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Kizuna: Nikkei Stories from the 2011 Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

Fukushima City: Six Months Later - Part 2

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Professor Takahashi is an intelligent man whose face shows no signs of stress despite the hardships that have befallen his country. When discussing the nuclear crisis and radiation levels in Fukushima Prefecture, he speaks matter-of-factly and explains the science in layman’s terms. Armed with Fukushima University’s state-of-the-art sievert meter and a scientific background, he admits he has a base knowledge of radiation, which helps him understand the nuclear situation better than the average citizen.

Although he feels that the government’s information about the goings on at the disabled nuclear power plant is enough for him to digest, he acknowledges that it may not be the case for the rest of the general population.

“For me, the information is enough,” says Professor Takahashi, “because I have some basic knowledge about radiation…I can understand the explanation of the government. To get the meaning of the explanation, it is important to have some basic knowledge of radiation. For example, the unit of the sievert. So almost all of the people [in Japan] are confused about the new terms. But now, many TV programs and lectures are [being] made so that the knowledge of the people is [increasing].”

Before the disaster, Fukushima City was home to roughly 300,000 people. It is estimated that as many as 12 thousand residents moved to other parts of Japan as a result of the nuclear crisis.

“In Japan, we have almost no education program about radiation,” says Professor Takahashi, speaking of the opening of nuclear power plants in the country in the early ‘60s. “So, the government announced the nuclear power plants are quite safe. If they make such kind of an education program, people would worry about some kind of accident. But the government had no education program about the radiation…now there is a problem of panic because the people don’t have enough background information or science background of the radiation.”

Despite a lack of knowledge and a perceived panic, people continue to reside in Fukushima City, which is 50 miles from the nuclear disaster, barely outside of the government’s mandatory evacuation zone.

After leaving the school, we inched closer to that zone, to the village of Iitate. Just 25 miles from the hobbled nuclear power plant, Iitate is a small town that’s technically outside of the exclusion zone. However, due to high radiation readings, residents were asked to evacuate in late April. About half of the population of 6,200 did so.

Fukushima Prefecture is an agricultural area known for rice production. It is also one of Japan’s top producers of fruit (peaches, apples, pears), tomatoes, and cucumbers. Iitate is a village of farmland, and I noticed lush green fields—crops that are not safe to eat—as I stared out of the window of the car. I also noticed overgrown crops, a grim reminder of the farmers’ evacuation.

As we approached the town limits, the radiation levels rose from 0.7 µSv to 1.21 µSv, about the same amount of radiation you would receive if you had an arm X-ray.

When we arrived at the Iitate village hall, the radiation levels in the parking lot read above 4.00 µSv, slightly lower than a dental X-ray (5.00 µSv). Inside the government building, however, the level dropped below 1 µSv.

Tomeji Honda of the local Iitate government informed us that soil decontamination was taking place on that day, and we were allowed to observe.

We met Ichiro Taniyama, the director of the Natural Resources Inventory Center at the National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, in an open field as he and his team decontaminated a small patch of soil. We weren’t the only ones interested in watching; NHK sent a two-man crew to videotape the process.

The radiation level at the field: 6.00 µSv, the highest of the day.

As the late-morning sun beat down, men in coveralls, rubber boots, masks, and gloves were busy testing the pH balance of the soil that they were siphoning from land 100 feet away. A system of hoses brought the soil to a vat where the cesium was removed. The remaining soil was then mixed with water and returned to the land.

“So what happens to the cesium once it’s extracted from the soil?” I ask Taniyama. There is an awkward pause before Professor Takahashi answers for him. “That’s another problem,” says Takahashi, “That’s one of the things he’s trying to solve.”

“Right now we have it in that container,” says Taniyama, pointing to a round concrete vat. The vat was sitting against the edge of the road, covered only by a blue tarp.

Lunchtime. A moment I’d been dreading. Professor Takahashi was enthusiastic about introducing me to the regional dishes of the prefecture. I was less than enthusiastic about the possibility of consuming irradiated food.

“When I say ‘regional dishes,’ I mean the way the food is prepared,” says Professor Takahashi, trying to calm my fears. “We can’t eat the local food. Food is shipped from other prefectures and tested for radiation every day.”

As the car descended the hills toward Fukushima City, so did the reading on Professor Takahashi’s sievert meter. As the level dropped from 6 µSv in Iitate to the less stressful reading of 1 µSv, I began to feel more comfortable in my surroundings. And hungry.

We arrived at a beautiful traditional Japanese restaurant, where we met two more of Professor Takahashi’s colleagues and sat in a tatami mat room to enjoy a multi-course meal. It was exquisitely prepared and presented in the aesthetically pleasing way that the Japanese do best. As I sampled the bounty of delicious cuisine from Aizu in southern Fukushima Prefecture, I took into account that my hosts eat in Fukushima every day. I let go of my initial fears of eating contaminated food and I savored the meal, thankful for the opportunity to share it with these people.

I ended my day in Fukushima City where it began: At the train station. Masako Tai, a secretary in the office of Professor Takahashi’s department who was kind enough to drive us to all of our appointments, kept me company until it was time to board.

Once on the train to Tokyo, my mind was racing from the events of the day. I’d learned many things about and come close—perhaps too close—to an area that is in the midst of a nuclear calamity. Japan is no stranger to recovering from nuclear disaster, having suffered the dropping of two atomic bombs during World War II. As a demonstration of their resolve, the Japanese typically respond to such crises by picking up the pieces and living life. The people of Fukushima are doing just that.

But the current situation is as unique as it is familiar. The people of Fukushima—and all of Japan, for that matter—will be recovering from this three-pronged challenge of earthquake/tsunami/nuclear dilemma for decades to come.

As the bullet train sped away from the hard-hit region, I thought of Professor Takahashi’s neutral statements that neither criticized nor praised the Japanese government’s handling of the country’s nuclear crisis. I thought of the drained look on Ichiro Taniyama’s face in his attempt to decontaminate northeastern Japan a few acres at a time.

One comment in particular resonated with me. When I told Masako Tai that Professor Takahashi’s intention was to show me Fukushima City’s “normal daily life,” she scoffed, “Normal? I wouldn’t call it normal. I’d say we have an ordinary life.”

An ordinary life led under extraordinary circumstances.


*This article was originally published in JapanCulture•NYC on October 31, 2011.

© 2011 Susan Hamaker

earthquake JPquake2011 radiation tsunami

About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds.

This series shares stories about Nikkei individual and/or community reaction and perspectives on the Great Tohoku Kanto earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the resulting tsunami and other impacts—either about supporting relief efforts or how what has happened has affected them and their feeling of connection to Japan.

If you would like to share your reactions, please see the “Submit an Article” page for general submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world.

We hope that these stories bring some comfort to those affected in Japan and around the world, and that this will become like a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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There are many organizations and relief funds established around the world providing support for Japan. Follow us on Twitter @discovernikkei for info on Nikkei relief efforts, or check the Events section. If you’re posting a Japan relief fundraising event, please add the tag “JPquake2011” to make it appear on the list of earthquake relief events.