The Japanese government is asking people not to eat spinach, parsley and other produce grown near the damaged power plant because some is tainted with radiation. Dairy farmers are also dumping their milk, and drinking water has been a problem in some locations, including — briefly — Tokyo.
But the biggest impact following the nuclear disaster has been in the region where these foods are produced. One might expect that reports of food contaminated with radiation would create panic in Japan, but step into the Ecos grocery store in Ibaraki Prefecture, and nothing seems to be amiss.
Produce manager Kenki Utsuno is restocking the shelves with a leafy green called komatsuna. Even though this region has been hit with traces of radiation, the shelves here are full of cabbage, radishes, many different types of mushrooms, even spinach. But it's not from around here.
"Usually we like to have local fruits and vegetables, but since the problem in Fukushima, even for vegetables other than just spinach, we're trying to import from outside of the prefecture, just to help the customers feel safe," Utsuno says.
It's typical in Japan that each piece of produce is labeled with the place it was grown, so people can buy spinach that they know was harvested far from the nuclear reactors. Utsuno says people are buying less of all produce as they react to what they're hearing on the news.
At the market, an older woman, Yoko Keiko, is trying to decide between two different varieties of cabbage, and she doesn't care where they were grown.
"I trying not to think about it. I don't worry about it and I just choose depending on the price," she says.
Uncertainty In The Fields
But the brunt of this crisis is most evident out in the countryside. A few miles from the grocery store, Keiji Nagashima tends a spinach farm that he inherited from his father. He's been growing spinach for 25 years in Ibaraki. This region is a major source of produce for Tokyo, which is just a couple of hours away by truck.
Nagashima is standing outside a row of six long greenhouses. In January, he planted 30,000 spinach plants in each one. His farm wasn't tested, so he doesn't even know if the plants are contaminated with radiation. But the government said all spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture needs to be destroyed.
"I think what we will end up doing is let the spinach die, and then after that we'll bury it," he says, adding that he's unsure if he'll get paid for it. "Personally, they haven't told me anything. I can't have a life without the spinach."
Nagashima is getting advice from Junichi Matsuda, who works for the Japanese agricultural extension service. Matsuda says the government intends to pay the farmers for their lost crops, but at the moment they're tied up dealing with the much bigger crisis up the coast.
Matsuda takes a deep drag on his cigarette and says that he's personally a bit worried, but not enough to stop eating the vegetables he grows in his own garden.
"I'm living my life as I was before," he says, "and I'm continuing to spend time outside, and so I'm not worried — the country has assured us that we're safe, and so I trust them."
This is a common refrain — people in Japan respect and trust their government.
Concerns Over Water
A loudspeaker that's part of Japan's emergency response network broadcasts the latest news about conditions for farmers out in their fields. The word is that water here has been tested, and it's not contaminated.
But a short while later, Tokyo water authorities announce that radioactive iodine levels are up in the municipal water supply — the levels exceed the health standard for infants, but not for adults. On the way back into town, interpreter Emiko Ohmori stops into her local grocery store to buy bottled water for her school-age children.
"I can't really find any big bottles of water — this man's buying up small ones that I have, too, so maybe he's looking for the same thing," she says.
It's been this way since the earthquake and tsunami, she says, so small bottles will have to do. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.