Save My Honemoon To Japan!
January 1, 2012 10:09 PM   Subscribe

SAVE MY HONEYMOON HIVEMIND! Is there a definitive (non-biased) answer on whether Japan is safe for travel?

I'm desperate. My fiance and I are getting married this August. Our whole relationship we've talked about how we want to go to Japan and this seemed like the perfect time and it was a no-brainer...

Then Fukushima hit.

Her research has been inconclusive and my own Google-fu has failed me for the first time. Everything we find is either unsubstantiated claims by people on forums, comments from incredibly biased sources like Japan's tourism board, the Japanese government who is trying to save face, etc. (I don't even trust the US government's view as they always have an agenda).


IS IT SAFE?!?!?!

Specifically, our concerns are the following:

1. Are any areas definitely NOT safe (aside from Fukushima)? We would like to go to Tokyo, Osaka, Okinawa, some nice onsen spa in the mountains (not sure where) and maybe elsewhere.

2. What is the food/drink situation? We are both obsessed with Japanese food and want to be able to gorge ourselves, but are scared of some reports of radiation contamination and potential short-term and long-term side effects.

3. Could this cause issues with having kids down the line? I know...probably paranoid, but a question that has come up nonetheless.

4. Is the exposure we'd risk just not worth worrying about? Several things I've read have said we'd get more radiation on the flight over than we would just being there for a couple weeks. And even if food was slightly contaminated, the brief period of time (2.5 weeks) and the amount we'd eat in that time would be negligible from a health perspective.

There is always risk in travel, and we realize there is not going to be a 100% YES ITS SAFE link we can click on, but hit me with your most credible sources so I can show her and convince her and myself that it is indeed safe for us to go.

posted by Elminster24 to Travel & Transportation around Japan (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Forgot to note...I'm REALLY not looking for anything anecdotal or opinions here (unless you are a respected expert in a relevant field), so please don't post any of those. What we need is links to facts that can make it blindingly clear to us whether we are worked up over nothing or whether there are valid risks to both being there and eating/drinking things from there.

We're both logical, scientifically-minded folks, but it has been hard to find sources we trust on the matter, or we find sources that look credible but then say opposite things leaving us believing neither of them.
posted by Elminster24 at 10:11 PM on January 1, 2012

See what the State Department has to say. They provide travel advisories so Americans know where it's safe to travel. (I'd check, but I'm typing one-thumbed on my phone while my newborn sleeps in my arms. :)
posted by waldo at 10:17 PM on January 1, 2012

I don't think you're going to find the objective, non-biased information you're looking for. This isn't physics, it's geopolitics.

That said, the US Department of State has this to say.

The UK's foreign office (I think that's the name) has this to say.

Australia's government has this to say.

Canada's government has this to say.

What you will see is that the four major English-speaking countries' governments say pretty much the same thing: avoid the immediate area, and other areas of Japan are more or less OK.

Now, either you can conclude that these four separate governments are in cahoots with Japan and are all sending the same message to potential tourists, or you can assume that these four separate governments have independently decided that the risks are such that they convey the message that they do.
posted by dfriedman at 10:22 PM on January 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

Here is the State dept. bulletin:

Based on current data from Japan, we recommend that U.S. citizens avoid all areas within 20 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. In addition, U.S. citizens should avoid the area northwest of the plant that the Government of Japan has designated as the “Deliberate Evacuation Area.”

I know you said the U.S. government "always [has] an agenda" but I cannot think of any possible source more authoritative the the State Dept. and I can't conceive of any agenda they could possibly have that would involve encouraging citizens to put themselves in danger overseas.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:22 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Take a look at a map of Japan— Fukushima is fairly well north of all the places you mention wanting to go.

Can you maybe elaborate on what kinds of sources you would trust? You seem to have ruled out everyone likely to be able to give you well-researched, expert information. How about this or this? If you're scientifically-minded, try calculating the risk of problems (cancer or something during the rest of your life) from the amount of radiation you might absorb, and compare it to other risks you take (eg, driving across town).
posted by hattifattener at 10:26 PM on January 1, 2012

Here's real-time radiation levels in various parts of Japan.

Other than the Fukushima area, all the other stations are reporting levels in the dozens of nanoGray per hour (nGy/h) which according to this is about the worldwide average background level. I would personally go without worrying much about radiation.

I can't find the news reports now, but I know I've read about nuclear safety workers going through grain shipments with radiation detectors to make sure they're safe (the good thing about radiation is that it's not very sneaky -- if it's there, it's very easy to discover).

I guess you could still worry about whether the Japanese government is covering things up, but I'd probably defer to the State Department on that one. There's no way for Japan to lie about radiation levels away from Fukushima -- it's too easy for independent labs to verify that kind of thing.

I'm sure you've already seen the xkcd graphic about radiation dosage, but if not it's a good primer on what's a normal/not-normal radiation dose (unfortunately in different units than the above links).
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:51 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I guess this is anecdotal in the sense that I'm only a fellow researcher, but everyone who says the State Department has no useful agenda is correct - they've nothing to gain from telling you to go where you shouldn't, and have for a very long time erred to the side of conservatism with their travel advisories because it's often State resources and personnel who have to deal with problems when people go places they shouldn't. Please do not go to Fukushima and the evacuated areas because they don't need to deal with gawkers right now, otherwise you are fine.

Japan is one of (if not THE) most internet-connected countries in the world. If there was a widespread radiation danger, you would know it from everyday people on the ground. And those people, at least generally, have no vested interest in lying to you; many of them are very angry about the perception that Japan is universally unsafe. On the grand scale of locations that are suffering a drop in tourist dollars unnecessarily, Japan is way up there. Go, spend money, have a fantastic time, tell your friends.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:14 PM on January 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you've traveled internationally before, you can look up the relevant State Dept advisories and compare them to your experiences to calibrate their veracity. In my limited experience traveling less developed countries (Russia and Nepal), the advisories were well founded and definitely erred toward cautiousness.

If you're still worried about radiation but plan to go, you could purchase a NukAlert.
posted by mnemonic at 11:23 PM on January 1, 2012

Here's what the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration says:

Also, I suggest taking a look at the XKCD comic. You'll probably dose more radiation from the flight to Japan than you will while there on the ground.
posted by jraenar at 12:05 AM on January 2, 2012

I teach graduate level classes on radiation safety and internal dosimetry (the risk posed by ingesting or inhaling radionuclides). Unless you are going to be hopping fences into the Fukushima exclusion zone, or getting as close as you legally can to Fukushima, you do not need to worry about what you're eating and you don't need to worry about external exposure or the potential effects on a honeymoon baby.

People talking about the external radiation levels being ~background are correct (less than the dose rates you'll get on the flight over), though that ignores the differences between external radiation fields and the ingestion or inhalation of radioactive substances, which is a different beast entirely. But you don't need to worry about it either, the Japanese have closely monitored food products that might be a risk. For example, early on, through testing they found some farmers who, when told they needed to sacrifice crops, fed the remaining foliage as fodder to their cattle, leading to contaminated cattle which needed to be sacrificed. But that was months ago, and they caught it, and any activity you encounter in food will be ~background.

It's funny you mention onsen spas, you will receive a greater radiation dose from visiting the spa than you will from anything Fukushima related.

If you have particular questions about interpreting any data you see online, or wonder what a particular unit or number means, send me a mefimail. And have a great honeymoon!
posted by pseudonick at 12:46 AM on January 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

Of you're this concerned about it, look at the radiation maps of the Kanto region. Eastern Fukushima is obviously unsafe, and people have been evacuated, and food and farm products are being heavily screened. Tokyo is quite far from Fukushima, and aside from the immediate area in northern Chiba/ southern Ibaraki (where I happen to work), the Tokyo area radiation levels are not that high.

The thing is, you're going to find widely different reports on things. People in general distrust anything that comes from Tepco, and have lost a lot of faith in what the government says as well. If you are that concerned, skip Tokyo, and spend your time in the Kansai region (Osaka, Nara, Kyoto).

One thing that might put you a bit at ease, if you're going to Osaka/Kansai, is that, for domestic produce, Japan's food distribution is very, very local. The domestic food commonly available in Kanto comes from Kanto, most vegetables available in Chiba come from Gunma, Ibaraki, and Tochigi. Most produce available in Kansai will be from Kansai.

And yes, as previously mentioned, the combination of your flight and going to onsen will give you
more radiation than anything else during your trip.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:51 AM on January 2, 2012

We've been in western Japan with our young children for the past 2 months. We consider it "safe", even though data shows that all of Japan as far west as Hiroshima was dosed with cesium. But how much cesium?

The main danger zone is a corridor stretching 30 kilometers northeast of the stricken reactors. The winds changed in March, and delivered a good dose in another corridor from Fukushima City to Tokyo. Some areas in Kanto received more of a dose than others, especially parts of Chiba (Kashiwa) and Ibaraki. The mountains to the northwest of Tokyo also received a good dose of cesium.

What does this mean for you? Probably nothing. Tokyo is going to be relatively safe. Kyoto will be very safe. Okinawa will be perfectly fine.

There are a few things to watch out for. Since a lot of the radiation was released into the ocean, it might pay to watch out what kinds of fish you're going to eat. While in Tokyo, I would stay away from oysters, skipjack, mackerel and squid. Most of these fish are caught off the coast of Chiba and Ibaraki when sold in the Tokyo area. It might pay to stay away from mushrooms as well.

But how much danger are you really going to be in? Long-term exposure is the key here, especially for children.

Once you get to Kyoto, I don't think there is anything you should particularly worry about.

For us, we generally try to buy milk from local dairies, which is really easy. Our rice is all local. Our fish is local.

Let's not forget that thanks to nuclear testing, much of the earth is salted with plutonium particles.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:12 AM on January 2, 2012

Pseudonick is right. I'm a radiological controls tech, and I've spent time in the Kanto region since the accident. No worries for any of your plans you mentioned.
posted by ctmf at 6:58 PM on January 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've spent time in the Kanto region since the accident.

With instruments, measuring stuff.
posted by ctmf at 7:03 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're this nervous about your safety (esp. in Okinawa and Osaka), don't go.

You'll be suspect of everything that you put in your mouth, ruining the taste. It's your honeymoon, but you'll always associate the trip/Japan with "that trip where we went in spite of radiation!" Come back when you feel safe and can enjoy yourself and what the country has to offer.
posted by xiadagio at 3:22 PM on January 15, 2012

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