Fukushima – living with the aftermath of a disaster
By Sophy Banks 4th December 2014
Fukushima. We all arrive by bullet train and take a photo of the station sign. Not just our small group of visiting foreigners but other visiting Japanese are doing the same thing. Fukushima. The name has resonance these days. An ongoing tragedy worthy taking a picture of the station sign on arrival.
I am travelling here as part of a ‘Learning Journey’ to Tohoku – the Northern tsunami-hit region of Japan – organised by Bob Stilger who has been working in the region on and off ever since the disaster. It’s now 3 years and 8 months since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster hit this region on ‘3.11’ as the Japanese call it – the 11th March 2011. Our small group of Americans – and me – are here to listen to people’s stories and learn what we can from bearing witness to the impact of the disaster and its aftermath. To listen to and share more widely the stories and reality here on the ground that are still ongoing while much of the world – and even Japan – has moved on.
Before arriving inFukushimawe have spent two days slightly further north in Ishinomaki – a coastal town badly hit by the tsunami. On arriving in the town I am struck by the fact that I recognise some of the landscape from those dreadful video pictures of the ferocious water deluging the town sweeping everything and everyone in its wake. We hear many personal stories of that terrible day and the dreadful loss of life, of homes, of livelihoods and how a flood of volunteers from all overJapanswept in to clear up the enormous debris and mud that caked absolutely everything. Many people in this region are still living in temporary housing. The tragedy was and is awful and the pain of the loss is enormous. In one brutal day unimaginable amounts of people’s lives were swept away in one fell sweep. Gone. No more. The pain and grief are deep and I am hugely moved and pained by people’s stories. Even though the scale is awesome it is nevertheless people’s resilience that shines through. Piece by piece they are picking themselves up. They are piecing destroyed lives back together again. Many spoke of the fact that without the presence of the many volunteers from all over Japan they may not have been able to start again. A fish processing factory owner whose entire factory was swept away spoke of the dark days after the disaster when he didn’t want to carry on. When he contemplated ending it all with suicide. And how the cheerful volunteers who every evening said to him ‘see you tomorrow!’ gave him a glimmer of hope – and possibility – that one day these dark days would be over. That he and his devastated community could begin again.
The tsunami stories we hear are awful – the tragedy immense and the rebuilding of lives and livelihoods still going on. Nevertheless this is a more ‘normal’ tragedy – if that isn’t too disrespectful in light of the scale of the tragedy – than Fukushima. People lost everything – and they are beginning to build it back. In fact the town of Ishinomaki has already been pretty extensively rebuilt. The Japanese are efficient and diligent. So much has already been built back and restored in the tsunami-hit regions – even though the healing of hearts and communities will take a long time yet.
Fukushima is very different. I am struck by the contrast with Ishinomaki and the tsunami. In Fukushima people were evacuated but they weren’t entirely sure why. They were placed in temporary housing and generally only found out about the nuclear explosions via the TV. In Fukushima many fewer lives were lost but most of the people remain stranded in a limbo. Many are still in temporary housing. Many have no idea when or even how they may be able to return to their homes and lives as they were before.
We visit many areas of Fukushima. Interestingly I am much less afraid of the radiation than when I visited briefly for one day last year. There are Geiger counters located in many places – our hosts explain that the levels are not so high although they are much higher than would be ideal to be living here. It feels important to be here. These people are living with this reality all the time – I honestly don’t feel afraid. I think it’s easier to feel afraid from far away than when witnessing the reality here on the ground.
Fukushima is a land of the surreal. Of an invisible ongoing disaster – with so many questions and unknowns. We accompany a wonderful spirited young man to his village of Iitate. This was a small village of about 6,000 situated some way outside the zone around the malfunctioning power plant that was immediately evacuated. In fact it was not until 1 month after the disaster that the villagers found out that because of the winds on the day of the disaster they actually received a higher dosage of radiation than many other settlements much closer to the plant. Everyone evacuated. Kenta takes us to his wonderful spacious family home. It’s nestled in the trees surrounded by woodland with farmland down below in the valley. His family business is located here too – making moulds for the big concrete ‘tetra-pods’ the Japanese government place all around the coastline for sea defences.
He tells us how they have a fresh water well here that they can live off. Also how it is not actually contaminated because it is coming from water deep in the earth. How while he grew up here they lived to a large extent ‘off-grid’ shooting and eating wild boar or deer from the forest for meat and sharing the abundant fruit and vegetables from the local rich farmland with local farmers and therefore receiving much of it for free. A life of abundance. Of skiing on the nearby slopes in winter. Foraging for ‘mountain vegetables’ during the rest of the year.Paradisein many ways. An ease of living on the land that is lost in so much of the world. He speaks of the rich community in the village and how when the disaster struck he and his mates were just beginning to learn from their fathers and take over the family businesses – he must be in his mid-20s or so now I think.
On 3.11 however all of that changed in one dreadful and also ongoing moment. His beautiful family home still stands. The forest, fields and family business plant also still stand. Nothing violently washed away here. But this is a deeper much more difficult to comprehend – and therefore live with – disaster. It’s invisible. I gently ask him how he feels coming back to his home like this. Still standing – looking the same but all different all at the same time. He quietly says he feels sad and I don’t wish to probe further. I can’t actually imagine how it must feel to still see your ancestoral home, land, livelihood and belongings but to not be able to return – to not be able to return to that life you loved even though a pickled aspic version is still there for you to visit. At the end of our visit he tells us that actually his father decided to return. He and his mother still live some way away in a nearby city that is much less contaminated but his father has decided to flout the government guidelines and return. He gently waves to us from a window. And I can understand. We see this a lot in Fukushima. How this invisible insidious disaster of unknowns has forced many people to think it through themselves. To decide for themselves what risks they want to take and what information they believe and trust. The levels of radiation in the areas we visit that are ‘visiting during the day’ areas are actually nowhere near the levels thatChernobylhad. Radiation and its effects on the human body are complex and unknown. Much fine-detailed research is going on. I am struck by the fact that in some bizarre way Japanese diligence, high levels of intellectual rigour and attention to detail is well suited to mine this crazy situation for knowledge of importance to us all. If anyone could use this situation to understand more the effects of radiation like this it would be Japanese diligence and attention to detail.
But there is so much about Fukushima that is hard to take in. Fukushima strikes me as a gigantic mirror for the craziness of the times we live in – and how there are no easy answers and we have to find answers ourselves and together – at a citizen level. One by one. Making difficult decisions along the way.
Everywhere in Fukushima, including at Kenta san’s house there are hundreds and hundreds of men wearing hard hats and minimal protective clothing – mainly simply the ubiquitous Japanese face-mask – doing ‘radiation clean-up’. Colourful pink and orange flags flutter in so many fields denoting the area as one for ‘clean-up’. Again the situation is surreal while also revealing Japanese diligence and their hard work ethic – that that means almost all the tsunami damage further north has gone. But is this ‘clean up’ here really the answer? And if not what is? What all these men are doing is scraping the top soil of its top 6 centimetres. This is all being bagged up in large black bags diligently labelled with their radiation levels. As we move around the prefecture we see thousands and thousands of these bags piled up neatly. Kenta tells us that they are placed in ‘temporary temporary temporary storage places’ to then be moved to ‘temporary temporary storage places’ to then be further consolidated into ‘temporary storage places’. There are no plans as yet for any ‘permanent’ storage facilities. Even the names of these storage sites smack of madness – of a solution being implemented that hasn’t been thought through. And of course this situation simply horrifically mirrors the situation for nuclear waste everywhere – that no long term solution has yet been found. The bags of soil are more visible for us visiting here but all around the world are ‘temporary temporary temporary storage sites’ with only vague plans that have not been worked through at all for any more ‘permanent’ solution.
But even though Kenta and others we meet speak of the waste of effort and fat construction contracts that are part of this ‘clean up’ effort – they are not openly critical either. This clean-up may be somewhat futile – it strikes us as particularly futile in the case of the forest where the first 20 metres into the forest are ‘cleaned’ and scraped of soil and radioactive debris. But of course the forests are on slopes. Within days if not hours of this strip of land being ‘cleaned’ rainwater or fallen leaves from higher up will be back. The ‘clean-up’ will be contaminated again. So although much seems futile and verging on madness in this ‘clean-up’ no one we meet is openly critical of the government efforts either. This may be due to Japanese politeness and a desire not to openly criticise but I think it is more than just that. It comes down to the fact again that actually there are no easy answers. The government is ‘cleaning up’ because it has to be seen to be doing something. And the clean-up may be helping a bit. And if this wasn’t done what could be done?
From our distance away in the UK it could be easy to see Fukushima as all contaminated and a completely no go zone. We can feel massive fear and want to protect ourselves and in particular – and completely understandably – our children. In Fukushima the children are also being protected. Most in the even lightly contaminated areas do not play outside any more. Citizens are trying to find ways to prevent this from stunting their growth and development by organising trips to safer areas where they can play outside and we also hear of an ‘inside outside play area’ although I struggle to imagine what that means in reality. The impact of this horrendous situation on Fukushima’s children won’t be fully revealed for many years yet. Both the impact on their physical health and the impact of their stunted ability to play outside while growing up. No one knows the answers. Everyone is making decisions as best they can. From the vantage point of theUKit may be easy to think that the area is so contaminated that it is futile to live anywhere near there. Certainly there are people inJapanwho think this too and who have moved far away and are beginning their lives anew.
But in visiting and hearing the stories of those who remain – and they are many of course as this is a very densely populated nation – it is much easier to understand the logic of those who stay as well. This is their land. Their home. One young man from the city of Koriyama – admittedly less contaminated than the areas closer to the power plant but nevertheless more contaminated than it used to be – movingly tells me how he fled for 5 days after 3.11 when he heard the news of the explosions. However he soon realised how much he loves this area –Fukushima is his home. His forced absence increased his love of his home. Fukushima is in fact an incredibly beautiful mountainous and woodland region ofJapanpreviously well known for its bountiful produce and pristine landscape. Tai made a clear decision to return to his livelihood here and to the land he loves in his soul. He told me he had made a clear decision that he would rather live here in the Fukushima he loves for a shorter time than live a longer life elsewhere where he doesn’t have the deep connections and resonance. Hearing him say this it is easy to understand. The risks are unknown. Everything is shifting and changing here in Fukushima. People are having to make their own choices and educate themselves. Choosing to stay here in the place he loves from a place of courage and resilience is powerful and understandable. It is certainly not simply stupid or living in denial.
Much of Fukushima is chaos and uncertainty dressed up as some kind of order. For example the guarded ‘borders’ between higher radiation contamination areas and those that are slightly lower where people are not allowed to live any more but are allowed to visit more easily. Levels of government compensation differ from area to area. Guarded borders and fences and bright white painted border demarcations are in place but in reality it’s all shifting and in flux. Radiation levels are not as clear cut as the maps portray. Streets are now divided between people on one side of the street whose luck is that they can visit their houses more often but they receive less compensation than their previous neighbours on the other side of the street whose houses are decaying and slowly being inhabited by plants and mice – but who are receiving higher levels of compensation. A situation causing division and friction in formerly close-knit communities now scattered to the four winds. A semblance of order but the reality is chaos – not knowing. A government illusion of ‘doing something’ but most of the people we meet know that they cannot rely on government to sort things out. It is down to them. They had to educate themselves over night about radiation levels and risks. They are all having to find their own answers.
Many of the people we meet are those who stepped forward in some leadership capacity after the disaster. They don’t know the answers but they are working with others to work out partial ‘temporary’ answers for the communities and for themselves as best they can. One particularly inspiring example was a young sparky cheeky 20-something year old from the brash ‘second city’ ofJapan,Osaka. He shared with us how he was travelling overseas just after 3.11 and was shocked that many people on his travels were concerned with levels of radiation in Japan and where he was living and whether he and his family was OK. This made him curious rather than fearful so he decided to visit Fukushima to see for himself. What unfolded next was that he – together with many of the courageous and resilient people we met all over the Tohoku region – seemed to find something deeper and more meaningful here in the face of this disaster than he had back home in Osaka. So he persuaded a few of his student friends to join him and they have worked with the local communities in the formerly evacuated city ofMinamisomaon and off ever since.
To begin with they faced some hostility from locals as they were ‘outsiders’ and treated with some suspicion. However he proved he was there for the long-haul. That he was dedicated. He and his mates got to know the local elderly – in fact he and many others emphasised the same thing – that what they have seen following the disaster is indicative of a major problem all over Japan – that the rural areas are losing their young to the big cities leaving elderly and dying communities. This courageous young man decided it was his role to do something about this. He was learning so much from the elderly he was getting to know he realised they have so many skills and so much knowledge to pass on. He and his friends felt moved to organise ‘study trips’ for young people fromJapanand also internationally and he has been doing this ever since. For him it’s about bringing people in to the region to see for themselves the reality of the situation here in Fukushima– just as we were doing on the Learning Journey. He acquired permission to rent a building that had been left standing on its own in one of the coastal areas in Fukushima that were also hit by the tsunami. With the vigour and creativity of the activist young that I know and admire so much in communities in theUKsuch as Grow Heathrow the group have converted this run-down site into a vibrant and funky information and community centre for visiting young people. His hope, creativity, resilience and leadership in the face of an awful and ongoing disaster were completely infectious. He had found himself in the disaster – in entering the crazy chaos of the sea of unknowing that is Fukushima. He had been called and was making it up as he went along – as I feel we all are who are facing the disasters of our times as best we can.
And there was so much more I saw, witnessed and felt. And there is so much more to see and hear and learn. Fukushima is a situation of no easy answers – that is clear. And it’s not even clear the real degree of risk. A kaleidoscope of unknowns within which everyone has to find their own answers and their own solutions. The level of risk they are all prepared to take. Sometimes even if that means splitting families apart as Kenta’s father has done by moving back. And in the face of such chaos, craziness and uncertainly people have to respect each other’s choices – even if they are choosing differently as Kenta is doing by staying away.
The stories here are also incredibly diverse. There is no ‘one simple story’ of Fukushima. It’s about living with the unknown here. How safe is the air? How safe are the crops? When can I return to my village? Will we ever return to those delightful villages standing empty all over the prefecture – open for ‘visiting’ only – let alone the complete ‘no go’ areas where people need a permit and are only allowed to return once a month or so.
Even though it is a different I am struck by some similarities in this Alice-in-Wonderland world of Fukushima to the wider issues we face in our times such as the risks and threat of climate change – again a kaleidoscope of unknowns within which there are no easy answers. In the face of which government entities often seem to be ‘doing something to show they are doing something’ rather than doing anything that will really change things. With climate change perhaps there are some ‘easier’ answers such as reducing our reliance on fossil fuels that – if implemented – would help. But the path to a lower carbon future is one strewn with chaos and denial. In the face of this it is down to us – each and every one of us – to find our own answers. To find our own paths through the chaos and uncertainty. In Fukushima people are having to look deep within asking themselves asking themselves ‘where am I going to answer the questions from?’ From fear or a desire to contribute. To be connected. To find purpose in the middle of fear, not knowing and uncertainly as the brave inspiring sparky young man fromOsakahas done. Fukushima is a big massively complex issue but nevertheless in the seeds of people’s courageous resilient actions much new is being born. New seeds are sprouting from the invisible disaster – even though the not-knowing will be around a long time yet.
And Tai, the young man inKoriyama, also tells me clearly that he feels the people of Fukushima don’t want pity. The situation is bizarre and uncertain but many are taking responsibility and doing their best. They want to be seen and heard. They want people to stand by and with them – in solidarity and strength. Not a divide of ‘poor you’ and ‘guilty well-meaning us’. He tells me he learnt this from his work in Kenta’s village of Iitate– where he felt moved and wanted to do something as their situation was much worse than his. But they didn’t want his pity – they wanted his solidarity, strength, friendship and community. He says the same to me. I hear him. Yes – in times of chaos we need to stand together. Fukushima and climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental risks and challenges affect us all. We need to listen and respect each other, following our own individual paths while weaving webs of strength, solidarity and connection in global and local communities. Standing together resilient and strong as warriors of hope, resilience, creativity and courage finding our own answers in the face of great uncertainties and not knowing – wherever we are.
This blog follows Debbie’s earlier post for us on helping to bring the Work that Reconnects to Japan.
Debbie Warrener used to live in the south of Japan and still has strong connections with the country she dearly loves. She is currently visiting Japan for a month to share and ‘seed’ Joanna Macy’s ‘Active Hope’ work in Japan by leading workshops and retreats (in Japanese!) for many of the ‘Active Hope warriors’ in Japan.
Debbie leads “Macy Mondays”, an ongoing support group for leaders of Transition proejcts and others working for positive change in North London. She also co-facilitates Inner Transition workshops with Sophy in London.