not something you want to consume if you can possibly avoid it. http://news.kievukraine.info/2005/12/dioxin-in-yushchenkos-blood-samples.html
This is what happens to someone poisoned with Dioxin. President Viktor Yushchenko was one victim. He became very ill but didn’t die. Dioxin is not something you want to consume if you can possibly avoid it.

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 Would you like some dioxin with that milk?  ©2009 

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In 1997, I was assigned to cover Saitama prefectural politics.

I didn’t know a damn thing about local politics or local government or local anything in Japan. In many ways, this was akin to getting assigned to cover high school baseball. I had no interest in it. I had a one-track mind: crime, cops, yakuza, and arrests. I supposed I was being pushed to broaden my horizons, so I immediately went out and bought a manga on regional government. It was for high school students.

Before long I found angles to make my new beat interesting. I wrote about prefectural employees creating a slush fund; organized crime taking out fake loans from Saitama’s Small Business Support Office; yakuza siphoning off funds from banks right under the nose of the government; government officials accepting bribes from criminals; you get the picture. But to keep my quota of articles up, I realized that I had no choice but to do what I was assigned. That’s when I began to focus on environmental problems. Saitama had a few.

In early 1997, a group of concerned citizens held a press conference at the Saitama Prefectural Government Press Club where they presented evidence that the incidence of infant deaths and birth defects in and around Tokorozawa (which was home to the Seibu Lions baseball team) was significantly higher than in the rest of the prefecture. Industrial waste-management companies had created a giant waste-processing zone here, and most of the furnaces and incinerators were low-grade, burning at low temperatures and slowly, resulting not only in serious air pollution but also in the release of dangerous levels of dioxin into the ground, plants, and water. Data from soil samples from the entire prefecture seemed to make a connection between pollution and the morbidity and mortality.

Citizen groups often came to the club to publicize one thing or another. Most of the time, if they called in advance, someone from the Yomiuri would go hear them out. I went to this one. But while the material, if true, was scandalous, the response among the senior political reporters was at best tepid. Maybe if the group had prepared prettier pie charts, they would have been taken more seriously. As it was, one senior Saitama Shinbun reporter’s words summed up the general reaction: “another bunch of nuts.”

I wasn’t so sure, however. So I picked up a Ministry of Health and Welfare-approved panel report on dioxin and its effects nationwide. It wasn’t easy reading—not in Japanese and probably wouldn’t have been in English. But basically the report concluded that dioxin was an endocrine disruptor and that it could cause, among other problems, infant mortality and birth defects.

Seemed to me these concerned citizens weren’t so nutty after all. I called my senior editor. “I’ll tell you straight up,” I said, “I don’t think any of the other reporters are going to write this up. But I looked through the ministry report and I think it lends some credibility to their claims.”

The editor feigned shock, then asked, “Why do you have a copy of that report?”

“Because I don’t know anything about environmental pollution, and it seemed like a good place to start.”

“A reporter who studies his subject matter—I’m amazed. Well, fax me the pertinent pages of the report. And write the article.”

I wrote the article and sent it in thinking it would be buried in the local edition. But as I was sneaking out for a bowl of tonkotsu (pig bone) ramen, I was called back to the office: The article had made the national edition.

It was the start of what has been referred to as “dioxin hysteria” in Japan. My article, admittedly sensational, essentially stated that “dioxin equals dead babies,” and that got the public’s attention. Further tests of the air and soil revealed that dioxin levels around Tokorozawa three to seven times the normal levels.

Pressed by a suddenly alarmed citizenry, Saitama Prefecture decided to conduct a study of dioxin in breast milk in order to determine levels of contamination in both mothers and infants. Mothers selected for the study were to have lived in four designated areas of the prefecture for a minimum of five years.

The study was to be carried out partially in collaboration with the Ministry. Tanuki Taro, (Mr. Badger-Dog) who would administer the study, was himself a Ministry bureaucrat on loan to the Saitama prefectural government to serve as the head of the Health Promotion Division. A committee of hand-picked civilians was chosen to oversee the project and investigative methods. Tanuki (Mr. Badger Dog) and I took an instinctive dislike to either. He considered me an annoying barbarian environmental radical and I considered him an insincere, clueless overstuffed bureaucrat with a supercilious smile and an attitude problem.

In late March 1998, the Asahi Shinbun scooped the results of the study: The average amount of dioxin found in breast milk was roughly seven times the safe levels dictated by the Ministry Of Health and Welfare, but no substantial difference was found among the areas and nothing to indicate that Tokorozawa, the land of incinerators, was especially dangerous.

I knew the reporter who’d made the scoop. He was my rival, and so his scoop was a crushing blow. But beyond my thwarted ambition, the results of the survey didn’t make any sense to me. How could it be that the people closest to the waste dumps weren’t getting more exposure to the deadly dioxin? The figures seemed very low any way I looked at it.

At the press conference Badger-Dog handed out a summary of the findings but no raw data. Nor was there any data on a per-city basis—simply median figures for north, south, east, and west Saitama. Badger-Dog seemed rather arrogant making his presentation. It was by no means a pat on the back for Saitama’s environmental standards, but the worst of what he said was this: “The dioxin problem is obviously more complex than we imagined, but it appears there is no direct correlation between living near a industrial waste-disposal site and high levels of dioxin in mother’s milk. More study is called for.”

Something wasn’t computing. Something smelled funny—and I mean that in a metaphorical sense, not in the literal sense of the foul stench that used to permeate waste disposal valley in Tokorozawa. I needed to take a look at the raw data myself. But when I asked, the prefectural government refused. First, they cited, “privacy concerns,” then the fact that the data wasn’t in readable form.

If at first they block your path, as the saying goes, then you just have to trudge through the mud. I got the list of people on the civilian committee, and I started writing them letters, calling them up, visiting their offices. At last I was able to catch one committee member in his office; adopting my finest ass-kissing posture, I begged for five minutes of his time. How could he refuse?

Sensei [oh esteemed great man],” I began, “I’ve been working on this story a long time. I believe that you worked very hard reviewing the materials given to you by Saitama Prefecture, but doesn’t it seem the least bit odd that people with greater exposure to dioxin wouldn’t have higher concentrations of it in their bodies?”

He nodded. “Ah yes, I understand what you are saying. But those were the results we got.”

“Yes, I know, that is what the Ministry of Health has said. My questions may be completely uncalled for, but if I could see the raw data, then I would know for sure and my doubts could be put to rest. I know that you spent a lot of time on this study, and I’m certain that you would like to know it was done right.”

“Of course.”

There were some Buddhist icons displayed in this committee member’s office, and somehow I felt compelled to mention the convenient fact that I had lived in a Zen temple when I attended in college; this seemed to impress him. Our conversation then veered into matters of faith, karma, and the lack of ethical development in today’s youth.

“You and I are both coming from the same place,” I said. “We want to make our world a better place. We want to see truth triumph over falsehood. We want people to be healthy, not sick. We want the air to be clean, not dirty. Let’s do our part.”

That closed the deal. I walked out of his office with a sheaf of papers.

 

I took the data home and I pored over it for hours. I looked at the original plan for the Saitama breast milk survey—the one that they had announced and given to the media. I checked it against my recently obtained copy of the Ministry of Health’s announced plans for a nationwide breast milk study. The Ministry had announced their own study that would be separate from the Saitama study. I wanted to see if the methodology was the same.

And then I began to see a pattern.

I called up the Ministry of Health and Welfare and asked for the person in charge of the nationwide dioxin survey. A very friendly bureaucrat picked up the phone. I explained I was writing an article on steps taken by the Saitama government to assess dioxin risk, but I had a few questions about the nationwide survey that could be helpful in putting things in perspective. She seemed pleased to be of assistance.

“It says in your press release that you require all the women in the survey to have lived in the area for five years. Why five years?”

“Well,” she said, “actually, ideally, they should have lived in the survey area for ten years. Five years is the bare minimum, but the longer the better.”

“Why?”

“Because it takes years for dioxin to accumulate in the body. It’s often stored in fat.”

“So five years would be the bare minimum number of years for it to show up in a survey?”

“In order to have a statistically relevant data sample, yes.”

“Well, what about four years, or two years, or just a few months?”

“No, that would be relatively meaningless. And that might even skew the rest of the data.”

“I see. Let me ask this another way: A residential time requirement of five years is necessary to get an accurate picture of dioxin contamination in humans in the survey areas.”

“Yes, that’s an important criterion.”

This was exactly what I needed. I went on, seeking fuller confirmation: “When Saitama did their dioxin study, it seems they included in their Tokorozawa sample several people who had only lived there for two years or less. What would this mean?”

“It would mean . . . it would be problematic. The data of these people is not relevant. They should probably be excluded from the sample.”

“Thank you.”

 

Whether by intention or by sheer laziness, the Saitama government had included a large number of short-time residents in their survey of the Tokorozawa area. This was in contravention to the original terms of the study submitted to the public and to the civilian oversight committee, which was that all participants in the survey were required to have lived in the area for a minimum of five years. If short-timers were removed from the survey, leaving only a sample of long-time residents, the dioxin contamination levels for the Tokorozawa area were shown to be alarmingly high.

That was “the tell.” Now I knew exactly the cards the Saitama government was playing. It had been a good bluff and if I wasn’t such a tenacious player, I would have folded. But now I knew that I had a better hand.

I took the raw data and my notes, and I sat down with the one editor I count on for support. Kurita, literally Acorn-Field, was a former shakaibu writer who’d been exiled to Saitama after working himself to the point of exhaustion (not an uncommon phenomenon) in Tokyo, but he had plenty of life in him. He talked with me for an hour, showing me how to put the story together and what hurdles I needed to clear, and then he convinced the national news editor to publish it.

On March 28, 1998, my 29th birthday it ran in the national edition under the rather blunt headline:

SAITAMA PREFECTURE SKEWS DATA IN MOTHER’S MILK DIOXIN STUDY

While claiming to have examined residents of over five years, 40% fail to meet the standard.

Did Saitama deliberately try to make the contamination levels appear low?

For what was a fairly academic piece, the article had serious impact. All the major newspapers and the television stations followed up on it. I felt pretty vindicated.

And then the Saitama government complained. So did the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, which called the Yomiuri head office to complain that the “ministry’s researcher was asked leading questions.” The bureau chief told me the Yomiuri would not print a retraction but that it would have to print a letter from Saitama Prefecture in which they denied “deliberately skewing” the data.

I was furious. (Ten years later I still have that letter, and ten years later my face still burns when I read it.)

I was pouting in the depths of my humiliation when Kurita pulled me aside. “I used to cover the Ministry in my shakaibu days. I know what a bunch of lying weasels those guys are. Here’s my question, Adelstein,” he said, hand on my shoulder, “Do you have any more ammunition?”

“Yes,” I answered, suddenly perking up. “The data on a city-by-city basis. If you follow the original criteria, Tokorozawa looks like dioxin central.”

“Write it up. Keep writing until they beg for mercy. I have your back.”

And so I did. I was able to chart how Saitama had deliberately changed the criteria for taking samples after the survey had started. I wrote another article about how they had done this without revealing the fact to the civilian oversight committee. I wrote another article about how the civilian oversight committee was launching a formal protest.

By the end of the month, the lieutenant governor of the prefecture apologized publicly for problems with the study. And then, a few days later, it was Badger-Dog, the self-serving bureaucrat’s turn to apologize for not having informed the committee before changing the protocol of the study.

Kurita was enjoying the whole thing immensely. Maybe even more than I was.

I next heard from Badger-Dog himself, who asked me to come see him in his office. I went, not meekly but expecting the worst. What I got was the opposite: He offered me a seat, and then he bowed before me so low that his forehead touched his desk.

“Jake, are you done yet?”

“Am I done?”

“You were right. The whole thing was poorly handled. We should have released all the data from the beginning. We should have notified the public and the oversight committee that we had altered the rules for taking samples. You are completely correct.”

“Tanuki-san, I’ll back off. [I was out of ammunition anyway.] All I want is to know how you are going to address the problems from this survey.”

“I don’t know, but once we decide, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Really? In a timely fashion?”

“Timely fashion? You mean before other reporters are told?”

“Yes, before you speak to anyone else.”

“I understand.”

And that was how it ended. Since 1998, most prefectures in Japan have introduced high-grade incinerators that put out very little dioxin. I can’t claim any credit for that, although I would like to. Everyone wants to feel like they made a difference. And it’s good to have a scoop while you do.