Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dyeing Words

Even a word like "contaminated"
can be made to appear beautiful

Winston Churchill once said, "we shape our buildings then they shape us." The complex structure of language has the same kind of  power over us. It defines who we are and confines the way we think. 

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the most frequently heard words in the Japanese language is osen (汚染), or contamination, as in radioactive contamination. Following close behind is its linguistic counterweight josen (除染), meaning decontamination. 

The common character, sen (circled in red), shared by both written compounds essentially means "to dye." 

To express "contamination" you would simply tack on the character "o" (汚), meaning "dirty." When the word is used to describe the geographic areas that have been tainted by radioactive particles from the leaking nuclear reactors in Fukushima you get the lasting impression that the impurity is dyed into the soil. 

When talking about the process of cleansing those polluted geographic areas, Japanese speakers use the word josen, or decontamination. It gives the listener the impression that the "dirty dye" is being somehow removed (除) from the soil, like a coffee stain from a clean white linen shirt. When you hear the word "decontamination" echoing from official chambers and the mass media, you know things are bad but at the same time you get this reassuring sense that the solution is as simple as separating the chaff from the grain. 

That's miles away from what's actually happening in the field. The atomic impurities in the ground aren't being removed, they are simply being moved, along with a good bit of the topsoil it has stained. It gets scraped off and hauled away, sometimes not very far away, and piled onto growing radioactive mounds, etc. Given the fact that the half-life of cesium-137 is 30 years and that of plutonium-239 more than 24,000, this dye is more or less permanent. There is virtually no removing it.

Writer, Natsuki Ikezawa, suggests using the more accurate descriptor of isen (移染), "moving the contamination," over josen (除染), "removing the contamination," since that's what's really happening. Maybe we should follow Ikezawa's advice and move the discussion closer to reality, give it more of a tinge of honesty. When you find yourself living in a nuclear fallout zone where you're told everything will be okay if you would just smile (in the same way Fukushima prefecture advisor, Dr. Shunichi Yamashita essentially did), it's probably time to breach the confines of the discussion with some straight talk and begin shaping a new future from the ground up.

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