The majority of radiation released into the environment was said to be through deliberate venting of the reactors, as well as from the release of coolant water into the ocean. As a result, large amounts of radioactive isotopes were released into the Pacific and into groundwater. The government confirmed in April that contamination had reached unsafe levels at several water purification plants around the country.

Despite the apparent gravity of the situation, experts both in Japan and abroad said the Japanese government was downplaying the risks associated with water contamination.

After Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced that there was “no immediate threat to public health”, sources in Japan reported increasing skepticism among citizens about what they were—and were not—being told. 

July 2011: radiation found in food

From the beginning, international health authorities started expressing concerns that radiation fallout from the reactors at Fukishima could contaminate food and other consumable products. But in the weeks following the disaster, the message from the government was one of confidence.

"We urge consumers to continue shopping as usual and retailers to do their business as usual," Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano said on March 31, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Politicians also tried to assure the public that food was safe by visiting farmer’s markets and even eating produce at public events—including strawberries grown just 50 km from the plant.

It wasn’t until July that the government confirmed that they had been unable to control the spread of radioactive material in food that was being shipped and eaten across Japan. At that point, Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted that testing procedures were inadequate, claiming he felt a “personal sense of responsibility” for the now nationwide problem.

Contaminated beef became one of the first major concerns, after testing in July revealed that thousands of cows had eaten hay containing radioactive cesium before being sent to meat markets. Soon after, the government banned shipments of beef from the region, but by then, a good deal had already made its way into supermarkets.

Other products were also found to be contaminated, including mushrooms, spinach, tea, milk, plums, rice and seafood. In the absence of a nationwide testing system, it has been left up to local authorities, farmers and supermarkets to determine if food products are fit for sale.

Japan’s limits for radiation in foods are far more stringent than in the US and in Europe, but the government isn’t equipped to carry out all the testing so many foods don’t get tested at all.

Farmers in regions surrounding Fukushima complained at the time that they were given little information regarding the status of the disaster, and said guidelines distributed by the ministry were difficult to follow. As new reports continued to emerge regarding food safety issues, the government took a good deal of criticism for their misleading claims early on and for their slow reaction in notifying the public.

September 2011: Fukushima restrictions lifted

In late September, the Japanese government decided to lift restrictions in regions surrounding the Fukushima plant. Despite ongoing fears over radiation, the evacuation zone was cut down to just a 12 mile radius around the facility, allowing residents from five different communities to return to their homes.